Mountains cover two thirds of Switzerland's surface area. From scorching to freezing temperatures, from poor to lush vegetation, from very dry to very wet climates: mountains are Mother Nature's treasure trove. They are also home to many animals and plants which have adapted well to the rather hostile conditions.
Alpine flora and fauna
Alpine environments provide a sanctuary for many rare animal and plant species and embody the diverse beauty of nature. They are a unique wildlife habitat.
Many alpine species disappeared or almost disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century due to human exploitation and hunting, but some species such as the ibex, chamois and bearded vulture were reintroduced.
Switzerland is committed to preserving the biodiversity of its mountains and shares its expertise in cooperation projects. In this way, the country uses its experience of tackling social, economic and environmental issues for the benefit of other mountain communities.
The Alps – a wildlife sanctuary on a massive scale
The Alps are a wildlife sanctuary on a massive scale. From ungulates to reptiles and even large predators, biodiversity in the Alps is impressive. Before they were exterminated, wolves, lynx and bears were also native to the Alps. They are gradually returning.
The chamois is perhaps the best-known alpine mammal. Thanks to its superb agility, it is able to navigate its way through the rocky landscape with remarkable ease. In Swiss folklore, the chamois is often placed under the protection of mountain spirits, but that has never put off human hunters. The total chamois population, in both the Alps and the Jura, is currently estimated at around 95,000.
The ibex is a skilful climber, even on the steepest inclines. The rocky slopes of the Alps are its preferred habitat. In former times, it was greatly prized for its medicinal powers. Such was the demand for ibex-based cures that the animal had been hunted to extinction by the 19th century. Between 1920 and 1930, Graubünden reintroduced the ibex; its image now adorns the canton's flag and coat of arms. The ibex has also been reintroduced in the cantons of Valais and Bern. The total population is currently estimated at about 15,000.
Marmots live in family groups of 15 or so members. They dig their burrows in open meadows and only come out to feed. Since they hibernate for about six months, they spend much of the summer feeding in order to build up their winter fat reserves. Marmots are easy to spot during the summer months. They are even easier to hear due to the high-pitched whistling noise they make when they feel threatened. Originally marmots were found only in the Alps, but have been introduced in a few places in the Jura as well.
The black salamander, or alpine salamander, is the only amphibian in Europe to give birth to live young. For female salamanders living above 1,400m, the gestation period can last for as much as three years. The amphibian prefers a habitat that is moist and higher than 3,000m, such as alpine forests, scree slopes and alpine meadows. The alpine salamander can grow up to 16cm and feeds mainly on beetles, spiders and centipedes.
The lynx is the largest wildcat in Europe. It plays an important role in the ecosystem by hunting small ungulates like deer and chamois. There are currently around 300 lynx living in the Swiss forests. Although the population is now stable in Switzerland, the big cat remains an endangered species in central Europe.
The wolf returned to Switzerland in 1995. Since then, the population has grown year on year. There are currently around 80 wolves spread over a dozen cantons. The animals migrate from Italy and France, where population numbers are on the rise. The first pack in Switzerland was spotted in 2012. Since then, seven more packs have formed. Switzerland is not actively seeking to reintroduce wolves. However, given that the animals have migrated naturally, the authorities have put a plan in place to respond to their return.
For over a century, there were no wild bears in Switzerland. That changed a few years ago. Since 2005 bears from the Italian Adamello Brenta National Park in Italy have steadily made their way to Switzerland. Unlike Austria and Italy, Switzerland has no formal reintroduction programme. The Swiss comeback of the plantigrade is solely due to natural migration.
Magnificent mountains, magnificent birds
The Swiss mountains are home to a number of magnificent birds like the golden eagle, bearded vulture, spotted nutcracker and black grouse. They are a commanding presence in the alpine skies.
The golden eagle is one of Switzerland's biggest birds of prey, with a wing span of up to 2m. It feeds mainly on ground-living mammals and birds, especially hares, marmots and foxes. They have excellent eyesight: research has found that they can see a hare one kilometre away. The golden eagle lives at altitudes of between 1,500 and 3,000m. They pair for life, and each couple has a territory of between 50 and 100 km2. Switzerland is thought to have about 300 breeding pairs.
The bearded vulture takes its name from the black bristles hanging at the base of its beak. It is not only the largest bird in the Alps, thanks to an average wing span of 2.8m, but it is the only species of vulture that has mastered the art of eating bones. The increasing scarcity of its food sources coupled with persecution by humans, who believed it took lambs, and even babies, led the bearded vulture to disappear from the Alps in the latter part of the 19th century. A reintroduction programme was launched in the 1970s, involving not only Switzerland, but also Austria, France, Germany and Italy. The bird of prey can once again be found across the Alps. The total population is currently estimated at 220.
The spotted nutcracker is only 30cm long and weighs between 150 and 210 grams. Higher elevations are its preferred habitat. In the Jura mountains, it is commonly found at altitudes of 700m and higher. In the Alps, it lives at heights of 1,000m or more and even as high as the tree line. In winter, it digs holes up to 130cm deep in the snow to store its provisions. The spotted nutcracker plays a vital role in the life cycle of the Swiss stone pine, a conifer which grows in the central Alps at altitudes of over 1,100m. In winter, it feeds on the pine seeds from its cache buried in the forest. Any seeds that are left uneaten at the end of winter can then germinate in spring and produce the next generation of these fragrant conifers.
With its bluish black plumage and lyre-shaped tail, the male black grouse is an eye-catching bird. The female is smaller and its feathers are reddish brown. The natural habitat of the black grouse is subalpine areas, at elevations of between 1,200 and 2,200m. In winter, it digs a sort of igloo in the powdery snow where it remains sheltered from the extremely low temperatures outside. Its plumage is an excellent insulator and the fleshy bristles that grow along the side of its toes help the grouse to move in the snow. It feeds on a variety of flowers, fruits, buds and heather. In winter, pine and fir needles also feature on its diet.
Six hundred flowering plants are found exclusively in the Alps or have the primary range there.
Six hundred species of flowering plants are found exclusively in the Alps or have their primary range there. The areas above the tree line may look hostile and barren, but they contain an astonishing collection of microhabitats where biodiversity flourishes. This impressive variety of flora and fauna reflects the varied topography of these habitats.
Scientists believe the flower migrated from Asia to the Alps during the Ice Age. Today, it can be found in many Alpine countries at high altitudes (2,000 to 3,000 metres). It blooms from July to September on exposed limestone rocks, but it can also be found at the edge of meadows. Every part of the flower is designed to withstand extreme weather, from the wind-resistant underground stems to its hairy bracts which prevent evapotranspiration and block UV rays. Today, the edelweiss not only represents a connection to the nature and beauty of Switzerland but is a hallmark of Swiss quality and uniqueness.
Edelweiss may be the most famous Alpine flower but the purple saxifrage, which has been spotted at altitudes as high as 4,500m, is the hardiest. Plants growing on rock faces have developed various strategies to deal with water shortage. Some are covered in hairs, which deflect the sun's rays and also form a protective layer that locks in moisture. Others have a waxy coating, which serves the same purpose. Succulents store water in their thick leaves and many of them form rosettes so that the leaves shade each other. Another set of plants increase their chances of withstanding drought by growing no more than a few centimetres tall. Their lack of height also protects from the dry winds.
The bright colours of alpine meadow flowers are vital to their survival and reproduction. First, the pigments they contain protect them from the intense ultraviolet rays found at high altitude. Second, their bright colour attracts swarms of honey bees and bumble bees during the fair weeks of spring. Without the help of pollinators, the flowers would not be able to reproduce.
Plants that share their habitat with grazing animals run the risk of being eaten before they have had time to reproduce. Evolution has equipped some species with powerful defensive weapons. Some have tough, prickly leaves, which alpine ruminants tend not to like too much and therefore increase the life span of the plant and boost its chances of being able to reproduce. Another life-limiting problem faced by alpine plants are heavy hooves. To avoid being trampled, some delicate plants like orchids only grow close to rocks or cliffs. Other tender plants have strong root systems which help them withstand an assault by ravenous beasts.
On the rocks
As glaciers melt, they leave behind unstable, stony ground, with zero nutrients. Yet specially adapted plants manage to colonise this apparently inhospitable terrain. Mosses move in first, producing a thin layer of humus when they die, which gives the saxifrages and toadflaxes a chance to take root. The greatest problem for these pioneers is not so much the lack of nutrients as the constantly moving ground. To protect themselves, even the tiniest plants anchor themselves with roots that can grow up to a metre deep. Thanks to this underground network, the plant is able to sprout new shoots if it finds itself engulfed by rolling stones. The mountains are also home to one of the world's smallest trees, the dwarf willow, which keeps its trunk below the surface, leaving just a few small branches poking out. Not only does this strange way of growing keep it warm, but also shelters it from the wind.
The Swiss have a deep affection for the mountains. Other mountain communities around the world have attracted development projects from Switzerland.
Small mountain states have always attracted Swiss development projects. Switzerland uses its wealth of experience in tackling social, economic and environmental issues to benefit other mountain communities, and makes every effort to ensure that projects like these strike the right balance between conservation and development. A case in point is the Central Asian Mountain Partnership (CAMP) sustainable development project, in which the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) was previously involved.