Looking out for reindeer is usually reserved for children on Christmas Eve.
But now 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.
The study forms part of a new research programme designed to inform future sustainable reindeer tourism in the Cairngorms National Park.
Inverness College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, is leading on the Cairngorms Reindeer Research Programme, a partnership with the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Enterprise Scotland.
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 ran 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.
It has been made possible through funding contributions of the partners, including an Innovation Voucher award from Interface, which will contribute to enhancing reindeer management and the experience of people visiting the herd.
The project will feature on Landward (BBC Scotland) and Countryfile (BBC1) today and Sunday respectively.