Hello again, this is Oliver the reindeer herder, and yet again I have been polietly asked to do a blog. I know that others are writing much more interesting blogs than I, but hey ho! This blog is about the weather (not a forecast of the week), and not just any weather, but the reindeer and my favourite weather….. The Snow!
I have now worked with the reindeer in all seasons and there’s no better season than the winter. For me it’s because you’re seeing them in their element, in the conditions they have evolved to live in.
Even when the snow is coming sideways so thickly you can’t see two feet in front of you, and all you want to do is to go back and get a cup of tea, the reindeer look as if it’s just a dusting and go about their normal busness. The reindeer are so well insulated that they often get the snow lying on them (which makes them even harder to see). It shows just how hardy they are and to me, makes them look like some sort of ancient-ice-age-yeti-beast.
Just the other day we herded out the cows and calves on to the free-range (which is always the best part of the job). Who knows where they will go or what mischief they will get up to, out on the hills they are elusive, and I can see how they blend in like a chameleon. Sitting on the hill watching them is one of the most peaceful things I know. They are so quiet that in a blizard you could walk within inches of them and not know that they are right next to you.
For the reindeer (and us herders) we hope this wonderful snow stays with us at least a little into the new year. But for everyone, from us and the reindeer, have a great one!
I’ve been helping up at Reindeer House for a good few years now and, after moving back to England, have had to supplement my reindeer fix with helping at Christmas events near to home. I thought it might be interesting to put together a few thoughts and impressions gathered over the years.
I never cease to be fascinated at how people react to the reindeer. Yes, there are occasional doubters, but the herders are always happy to explain how the Cairngorm reindeer, with 1000s of years of domestication in their blood, and a familiarity with people and handling, seem quite happy to take a short trip away from their free-range life on the mountains.
I remember Magnus at Carlisle Races one Christmas. The reindeer pen was set back from the track, but quite near to the large screen which displayed the action. His eyes were glued to the screen when a race was on, only pausing to follow the horses, his head slowly moving right to left, as they galloped past on the track. This cycle was repeated until a race finished.
I chuckle when I recall being on the M6 in the reindeer van one snowy year. As we drove past one of those huge illuminated signs, displaying the message ‘Is your vehicle ready for winter?’, I couldn’t help thinking of the six reindeer and sleigh in the back. Now THAT’s what I call being prepared!
Some questions from the crowd become predictable (Which one’s Rudolf? Did they fly here? Where do they live?), but antlers (‘horns’) fascinate people. You do need to be sure, though, that no Santa-believing child is nearby when explaining why our Christmas reindeer have antlers. One year an antler broke off whilst the team were being harnessed up for the procession. There was a gasp from the onlooking crowd, followed by silence, then a solitary voice exclaiming ‘You’ve broken your reindeer!’. Cool thinking by the herders and a quick swap around saved the day.
Other questions have included: ‘What are they – donkeys?’. And often there are wide eyes and gasps of ‘But they are real! – and I don’t mean from children. It’s that magic, and the dawning realisation that reindeer are real creatures with very special needs, and not just props in a seasonal fairy tale, which make these encounters worthwhile.
Then there are dogs… The places where I help out are very doggy orientated, and folk like to bring their pets along to the Christmas events – some even lifting them up to get a better view. I can only assume that many people think of their dog as a child substitute, and cannot understand that, to a reindeer, it’s a wolf. Most owners will back off quickly when this is politely pointed out, but it was hard to understand the one who tried to push his dog through the barriers so that he could take a photo of it with the reindeer.
Reindeer characters come and go, but this years star for me has to be Svalbard, who spent much of the event attempting to eat the artificial sleigh decorations. By the end of the day the wreath was part dismantled. I’m not convinced, though, that Alex’s suggestion of making them out of real holly to deter nibblers would go down too well with the herders who have to dress the sleigh.
Our reindeer roaming here in the highlands of Scotland live in a truly unique landscape, that has been sculpted over the centuries. However, the formation of the Cairngorms is not known by many, and so here I’ve summarised a brief part of it to explain how the reindeer got their home.
The Cairngorms are underlain by 427 million year old Granite and were, believe it or not, once in the range of the Himalayas standing far higher than today. Millions of years of degradation and the prolific effects of repeated glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) cycles throughout the last 2.5 million years (Quaternary) have carved out the landscape in which we see today.
About 13,000 years ago, cold glacial conditions were increasing in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. There have been many debates as to why this happened but scientists have hypothesized that this major cooling event was caused by an enormous dumping of fresh water into the North Atlantic by the large North America Lake Agassiz. As the ice retreated from the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago the lake burst its banks causing a catastrophic flood. The flower (Dryas octopetala), the Younger Dryas or, Loch Lomond Stadial, marked the return to what we see today.
This cold water slowed down the oceans conveyor belt or ‘thermohaline circulation’ to an almost standstill, meaning there was a complete loss of heat transfer and a massive reduction in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. The sea and the atmosphere share a sort of ‘love – hate’ relationship whereby if one is behaving well the other will behave; however if one decides to throw a spanner in the works its counterpart will throw quite the tantrum and this is exactly what happened. The rapid cooling of the previously warm salty sea water coming up the west coast of Scotland caused the atmosphere to cool dramatically; hence resulting in ice growth and incredibly cold conditions across much of Scotland.
This last ‘hurrah’ of ice has sculpted much of the landscape we see today. As the ice retreated, Scots pine rose up the mountains pushing the level of steppe tundra with it. The subarctic conditions that now occupy this landscape mirror that of Arctic Canada and Siberia meaning that reindeer can survive and thrive here in the Scottish Highlands. These wonderful animals now inhabit a land forged by ice so can therefore thank these bouts of extreme cold as without them we would not have our reindeer here today.
I added up how many years I’d been involved in Christmas tour with the reindeer the other day, and was astounded to realise that this was my eighth season. As I frequently tell visitors, “I only came for the summer!” but I seem to have fallen under the spell of the reindeer and the Cairngorms. Hen has been here even longer than me. So with several new herders this year, Fiona sent us off with Morna, with the idea that we’d show her the ropes as it were. Morna has been working with the herd all year, so knew the reindeer very well, but Christmas tour brings its own challenges which can take some adjusting to.
Over the months running up to Christmas, we’d been fairly entertained by the enthusiasm of Morna, Ruth and Olly about tour, and wondered how long it would take for the novelty to wear off! But spirits were certainly high as we got ready to set off for our week away, and we had great fun working out our team name: usually we’re just Handi, but this time we would be even MORHANDI!
I hope you enjoy the photos below – we certainly enjoyed our week, and it was really odd when we dropped Morna off to visit her family and were left with just two of us in the cab… it felt like we’d lost part of our team!
A couple of weeks ago saw the start of my experience of ‘Christmas Tour’ – the fabled hectic time of Christmas at Reindeer House, working away at events all over the UK. To kick me off, I had a week with the wonderful Hen and Andi in the far-flung lands of Cardiff and Yorkshire.
Much to Hen and Andi’s continual amusement, I’d been looking forward to Christmas approaching and tours starting. For what on earth sounds more fun that a week away on a road trip with some reindeer?!
As the day to leave approached I was feeling a little bit unsure of what to expect, and very unsure of what to take. But we upped-and-awayed, with mostly everything, and a prayer that what we’d forgotten wouldn’t be needed.
Here’s a few photos of our trip. With thanks to the wonderful team: the sleepy Svalbard, bowl-tipper Duke, Matto, Byron, and our lovely calves Beatrix and Austen!
On arrival at our base we jump in the back of the truck to take the reindeer out to their home for the night, a lovely big bedded barn and field. But instead of 3 reindeer in the first compartment, we find only 1, the big-tummied Svalbard. After a moment of panic, and a “I’m sure we brought all the reindeer with us?!?!”, we discovered the reason…
We peer through to the next compartment and realise the small door between the two was left open. The wee calf Beatrix, small enough to slip through, had gone to join her calf-friend Austen, and Matto had somehow managed to follow, but poor Svalbard’s antlers were obviously too big, and he just couldn’t fit.
As the days flew by, we saw Cardiff, many motorways, Oxford and Yorkshire, a few lovely bases, and had some great food.
Al in all, only a couple of things got broken, some wonderful breakfasts were eaten, all 6 reindeer returned home safe and sound, and I think, Hen, Andi and I are still friends.