Once-extinct sea eagles and beavers have both been returned to the Scottish countryside in recent years. However, the reintroduction of previously native species is nothing new. The mountains of the Cairngorms bear witness to this for they have been home to Britain’s only free-ranging reindeer herd for over 50 years.
Reindeer once roamed the nation’s mountains and glens. However, historical evidence suggests they died out 8000 years ago, a victim of climate change and over-hunting. The animal was highly prized both for its meat and hide while antlers were fashioned into rudimentary tools and utensils and were even said to boast aphrodisiac qualities.
Over the centuries wealthy landowners have attempted to bring reindeer back to Scotland. The Earl of Fife shipped them on to his estate, but all died while, in the 1790s, the Duke of Atholl tried to establish a herd in Perthshire with 14 animals imported from Russia. Only three survived the voyage and they died within two years of arrival. More recently, in 1916, a farmer on Orkney imported two animals from Russia but neither survived their first winter on the island.
It was not until the 1950s that a more robust reintroduction scheme was conceived and the early success of the project was largely due to the commitment and enthusiasm of one man, Swedish reindeer herder Mikel Utsi. During a tour of the Scottish Highlands in the 1940s, he spotted the potential the Cairngorms held.
He wrote: ‘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. Travel in the Highlands showed that many species of ground, rock and tree lichens, which are elsewhere the chief food of reindeer, were plentiful and of little use to other animals.’
With his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren he founded the Reindeer Company and in 1952 brought a small consignment of Swedish mountain reindeer to Scotland. After spending four weeks in quarantine, the animals were released into a 300-acre enclosure on the Rothiemurchus Estate in June of that year. Utsi wanted to demonstrate, through his experiment, that they could live and breed in their new environment.
Imported forest reindeer from Norway were added to the herd and, over the years, animals were brought in from zoos and safari parks in Britain to swell the breeding stock.
In 1953, the Forestry Commission let the deer into its plantations and, in time, the herd was allowed to roam free over a much larger area of the Glenmore Forest Park, including the summits of Cairn Gorm and Cairn Lochain.
Such was the success of Utsi’s initial research that in 1956 the Department of Agriculture for Scotland recognised that the project had grown beyond the experimental stage. In 1971, the northern Cairngorm slopes were acquired by Highlands & Islands Development Board and leased to the Reindeer Company.
The project was not without its setbacks. In 1953, insects plagued the herd spreading infections that killed some of the animals and, over the years, deer have fallen victim to out of control dogs. Despite these problems, however, it has been very successful. But Utsi’s dream of returning reindeer to Scotland was not just an exercise in animal conservation; it also brought the herder and his family sustainable income. Between 1953 and 1979 – when Utsi died – over 500 reindeer were born in Scotland and by the mid-70s the permanent population stood at 100. Some animals were sold to parks while others were slaughtered and the meat, hide and antlers traded.
Utsi spent much of his time in the hills tending to his flock and he constructed a simple wooden cabin within Rothiemurchus Forest where he could camp out close to his animals. It remains to this day, hidden in the trees below Silver Hill, one of the reindeers’ favourite haunts.
‘One man can look after a large herd alone for much of the year if there is no outside interference,’ he wrote. ‘In Lapland, dogs always help with the herding, but at Glenmore, the reindeer are controlled by a voice they recognise or by tit-bits of special food they have learned to like.’
When Utsi died his wife continued to tend the reindeer until her death in 1988 at which point the herd was taken over by Alan and Tilly Smith. In addition to reindeer on the Cairngorms, they also have a herd living on Glenlivet Estate, around 30 miles away.
The reindeer have developed into a popular local tourist attraction and, from a base in Glenmore, visitors can join tours of the upland paddocks. Originally established as a calving ground, deer now occupy these large fenced enclosures throughout the year and guests are guaranteed a friendly welcome from the timid beasts. Visits normally coincide with feeding time and it does not take long for the curious creatures to wander over.
It is hardly surprising they are so tame. They have a long association with man 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 tour is a great way to get to know the animals. 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 new calves are named according to a theme for the particular year.
Aside from being a popular attraction within the Cairngorms, the reindeer are very much in demand during the festive season when animals travel the length and breadth of the country, pulling sleighs at seasonal festivals. So if you spot a reindeer with a sledge this Christmas, chances are it is not Rudolph but a descendent of Mikel Utsi original herd.