“Walker attacked by reindeer” sounds like the storyline of a Christmas comedy cartoon, but it wasn’t at all funny for Pat Cook when it happened for real this weekend.
An experienced hillwalker from Renfrew, Cook was staying at Karn House, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club hut in Aviemore. On Sunday she went off alone to the Cromdale hills east of Grantown on Spey, and reached the summit of Carn a’Ghille Chearr shortly before midday. Events then took a dramatic turn.
“I spotted a light-coloured deer in the distance,” she said, “but didn’t think anything more of it. They usually disappear before you get close. The deer was way over to my right eating heather, but when I turned round to head back, it was a lot closer, which surprised me somewhat.
“It suddenly rushed at me. One of my walking poles and my wee camera went up in the air and I landed on my back, still holding my right-hand pole. The reindeer kept trying to stick its antlers into me and I was kicking out at it and shouting. I managed to brace my feet on its antlers, bashing it over the head with my walking pole.”
Cook was alone, high on a 700-metre hill, and the animal wasn’t showing any sign of finding something better to do. “I couldn’t believe what was happening, and was running out of strength,” she said. “I was shouting for help but there was no one there. I tried to get up with my back to the reindeer, but it got an antler under the strap of my rucksack and pulled me over backwards. It was behind me and its antlers were sticking forward either side of me. I grabbed them to try and avoid getting stabbed and it started to bump me forward along the ground.
“Eventually, I fell off and landed in a heap. I was so knackered I just stayed still where I was. I could see my pole and camera a few feet away and decided to crawl towards them. As soon as I moved, it was back jabbing me with its antlers. I made it to the poles and got to my feet, a bit shaky.”
She started to walk away. “I tried to hurry to get out of its range of vision, but it picked up speed, too. I felt the panic rise in me.”
When the animal attacked again, Cook curled up. “If I didn’t move and didn’t shout, it didn’t touch me – but I knew I couldn’t lie there in the snow all day. If I tried to move my head, it poked me.”
Eventually the reindeer moved away to eat and Cook made another attempt to escape. “It fell behind in the mist and I began to think it had lost interest when suddenly I was bowled over again. I curled up in a ball and lay still, so it didn’t prod for long. It was sitting a few feet away, with its back to me but with head turned so it could see me. It almost seemed contented.
“My mind was racing. I figured I needed to head west and drop off the ridge in the hope of finding a fence to put between me and it. I also guessed it might smell the food in my sack, but the last thing I wanted to do was take the sack off as it was protecting my back. I got slowly to my feet again and walked off across the heather. My left thigh muscle went into spasm, so I was limping. When the left one recovered, the right one started. I quickly undid my sack, grabbed my food bag and got the sack strapped back on tight. The movement attracted it and it closed the distance rapidly. I flung an apple, but it ignored it.”
The same thing kept happening: the reindeer would show signs of losing interest, Cook would walk away, whereupon it would attack again. She could see a fence some way down the hill, and headed towards that – with the creature still in pursuit. “I was getting to know its habits by then, and the next time it rushed me, I went over the fence. Both calf muscles seized with the effort and I ended up on my back yelling in pain – but at least the reindeer was now the other side of the fence. And I still had four cereal bars as bargaining chips.”
The worst was now over, although the animal continued to accompany her. “There were a couple of places where the fence was rickety and I thought the reindeer might come across. If it had come through the second gap, I’d have been dead meat because I was walking on slippery heather stems above a 20-foot drop down to a burn, while the reindeer was way above.”
Eventually, Cook reached another fence, barbed wire this time. It was awkward to cross, and the wire ripped her trousers and jacket.
Only a couple of hundred metres from the road, she was finally safe. Since encountering the animal, she had walked 4km and descended 400 metres. “It was over two-and-a-half hours since it had first attacked me,” Cook said.
She went to see the police in Aviemore, “because I thought it was pretty serious and because I’d been blasting my whistle at times and didn’t want a callout”. She was told that reindeer are wild animals and there was nothing to be done. “I didn’t argue, but the reindeer hadn’t swum here on its own from Norway. The policewoman offered to drive me to the medical centre, but I wasn’t actually bleeding and just wanted to get the hell out.”
The reindeer in question is a two-year-old bull, part of the 130-strong Cairngorm Reindeer Herd (CRH) based in the Cromdale hills and in Glenmore. “He did try to ‘hold’ her and prevent her from moving,” said Tilly Smith of the CRH. “It is obviously something we would not wish to happen again and we are surprised the bull behaved like this bearing in mind now it is the middle of November and so a few weeks outside the main rutting season.”
What now happens to the reindeer remains to be seen. “We will take him out of harm’s way,” said Smith. “We will put a halter on him and lead him off the hill and he will stay in our fenced area until his antlers fall off.
“We’ll wait and see how he behaves as a three-year-old bull, knowing what he has been getting up to this year he may be a candidate to have his antlers sawn off in the autumn. We are all about a free-living herd of reindeer and keeping reindeer in a fenced area all year is not ‘what we are about.’”
This isn’t the first incident involving the CRH. In September 2002, two walkers were injured in the Cairngorms, one having to be airlifted to hospital. The four-year-old bull reindeer responsible was de-antlered.
Also, in October 2009 in Cambridgeshire, a woman was attacked by a reindeer which was later put down.
As for Pat Cook, she feels lucky to have survived, but hasn’t been sleeping well and is visiting her GP’s surgery later today. “I seem to be discovering more bruises all the time,” she said. “I had five layers of clothing on my upper body and three on my legs. I have bruises all over my upper arms and thighs on both sides. I have a bruise on my scalp, and can hardly walk today as my thighs and calf muscles are still cramping after my efforts at holding the reindeer off with my feet.
“I really did think I was going to die several times. I didn’t have the guts to hit it in the balls or poke it in the eye as I didn’t want to enrage it. If I’d had a gun I’d have happily shot it in the head.”