The trees are covered in a thick layer of snow and it’s silent all around us. While we’re walking, snow crunching underfoot is the only thing you can hear. This snowy winter wonderland makes an idyllic and almost fairy-tale-like impression on me. But for wildlife it’s the complete opposite.
We’re out and about in the Bregenz Forest in the Vorarlberg region, where Lukas Rinnhofer lives. Lukas is one of our HANWAG Sole People. He’s a nature and hiking guide with a degree in biology. He frequently brings adults and school classes to the great outdoors, gives workshops and training courses on all sorts of issues that range from environmental protection to education about nature to alpine ecology.
Portraits of all HANWAG Sole People
I’m Franzi, a member of the HANWAG marketing team. Looking after our Sole People is just one of my responsibilities. I’m out tracking in the snow with Lukas. I’d like to know more about our domestic wildlife in winter and how we human beings can enjoy nature in the cold season without harming it and the animals that live there.
We strap on our snowshoes at the Mellau cable car’s top station and embark on our hike. We set off on pristine snow along a hiking trail to a hut called the Wurzachalpe. It’s cold, everything’s white and buried under a deep layer of snow – perfect conditions for our snowshoe hike. But it’s a problem for wildlife. Lukas tells me that winter is the harshest time of year for them:
“It’s a matter of life or death for most animals. In winter, animals find little or not very nutritious food. What’s more, the short days restrict the time available for foraging and animals quickly run out of energy. Which is why many wild animals’ metabolisms slow down in winter. They can then conserve energy and get through the winter longer with the fat reserves they’ve built up. If animals are disturbed too often in winter, for example by us humans, they use up a lot of energy that they can no longer replace again in winter. In the worst-case scenario, it means they die.”
In other words, our enjoyment of nature has a big influence on the animals’ fight for survival. I wonder, and ask Lukas, how I should behave on my next snowshoe hike so that I don’t disturb any animals if possible. Lukas already has a tip for me: “When you’re organising a tour, think about the wildlife and plan responsibly.”
You can start taking responsibility at your kitchen table by planning eco-friendly trips. When preparing for snowshoe hikes or skiing expeditions, make sure you don’t pass through resting sites for wildlife, forest and wildlife reserves, or come close to feeding stations.
If a hike does take you through areas like these, stick to the signposted paths. If you have a dog, put it on a leash, particularly in the forest. Go to the internet to find out more about conservation areas and resting sites for wildlife etc. and plan your trip in an eco-friendly manner.
En route, we pass a sign that says RespekTIERE deine Grenzen (it’s a play on words and, roughly translated, means respect the wild animals around you by following the rules). This initiative was started to provide widespread protection of sensitive habitats in Vorarlberg. Lukas explains that the area behind the sign is protected because it has a feeding station for wildlife. We keep away from it and stay on the path.
“People forget that it can affect us human beings if we scare animals away from their feeding grounds. They then often like to snack on the shoots of young trees in protective forests. The purpose of these forests is to mitigate the impact of or prevent rockfalls, landslides and avalanches. But if animals start feeding on the shoots, the repercussions for these forests are huge. In turn, that also puts us humans at risk,” explains Lukas. And that’s a risk that’s preventable.
It starts getting foggy and we discover an animal track right next to our path. I reckon it’s from a hare. But I can’t tell what direction it scampered off in. Lukas explains that hares’ forepaws touch the ground first and the hind feet swing forward to land in front. Deer or red deer tracks also cross our path.. “What’s the best thing to do if we encounter an animal?” I ask. “Keep calm and stay relaxed,” says Lukas.
To survive in winter, wildlife needs peace and quiet. If you see animals, be considerate and stay away from them if possible. If you can’t keep away from animals, stay calm, watch them at a distance and give them enough time to retreat in peace.
We arrive at the Wurzachalpe hut a little while later. The fog lifts, the sun puts in an appearance and we have a clear view of the Kanisfluh peak. While we take a short break, Lukas tells me that the reserve for hoofed animals, such as deer, chamois or ibexes, is located off the marked pistes and trails. We spot a few black dots further up on the snow-covered rocks at a distance. As usual, Lukas has binoculars in his backpack and already suspects that some of the dots might be chamois: “If we’re very lucky, ibexes will also be there,” he says. And our luck was in. We can easily see these graceful animals on the snow-covered rocks through the binoculars.
Binoculars allow you to observe nature and wildlife from paths without causing any disturbance.
But you can’t see all animals with binoculars. “Sometimes, of course, animals are also well hidden, in places you wouldn’t even expect them to be,” comments Lukas. For instance, ptarmigans build snow caves to get through adverse weather conditions. However, this means that winter sports enthusiasts don’t even notice that these animals are close by underneath a blanket of snow. The animals feel the vibrations of the snowshoes or touring skis several hundred metres away, which is very stressful for them.
We make our way back again. Further down we’re greeted by dense fog again. Lukas gives me another tip about the best timing for winter hiking.
Most animals like to forage at dawn and dusk. For example, people will disturb black grouse and ptarmigans while they’re feeding or trying to attract a mate in the early hours of the morning. Therefore, it’s best to avoid treks that take place then.
We arrive at the cable car and return to the valley. I’m still lost in my thoughts and full of awe. Wild animals are outside day and night. In winter, they live in exceptionally harsh conditions. While Lukas and I can warm ourselves up again and enjoy a tasty snack. As winter sports enthusiasts, we have a special responsibility towards nature. I realise that – and all of us should too.