Despite what Santa may have led you to believe, you don’t have to head to the North Pole or wait until Christmas to spot reindeer. An entire herd of these charismatic antlered beasts roams within Scotland.
In the Cairngorm Mountains, you’ll find the United Kingdom’s only herd of free-range reindeer. Currently, about 150 of the hooved creatures call the rugged mountains home. They aren’t wild by any means—quite a few of them are put to work making public appearances or pulling sleighs during the holiday season—but they are allowed to wander as they wish within a 10,000-acre chunk of land.
Reindeer once lived in the U.K., but the last wild ones disappeared about 800 years ago. In 1952, a Lappish man from northern Sweden named Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr. Ethel John Lindgren shipped a small group of reindeer over from Sweden to reintroduce the animals to the country. They chose to establish the herd in the Cairngorms, as the area’s unusual subarctic climate made it the only suitable place in the U.K.
Their ecological experiment was a success. The reindeer have thrived in the often windy, dismal climate. They spend their days strolling around the hillsides, pausing to munch on a seemingly endless natural buffet of grass, birch leaves, and lichen (their feed is supplemented with grain, too).
Because the reindeer are allowed to cover so much ground, it can actually be a bit hard to track them down at times. But pop in for a visit at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, and you’ll be able to meet a handful of friendly reindeer hanging out in one of the paddocks, waiting to greet curious visitors. The center also houses a tiny shop stuffed with a trove of reindeer-related trinkets.