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Issue 12 - Not just for Christmas

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Not just for Christmas

Reindeer are in their element in winter in general and at Christmas in particular. Hayley Fletcher travelled to the Cairngorms to meet Scotland's free roaming herd

Of the thousands of people who visit the barren slopes of the Cairngorm mountains to ski, trek and climb, few would dispute that it is just about the coldest place in Britain.

Yet it is precisely because of such extreme temperatures that the lower slopes have become a permanent home to the United Kingdom’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer.

The herd was first introduced to Scotland by Mikel Utsi, who had spent much of his early life herding reindeer in the arctic tundra, his homeland in northern Sweden.

He moved to England following the Second World War (in which he was awarded the Freedom Medal), and whilst on a visit to the Cairngorms he was reminded of the reindeer pastures of his youth.

With the knowledge that reindeer had been unsuccessfully introduced to Scotland in the late 18th century, Utsi knew that to establish and maintain a living, breeding herd would be a challenge.

Finding that the region was rich in both lichen and mosses – food sources vital to the reindeer diet – Utsi pressed on with his dream, bolstered by his belief that reindeer could also provide an excellent alternative source of meat in post-war Britain.

In 1952 through sheer determination, patience with governmental ‘red tape’ and a passion for his animals, his plans came to fruition.

Of transporting the eight mountain reindeer from Sweden, Utsi wrote:

“Sarek, the wise, mysterious reindeer ox born on Mount Sarek’s slopes in Arctic Sweden, was three years old when he came with me on that first journey by road and rail from Murjek to Norbotten to Narvik.

“We came across the North Sea on the SS Sarek to the Clyde, and he led the Scottish herd for 12 years.”

As the herd grew to include animals originating from Russia and Norway, more space was needed than their first home at Moormore could offer (a 300 acre stretch on the Rothiemurchus estate near Aviemore).

Working with the Forestry Commission, Utsi proved that reindeer contributed no noticeable damage to conifers, and thus was offered almost 6000 acres of pasture land extending from Glenmore (next to Rothiemurchus) to the mountain slopes, where the reindeer were able to graze freely and settle into the Inverness-shire landscape.

In recognition of the herd’s seeming success, the Department of Agriculture for Scotland granted approval for Utsi’s herd to breed, and so, in 1956, the Cairngorm reindeer herd officially got underway.

During Utsi’s lifetime the herd never became sufficiently large to realise his ambitions of meat production, yet sufficient reindeer were bred to enable numbers of them to be despatched to wildlife parks in England and Scotland, thus continuing their reintroduction to the British mainland.

With time came change, and when Utsi died in 1979, the safekeeping of the herd fell to reindeer keeper Alan Smith, who in August 1989, with his wife Tilly, took over Utsi’s Reindeer Company.

With a growing herd, the Smiths sought ways to fund the business, finding the answer right there on the hills. For some time members of the public had joined Utsi on his treks to the slopes to check the reindeer’s wellbeing, encouraging the Smiths to seek further opportunities for
public interaction with the reindeer.

The daily trips are now more popular than ever. Dependent on the time of year, visitors may see the reindeer digging for food in the snow, grazing with their calves in early summer or bearing their staggering sets of velvet-like antlers in autumn.

An early morning reindeer check enables the Smiths to locate the reindeer and bring them down from higher ground, before visitors join them (or one of their volunteers) on the lower slopes for feeding time.

It offers visitors an ideal and unusual opportunity to hand feed breakfast to a reindeer whilst learning about its survival and habits. As the walk is a short but strenuous stride up the hill it is accessible to most, from young children to pensioners, and enjoyed by all.

The herd are used to people and many reindeer shun the orderly trails of grain put down for them in favour of hand feeding and attention from visitors.

Whilst most are gentle and unassuming, there are one or two mischievous reindeer, notably Red the current lead bull, and Rascal who, complete with full set of antlers, enjoys trying to steal the food and the limelight.

Special attention, however, is reserved for a few reindeer that may require extra feeding due to age or illness. These, such as the younger calves and the 17-year-old grandma of the herd, get special privileges by being allowed to feed directly from the grain sack.

Even with such extremes of age, being such hardy creatures the reindeer do not require shelters or enormous amounts of supplementary food. They thrive in winter, their bodies perfectly developed to cope with extreme cold and blizzards.

A dense coat of hair extends to their velvet noses, enabling them to forage for food without fear of frostbite, even in snow up to three feet deep. Hairy feet ensure they have an inbuilt non-slip mechanism in bad weather, and a clicking noise is not a sign of bad joints but acts as an inter-reindeer communication tool in thick blizzards, enabling the herd to keep together when they cannot see each other.

One harsh winter a visiting film crew demonstrated the reindeer hardiness by sending their presenter onto the slopes at night, dressing him in the most technically advanced winter clothing and identifying him with heat seeking equipment.

Filming him crossing the slopes with the reindeer his shape was all that could be seen, the reindeer’s inbuilt insulation mechanism being so advanced that it far outstripped modern technology and no heat could be detected from their many bodies.

For the Cairngorm reindeer, winter is not just about foraging for food, as many of the herd have a more lucrative part to play in the Reindeer Centre business.

Each year there is huge demand for reindeer to make special appearances, helping Santa to deliver goodwill, dreams and gifts to children as far afield as Wick in northern Scotland and Harrods in London.

From shopping malls and hospitals to garden centre grottos and schools, the run up to Christmas is a busy time. Chosen for their kind and patient temperaments, along with their ability to travel and pull a sleigh, up to 30 reindeer go on the road in small teams, some for up to six weeks.

Along with the ‘old hands’ a few younger reindeer are taken to break them in to the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of a Christmas trip, a far cry from their peaceful lives on the mountain.

While the Smiths train the animals for their excursions, keen volunteers scour the countryside for lichen, often filling up to 400 bags before the trips to ensure the reindeer get some natural nourishment whilst away.

It is activities such as these that help keep the centre going, and never more so was this felt than during the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001, when the reindeer were forbidden to travel. Understandably it had a major impact on the business, and has been one of the factors that has led the Smiths to look at alternative sources of income.

A Wild Farm Safari adventure takes visitors off the beaten track to see rare Iron Age pigs, Soay sheep and highland cattle before venturing to the mountains to find the reindeer.

The herd has been used in film and photographic shoots as well as television documentaries, a reindeer adoption scheme is in place and the centre is in the process of applying for charity status.

These days none of the reindeer are sold, so careful breeding policies are needed to ensure the herd does not become unmanageable in terms of both size and cost. Currently standing at 150 head, the herd is a notable size, with some reindeer now grazing on additional pastureland at the nearby Glenlivet estate.

More than 50 years after Sarek’s momentous boat journey, his descendants are still – literally – alive and kicking, with many hundreds of reindeer having been bred in the Cairngorms.

It is testament to the harsh climate and suitable vegetation of this mountainous region that the reindeer thrive here, and thanks to Utsi and the Smiths that the people of Britain have such an opportunity to view these extraordinary.