The last great Ice Age ended only approximately 5,000 years ago and with a dramatic improvement in the climate, a wide variety of vegetation began to grow in Norway. The tree line rose by several hundred metres, and pines and beech forests covered three quarters of the Norwegian mountains - ideal conditions for the predators that followed the reindeer, such as wolves and wolverines. In the forests, bears, lynx, pine martens elks, stags and beavers flourished, but humans were also starting to exploit the woodland.
Nowadays, approximately 1 million sheep and 200,000 tame reindeer graze on the Norwegian plateaux and hillsides. During the 1950s and 1960s, hunters mercilessly pursued the bears, wolverines and lynx, before protective measures were introduced to save their remaining populations. These rare predators have now returned to eastern and northern Norway. The measures to protect elks and beavers have also led to a steady increase in their numbers. With other threatened species, the age old conflict between hunter and beast is now controlled by the Environment Ministry.
Norway's coastal islands are inhabited by millions of birds, such as puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, auks and cormorants. Circling sea eagles are a fairly common sight, and on Lofoten and Vesteralen, you will not need binoculars to watch these majestic creatures. In recent winters, the snowy owl has ben observed in the Saltfjell mountains and on the Hardangervidda.
The plateaux, which are only clear of snow for around six weeks of the year, do not make ideal habitats for plants and wildlife. Nevertheless, observant walkers may be surprised by the wide range of Arctic flora that they might spot en route. In the Saltfjell mountains north of the Arctic Circle, for example, the limestone rock provides the perfect habitat for a rare species of wild rhododendron that flourishes amid huge fields of white dryas octopetala during the short summer.
Heather grows everywhere on the high ground as does dwarf birch and mountain birch but generally goes unnoticed as most Norwegians spend most of their time in the lowlands during the summer months and it is only in the winter months when these plants are visible.
The higher up and the further north you go, the more sensitive nature is to environmental changes, and great care is taken to protect areas of particularly beauty or natural interest. In 1962 the first national park was opened in the Rondane mountains east of Gudbrandsdalen. Now some 25 national parks in Norway cover an area of more than 23,000 sq km and there are many other nature reserves.