Winter, a season of survival

From November onwards, the mild Autumn weather ends and is replaced by the cold mountain air. While the days are still pleasant, at night the thermometer begins to drop below zero. In December night time temperatures sometimes fall to -10°C. But there are still bright sunny days to remind us of our proximity to the coast.

An endless search to avoid starvation…

The grass and plants that the herbivores feed on have disappeared. From mid-November the hungry wildlife seek out the undergrowth where they know food, not eaten during the milder seasons, can be found. They manage to eat by scouring for the last grasses, by seeking out the last areas of green and by picking the fruits from the briars and hawthorns. They cannot be choosy in this period, before the lack of food in January and February!

In mid-Winter, the search for water becomes a priority. The ponds and streams are covered in a thick layer of ice that the animals must break, if necessary by walking on it. Beware of deep water under the ice which could be a fatal trap!

Some years, as in 2009 and 2010, the snow cover is so thick that it is fruitless to look for food on the ground. The animals have to make do with above ground resources: lichen, pine needles, the evergreen leaves of broom and boxwood and especially bark. This is all food that is not very nourishing, but it at least staves off hunger while waiting for better days. At least it does for the ruminants, but the wild boar do not touch this type of food and the long winter takes it toll on them. In 2009, almost three quarters of the wild boar in the hills died.

In the past animals migrated to areas with milder weather before the snows arrived. Each species had a refuge area. But this was before humans fragmented the countryside.

Today, during harsh winters, we have to feed the wildlife if it is not to disappear completely. This is a common practice in Eastern Europe and also what we do on the Reserve when the snow over 50cm deep.

... and some wildlife succeed better than others

During winter the bison find it difficult to find enough food for their large body, which weighing several hundred kilos. Thus they are careful not to use up too quickly the fat accumulated over the summer months. This is essential! They restrict their movements to a minimum. The herd groups together and the animals press against each other to keep warm. In this way they are prepared for the very cold temperatures in February, which can plummet to below - 20°C.

The deer herds, which now include males, females and the young, often accompany the bison. By breaking branches, bushes and the ice, the bison offer the deer much welcome access to food and water; true inter-species cooperation.

The Przewalski horses seem to be the best adapted to the difficult conditions. They roam the Reserve tirelessly, nibbling at almost anything within their reach. Being relatively small, with reserves of fat spread among all their muscles, they can survive on the most meagre rations. By the time March arrives, unlike the other species, they have hardly lost any weight!

By the end of winter, most of the animals have lost weight. Their fat reserves have been exhausted. This weight loss is essential to trigger the reproductive period at the right time. Several mild winters in a row will often give rise to births towards the autumn. This is bad news for the young, because born so late in the season they are too small to survive the biting cold weather.


Winter is a key time for the perpetuation of the adult animals. It eliminates those too weak or ill to survive, but it sometimes kills healthy animals too.


Both too cold and too mild winters can be a danger. A very harsh winter can wipe out breeding adults, but a warm winter can put at risk the generation not yet born.


Life is certainly a delicate balance!

The Monts d'Azur Reserve invites you to share the daily routine of Europe's large fauna!

Text : Patrice Longour – Photos : Baptiste Vivinus

with colaboration of :
zooConseil général des Alpes-MaritimesPrefecture des Alpes Maritime