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Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Walk Amongst the Reindeer of the Cairngorms

Over the last few days I have been delivering a course on the ecology of British deer at the Field Studies Council's Kindrogan Field Centre . The centre lies close enough to the Cairngorms that we were able to visit the small population of reindeer there, the only reindeer to roam wild in the British Isles.

Reindeer were once native to the British Isles and while most agree that they became extinct here around 6-8000 years ago there are some records to suggest that they survived in Scotland much longer than that. There are some references to reindeer being hunted in Scotland in the Orkneyinga saga which documents some of the history of the Orkney Islands from their capture by the Norwegian king up to about 1200. In those texts it talks of reindeer and red deer being hunted in Scotland. This potentially means there were still reindeer in the British Isles up until the 1200's. Even if there were though it was only a few and the once massive population that would have migrated across prehistoric dogger land through modern day Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire before eventually making their way to the Peak District were long gone along with the Irish Elk, cave lion, woolly rhinoceros and other megafauna. Unlike the others though, Reindeer are the subject of one of the earliest success stories for re-wildling.

reindeer tracks
Despite their local extinction in the British Isles reindeer were still globally abundant and present throughout Northern Europe, Russia and North America. Although in Canada and the United States they are known as caribou rather than reindeer, they are exactly the same species: Rangifer tarandus.

In 1947 Mikel Utsi a native of Swedish Lapland, and his wife Ethel Lindgren-Utsi (a Cambridge trained anthropologist of Swedish descent), were visiting Aviemore and the Cairngorms and noticed that the habitats they saw resembled the reindeer grazing pastures of Northern Sweden. Utsi commented that the species he found, even down to the lichens, were similar. It was with this as his motivation that he brought seven of his reindeer from Sweden to Scotland on the 12th of April 1952 on the SS Sarek (Sarek is one of Sweden’s national parks). The two bulls and five cows were interned at Edinburgh Zoo in quarantine for twenty eight days before being allowed to venture further to their new home.

Over the next few years a further eighteen animals were shipped over from Sweden and a herd was established that has since grown to around one hundred and fifty individuals. Initially their grazing area was limited to allow the Forestry Commission to determine whether or not their grazing would affect conifer growth but they were gradually allowed more and more free range access and now graze freely over six thousand acres.

Tracking reindeer across the snow

While reindeer are not normally listed as one of the ‘wild’ deer species of the British Isles, the herd still requires lots of management and are technically someone’s property, they have not just been released and are still managed by their owners. It is clear though that the habitat they have become established in would support them should management cease. With all the talk of rewilding nowadays it’s nice to look back and see that there is a history of re-wilding success in the British Isles. 

You can find more details of the Cairngorm reindeer herd HERE

A Chinese water deer skull and tusks donated to the Cairngorm reindeer centre to complete their collection of UK deer 
My time in the Cairngorms wasn't just about reindeer though, I was able to see a lot of wonderful scenery, wildlife and snow;

Looking up towards cairngorm, although you can't see the summit from here. 

A stone chat

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