The Cairngorm Reindeer: Great Britain's Only Free-Ranging Reindeer Herd
Lapland. Iceland. The North Pole. Think of reindeer, and these are among the few places that probably spring to mind. The UK, specifically the highlands of Scotland, has not normally been reindeer stomping ground—at least, not in the last thousand or so years.
That changed in 1952 when Swedish reindeer herder Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr. Ethel Lindgren brought seven Swedish mountain reindeer to Scotland to see if the animals could thrive here now as they once did several centuries ago before being hunted to extinction. They did, and the herd, now numbering more than 150, roams over 10,000 acres in the Cairngorms National Park. The best part: Travelers willing to take a short hike can get some face time with these wild-but-docile animals on a daily guided Reindeer Walk offered by the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre.
The experience starts with a meeting inside the Centre, where staff ensures you are properly outfitted for the weather and trail conditions (sturdy boots are required) and that you haven’t been in contact with other animals that could infect the reindeer. While you wait to depart for the trail, you can poke around the Centre’s paddocks, where you’ll find a couple of resident reindeer and dozens of informative signs explaining all about the reindeer—what they eat, how they communicate, and how they’ve come to flourish in the area.
Then the group, each in their own car, follows the guide a few miles down the road to the trailhead. The distance of the walk from the trailhead to the reindeer varies depending on where the reindeer are spending their time—they are free-ranging, after all—but generally is no more than about 40 minutes on dirt paths with some gentle inclines.
Eventually, you’ll enter the reindeer habitat, and soon you’ll hear a faint clicking sound. No, it’s not the sound of the reindeers’ hooves on the wooden boardwalks that help protect the paths in some spots (though the reindeer do hop up on the boardwalks sometimes). Instead, it’s the distinct clicking sound made when reindeer walk and their tendons snap over their bones. Don’t worry; it’s not painful. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that helps the reindeer use sound to stay together as a herd, particularly in whiteout conditions.
By the time the guide stops where he wants to do the feeding, you’ll be surrounded by dozens of reindeer, eager to indulge in the food brought for them. First, the guide explains the proper way to feed the reindeer safely: Hold your palms flat, pull your hands away once the food is gone, don’t pet the reindeer or make them feel cornered, and watch out for the antlers! Then he distributes some feed—a mix of things like heather, lichens, and birch—and you’re free to feed them.
Reindeer don’t have the best table manners; there will be some degree of slobber if you feed them by hand. But you’ll also get the amazing experience of feeling their impossibly soft snouts as they snuffle up the food, plus the chance to look into their big, soulful black eyes and see their massive, velvet-covered antlers up close.
The feeding can go quickly, but the herd doesn’t disperse as soon as the food is gone, and typically you’ll get about 40-60 minutes to watch the animals before making the short hike back to the parking area. In all, the experience usually lasts about 1.5 to 2 hours.
- Getting there: The nearest airport is Inverness (INV), about 45 miles from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. The small town of Aviemore is about 8 miles away. You will need your own transportation to do the walk, as once you check in at the Reindeer Centre, it’s a few miles to the trailhead to the reindeer herd, and the center does not provide transportation.
- Average Going price for flights to the UK: $437 RT (regular price $850 RT)
How to do it
- Best time to go: The reindeer walk is held daily, weather permitting. However, the walk to and from the herd can be challenging from February to April due to mud, ice, and snow. Children under four are not allowed during these months. The best time for pleasant weather is from May to October.
- Cost: The reindeer walk costs £20 for adults, £17.50 for students and seniors, and £15 for kids 4-18. Age 3 and under are free.
- Tips and considerations: Pre-booking is highly encouraged as the walk does sell out. The walk is relatively easy, but you’ll need to be able to walk for 40 minutes over uneven terrain (the path is not wheelchair accessible). The center is particular about your shoes; if they deem your footwear improper for the trip, you may be denied access (they list requirements here).
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Published October 10, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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