Animals known for their bright white winter pelages are “standing out like sore thumbs” in Britain’s largest national nature reserve as it sees less snow that lasts for shorter periods of time.

Mar Lodge Estate is seeing the growing impact of climate change across its vast landscape, from the peaks of mountains through to the valley bottoms.

After taking over the estate in 1995, the National Trust of Scotland has undertaken significant conservation work – including doubling the coverage of Caledonian pinewood – but new challenges are brewing for the ecologists.

Speaking on the impact of climate change, Andrew Painting said: “We are already seeing issues not just on the high tops, but also feeding right into the whole ecology of the estate.”

The Herald: Andrew Painting Andrew Painting (Image: Shaila Rao)

For the highest parts of the estate, that impact is obvious in changes in snow coverage, which affects species such as the ptarmigan and mountain hares that take on white pelages in the winter.

These colour changes are gradually offering less protection to the animals due to less snow for them to blend into.

'Extreme edge of their range'


Winter animals of this kind are at the “extreme edge of their range in the UK” and Mr Painting added: “There are certain ways of mitigating climate change for some species, for other species, there’s nothing we can do.”

“That mismatch of phenology, the rate at which seasons change, is putting stress on specific species,” he said.

This year has seen Scotland become completely snow-free again after a historically long-lasting patch of snow melted for the fourth time in six years.

The Sphinx in the Cairngorms has only melted nine times in the past 300 years, with one snow patch researcher indicating that climate change is playing a role.

Author of The Vanishing Ice, Iain Cameron, said: “It used to be the case that the disappearance of the Sphinx was highly unusual.

“Now it is getting to a stage where it is looking as though, based on the last half dozen years, it surviving is becoming unusual.”

It melted in 1933, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017, 2018, 2021, and 2022.

Mr Cameron described it as a “worrying direction of travel” and added: “There is no question that snow is not lasting as long as it used and nor are we getting as much of it as we used to.

“There is just not the cover there used to be. It is just much more haphazard.”

This has already been having a proven impact on mountain hares with a study published in 2020 showing that the animals had mismatched their fur for an extra 35 years due to changes in snow coverage in Scotland between 1950 and 2016.

“The problem is there’s less snow now, which is lasting for less long. They’re standing out like a sore thumb against these darker backgrounds,” Mr Painting said.

“That is happening for 35 days a year more now than it was 50 years ago. It’s a huge amount of time.”

Ptarmigan on the other hand have not been studied as extensively, but the climate change impact is likely to be felt by the birds.

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The ecologist added: “Ptarmigan are on the Red List of birds in danger in the UK, but because they live in such remote location and their population naturally fluctuates, it makes it really hard to actually drill down into whether their populations are declining or not.

“We think they are declining, and we think they’re probably declining quite badly.”

However, they are one of the species for which it is harder to mitigate the issues created.

“With ptarmigan, if it keeps getting milder and we keep getting less snow and the snow that we have keeps going higher and higher up the hill – ptarmigan are going to run out of hill quite quickly,” the conservation officer indicated.

“There is very little we can do about that beyond sequestering as much carbon as we possibly can.”

Dotterel, a high-altitude wading bird, have been declining in Scotland in a “big way” since the 1990s – and a change to the seasons has a role to play in this issue as well.

“We think their nesting is out of sync with their preferred food for their chicks, alpine crane flies up on the high tops,” Mr Painting added.

“When they get out of sync that means these chicks are hatching and there’s nothing for them to eat because the crane flies all hatched two weeks earlier.”

If one animal sees a decline, it will often result in “compounding issues” on the rest of the food chain.

The Herald: Regenerating woodland in Mar Lodge EstateRegenerating woodland in Mar Lodge Estate (Image: NTS)

He said: “Thinking about mountain hares and ptarmigan, both of those are quite important prey items for say golden eagles. If we’re seeing a decline in mountain hares and ptarmigan, perhaps we might see reduced productivity in Golden Eagles in the future.”

“Red grouse will be moving up the hill in the same way the ptarmigan are moving up the hill, which means that there’ll be more competition between red grouse and ptarmigan.”

'The answer'


Less snow also impacts the animals thriving in the lowest parts of the estate such as salmon which need cold rivers.

However, with lower levels of snowfall in the winter, there is less icy water drip feeding into the burns and rivers in the summer months.

The Herald: Snow in Caledonian pinewoodSnow in Caledonian pinewood (Image: NTS)

This is one of the climate change impacts that the team at Mar Lodge is mitigating by planting trees along the riverbanks to shade the river from the sun in the warmer months.

The ecologist added: “If you go back 30 to 40 years, when everything was colder, salmon could get away without this.

“They need it now because temperatures are that much warmer and there is that much less snow.”

The Mar Lodge Estate conservationists are working to protect the “mix of habitats” that spans more than 29,000 hectares of land.

The Herald: Naturally regenerating high altitude woodlandNaturally regenerating high altitude woodland (Image: NTS)

Mr Painting spoke about the responses to the “You’re talking about compounding issues of climate change, where you’re starting with environmental problems that really don’t have much to do with it and then climate change gets dumped on top.

“You then end up in this situation where it can be very hard to sort of disentangle all of these factors.

He said: “The question then is what do we do about it? The answer for us is landscape scale, ecological restoration.”

This restoration work, including the natural regeneration of woodlands, is seeing “positive changes” as well.

Mr Painting concluded: “What we’re seeing is a changing landscape, some of those changes are positive.

“Our job as conservationists is to make sure as many of them are as positive as possible, while mitigating the impacts of climate change.”