At one time, reindeer were native to Scotland. According to 800+ year old accounts, reindeer were hunted by the Earls of Orkney (Vikings) in Caithness, in northern Scotland. Fast forward to the 20th Century, when a Swedish reindeer herder named Mikel Utsi (pictured) was honeymooning in Scotland. Utsi scratched his head and said ya know what...this sure looks like a good place for reindeer! His reindeer pastures back home in Lapland were remarkably similar in plant species and ground conditions. So in 1952 Utsi brought 2 bulls and 5 cows over on a ship from Sweden to test the suitability of the Cairngorm Mountains - the only place in the UK with a subarctic ecosystem.
The first time I met the The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd was in late October, 2016. I was on my way from Fort William to Inverness, still riding the high of climbing Buachaille Etive Mor. The Cairngorm range struck me as different than a lot of Scotland's other mountains, as they are more forested. The approach to Cairngorm National Park is lovely, especially when the hills are snowcapped. The main town in the area is Aviemore, a small town that serves as a basecamp for outdoor adventurers. After passing through Aviemore, I drove through a forested area, (which is something I had not seen a lot of yet did early in my travels in Scotland.) The Reindeer Centre is next door to the Glenmore Vistor Centre, run by Scotland's Forestry Commission - a great spot for information on local flora and fauna, and a bite to eat.
All of the photos here are from the hillwalk, but I only took in the enclosure on my first visit. As I walked down the boardwalk along the enclosure, one of the fuzzies struck a pose. Another one walked past the fence and I could hear a clicking noise with each step. At first I thought it must have been a senior with creaky limbs. But I soon found out that reindeer all have clicky feet. Every time they take a step, a tendon slips over the bone and makes a clicking sound, which means that even in white out conditions, the herd can stay together purely from the sound of their clicking hooves! Another adaptive feature of their hooves is how wide they spread out - built-in snowshoes for those snowy treks.
The hill walk up to the herd on the hill has been happening every day since the 1960's at 11AM rain or shine. They do not take bookings in advance so its recommended to show up early and book your tour. Then you can go check out the visitor's center and cafe, and walk into the paddock to see the handful of reindeer kept there. (These animals are cycled on a regular basis with the hill herd, so no need to feel sad for them!)
You get a nifty little sticker to put on your jacket and are asked to be in your car along the roadside ready to follow the van as it drives by and honks. Our little convoy made its way about a mile up the road to a parking area. I'd guess there were about 20 people in the group - from young children all the way up to 2 elderly women.
Our guide took us on a 20 minute walk through a wooded area. We crossed a bridge over a creek where the snow capped peaks came into view all around us, and up onto the side of the hill. There is a long boardwalk across the hill. I walked at the front with the guide - I always like to chat up people in the know!
The first real snowfall of the season had recently fallen, low enough to speckle the brown grass with patches of white. This setting provided a striking demonstration of the reindeer camouflage. If they didn't start moving down the hills towards us as we approached, we probably wouldn't have seen them until we stepped on them. The guide had started making a call to the reindeer and they were falling in beside us and around us as we walked. We had been instructed to let him lay down some feed before we tried to interact with the animals. This allowed them to get their mad rush to eagerly fill their tummies out of their systems before they nibbled from people fingers.
There is something really special about this encounter. I've been close to a good deal of animals (I have a bachelor's degree in wildlife management) and I love every encounter. But there is something about an animal in its own space, its on habitat, doing what it wants to do. "Hey, I'm a reindeer, just chilling here on this hill, and I'll totally go over to that other hill if I feel like it later. But for now this hill's cool. You seem cool, got anything in your hands there?"
This seems like a good time to pause and talk about feeding wildlife. I have addressed it in a previous posts but considering the subject matter it bears repeating (ok that was an unintentional pun) - every effort should be made to keep wildlife wild. You have likely seen photos of people feeding or petting the deer in Glencoe for example, and like me when I first saw them you may think they are tame. But they are not - they have just learned to associate people with food, and this has potentially dangerous consequences for the people and the animals. My belief is that we should enjoy them but respect them. And part of respecting them is not doing anything that puts them in potential danger. -including reinforcing human contact as a good thing. It is a sacred privilege to have any encounter with an animal in the wild, and if you are lucky enough to have such an encounter, let it remain just that - a wild encounter.
The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is an exception for the simple reason that while they are free ranging, they are not "wild" in the truest sense of the word. This is an ongoing reintroduction and conservation effort, with animals that are gentle by natural disposition. They have names, they are harness trained. But they are free and the Cairngorms are their habitat - they aren't pets.
These animals were very sweet and gentle. They have a tendency towards a slightly bug eyed look as if you've said something scandalous, or maybe mentioned something super tasty, which is quite endearing. I knelt down to take a photo of the herd down the hill and felt a nudge and grumble at my back - apparently a reindeer was worried that I was trying to steal his food, so he had to reprimand me. It was the gentlest scolding I've ever received.
At one point, 3 mallards waddled up through the field like they owned the place - you could tell from their swagger this wasn't their first rodeo. They weaved in and out of reindeer legs, foraging for grain scraps. It was such a peaceful, tranquil scene - to one side, a reindeer sipped from a puddle. On another side, Balmoral the impressive bull played king-of-the hill atop a small rock outcrop. A little white calf ran around looking all kinds of adorable. One of the children in the group broke down in nervous tears as his excitement at seeing the reindeer turned into apprehension at being so close to something new (and eager for nibbles.) I was fortunate to be in a very respectful group - everyone was gentle, quiet, and respectful of one another and most importantly the gentle creatures.
Needless to say, Scottish reindeer found a special place in my heart. I think this might partially stem from the fact that reindeer and caribou are the same species (with domestication being a key difference as well as some visible differences), and caribou were until recently native to my home state of Maine in the northeastern United States. But also because I think the reindeer so beautifully represent the spirit of Scotland - friendly, calm, gentle, welcoming, serene... but beneath the surface, forever wild in spirit.
If you find yourself anywhere near the Cairngorms, I do encourage you to visit these fuzzies - tell them I said hello. And as you take in the wild scenery, the fresh mountain air and the beautiful beasts, let your mind wander back to a time when Vikings roamed the land.
Thanks for reading!
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