By Nick Drainey
Scotland’s only herd of reindeer are having a rest after Christmas and the Cairngorms is without a doubt the best place to spot them.
They are not seen in the sky pulling a sleigh but Britain’s only herd of the hoofed animal thrive on the 10,000 acres of sub-arctic tundra found high in the mountains.
A walk up the Cairn Gorm offers great views, especially the shattered rocks of Coire an t-Sneachda but the first thing often mentioned by visitors when they return to the Glenmore Forest below is the sight of reindeer.
They were introduced in 1952 by Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, 800 years after they had been hunted to extinction in Scotland.
The couple had visited the Cairngorms on their honeymoon and Mr Utsi said afterwards: “Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures in Lapland… species of ground, rock and tree lichens, which are elsewhere the chief food of reindeer, were plentiful and of little use to other animals.”
Mr Utsi, a reindeer herder from Sweden thought the animals would be a good source of food in the post-war years. However, the public did not share the same appetite to eat the hardy animals as their Scandinavian cousins.
Nevertheless, Mr Utsi grew the herd from a start with two bulls and five cows brought over from Sweden, and there are now 150 of them, visible on the mountainsides. Others can be seen in paddocks next to a visitor centre at a cottage which serves as the base for Cairngorm Reindeer, the operation founded by Mr Utsi.
Looking up to the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, Imogen Taylor, a reindeer herder based at the centre, says they are “really easy to keep because they just run around on mountains and you don’t have to do anything with them”.
She adds: “They were native here and the only reason they are not any more is because we over hunted them so they obviously played a role in the ecology.
“Mr Utsi was going to use them as a meat source because it was just after World War Two. But people here didn’t want to eat them so he had to think of a different way – people wanted to come and see them, so it grew from there.
“We now run a guided tour every day and their whole purpose is tourism.”
But how do you keep track of these semi-wild animals? Ms Taylor says: “Technically they could go anywhere they want but the Cairngorms is the only place in the UK where we have sub arctic habitat left so they really need that habitat and wouldn’t want to go into the forest – they are not going to Glasgow because there is no grazing there. The habitat keeps them there because it is the right habitat, in the same way that you don’t get red deer wandering around town.”
That is why they are such a regular sight for walkers in the mountains. On a walk up Cairn Gorm from they can be seen in Coire Cas when the skiers aren’t around and don’t even seem bothered by the funicular railway trundling past.
The “Windy Ridge Path” leads you up to the top of the railway and the Ptarmigan Station. Here, you can take a breather from the exertions of walking up and enjoy a hot chocolate at 3,600ft. This may seem a little odd but perhaps even stranger is the sight of reindeer walking past.
The walk continues from here to the top of Cairn Gorm – the easiest of the 4,000ft mountains in Scotland to reach but with superb views. South-west is Cairn Lochan, beyond the cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda. Slightly west of south is Ben Macdui – the second highest mountain in Scotland. To the north on a really clear day you can see as far as Morven in Caithness.
Below are the forests which surround Loch Morlich and in the foreground the habitat loved by the reindeer.
Don’t be fooled by all the signs of civilisation on the walk – the railway, ski slopes and cafe near the summit – it is dangerous terrain and claims human lives every year when Arctic conditions prevail. Walkers in winter have to make sure they are fully equipped for bad weather and can use a map and compass, as well as ice axe and crampons
But for reindeer these conditions are ideal. Even in winter they flourish thanks to their thick coats which provide such insulation that they don’t melt the snow when they lie down. At the same time, extra wide, splayed hooves enable reindeer to spread weight on soft snow to prevent them sinking.
The reindeer can, however, be seen away from the Cairngorms in the run up to Christmas when they are used to pull sleighs for Santa when he visits towns across Scotland.
Ms Taylor adds: “That is their job – each individual reindeer does about five or six events a year over the two months of November and December.”