Realm of the reindeer

Discover the world’s winter wonderlands where real-life Rudolphs roam free, and find out why caribou are definitely not just for Christmas

Hang out with the herd in the Highlands

Scotland is famous for highland cattle, ground-dwelling birds like the capercaillie and perhaps even the super-rare Scottish wildcat. However, it comes as a surprise to many that the Highlands also has its own free-ranging reindeer.

Although once native to the British Isles, reindeer disappeared some 800 years ago. But in 1952, a Laplander by the name of Mikel Utsi
and his American wife Dr Ethel Lindgren decided to reintroduce the species, noting the many similarities between Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains and their Lapland home. This ambitious venture proved a resounding success, with what started as seven deer imported from Sweden growing to what is today a population of around 150.

The reindeer are largely left to their own devices, but they remain semi-tame as they’re closely monitored by the Cairngorm Reindeer organisation, which keeps tabs on their health and wellbeing. Their herders also conduct daily tours throughout the year (excluding early January to early February), guiding visitors into the hills so they can spend some time as part of the Highlands herd.


Join an epic migration

Twice a year, caribou in Alaska and Canada embark on what is the longest terrestrial migration undertaken by a mammal, with some covering as much as 4,828 kilometres (3,000 miles) — that’s almost the distance between London and New York!

In spring they venture northwards towards the lush pasture left by the receding snow, while in autumn they head southwards to escape the Arctic winter. The caribou are virtually always on the move during their trek, but they will be in less of a rush during late August and September as they head south, so this is generally considered the best time to enjoy this natural spectacle. What’s more, the stunning winter foliage provides the perfect backdrop for photos in this vast stretch of tundra known as ‘the Barrens’.

Different tours offer various ways of viewing the caribou, including by foot and by boat, exploring the area’s prolific lakes and islands and offering the chance to see the deer swimming. If organising a trip like that seems a daunting prospect, Natural World Safaris operate a seven day trip in Arctic Canada following the migration.

The remote wilderness the caribou are traversing is also home to grizzlies, black bears, moose and wolves, among many other species, so there are lots of other wildlife-spotting opportunities while you’re here. Plus, if luck is on your side, there’s also the possibility of seeing the northern lights.


Spot mini reindeer in Svalbard

Polar bears are the poster stars used to entice people to this group of Norwegian islands well above the Arctic Circle. But Svalbard isn’t just about the world’s largest bear — it’s also home to the world’s smallest reindeer.

Svalbard reindeer weigh less than half the average weight of their caribou cousins around the globe. With a population some 10,000 strong and generally being inquisitive of humans, they are fairly easy to spot. One of the best places to see them is Nordenskiöld Land National Park on Spitsbergen, the archipelago’s biggest island.


Volunteer on a reindeer farm

For a totally different experience and to really get away from it all for a few weeks, why not consider pitching in on a reindeer ranch or station. Websites like workaway. info offer year-round opportunities to sign up for short-term work placements, offering you a chance to see the close bond that has developed between semi-domesticated reindeer and their human herders.

Jobs might include anything from maintenance, like fixing fences and painting, chopping down trees and other garden work, to herding and tagging the reindeer, as well as general day-to-day care of the animals. It’s important to note that, like any livestock farm, some reindeer are killed for meat at these stations, so you should be prepared for this. If you’d feel uncomfortable about this, it’s still worth talking to the farm owners, as they may be able to advise a time to visit when this doesn’t happen.

All accommodation and food will be provided in exchange for your labour. On your days off you’ll have the opportunity to go hiking, fishing and wildlife watching in wilderness that very few tourists will ever get the chance to see. Take a look at Workaway if you’re interested – there are thousands of working holiday hosts on their site, including reindeer farms.


Words by Adam Millward


Find even more ways to get close to caribou with Issue 54 of World of Animals, available now in shops and online