Just over a week ago, I waved goodbye to my work colleagues in London, where I’d lived for eleven years, jumped in a van, and travelled the 500 miles (so cliche!) to Glenmore to begin my new life at Reindeer House.
Three years volunteering with the herd during holidays seeded the thought of moving at the back of my mind. Late in 2015 I thought, “What am I waiting for?” and decided to up sticks, leave my lovely job and lovely colleagues, and life in the city.
Waking up to snow-covered hills and a single stream of cars heading for the ski slopes is slightly different to the hordes of people packed onto commuter trains and tubes heading for their glass and steel open-plan offices.
Mountains, forests, and fresh air give so much, which cities simply cannot give you – despite the parks and open spaces and being outdoors. The landscape here gives and teaches different things, as equally important, and gives a different outlook on life.
I thought maybe I’d start an occasional blog series remembering particular characters in the herd who are no longer with us, because some readers amongst you may have met them once upon a time, and those of you that didn’t can at least have a brief glimpse of some of the most memorable reindeer from our herd.
I scrolled through our photo archive of reindeer no longer with us, and my eye alighted on Flake. Well, there is a fine place to start! Plenty of memorable things about Flake, and what a fabulous reindeer she was over the years. I first met her in summer 2009, having been away for several months, and arrived back and headed up to the hill enclosure for the first time. Most of the reindeer there I recognised, or managed to work out pretty quickly, but who was this bull with a blue ear tag? Quite narrow, upright antlers compared to some, but still a very good size, and ‘clean’ in design rather than the chaotic, many tined antlers of the castrate males. I was flummoxed. Turns out it was Flake, in the enclosure for the summer months rather than out free-ranging like the other females, due to her calf Diddly (who we’ll get to in a tick).
Flake’s fabulous antlers set her apart from many of the other cows, as they were much more elaborate than the average female set and a very decent size most years. In 2009 however, the year I first saw her, they were a particularly fine set and there is a specific reason for that…
Flake was a notoriously bad breeding female. Her calving record, filed away on our computer here, is basically a list of disaster after disaster, from stillborn calves, to ones that got stuck and needed pulling out by the vet, to premature twins, you name it. In 2011 she produced a calf who had a problem with his joints, probably not helped by the fact that Flake had calved right next to a large boulder which he had promptly got stuck beneath! The entry on her records for her final calf Brave, born in 2012, reads ‘Normal!!!!’.
But before that, in 2009, there was Diddly. Born prematurely, she was tiny, so much so that she couldn’t reach Flake’s udder. Even if she had been able to, Flake didn’t produce any milk that year anyway, so right from the start we had to hand-rear her, bottle feeding through the night to start with.
Flake and Diddly started off in the paddocks, then eventually moved up to the hill enclosure for the remainder of the summer and the autumn. And that is the reason for Flake’s great antlers – while we slaved away feeding Diddly for the first 5 months of her life, Flake basically sat back and let us do all the work – a ‘designer mum’. All the energy going into her body from the feed we lug up the hill every day went straight to her antler growth rather than to milk production. The antlers of the other females, out on the high tops foraging for themselves, all showed the detrimental effects of the effort of raising a calf, being smaller and wigglier, but not Flake. She resided in state in the hill enclosure all summer, fat as butter and with fancy headgear, with a queue of reindeer herders tending to her every need and raising her calf for her!
Flake passed away in 2013, an old girl by that point. Very sadly, Diddly followed later that year, but not before producing her son Crowdie, who is now nearly 3 years old and a great fun wee reindeer. Diddly was an interesting character in her own right as she never produced any antlers at all, remaining bald for her whole life, a little quirk that sometimes happens with female reindeer.
We’re back! As you regular readers will know, the Reindeer Centre has been closed to the public for about 5 weeks while we spruce the place up for all you lovely people, and get all the maintenance jobs done after yet another busy year.
We opened back up last Saturday and awaited the masses with baited breath. It was a pretty minging day i.e. it was howling a gale up the hill and there was a bit of rain/sleet, but still the people came to see our beautiful beasts.
We had around 10 cars on the visit, a respectable but, thankfully, manageable number for our return to visits. Hen and I drove up to the Ciste, and braced ourselves as we opened the doors to the biting wind. We gathered in our visitors and explained what we were going to do, and to be careful on the slippy stairs, and then headed off into the wilds.
At this time of the year, the reindeer are all out free-ranging on the mountains, so our visits could be to a different place every day. The path out to the reindeer that day included lots of boggy bits, and wasn’t particularly a path, but we made it out to the reindeer in one piece, stopping to let people catch up when needed. Thankfully, we were walking with the wind on the way out, so it wasn’t too bad.
Hen called the reindeer and I spoke, very loudly, about their adaptations while the girls made their way over to us. We put the food out, the girls tucked into their lunch, and we started the handfeeding.
Despite the pretty rubbish weather, everyone seemed to enjoy meeting the reindeer. We were sometimes blown over by the wind, and I often had my eyes closed as I talked to the visitors because I had to face into the wind, but it was great getting back into the routine of a visit.
The next time the Centre is scheduled to close is Christmas Day, so this is one of many visits we’ll be taking throughout the year. Hopefully we won’t have to cancel too many over the winter months, and before we know it, it will be summer and we’ll be starting trekking!
You all know Christmas is our busy time of year, however you also know that reindeer are not just for Christmas, so what happens after all the commercial pursuits we undertake and those many visits onto the hill throughout the year…? Well, this is a reindeer herder’s favourite time of the year as the Centre is closed and for once in the year we feel like we can start to get back on top of things!
First and most important job is to get the reindeer into their correct locations for the winter. They are split between the Cromdale hills over near our Glenlivet hill farm and here on Cairngorm. We don’t use our mountain enclosure from January through to April/May (in time for calving). It’s a time of year reindeer are in their absolute element and what this species is all about – the cold, snow and thick winter coats. The split tends to be boys to the Cromdales and girls on Cairngorm however some females do also go onto the Cromdales as well.
We still like to see the reindeer everyday so we know where they are and therefore we feed and check them every morning. This means heading up and spying from our various points along the hill road where we get the best views of their hot spots. A reindeer herder’s eye is well trained and can spot the reindeer way before anyone else. A lot of the time we don’t even reach for the binoculars – we just know the lay of the land so well that we know which ‘reindeer shaped rocks’ are indeed rocks and which ones are actually the reindeer! The weather has a big part to play in this so no snow means we find the reindeer quickly, lots of snow means the darker reindeer stick out, however that annoying mottled, patchy snow is the worst to spot reindeer in as they are so camouflaged. High winds keep them off the high tops and closer to the tree line, sunny weather often means they are happy just to have a chilled out day soaking it up… just like us!
So once found we head out and give them a good feed, count and check them. Even the dogs benefit from this part as they get to come part of the way out. Obviously they can’t mix with the reindeer however Sookie and Tiree are both now trained to wait wherever we ask them. Sometimes we are feeding and checking the reindeer and look back to the dogs and all we see is their wee faces poking above the heather watching our every move and the reindeer don’t even notice them!
Once the morning is complete and reindeer fed and checked its back down to the centre to complete our long list of ‘January Jobs’. This may be painting the exhibition floor in the paddocks, fixing fences and gates, oiling the Christmas harness (ready to pack away for another year), going through every single event folder and reading all the reports, making up adoption packs, cleaning, packing away the endless decorations put up at Christmas etc, etc, etc… But being closed means we can also make the most of the good weather. If the sun is shining and snow conditions allow some of us keen skiers head for the hills for a day on the snow! Needless to say the dogs like this part too as they get to come along. This does turn us into fair weather skiers, however we spend plenty of time in the hills being blown off our feet and getting soaked to the bone, to pick and choose when we can go skiing only seems fair!
The honeymoon must come to an end though so on the 6th February we re-open our doors and get back to our daily routine of 11am guided tours. It’s all fine and well it being a nice time of year for us herders but we wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for our many visitors to the Centre supporting our lovely herd of reindeer in the Cairngorms!