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Issue 41 - Walking with Reindeer

Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008

 

This article is 9 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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Walking with Reindeer

James Carron takes a festive stroll through the Cairngorms.

The Cairngorm mountains are home to Britain’s only reindeer herd.

Although a native species, the placid creature was hunted to extinction around 1200 years ago and only returned to Scotland in the 1950s. Now the herd numbers 130 and a walk into their natural territory makes a great festive leg stretch.

Although reindeer roam freely on the vast upland plateau, one of the best places to see them is in the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre enclosure that overlooks Glenmore Forest and Loch Morlich. The walk passes the enclosure but it is worth starting your day out by joining one of the tours run by Alan and Tilly Smith, who manage the herd. This offers access to the paddocks where visitors can get up close and personal with the deer, stroking and feeding them.

A daily morning tour leaves Reindeer House in Glenmore at 11am and this will give you plenty of time to enjoy the reindeer experience before completing the five-mile route that climbs Silver Hill before descending into the forest, visiting the chalet where Swedish reindeer herder Mikel Utsi, who was responsible for returning the species to the area, often stayed.

From the reindeer centre, visitors drive in convey up the road to the Sugar Bowl car park. The walking starts here. Apath on the other side of the tarmac descends through the trees into a deep, narrow ravine where a bridge spans the Allt Mor. On the other side, a steep trail zigzags on to the top of a steep escarpment and leads on to the enclosure gate.

These deer are all descendents of the original ones imported from Scandinavia by Mikel Utsi. The first consignment arrived from Sweden in June 1952 and during the years additional imports and animals born here swelled the herd. Initially the deer were confined to the paddocks and nearby woodland plantations but in time permission was granted to allow the herd to range freely over the surrounding mountains.

The tour of the paddocks is a great way to get to know the Cairngorm reindeer and find out a bit about their history. Born in May and June, reindeer calves grow quickly to a height of around one metre at the shoulder. They graze on lichen, moss, shoots, twigs and ground vegetation. A thicker, lighter coloured coat that enables the creature to survive plunging winter temperatures replaces a short, dark summer hide. Unlike other deer, where only the males have antlers, both male and female reindeer sport them, although the females boast smaller and less complex headgear.

All have names and Alan and Tilly know each individual by sight. The animals have their own distinct personalities and each year new calves are named according to a theme for the particular year.

Take the opportunity to wander among and feed the deer. It really is a glorious experience. Although at first they appear large and slightly intimidating, they will happily take food, their soft velvet noses nuzzling the hand, and allow visitors to stroke their dense pelt. They are not camera shy either and will pose for some unforgettable pictures.

It is hardly surprising that the reindeer are so tame. They have a long association with humankind and it is thought reindeer were the first hoofed animals to have been domesticated, providing an important source of both food and clothing for our ancestors.

The visit to the paddock lasts around an hour and afterwards you are free to set off on your own. The ascent of Silver Hill follows the enclosure fence for a way so you can keep an eye on the deer as you climb. Stay with the fence and the route curves west, passing the start of a track that heads south into a narrow ravine known as the Chalamain Gap. If you fancy an exciting detour off the main route, head into the gorge. It is an astonishingly rugged and gloriously chaotic spot, strewn with angular rocks and mighty boulders.

graze on lichen, moss, shoots, twigs and ground vegetation. A thicker, lighter coloured coat that enables the creature to survive plunging winter temperatures replaces a short, dark summer hide. Unlike other deer, where only the males have antlers, both male and female reindeer sport them, although the females boast smaller and less complex headgear.

All have names and Alan and Tilly know each individual by sight. The animals have their own distinct personalities and each year new calves are named according to a theme for the particular year.

Take the opportunity to wander among and feed the deer. It really is a glorious experience. Although at first they appear large and slightly intimidating, they will happily take food, their soft velvet noses nuzzling the hand, and allow visitors to stroke their dense pelt. They are not camera shy either and will pose for some unforgettable pictures.

It is hardly surprising that the reindeer are so tame. They have a long association with humankind and it is thought reindeer were the first hoofed animals to have been domesticated, providing an important source of both food and clothing for our ancestors.

The visit to the paddock lasts around an hour and afterwards you are free to set off on your own. The ascent of Silver Hill follows the enclosure fence for a way so you can keep an eye on the deer as you climb. Stay with the fence and the route curves west, passing the start of a track that heads south into a narrow ravine known as the Chalamain Gap. If you fancy an exciting detour off the main route, head into the gorge. It is an astonishingly rugged and gloriously chaotic spot, strewn with angular rocks and mighty boulders.

Returning to the walk, carry on towards another gorge, the Eag a’Chait. However, before you reach this gap in the rocks, cross a stile. Atrack heads north, skirting round the eastern end of Lochan Dubh a’Chada. Don’t take this but strike up the hill to the left.

This little peak is Airgiod-meall, or Silver Hill. At 2113 feet, or 644 metres in height, it is by no means lofty, but the summit offers a fine viewpoint with excellent vistas south over Glenmore and Rothiemurchus and north towards the high peaks of the Cairngorms. To the east, the reindeer paddocks are visible.

From the top of Silver Hill, descend northeast, aiming for the track that leads from Lochan Dubh a’Chada to a gate in the forest fence and continue down through the trees. The landscape is dominated by old Scots Pines, remnants of the great Caledonian Forest that once carpeted much of Scotland.

Glenmore Forest Park is one of the few remaining examples of this ancient woodland. Tranquil and atmospheric, it is a great place to wander.

As you head through the trees, keep an eye out to the left of the track for Utsi’s Hut.

Although now rather dilapidated, this forest cabin has been left much as it was when Mikel Utsi used it as a base during the reindeer calving season. Inside there is a table, chairs, a bunkbed and kitchen cutlery and crockery. It is a fascinating time capsule of a man’s life devoted to his animals.

Utsi embarked upon his reintroduction project after being struck by the similarities between his native Lapland and the Cairngorms. Although earlier projects to re-establish the creature in parts of the Scottish Highlands proved unsuccessful, he was undeterred.

More than 500 calves were born into the herd between 1953 and 1979, when Utsi died.

His wife Ethel Lindgren continued to manage the group until 1988 when it was taken over by Alan and Tilly Smith. In addition to reindeer on the Cairngorms, they have a herd living on Glenlivet Estate, around 30 miles away.

Aside from being a popular visitor attraction throughout the year, the reindeer are very much in demand during the festive season when animals travel the length and breadth of the country, pulling sleighs at venues ranging from Christmas festivals to shopping centres.

From Utsi’s Hut, the track loops down through the forest, following red way markers to the Heron’s Field car park, a little way south of Reindeer House. The final leg of the route involves a mile and a half of road walking up to the Sugar Bowl car park.

How fitting would it be if a reindeerhauled sleigh were to pull up and whisk weary walkers over this last section? One can but dream...

Information Distance: Five miles/8km Time: 3-4 hours Start/finish: Sugar Bowl car park, grid ref NH 985073 Map: OS Landranger 1:50,000 map 36 The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre Glenmore, Aviemore PH22 1QU Tel: +44 (0)1479 861 228 Web: www.reindeer-company.demon.co.uk Open daily, except Christmas Day and New Years Day and from the end of the New Year holiday until early February. Visits to the herd on the hillside are at 11am (and 2.30pm fromMay to September). Adults £9, concs £6.50, children £4.50 (children under six go free), family ticket £27. Visits to the hill are weather dependent during the winter Aviemore Tourist Information Centre Tel: +44 (0)1479 810 363 Web: www.visitaviemore.co.uk