Hillwalker fights off reindeer attack with walking pole

Pat Cook: 'Lucky to have survived'
Pat Cook: 'Lucky to have survived'
“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.”

  • Foreign Correspondent, Vienna

    Any animal feeling cornered will fight. The Cairngorms may seem big for a hillwalker, but I doubt that they’re big enough for reindeer to relax in, given what they’re used to in Northern Europe. Poor bull, locked up for aggressive behaviour.
    In case of future attacks: reindeer aren’t terribly interested in apples or cereal bars, they don’t grow where they come from. Bring a big bag of reindeer moss (but don’t let the National Park rangers see you pick it). Can be eaten by humans in an emergency.
    General point: don’t try to reintroduce large wild animals in an area like the Highlands, all cut up into small bits by roads and settlements – there’s not enough forest cover and our freedom to roam clashes with theirs.

    • Isobel

      Re your general point reindeer are not large animals, smaller than many deer in the area, and are a great asset, the current herd having been bred locally over many years. Don’t live in forests, don’t like them in Scotland. The reindeer love the terrain. Great diet of lichens etc. And they had to be weaned off sandwiches and choc bars after many years in the car park of the local ski resort. Seems like you do not really understand our Cairngorms. The Smith family who take charge are very responsible people.

  • lapogus

    @ Foreign correspondent – the deer wasn’t feeling cornered, it was on an open hill. The Highlands of Scotland (and even a small part of the Monadh Ruadh) are plenty big enough for a herd of 100-200 reindeer. We have around 350,000 red deer in Scotland, and even though that’s far too many for the good of the land and forests the idea that there’s not enough space left for a relatively small reindeer herd in the Cromdale hills and Glenmore is nonsense. The reindeer’s behaviour had nothing to do with lack of habitat, or forest cover, it was just an adolescent bull and the rutting season is not long over. I doubt something like this has never happened in Scandinavia or Finland. Sounded nasty though and the wifie did well to get away.

    @ Sir James Douglas – I hope you’re joking with your anti-hillwalking comment.

  • Sir James Douglas

    Yes, I was joking.

    However I do have a serious point. I am a walker, but it annoys me that there is no courage to re-introduce the great wildlife of this country that we forcibly removed, such as the bear and the wolf, due to concerns about people getting into difficulties.

    Yes, in other countries these things happen too, but they don’t advocate extermination – education is the key. The people of Scotland need to be told how to respect animals and their habitats so that we can all share the same landscape.

    This woman should have taken into account the rutting season – yes it should have been finished by now, but there are no hard and fast rules here – this is nature!

    The Cairngorms National Park is a disgrace. It has no interest in re-introducing any major ‘national’ species that have every reason to be there.

    The wolf is essential to keep deer numbers down. Due to the extermination of the wolf, we now have a MAJOR dear problem, one that shooting along can barely deal with.

    We created this situation. It is all based on ignorance. I can understand the argument about the bear, but there is no reason not to bring the wolf back. Dear will provide for all their food needs. Suitable fencing is adequate to keep the wolves out of sheep grazing areas, and the government can operate a compensation scheme for the one or two sheep kills that may happen.

    The real reason not to bring back the wolf if simple: fear and ignorance -both in abundance in Scotland. Instead we wrap the Great outdoors in cotton wool for fear that someone may hurt themselves.

    • Jeff Harris

      Excuse me.. ‘the woman should have taken into account the rutting season’ what nonsense. For one thing she could not be expected to know there were reindeer on the Cromdale hills, it is not widely known and even if she had known are you seriously saying that hillwalkers should keep off all hills in the rutting season? Estate owners and managers are keen to discourage hillwalkers during the red deer stalking season on the grounds that they may ‘spook’ the deer which they claim are very sensitive creatures. That hardly leads one to think that they will attack someone or is it that reindeer behaviour is radically different to red deer behaviour.

      It was only a matter of luck that Pat was not seriously injured, similar aggressive behaviour by a dog or farm animal would result in it being put down.

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  • what a jolly christmas time tale

  • Animals in the wilds would attack a human for only 2 reasons only.

    1. It feels threatned or cornered or has young ones about, which it will defend for the same reason.

    2. Food! For predators it would attack pray so it can eat it but also if an animal is hungry and sees the opportunity for food passing by.

    Well in that case it is most likely the latter and a twist of tourism. Most reindeers romaing about in the cairngorms or cromdale hills are based at the reindeer centre in Glenmore. They are hand fed by people visiting the centre. Now reindeer acossiate human to give them food. If they don’t receive food they will try to get it by force. The only chance you have is either feeding the animal or run like hell. And who can outrun a reindeer in the hills?

    • Chris Harrison

      or

      3. Because it’s feeling grumpy and cantankerous, and wants to take it out on something or someone.

      Animals are animals. It does happen. Sometimes it’s a tree. Sometimes, a fence. Sometimes a person who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • Dave Hewitt

    In light of the discussion as to whether or not the reindeer was “cornered”, here is a picture of it, taken by Pat Cook shortly before it took an active interest in her. The picture is a bit dark, but shows the cairn of Carn a’Ghille Chearr with the reindeer to its right. Readers can form their own opinion as to whether it looks cornered or not.

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  • Jordan Phillips

    did the reindeer have a red nose you faker

  • Dave Hewitt

    The reindeer story seems to be pretty much everywhere now – papers, blogs, radio – but remember, you heard it here first. The prize for the best rubbishy headline surely has to go to The Register, which rehashed the story under the banner
    Crazed reindeer stalks, attacks Scottish woman with antlers
    Victim forced to jettison lunch in festive horror chase

    So as if Pat Cook hadn’t already suffered enough, she has now sprouted a set of antlers. Has there been a better example of a transferred epithet published anywhere this year?

    • Jim Braid

      Bottle of Jura for Pat.

      Remember, you heard it here first!

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