Where the wild things are
Spot wolves, foxes and all manner of forest animals in Europe during the colder months
ON a freezing, windless day, a small group of hardy hikers walks silently through Poland’s Puszcza Romincka forest. The only sound is snow squeaking underfoot. Clouds of the hikers’ breath hover in the icy air.
Suddenly, the guide halts and points ahead. Through the trees, they see the hulking shapes of bison. Several trekkers pull cameras from under their parkas, while others just stare in awe.
This is winter wildlife viewing, northern European style. With snow on the ground, winter is excellent for wildlife spotting. The adventurous traveller can see polar bears, walruses and seabirds in Norway or Finland, bears and wolves in Romania, and bison, wild boars, red deer, beavers and wolves in Poland.
And Scotland, although small, is incredibly diverse in terms of habitats, says Caroline Warburton, manager of Wild Scotland, the Scottish wildlife and adventure tourism association. ‘‘We may not have the large species such as wolves, bears and moose, but what we have is just as engaging and spectacular, and very accessible.’’
With many different facilities and trips available, Scotland offers something for everyone.
‘‘I’ve had amazing winter wildlife encounters,’’ Warburton recalls. ‘‘I was walking up a hill in Strath Conon near Inverness and heard a swooshing noise.’’
She looked up, saw nothing, then looked down.
‘‘Just below me was a golden eagle,’’ she says. ‘‘It was heading up the hill, too, and as it glided by I got an eagle stare. Amazing.’’
The country’s rugged peninsulas and forests house elusive mammals such as pine marten and Scottish wildcat, while red, roe and sika deer and rarities such as mountain hare inhabit its highland areas. Red deer, which come down from the hills to escape the poor weather, are commonly spotted in large herds.
‘ ‘ We have fantastic marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seabirds, seals and sharks,’’ says Warburton. ‘‘Scotland is the best place in the world to see basking sharks, the second-largest fish in the world, and the Moray Firth is one of the best places to watch bottlenose dolphins from land.’’
Those who love the outdoors can observe wildlife in various ways and Scotland’s access rights allow them to explore and enjoy the countryside as long as they behave responsibly.
‘‘We always suggest that people go with a guide in order to get the best chances of seeing wildlife,’’ says Warburton. ‘ ‘ They know where and when to look and should also know how to behave around wildlife so as not to disturb [the animals].’’ For watching wildlife, the country has hides, nature trails, guides, day safaris, visitor centres and all-inclusive holidays.
Europe’s wildest, most remote areas that are the most inhospitable for human habitation offer some of the best wildlife viewing for the hardy and intrepid. In Norway’s icy Svalbard Archipelago, herds of reindeer roam, polar bears stalk the ice floes and walruses lumber out on to rocky beaches. Thousands of seabirds breed in the area, which is best seen from the comfort of a cruise ship sailing along the fjords to the island of Spitsbergen, the world’s northernmost inhabited place, and Svalbard, home to some of the world’s largest glaciers.
About 430 species of birds, 115,000 moose, 200 wolves and 900 brown bears inhabit Finland, a land of thousands of lakes, forests and mountain slopes. Adventurous nature lovers sit patiently in hides deep in Finland’s silent northern forests, hoping to spot a passing bear.
‘‘Winter is the best time to go wildlife spotting because you can track animals in the snow,’’ says Paul Stanbury of the British tour operator Naturetrek. The company organises wildlife-viewing trips to northern Spain, Sweden and Poland.
On a trip to northern Sweden, groups spot wolf tracks, other signs of wolves and occasionally the animals themselves, although they are elusive.
One bonus is a chance to see the fantastic Northern Lights.
‘ ‘ We go in winter, because mammals are more active. They have to get more food,’’ says Stanbury. And when there are kills, it is gorier, as the blood shows on the snow.
Further south, central Europe’s remote forests and mountains are home to half of the continent’s brown bear population and a third of its wolf and lynx populations. Intrepid wildlife enthusiasts head to Romania in winter for some of Europe’s best mammal spotting. They walk through forests searching for wolf, deer and chamois tracks in the snow.
Cross-country skiers cover even more ground, increasing their chances of spotting the elusive mammals.
Naturetrek operates one trip a year to northeast Poland, which has some of Europe’s most unspoilt forest and freshwater marshland habitats.
Those who join these expeditions do not require a high degree of fitness but must be able to tolerate the cold weather, according to Stanbury. They have the option of forest hikes, but observe most wildlife from minibuses or ‘‘high seats’’ (hides or blinds) used for hunting.
The country is one of the few in Europe with large enough forests to support significant grey wolf populations — an estimated 800, in Poland’s case. Viewers regularly find wolf-kills, usually the remains of a deer. The elusive wolves are best seen from hides located in areas they are believed to frequent.
These winter tours also offer views of lynx, polecat, ermine, red fox and other mammals that are common in Poland but are extinct in other parts of Europe. Viewers invariably spot elk, which are like moose in Canada, as well as bison, says Stanbury.
In the forest, accommodation is in old foresters’ lodges, while in the marshes it is in tourist hotels. ‘‘It is not an easy trip, because it is so cold,’’ Stanbury explains. Travellers need exceptionally warm clothing, as Poland has winters similar to those in the Canadian prairies, with lots of snow and temperatures well below freezing.
Naturetrek’s winter wildlife expeditions to Poland concentrate on two areas, one a marshland and the other a forest. In Czerwone Bagno (the Red Marsh), spotters cruise the roads in a minibus, looking out for large forest ungulates such as wild boar, red and roe deer and elk. The group also spends several days in the forests of Puszcza Borecka and Puszcza Romincka. The former is an especially reliable site for observing bison, Europe’s largest mammal. Males can stand 2m, be almost 3m in length and weigh up to 900kg.
Typical winter temperatures are minus 10C to minus 20C, with little wind in the forests, and 10cm20cm of snow on the ground.
Other companies, such as The Travelling Naturalist Wildlife Holidays, organise visits to differ- ent areas, including the vast Biebrza Marshes and the primeval forest of Bialowieza, known for its reintroduced herd of European bison. These huge, elusive beasts are best seen as the herds cautiously emerge from the deep forest to browse in the snow.
At night, groups venture out from their cosy lodges to listen for hooting owls or the eerie howls of wolves under the night sky. Throughout the trip, travellers warm themselves by blazing bonfires or in traditional saunas. Hearty Polish food, warm spiced vodka and local folk songs enliven the evenings. naturetrek.co.uk naturalist.co.uk wildlifeworldwide.com wild-scotland.org.uk auroraexpeditions.com.au gapadventures.com
A polar bear stands on a bloodstained ice floe as it feasts on a kill in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago
A walrus surfaces off the coast of Norway
Polish forests are home to hundreds of grey wolves