FOR hillwalkers making their way through the thick swirling mist of the Cromdale Hills on the north eastern fringes of the Cairngorms, it must rank as one of the weirdest of experiences.
For suddenly, out of the all-enveloping greyness materialises a herd of pale-coloured deer. Their relatively small size and light colour brings a moment of confusion, for these are not the usual red deer one would expect to find here, but are instead reindeer more usually found roaming the Arctic tundra.
While stumbling across this introduced herd may be a bit of an eye-opener for unsuspecting walkers, these intriguing animals certainly don’t look out of place here on these remote windswept hills, which represent a reasonably close mirror to the environment of the sub-arctic. Indeed, in times past reindeer occurred naturally in Scotland during the last glacial period but probably became extinct by Roman times. A reference in the Orkneyinga Saga (a historical narrative of the history of the Orkney Islands dating from the ninth century) to the hunting of reindeer in Caithness in the 12th century can probably be discounted due to confusion with red deer, or they were perhaps a temporary and isolated population introduced by the Vikings.
The reindeer in the Cairngorms today were introduced in 1952 as an experiment by Swedish reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, who were keen to show that the animals could survive in suitable parts of Scotland. The seed for the reintroduction programme had been sown several years earlier when on a visit to Scotland Utsi had noticed how similar the Cairngorms were to his home in Lapland.
About 25 domesticated Swedish reindeer were initially introduced by Utsi in 1952 on 300 acres near Aviemore, and over the years numbers have been supplemented so as to keep the bloodline fresh. Today, there are around 150 deer in the herd which are looked after and managed by the Cairngorm Reindeer Company, with half of them ranging in the Cairngorm Mountains and the rest being found in the Cromdale Hills on the Glenlivet Estate, 30 miles away.
As a reindeer herder, Utsi was keen to highlight the positive benefits that reindeer bring to mankind – the meat is delicious, the pelts make superb clothing, and the antlers can be carved for crafts. The milk is nutritious too; apparently it takes two people to milk a reindeer - one to do the milking and the other to hold the reindeer’s antlers. But today, the principal economic benefit the deer bring to Scotland is as a major tourist attraction.
Based at Glenmore near Aviemore, the Cairngorm Reindeer Company runs daily trips for visitors throughout the year (apart from mid-January to mid-February) to see the main herd on the mountainside, guided by one of its experienced herders. From April to New Year, a small group of reindeer are also cared for at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore, enabling easy access for all visitors. According to the company’s Heather Hanshaw, visitors are always amazed at how tame and affectionate the deer are.
“People really enjoy the experience of being able to get up close to the deer,” she says. “All 150 of our reindeer have names, and just like dogs, they have their own individual personalities.”
And, of course, there is probably no other animal more associated with Christmas than the reindeer. This makes it one of the busiest times of year for the company, not just from visitors to the Reindeer Centre, but also because the reindeer are in big demand around the UK for pulling sleighs for big Christmas parades.
Reindeer are animals that people always enjoy encountering, but one should never forget the important role they have played in sustaining human populations in the Arctic for countless generations and also how incredibly well adapted they are to living in the coldest of climates. The hollow hairs on the thick coat are ideal for trapping body heat and the hooves are large so as to act like snowshoes when walking on snow and ice. They can wander far and wide in search of food, and are able to survive by feeding on the meagre pickings offered by lichens. There is no doubt that the reindeer of the Cairngorms are truly remarkable animals that provide a compelling link to our prehistoric past.
A new book, Hoof Prints – Sixty Years of Reindeer in the Cairngorms, £20, is available from www.cairngormrein deer.co.uk