Arctic reindeer are at risk due to the climate crisis, but in the Scottish Highlands, the UK’s only free-range herd is thriving. We spoke with a young shepherd about life among these majestic animals.
On a snowy winter morning, 23-year-old Lotti Papastavrou Brooks is usually somewhere in the Cairngorm Mountains looking for reindeer. She will probably have a 15kg sack of food with her, filled with hay, garlic, barley sugar beets, and dark grain, as she ventures uphill through the snow in search of the majestic horned animals. It could be an hour or so before you find them wandering somewhere on the mountainside, but trust that the prospect of breakfast will draw them in when you do.
Brooks doesn’t have a typical graduate job. She is one of the only free reindeer herders in the UK, in the Cairngorm Reindeer Center, near Aviemore in the Highlands of Scotland.
Reindeer are believed to be native to Scotland but became extinct around 800 years ago due to overhunting. In 1952, the site in the Cairngorms became the first place in the UK where the animals were reintroduced, after the Swedish shepherd Mikel Utsi visited with his wife and thought the area would make a good home for them. Since then, the herd has grown from eight to 150 and is cared for by a team of 10 full-time pastors.
Brooks, who is originally from Bristol, first volunteered at the center during school holidays at age 14 and began working full-time with the animals about a year ago. “I had visited her as a child and knew the family that runs the reindeer center quite well,” she explains. “I had always loved the reindeer and the area, and was eager to get more involved.”
Work changes with the seasons. In winter, he leaves early in the morning, walks into the stormy mountains to find the herd. “It’s not unusual for there to be -15 degrees and pretty deep snow,” he says. It may take a while; reindeer are free to roam about 10,000 acres.
Once the animals have been found, he moves them closer to the center so they can go on tours later in the day. “They’re very greedy, so they’ll follow us every time we have a bag of food,” laughs Brooks.
Reindeer were introduced to the Cairngorms in 1952. Image: Getty
The center functions as an attraction for visitors: none of the animals are killed for meat, slaughtered or sold. People from all over the world come to see reindeer throughout the year, including enthusiasts from Sweden or Norway, as well as people who have never seen deer before. Animals are kind and kind to everyone, Brooks says. “You can easily walk among them, even though they have large antlers on their heads. You’d be surprised how relaxing it is. “
Spring is calving season, so herders take pregnant females to a 1,200-acre hilltop enclosure to watch over them. Each year Brooks and his colleagues name the newborn reindeer with a new theme. Parmesan, camembert, and mozzarella were born one year, while in 2019, calves were named after European cities. The herd now includes Athens, Oslo, Florence, and Bordeaux.
The team of shepherds can find out who’s who right away, Brooks says. All animals have very different faces, some have white noses, others are light or dark brown, and have different personalities. “Some love being around people, others are more shy,” Brooks observes. “You can even see that the features run along familiar lines.”
Reindeer are believed to be native to Scotland, but became extinct around 800 years ago. Image: Natalie Swiader
Brooks admits that he has some favorites. “Olympic [who was born in 2012, the year of the London Olympics] he loves to be around people. I also like Gloriana a lot, she is quite shy but has gained confidence over the years. Berlin is also a charming and docile boy. “
Although reindeer are native to the UK, their natural habitat is now quite small. As the last sub-arctic ecosystem in the UK, the Cairngorms is the only place in the country where reindeer can roam freely. To avoid overgrazing the area, herders keep herd size at around 150 by controlling how many cows can run with bulls during the breeding season, which falls in the fall.
This time of year, the run-up to Christmas, is very busy for both animals and staff. The reindeer go on tour, visit the children and pull Santa Claus in his sleigh. However, each animal only works a couple of weeks before returning home to the mountains.
“ Reindeer are greedy, so they will follow us whenever we have a bag of food, ” says herder Lottie Brooks.
Meanwhile, Brooks is responsible for writing letters to followers who have adopted reindeer. “We have some incredibly enthusiastic adopters who adopt up to eight reindeer and they know almost everything there is to know about them,” he says with a smile.
Despite the love that many have for reindeer, the climate crisis puts them in danger. The wild reindeer population in the Arctic has more than halved in the past two decades, to about 2.1 million animals.
Last year, some 200 reindeer, an unusually high number, were found starving in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute, which suggested the climate crisis was to blame. The fact that this Scottish herd is thriving can bring a degree of hope to lovers of these majestic animals.
You can easily walk between them; you will be surprised how relaxing it is
Despite the job satisfaction, being a reindeer herder can be hard work, with early starts, lots of hiking, and the need to haul heavy sacks of food up the mountain. It is also a lifestyle choice. Brooks lives with four other pastors.
“From my bedroom window I can see many mountains. There are beautiful lakes too, so we are lucky enough to be able to swim, run, bike, climb, bike, and ski all from the door. I’ve seen reindeer walk the ski slopes before. “
Living together means that the team must get along. “We all live in community, taking turns cooking. It’s a lot of fun. “Throughout the summer, they are usually joined by a different volunteer each week.
Despite the challenging work and remote location, volunteers are generally very interested and hard-working, Brooks reports. And for herself, she has no plans to quit for an office job anytime soon.
Main image: A reindeer herder in the Cairngorm Mountains. Getty