Understanding how climate influences ecosystems represents a challenge in ecology and natural resource management. Although we know that climate affects plant phenology and herbivore performances at any single site, no study has directly coupled the topography–climate interaction (i.e. the climatological downscaling process) with large-scale vegetation dynamics and animal performances. Here we show how climatic variability (measured by the North Atlantic oscillation ‘NAO’) interacts with local topography in determining the vegetative greenness (as measured by the normalized difference vegetation index ‘NDVI’) and the body masses and seasonal movements of red deer (Cervus elaphus) in Norway. Warm springs induced an earlier onset of vegetation, resulting in earlier migration and higher body masses. Increasing values of the winter-NAO corresponded to less snow at low altitude (warmer, more precipitation results in more rain), but more snow at high altitude (colder, more precipitation corresponds to more snow) relative to winters with low winter-NAO. An increasing NAO thus results in a spatially more variable phenology, offering migrating deer an extended period with access to high-quality forage leading to increased body mass. Our results emphasize the importance of incorporating spring as well as the interaction between winter climate and topography when aiming at understanding how plant and animal respond to climate change.