Wild Weekend: Winter Wildlife Encounters in the Cairngorms National Park
It all started with the need to escape after Christmas. A purely selfish indulgence but an incentive to survive the holidays without loosing the plot. A winter escape to the mountains to immerse myself in the wildlife, sometimes frozen to my core but all the while free of modern stress.
Flying in to Inverness, the peaks of the Cairngorm Mountains were dusted in snow and the high lochs could be seen partially frozen sitting in the valleys far below. I could feel myself relaxing, knowing that within the hour I would be out in the forest waiting for red squirrels, listening to the cheeky shout of the crested tits and just being in a calm frame of mind.
The Cairngorms National Park is one of the largest untouched areas within Britain and is the largest and highest of the British National Parks. Located between Perth in the south and Inverness in the north it is easily reached from all parts of Scotland. Even a drive up the exceedingly long and tedious A9 from just outside Edinburgh to Scrabster in the far north of Scotland, gives spectacular views of the mountains and moors in this unique landscape. It is the point in the journey (about halfway!) when devices get switched off without asking and the word ‘Wow” becomes part of the vocabulary of my two boys.
The Landscape of the Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms National Park is a massive area (4528 square kilometres). 40% larger than the Lake District in the north of England and double that of the nearby Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. There is geology and geography everywhere with massive granite tors and the effects of Ice Age glaciers visible in the valleys and lochs.
This is the largest arctic mountain landscape in Britain with 10% of the land over 800metres. 68% of the National Park is over 400metres. While this may not seem that high, given that the highest town on earth is La Rinoconada in Peru at 5100m, for our small Atlantic island this is pretty impressive. Britains highest village in the UK is Flash in the Peak District which is at 463m above sea level giving an idea of how we prefer less hostile low altitude living.
The Cairngorms is also home to five of the six highest mountain peaks in Scotland with only Ben Nevis (the highest peak in Britain at 1345metres) being located outside the area. There are 52 summits over 900metres in the Cairngorms National Park, an impressive sight when viewed from a distance.
Wildlife Habitats within the Cairngorms National Park
The mountains provide a unique habitat for a number of species that thrive in this harsh habitat. In the summer months is can be tinder dry but come the winter it is an arctic wilderness with driving snow and freezing winds.
The Cairngorms are also one of the few areas in Scotland where the Caledonian pine forest remains. This is a special environment that supports a unique habitat. The Scots pine is an ancient tree, arriving in the area about 7000BC as the glaciers receded and the trees today are the remaining decedents of this once common species. The Caledonian forest is now fully protected in an attempted to prevent further destruction from felling, introduction of non-native species and over farming and grazing.
Whenever I fly to the Cairngorms a donation is made to Trees for Life. The Trees for Life charity maintains the remaining Caledonian forests and will offset your carbon emissions in the tree planting programme they run. Whilst I get that flying for wildlife is not ideal, this project helps a little to restore the balance.
The national park also has an extensive heather moorland habitat and beautiful clear rivers and lochs. Covering vast areas the late summer pink of heather turns to a deep burnt orange in the winter months. Much of this is managed by land owners and used for the rearing of grouse.
Wildlife in the Cairngorms National Park
This national park, with its unique habitats is home to a varied range of wildlife and much of it can be seen whilst exploring. It is estimated that 25% of the UK’s threatened animals, birds and plants make the Cairngorms their home.
Whilst is is possible to see golden eagles, dotterell, capercaillie and the unique Scottish Crossbill as well as pine marten, wildcats and water voles there are a number of species that are wide spread and encounters are possible without specialised tracking skills or mountain experience from public hides.
Mountain Hares (Lepus timidus)
The mountain hare is designed for the mountain environment. They have a beautiful thick coat which is light grey in the summer providing perfect camouflage against the grey rocks and heather covered hillsides. In winter this turns to pure white protecting them from predators on the snow covered mountains. Their main risk to survival is from golden eagles although culling on grouse moors is becoming more of an issue for this gentle mammal. They spend their life above ground and have their own plateau known as a form where they shelter from the wind and elements. This means they are exposed to predators even when sleeping and so camouflage is essential.
Mountain hares are found on the higher slopes of the Cairngorm mountains. Look for them from the path to the summit of Cairn Gorm Mountain tucked away out of the wind in their forms. There are a couple that shelter very close to the Top Station, the final stop on the furnicular railway. These quiet creatures will see you long before you see them. Aware of everything that goes on in their world. A slow, low approach, letting them know that you are there and are not a threat is the only way to get any where near them. To get close enough to this hare for an image was nearly two hours of crawling and waiting.
Crested Tits (Lophophanes cristatus)
This small bird makes the Caledonian forest its home. It feeds on small insects and seeds and in harsher weather will feed at feeding stations amongst the bolder great tits and chaffinches which makes them easier to see. Their punky crest makes them easy to identify and they have an unusual call. They have a personality that really does fit with their Mohican plumage.
These little thugs are easy to find at Loch Garten, especially in extremely cold weather when the insects they feed on are not around. They will happily come in to the feeders that are kept filled near the public hide. Watch as they come in above the feeders and slowly work their way down the branches before a final leap onto the feeder. They will usually hop back onto the tree branches after feeding to clean their bills.
Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris)
Red squirrels are cheeky and animated. With their tufty ears in summer, turning a darker grey brown in winter their antics can keep you occupied for hours. They live within the trees of the Caledonian forest but can be seen whilst walking through the woodlands within the national park. They couldn’t be further from the brazen disease-ridden grey squirrels that have reduced their prominence further south in England.
Red squirrels can be seen in the trees in most of the woodlands within the Cairngorms National Park if you are quiet and look for them. If you want an easy and almost guaranteed encounter then Landmark Forest Adventure Park is a good place to start. We have visited a number of times and have always seen these little characters on the Red Squirrel Trail.
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
The red deer is majestic and in the winter months the stags congregate in herds across the mountains. With their spectacular antlers and passive but dominating presence they are an imposing sight. When the weather is harsh they will come down to lower ground to feed and spend the night. Some land owners provide food and salt blocks to help support them through the winter and this means that the deer will congregate in these areas. Weighing up to 190kg and living an amazing 18 years, they are the largest of the land mammals in the UK.
The red deer can be seen all over the Cairngorm mountains. Usually at a distance away from roads and habitation. However if the weather is bad or they know there is a food source they will wander into villages. The best place to see red deer is on the Alvie Estate. The wild deer are fed on a regular basis over the winter and will come to within 50metres of the game keepers land rover.
Red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica)
This solid, medium sized bird is found on the moors of the Cairngorm mountains. They are not the best flight birds, skimming close to the ground whilst shouting about whatever has sent them into the air. They tend to stay in a very small area throughout their lives. They feed on heather, seeds and insects which are plentiful on the mountain moorlands. They also need a certain amount of grit within their diet to aid digestion. These birds are seen as game birds in some areas and the moorland is managed by land owners to ensure their wild grouse population is in peak condition for the shooting season.
The red grouse is found across the National Park in the heather moorland. They frequent roadsides where there is a plentiful supply of grit and an early morning drive along the mountain roads will usually provide a plentiful supply of grouse. As the day progresses they tend to move higher into the hills, away from the roads and people in general.
Where to Stay in the Cairngorms National Park
Major centres of population are Aviemore, Braemar, Grantown-on-Spey, Kingussie and Tomintoul. All of these towns have a plentiful supply of hotels and bed and breakfasts. If you want to get away from it all then there are large numbers of holiday cottages in beautiful surroundings. Some of the best are available through Unique Cottages. These are beautifully maintained in special locations.
How to Get to the Cairngorms National Park
Access to this national park is easy from Inverness, Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen. The main A9 runs alongside the park with access at various points. There is also a train service from Edinburgh and further south to Inverness that stops at Aviemore and Kingnussie as well as trains to Aberdeen which is close to Royal Deeside on the east of the park. It is on National cycle route 7 which runs through the park and the Speyside Way, Deeside Way and Dava Way all run through the park.