Where the wild things are

Spot wolves, foxes and all man­ner of for­est an­i­mals in Europe dur­ing the colder months

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - GARRY MARCHANT

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

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