Can I have a reindeer for Christmas?

I know why Santa Claus was invented.  It's not because of the presents.  It's because reindeer make the darkest, most miserable winter day light up and they make you smile.

Having picked up a leaflet in a Grantown-on-Spey hotel that said "Come and Feed the Reindeer", I was embarrassed to admit that I DESPERATELY wanted to FEED A REINDEER!  But I just had to.  So at 11 am on a freezing day in the Glenmore Forest Reindeer Centre, there we were in the reindeer shop, looking at reindeer calendars, reindeer skin rugs, reindeer leather shoes (courtesy of a Finnish partner organisation), reindeer motif knitted hats, reindeer postcards and reindeer fridge magnets, and being talked to by a lady who turned out, obviously, to know several people on Rum.  She advised us to go and look at the paddocks out the back first, where they bring the reindeer down in shifts to get them used to people, check the reindeers' health and so on.  We would then follow the staff truck up into the mountains to do the actual feeding.

Very excited we wandered through the excellent exhibition all about reindeer and then out to the paddocks where there were actual real reindeer to be seen!  The older ones were phlegmatically eating their way through a car tyre of food.  The little ones were galloping about trying to get used to the change in surface between their "stable" and the grassy paddocks.  There were also several ducks and pheasants, trying to steal the reindeers' food while they weren't looking - no chance.  A fight broke out between the ducks, the pheasant tried to seize its opportunity and the largest reindeer aimed a careful kick at it...

We then went back to wait for the staff to take us up to the mountain, and as we waited a large van drove up and started to unload more reindeer from the back.  They were a mixture of large and fairly small, male and female.  Both sexes grow antlers - unlike any other type of deer - and they are hard to tell apart.  They are gentle and happily let themselves be "taken for a walk" with halters or even just by nudging them along.  In the wild this is possibly different...

After a bit of waiting around, finally the staff car got going and us reindeer enthusiasts followed slowly up to the "Sugar Bowl", one of the mountains, where we all got out and gathered around our lovely hostess Sally.  Obviously a complete reindeer fan, she had just started working there a month before but seemed to know all the reindeer names and had no trouble telling us what we should and shouldn't do.
Dos and Don'ts for reindeer:
- Don't grab them by the antlers. They will think you are challenging them to a fight.
- Don't touch their faces.  They don't like it.
- Do stroke them from the shoulders down, and don't worry - if you stand behind them it's not dangerous as unlike horses, they can't kick backwards.
- But they can kick forwards...
- If their antlers are still "green" i.e. still living and covered in "velvet" (a living tissue like a furry skin that eventually falls off when the antlers turn into pure bone), they can be hurt quite badly, so never touch the antlers when they are in this condition.

Having been told what to do, we were then asked to volunteer for carrying the sacks of food up the mountain. Wanting to make my Santa impression as realistic as possible, in case I could get a reindeer to follow me home, I manfully stepped forward and then spent twenty minutes wishing I was a bit stronger in the arms...the path was excellent, but definitely uphill, and got colder and colder as we approached the peaks...
Climb every mountain, ford every stream...with a big sack of reindeer food..
I AM Julie Andrews!
After a while, we got to the top where it was very bleak. There was a gate to a huge enclosure where a number of reindeer sat about in the snowy ground.  "Don't worry about them - they're our Christmas reindeer."  Christmas reindeer are the ones that get sent out to special Christmas events. It was hard to tell if they were particularly publicity-seeking, but they did have especially nice antlers with lots of "tines" (points). We crossed the long boardwalk, which was now getting wet and dark from the sleet that was falling.  Eventually we came to an even bigger enclosure, where most the reindeer were kept while penned - they are also allowed to roam on around 6,000 acres of land.  And we learnt amazing facts about reindeer:

Reindeer can survive in temperatures of up to -70 degrees Celsius.  They are comfortable at up to around -35 degrees.
Their fur is incredibly dense and does not transmit heat and so they can lie on their stomachs in the snow without losing their body heat.
Males are dominant for the majority of the year, but in the winter period when they are carrying young, the females become dominant in the herd and have priority when it comes to food.
For the same reason it's conjectured both females and males grow antlers, so that the females are equally equipped to the males when it comes to foraging.
Male reindeer, unlike many other stags, are gentle and fairly submissive creatures. They may "play-fight" with their antlers but unlike for example red deer stags, are highly unlikely to enter into a real fight or kill each other.
Reindeer have practically no teeth - they don't need to bite.
Most amazing fact of all (for me): Reindeer have a special bone in their hooves that emits a clicking sound when they walk. This means that in an Arctic blizzard where visibility is poor or non-existent, they can hear each other without having to call out, which means that they can conserve energy and the herd can stay together safely.

Amazing facts about humans:
Many humans cannot resist the opportunity of feeding a reindeer with their bare hands.

Bumble the reindeer comes back for a fifth feed

We had to wait a while before we could feed them, as first they have to have their "serious" feed, which Sally took round the field while they followed her.  But they all knew what was going on and several of them came up to try to steal the sacks before they were allowed.  As soon as we had our hands full of feed, they were there, almost inhaling it.  Their mouths were very gentle and warm and they nuzzled us before passing on to the next handful of food.  Some of them were more curious than others.  They all had names - each year has a "theme" and so there were "pop stars" (Lulu and Blondie were singled out as being some of the few pure white reindeer born to the herd), cheeses (Blue, Ricotta...) and I'm not sure what theme Bumble belonged to, but he was definitely very naughty.

The snow was coming in so after a while stroking their deep fur, which was very cold (as it doesn't transmit heat) and reaching through it to the warm skin below, we decided to go back down.  We hoped that maybe we'd come across some roaming free across the mountains - they don't all stay in the enclosure all the time.  But so far, we haven't encountered any.

The herd was introduced by a Swedish man who visited the Cairngorms in 1947 and was amazed that no reindeer lived there, as it was ideal habitat for them.  Deciding to give the experiment a try he brought over a breeding pair  in 1952 along with some other reindeer and apparently all of them settled in right away.  We examined the vegetation, the scrub and the mountains...surely they could also do well on Rum?  A thought for the next RCA meeting perhaps...

Find out more about the reindeer at

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