“ Address: Glenmore / Aviemore / Inverness-shire PH22 1QU / Scotland „
Reindeer were native to Scotland and existed there until around 1000 years ago. Then climate change forced them north and humans finished the job of extinction. The country was then reindeer-less until 1952 when a Swedish reindeer herder visited the Cairngorms and asked "where are all the reindeer". Mikel Usti then brought some of his reindeer from Sweden; the herd has gone from strength to strength and there are now around 150 of these magnificent creatures roaming the Cairngorms.
Reindeer are incredible animals. Their cold weather adaptations are amazing. A reindeer can lie in snow for hours and, when it gets up, the snow underneath it will be still frozen due to the reindeer's insulation.
Reindeer can live at -30C; to help them survive extreme temperatures like this, they have a heat exchange system in their head (breathing in air at -30C could freeze the lungs). Air drawn from outside is heated by exchanging heat with the air being expelled, warming it up (and preventing body heat escaping with the breath).
Another adaptation is apparently simple; the reindeer have a tendon in their rear legs that rubs across bone creating a clicking noise. This enables the reindeer to follow the herd leader even in a blinding snowstorm. A deaf reindeer would wander off and soon be prey for wolves!
Reindeer are beautiful, gentle creatures, and the owners of the Cairngorm Reindeer herd allow visitors the privilege of getting close to these wonderful animals. Reindeer feeding sessions are held daily at 11:00 am (there's a further trip at 2:00 pm from May to September).
The visitor must buy tickets at Reindeer House (£9.00 adult, £4.50 children), and then wait in their car at the appointed time. The reindeer guide will then drive past and visitors' cars must follow him or her in a procession to a car park further up the mountain.
Once at the car park, a 30 minute walk across a river valley, then up onto the mountain ensues. This can be extremely wet and slippery, so good footwear is essential. This trip should only be attempted by reasonably fit people due to the steepness and length of the walk.
The reindeer are held in vast enclosures; they are almost 'running wild' through the Cairngorms with little in the way of fencing to hold them in, similar to the way they would have been 1000 years ago.
Once at the reindeer area, the fun starts! The guide calls the reindeer and puts food out for them. This is to get the initial excitement of being fed over with so that they don't inadvertently knock over any children in their rush for food. Here, visitors will get within a few feet of these big animals (but are soon to get even closer).
Whilst the reindeer are being fed, the guide gives a talk on the history of the reindeer and explains how superbly adapted to cold weather they are. The guide explains that reindeer cannot bite. They only have teeth in their lower jaw!
Once the food has been consumed, portions are shared out amongst the visitors; each person wanting to feed the animals is given an initial two handfuls. If you're going to feed them, it's worth noting that, due to the food containing molasses, your hands will get covered in a treacle like substance (and reindeer slobber!). Take along some hand wipes for cleaning up afterwards. Everyone is allowed to feed them, even small children.
The reindeer then come to be fed and will feed out of your hand. People can feed them or stroke them as they're eating. Their dense fur feels lovely and soft; at the neck your fingers can completely disappear, the fur is so thick. The feed is shared out amongst the visitors until it's all gone, so several different reindeer can be fed by each person.
Children will absolutely adore feeding the reindeer. I watched the proceedings during my tour and every single child, for the whole hour we were there, had expressions of joy and wonder on their faces; a lovely sight. Being so close to such beautiful big animals, with no fear from or of them, was amazing.
These animals invoke strong feelings in adults too. Our guide, who was a volunteer, told us that he visited 10 years ago and fell in love with them when a reindeer called 'Comet' put its head on his shoulder. When he asked his guide (slightly panicking at this stage) what he should do, the guide replied "put your arm around him and give him a big hug". Our guide has been returning from Shropshire, twice a year to work with the reindeer ever since. In the talk he gave, the love he has for these animals shone through. Comet is still alive and is still his favourite, however.
The feeding lasts about an hour, during which around 30 reindeer will be wandering through the crowd. They don't mind getting their photos taken, but apparently don't like mobile phones ringing (so keep them switched off)!
Our session was to be a bit special. Three days earlier, several calves had been born. These were being kept in an adjacent enclosure. Our guide had brought some food for the mothers to try to get the calves close to us.
We were lucky, the reindeer were enticed over, and we were treated to the sight of three day old reindeer calves bounding across the peat, following their mothers.
The calves were absolutely beautiful; dark brown unlike the white of the adults, and a curious mix of grace and ungainliness as they rushed about. We felt so lucky to be able to witness the calves at such an early age; our visit was timed just right.
As you can probably tell, the reindeer feeding was one of the highlights of our trip to the Highlands. Being able to touch these wonderful creatures, and have them trust taking food from the hand was very special. The kids were completely entranced and you could see that the memory of this event would stay with them for a very long time.
If you're visiting the Highlands, then I can highly recommend a visit to the Cairngorm Reindeer centre for one of the feeding sessions. Like the children, you'll take away a special memory from your trip.
Come see Britain's only Reindeer herd.