Dressed for Winter

‘There is no such thing as bad weather, merely unsuitable clothing’. It’s a great phrase this and one that is on display in the Reindeer Centre, to warn people to be well prepared for the hill visit to the reindeer (even in summer sometimes!).

In the animal kingdom, a number of the arctic animals change their coats in winter and in the case of reindeer they not only grow thicker coats but also their coats turn lighter in colour, in some cases pure white.

Reindeer on snow
Reindeer snoozing comfortably in the snow – Lilac (right) is currently our oldest reindeer at nearly 17 years old

The change in colour is associated with shortening day length and there are obvious benefits from being white or very light coloured when it comes to camouflage in snow. But it is also the case that white hair is more insulating than dark hair. White hair lacks pigmentation and nothing replaces this, leaving pockets of air, a very good insulator. So I suppose that means that when the reindeer grow their winter coats they have more airy hair! Indeed the reindeer never cease to amaze me, on the coldest of days, they are high up in the snow, on the exposed ridges, lying around, resting, ruminating and I suspect positively enjoying the weather which we shelter from in our warm houses.

Harry, Minto and Bajaan Dec 08
White reindeer – this photo was taken back in 2008 of male reindeer Harry, Minto and Bajaan

In the herd we do have a few reindeer who are actually pure white: Blondie, Lego and Blue to name just three of them. Knowing that white hair has more insulation does that mean they have the warmest coats? They certainly always look very comfortable in the snow.

Mountain hare
A mountain hare in its winter coat, spotted whilst I was completing my 146th munro!

Over the last few weeks I have regularly seen mountain hares, which live in a similar habitat to our reindeer but are also quite widespread across many of the Scottish hills. They too turn white in winter and like the reindeer have relatively large feet which act as snowshoes making running seem effortless as they hurry across snowfields.

1024px-Lagopus_muta_2_Iceland_Snaefellsnes_April_2012
Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta). Photo by Boaworm [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two other animals found in Scotland that also turn white: the ptarmigan, an arctic grouse that is found in many of the Scottish mountains above 2,000 – 2,500ft, and the stoat, which depending on how far north it lives also turns white, when it is then called stoat in ermine.

Stoat in ermine
Stoat in ermine – white with a black tail tip. Photo by Steven Hint [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like the reindeer and mountain hare, the reason the ptarmigan plumage turns white is for camouflage and warmth but I do sometimes wonder about the stoat in ermine. Although I have seen them in snow around the farm, all too often there is not a flake of snow to be found and they ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. But they are a very clever predator, predating mainly on rabbits. They are incredibly quick, will catch and kill prey 10 times bigger than themselves and appear to be completely fearless. They are sometimes thought to ‘hypnotise’ their prey, maybe the white coat and black tip to their tail somehow confuses the rabbit!

Tilly

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