Alpine Fauna

The abundant different varieties of animals in the alps, during the tertiary period, disappeared with the succeeding ice ages. Animals were forced to migrate to lower ice-free regions in order to survive As the ice receded, the alpine valleys slowly repopulated not only by the original alpine varieties, but by others migrating southward in advance of the northern ice-cap, providing they were able to adjust to alpine conditions. Although as recently as a few hundred years ago the bear , wolf , lynx , wild cat , and beaver were the most abundant animals in the alpine valleys, today most of these are, for many different reasons near extinction. The only bears you'll see in Switzerland are in the bear pit in Bern. There are still many varieties of animals remaining but they are extremely shy so in order to experience a creature in the wild you must always be on the lookout with your senses all sharply tuned. The list I've composed are of animals you're most likely to come across but it is only a fraction of the impressive amount of fauna who have made the alps their home.

(written by Donald B. Chmura)

Swiss Cow Culture

Traditional Swiss cow farmers could make more money for much easier work in another profession. In a good year, farmers produce enough cheese to break even--they support their families on government subsidies. (Throughout the Alps, governments support traditional farming as much for the tourism as for the cheese.) But these farmers have made a lifestyle choice to keep tradition alive and to live high in the mountains. Rather than lose their children to the cities, Swiss farmers have the opposite problem: Kids argue over who gets to take over the family herd. The cows’ grazing ground can range in elevation by as much as 5,000 feet throughout the year. In the summer (usually mid-June), the farmer straps elaborate ceremonial bells on his cows and takes them up to a hut at high elevations. The cows hate these big bells, which can cost upwards of 2,000 SF apiece--a proud investment for a humble farmer. When the cows arrive at their summer home, the bells are hung under the eaves. These high-elevation summ r stables are called “alps.” Try to find some on a Berner Oberland tourist map (e.g., Wengernalp, Grütschalp, Schiltalp). The cows stay at the alps for about 100 days. The farmers hire a team of cheesemakers to work at each alp--mostly hippies, students, and city slickers eager to spend three summer months in the mountains. Each morning, the hired hands get up at 5:00 to milk the cows, take them to pasture, and make the cheese--milking the cows again when they come home in the evening. In summer, all the milk makes alp cheese (it’s too difficult to get it down to the market). In the winter, with the cows at lower altitudes, the fresh milk is sold as milk. Every alp also has a resident herd of pigs. Cheesemaking leftovers (Molke, or whey) can damage the ecosystem if thrown out--but pigs love the stuff. The pigs parade up with the cows...but no one notices. Cheesemakers claim that bathing in whey improves the complexion...but maybe that’s just the altitude talking. Meanwhile, the farmers--glad to be free of heir bovine responsibilities--turn their attention to making hay. The average farmer has a few huts at various altitudes, each surrounded by small hay fields. The farmer follows the seasons up into the mountains, making hay and storing it above the huts. In the fall, the cows come down from the alps and spend the winter moving from hut to hut, eating the hay the farmer spent the summer preparing for them. Throughout the year, you’ll see farmers moving their herds to various elevations. If snow is in the way, farmers sometimes use tourist gondolas to move their cows. Every two months or so, Gimmelwald farmers bring together cows that aren’t doing so well and herd them into the gondola to meet the butcher in the valley below.

 

Excerpted from the 2008 edition of Rick Steves’ Switzerland guidebook

picture by donna62 (Flickr)

Ibex

From prehistoric times up to the 15th century, the steinbock was a prolific inhabitant of the alps. However, because of the ease of hunting it down, and the superstition that every part of the animal had valuable medical powers it became exstinct in Switzerland by the middle of the 17th century. A lost colony survived in the inaccessible valley of the Gran Paradiso in Italy where they were under the protection of the Italian royal family. At the turn of the century, after many unsuccessful attempts, new herds were finally introduced from this lost colony back into Switzerland in the highlands of St. Gallen in the canton of the Grisons. Today they roam in the thousands and large numbers of bucks and hinds are rounded up and transferred to other parts to provide protection against damage to the forests from grazing herds. A full grown steinbeck can weigh up to 220 lbs (100 kg), and carry as much as 77 lbs (35 kg) of fat. The buck, being more powerful than the hind, has horns that can grow up to 3 feet (1 m) in length, whereas those of the hind only reach 16 inches (40cm). The hoof pads are almost like the rubber soles of hiking boots giving them a secure grip on rocky ledges, while their hard edges and points make it possible for them to safely negotiate steep icy slopes. Unlike the chamois, a quick acrobatic climber, the larger and heavier steinbock climbs with the greatest care and with calculated balance.The steinbock is entirely vegetarian eating all kinds of plants including lichens. In the rutting season, from the end of November to early in January, fiery battles between bucks are rare and the young abide by the seniority system without opposition. In late May to June hinds give birth to their young who, in just a few hours, are able to follow their mother up the steep mountain slopes. If you happen to disturb a herd of steinbock you'll hear them give a warning that sounds like a ferocious human sneeze and, after finding out who it is, will turn tail and make a well organised escape.

Chamois

Although very shy, you can approach much closer to a chamois than a steinbock, perhaps because of the strict protection laws that have been enforced for hundreds of years. This so called goat-antelope is famous for its agility as it leaps with enviable sure-footedness from rock to rock. At a height of about 30-32 inches (75-80 cm), both sexes are approx. the same size and weigh about 77-100 lbs (35-45 kg). They have stiff , coarse, light brown hair, with a black tail a black back stripe, and black face markings The horns are upright, thin, and hooked back at the tip. They inhabit the alpine zone between the forests and the snow-line but in winter they descend to feed on pine shoots and moss in the forest. They live in herds of 15-30 consisting of females and young, the males are solitary until the rutting season, from August to October, when they fight for possession of harems. At the end of winter the herds break up again into the summer separate-sex pattern and in June the young are born. Females mature at two years, males at three or four and they may live as long as 22 years! Each herd has a sentinel which whistles and stamps when alarmed. Their skin was the original chamois leather, but the name is now applied also to leather made from the skins of other animals.

picture by PHOTO g.haas (Flickr)

Marmot

Its name originally comes from the Roman naturalists and meant "alpine mouse". They are ground-living, burrowing rodents and a member of the squirrel family. They measure 1 to 2 feet (30-60 cm) in length and can weigh up to 20 lbs (10 kg). The legs are short but powerful and the tail, about 1/3 the length of the body, is moderately bushy. Their color is various shades of brown. The typical characteristic of the rodents, the gnawing teeth, can reach a length of 2 3/4 inches (7 cm) in the upper jaw and 2 1/4 inches (5,5 cm) in the lower! They feed on a variety of vegetation and lack the cheek pouches found in ground squirrels. They don't store their food either but become very fat in the autumn to sustain them through 7 months of hibernation. During this winter sleep, their body temperature sinks to between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius and their heart continues to beat between 4 and 6 times a minute as they breathe about every 4 minutes. (When awake they breathe some 36,000 times a day) In spring, shortly after awakening, breeding soon begins and a litter of 2 to 4 young are born after a gestation period of about 6 weeks. The young grow slowly and are not mature until they are 2 or 3 years old. Even though they have very good eyesight, unusual or unmoving objects, like a person standing still, is often not even noticed so they are easy and amusing to watch when they play. lf one of them suspects danger it will emit a sharp whistle (actually it is not a whistle but a bark formed in the throat) that sends the whole colony scuttling down into their burrows.

 

picture by GrahamPics1 (Flickr)

The Alpin Crow

The alpine crow inhabits the alpine zone of high mountains. They spend the summer above the tree line but in winter they'll descend to valleys and villages below the tree line in search of food. The adult measures 15 inches (38 cm) from beak to tail. Their plumage is coal black with a slight greenish gloss on the wings and tail. They have a bright yellow bill, sometimes approaching yellowish orange or golden. Their feet and legs range in color from salmon orange to a deep red. They are highly gregarious and the "pair" seems to be the basic unit within the flock. Unlike the common crow who keeps to the vicinity of trees, the alpine chough prefers open areas. it nests on ledges, in nooks in caves, and in crevices and "chimneys" in cliffs and rocks, where from May to June the female will lay 3 to 6 eggs. It feeds on insects, invertebrates, berries. small fruits. and may even kill small vertebrates. In, many areas, it is an habitual scavenger about human dwellings, camp sites, picnic places, and garbage tips. Thus, it will eat human foods such as bread, meat, cheese. etc., They hide their food in stony areas such as rock crevices and often use stones as big as 2 inches (5cm) to cover the food. A distinctive metallic, whistling "chirrish" is often uttered communally by flocks, by single birds when taking flight, or by a bird looking for its mate or young. A shorter sharper version, "tchiupp", is given in apparent alarm. If you make it up to the top of the Schilthorn, bring some extra bread, for the Alpine crows here have become used to humans and will eat out of your hands.