Snow comes to Cornwall - but not the Cairngorms

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The image of Scotland's ice-capped mountains is in danger of becoming a thing of the past as rising temperatures threaten to wipe away the snow from the top of the country's highest and most rugged peaks.

While unseasonable weather patterns cause havoc across the country, forcing the residents of Padstow in Cornwall to run for shelter from large hailstones and encouraging grapes to grow wild in Essex, Britain's highest mountains lost their frosted coatings.

For thousands of years, snow patches remained hidden among the shaded corries and crevices of the Cairngorms all year long as the cold temperatures compacted the snow into sheets of ice often several feet thick.

Replenished by regular annual blizzards the highest summits were never completely bare - until recently. Slopes which were once littered with scattered snow patches are just barren rock and scientists fear that it is yet another sign of a big thaw brought about by global warming.

The last snow of the year on Britain's highest mountain, the 4,406ft Ben Nevis, disappeared a month ago and now the last remnants of snow have vanished from 4,296ft Ben Macdui.

According to ecologist Keith Miller, who works with the conservationist body the John Muir Trust, the last snow patches in a remote area called Garbh Choire Mor, some 3,800ft above sea level, disappeared weeks ago.

It is estimated that the average January and February temperatures have been rising by 0.3Cevery 10 years for the past 30 years, which has had a knock on effect on animal and plant life with flowers budding earlier and birds which usually fly south for the winter staying longer.

In the 18th and early-19th century snow was permanent on Ben Nevis and throughout the Cairngorms, but since 1860 snow cover on even the highest peaks of the mountain rang has disappeared completely five times and three of those occasions have been in the last 11 years.

Scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University of East Anglia have predicted the level of snowfall in Scotland could drop by between 60 per cent and 90 per cent by 2080 if high volumes of greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere.

A spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage said: "The number of days of snow cover in Scotland has decreased by about 32 per cent between 1961-62 to 2004-05."