Reindeer are not just for Christmas, it seems. The Cairngorm Reindeer herd is Britain’s only free-ranging reindeer herd, and they are now under some intense scrutiny, in order to learn more about their habits, and the effect they are having on their environment.

Researchers at the University of the Highlands and Islands are using cutting-edge GPS camera collars to find out more about the whereabouts and behaviour of the reindeer in the Cairngorms.

Back in 1952, seven reindeer were imported from Sweden by Mikel Utsi and his wife, and subsequently more reindeer have been imported to ensure genetic diversity. Numbers, at the moment, stand at around 150 animals, and this number is maintained through controlled breeding.

The study forms part of a new research programme designed to inform future sustainable reindeer tourism in the Cairngorms National Park.

The research programme is investigating the ecological role reindeer play in the Cairngorms, focussing on their movements, behaviour and diet, as well as investigating what attitudes and values people hold about the reindeer.

Dr Louise de Raad, Inverness College UHI research fellow and principal investigator on the programme, said: “The Cairngorms National Park contains some of the finest forests and mountain habitats in Britain and landowners are seeking to maximise the restoration and expansion of these areas.

“We know the reindeer are a key visitor attraction, but despite being present for more than 60 years we know very little about their impact on the area.

“Studying their feeding and ranging behaviour will be a first step towards understanding their impact and this will help us make recommendations to ensure that the herd is managed sustainably and continues to make a positive contribution to the area.”

The first phase of the research programme is now complete. GPS collars equipped with cameras and accelerometer technology have been tested on two reindeer, providing video footage of the animals and data on their movements and behaviour. Meanwhile, researchers at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh have been using genetic analyses of faecal samples to identify food species and gain a better understanding of their diet.

This work has run alongside a socio-cultural study in collaboration with Wageningen University, Netherlands, which has seen more than 400 visitors and local residents surveyed to gain insight into how the reindeer are socially embedded in the Cairngorm landscape.

The next phase is planned to start in April and will see the tracking and dietary study extended to include more reindeer and a larger area of the Cairngorms National Park. It will also take place over a longer period of time, providing a year-round insight into reindeer behaviour.

The research programme will lead to recommendations to enable sustainable reindeer management and the continued protection of designated areas in the Cairngorms National Park.