If you ask me what my favourite wildlife adventure has been, I’d say that visiting a reindeer herd in Scotland was my best experience. Hands-down.
As a vegetarian, I’m selective about tourism activities that involve animals. As much as I would love to check out all the captivating foreign species in a zoo, I try to avoid places where they’re kept in captivity as it’s hard to know how well they’ve been treated.
But that doesn’t mean I never get to see animals on my trips – I totally adore animal experiences! I just prefer to see them in the wild, or in situations where they’re kept for reasons other than tourism (like rehabilitation or conservation). Place me in a wildlife sanctuary and I will gladly stare at a koala for hours.
While planning my recent road trip through Scotland, I learned about a guided nature walk in Cairngorms National Park where visitors can actually meet a free-roaming reindeer herd. My excitement went through the roof! Having never seen a reindeer, I was super keen to get up close to one so I immediately added the experience to my itinerary.
I know what you’re thinking. Reindeer? In Scotland?? These animals are better known for inhabiting the arctic areas of Northern Europe. Before my recent trip to the UK, I had no clue that they were there. In fact, I don’t think many travellers heading to the country are aware of their existence.
Surprisingly, reindeer were once native to Scotland and were common in the alpine areas of the highlands. Unfortunately, the species was hunted to extinction around 800 years ago. In 1952, they were reintroduced by a Swedish traveller who was desperate to see these large mammals return to the land they once roamed.
While the reindeer in Scotland aren’t exactly wild, their environment is pretty damn close. Some members of the herd are free-roaming which means they can wander around the hills as they please, and they frequently surprise tourists by showing up in car parks and campsites. Others are kept in huge enclosed fields that cover thousands of acres where they can graze and raise their young. These are the ones that you can visit and interact with.
When the time finally came around for my reindeer adventure, I was beyond excited. On the drive between Inverness and Edinburgh, Rob and I pulled off the highway towards Cairngorms National Park and made our way to the reindeer centre at Glenmore. We purchased tickets for the daily hill trip, then grabbed lunch in the visitor centre before driving to the meeting point up the road.
The guided walk began with a short hike through a scenic valley, with a few stops along the way to learn about our location and the history of the herd. A few sets of antlers appeared on the hillside as we approached the fields. I felt another wave of excitement as the animals acknowledged our arrival by moving towards our group.
Knowing a feed was coming, the reindeer tagged along as we made our way through the grassy plain. I was overjoyed to have one walk alongside me; it was so close that I could hear the clicking of its feet as we walked. By the time we stopped, there were 20 or more of them crowded around our small group in anticipation.
We were each provided a handful of reindeer feed. Revealing the lichen-based treat in my hands, the nearest animal came over and helped itself to a few mouthfuls. Feeling the tickle of its furry nose in my palms was a curious feeling. I’d expected it to be a little rough, but I was amazed that this large animal, which looked slightly intimidating with its massive headwear, could be so gentle.
My hands were emptied of food, then I was free to stroke the reindeer’s back as it sniffed around for any leftovers that had fallen to the ground. I was amused to see that it was quite unperturbed by my company. Knowing that this would make a great photo op, I knelt down on the muddy ground nearby to capture the perfect reindeer selfie.
Making friends with a reindeer was a truly special experience. Having grown up in sunny Australia, where most of us spend our lives around warm shorelines and sandy beaches, these arctic animals seemed totally foreign to me. I never suspected that I would have the opportunity to get up close to a whole herd of them.
If you’re planning a trip to Scotland sometime soon, I would definitely recommend a trip up to Cairngorms National Park to meet the reindeer. They fit so perfectly into the landscape – it’s almost as if they never left.
Here are all the deets if you’d like to have this reindeer experience for yourself:
- When to go: The guided walks (which they call ‘hill trips’) are run daily from Cairngorm Reindeer Centre at 11:00 AM between February and December. From May to September, there is another daily hill trip at 2:30 PM, and there is an extra trip at 3:30 PM on weekdays in July and August.
- Price: Tickets are £15 per adult and £9 per child. It’s best to arrive an hour early to guarantee a spot on the trip as tickets are limited.
- What to wear: The walk can be muddy (plus there is reindeer poop everywhere!) so hiking boots or gumboots are essential. If you don’t have any, a pair of wellies can be rented from the reindeer centre. It can also get windy up on the hill, so rug up – I took a beanie, scarf, and thick jacket even in September.