At home in the hills

A look at some of the hardy creatures that call Great Britain’s hills and mountains their home.

Two dark birds soaring through the sky, with snow falling

Hills and mountains have an eternal allure for the adventurous soul. Every year countless people are drawn to our highest elevations to admire the spectacular panoramic views, gaze in awe at the geological processes that shape our planet, and, in extreme cases, test themselves against some of the harshest conditions nature can throw at them.

But no matter how well we prepare, or how adventurous we feel, we’re always outdone by the wildlife that calls these rugged places home in winter. These hardy plants and animals carve out an existence in one of our toughest habitats, facing howling winds and freezing temperatures. A walk in the hills or mountains is always brightened by a sighting of one of these special creatures. 

Red and black grouse spotting

Moorlands dominate many of our upland hillsides, blankets of heather draped across gentle slopes, their late-summer blaze of purple now faded to a russet glow. Red grouse roam these rusty tussocks, hidden by their reddish-brown feathers. Look for a head rising like a periscope from this sea of shrubbery, the bright red eyebrow shining amongst the sombre colours of the landscape.

A red grouse poking its head out of the heather

Some of our heather-clad hillsides are also home to black grouse, with their famous communal mating displays, known as leks. Males gather at dawn in a grassy arena, bursting out in a barrage of bubbling and sneezing sounds as they charge at each other, sometimes trading blows, all in an effort to impress the watching hens.

Two grouse facing off against eachother

Black grouse can lek throughout the year, but do so with the most enthusiasm in the breeding season of April and May. Once seen across much of the UK, this spectacle is now restricted to a few tree-studded moors in Wales, northern England and Scotland, but is well worth seeking out. Always watch from a distance, and preferably from a hide or car, to avoid disturbing the action.

Ptarmigan time

Red and black grouse may wander our rugged hillsides, but they’re far from the most intrepid member of their UK family. That prize goes to the ptarmigan. True birds of the mountain, ptarmigan are only found on the highest peaks of Scotland, scouring rocky crags and digging through snow to find plants to feast on. Just like a fashion line, their plumage changes to fit the season: rock-grey and mottled for summer, pure snow-white for the cold depths of winter. Perfect camouflage from the searching eyes of hungry eagles.

Three white birds camouflaged in the snow, on a rock, with a walker passing behind

Hares on high

A woman stands, looking at a white hareThe ptarmigan isn’t the only colour changing creature found on Britain’s highest slopes; mountain hares also swap their grey-brown summer coat for a dazzling set of winter whites. These montane mammals are our original hare, roaming the UK long before brown hares were introduced. They can be found in Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the Peak District; Ireland has its own subspecies, the Irish hare. Look for them sheltering out of the wind, on leeward slopes.

Avian aerobics

One of the most spectacular features of a hill or mountain walk is the vast expanse of open sky, the perfect stage for a show of avian aerobatics. Listen out for the deep, croaking call of the raven above rocky crags and hillsides, drawing first your ear and then your eye as you spot this bulky, diamond-tailed sky shadow. They come alive on windy days, soaring, swooping, tumbling and rising in joyous defiance of gravity.

Occasionally they share the sky with a raptor or two, perhaps a buzzard, a peregrine falcon or, in Scotland, a golden eagle. They’re uneasy neighbours, and skirmishes are common. But as winter fades towards spring, the birds of prey demonstrate their own aerial dominance. You might see the buzzard or the rarer goshawk plunging and rising in an undulating series of rollercoaster-like switchbacks, stamping out their territory for the approaching breeding season.

Save Britain’s wildlife #30by30

As wild as these windswept places may look, in many areas they’re a shadow of their former selves, with much of the wildlife in decline. We need to bring wildlife back across the UK, and you can help by joining us in our mission for nature’s recovery across 30% of land and sea by 2030. Find out more

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