Monday, 15 June 2015

Whistling Mammals of the Quiet Alps

Since I was a child my father told me stories about when he was a little boy looking after cow herds on high alpine meadows. He and his friends were charged with watching the herd as it grazed on the rich pasture of the steep slopes - keeping them away from cliff edges for example. He told stories of the many murmeltier he saw: little fat animals about the size of a small dog that whistled to each other across the mountains and scuttled away when he approached. The hills were full of them once, he said, but he hadn't seen any for years.

He was talking about marmots.

There are 15 species of marmot, but the one my father remembered from his youth in central Europe was Marmota marmota, the alpine marmot. For years my father and I searched for them during family holidays - I only once caught a fleeting glimpse from a cable-car of a lumbering brown dot on a hillside, quickly lost amid the loose rock.

Over the last week I was given a taste of marmot paradise: rich green meadows in the high Alps of Tyrol. On my trek through the mountains I was watched assiduously by several little marmots. They didn't whistle, just bumbled away then stood watching me from 20 metres off, before going back to nibbling the grass, lichen, roots and mosses in the glacier fed meadows below the peaks (apparently they also turn insectivorous when the mood suits).

An Alpine marmot in the Italian Alps (apologies for the poor quality, I don't have a fancy camera!)
Essentially fat ground squirrels, they live between 900-3,500metres altitude and endure the tough winters and deep snow by burrowing, hibernating, and being decidedly rotund. Sealing themselves into a burrow using their own poo, these mountaineers slow themselves to only a few breaths per minute, and sleep the winter away living off their fat reserves.

Sadly, they haven't been doing well over the last century, with a combination of hunting, climate change (they are very temperature sensitive) and human disturbance having a real impact. However, if you are a quiet, respectful trekker, you may be lucky enough to see them on the high slopes.

On another peaceful day in the mountains, I ascended the steep slope of a peak above Merano. Near the top I looked up to see a deer bounding down the mountainside towards me. It adjusted it's descent to bypass the gawking Scot on the path, but stopped nearby to take a good look. I don't know who was more surprised?

A roe or a red? Perhaps someone can identify which deer species this is for me?
I consider myself lucky when I encounter large mammals in Europe; humans take up so much space these days, it's nice to know the wild creatures are still around.


In my next Alpine blogs: insects that sting, creepy crawlies with an indecent numbers of legs, and plants full of air.

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