On Thursday 22nd March Tilly and Fiona set off on their journey to the north of Russia where there was a World Reindeer Herders council meeting. This was to be held in Salekhard which is a town at the bottom of the Yamal Peninsula, and also where you find the Nenet reindeer herders. Here are a few photos from their weekend away, we will write a more detailed version of events in our newsletter in June.
There will be a more detailed write up in the next adopters newsletter so keep your eyes peeled!
As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…
Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.
Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.
While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.
From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.
But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.
Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…
We have a lot of very sweet reindeer. They come right up to me and stick their noses right into the feed bag I have just carried up the hill…. Bumble, for instance…. I cuddle Dr Seuss and scruff up his nose hairs. Reindeer are wonderful creatures. So powerful and hardy, standing into the gales, looking into the snow that flies across the hill, this is where they live. The likes of Bumble and Dr Seuss have lots of adopters. Everyone loves Bumble. So cheeky, so adorable.
Occasionally someone comes into the shop and asks to adopt a real wild reindeer, a rebel, one who knows no boundaries. I breathe a sigh of relief and start rattling of my favourites, because I prefer the less tame reindeer. I prefer the ones at the back that no one ever sees or the ones that elude even us herders. Tambourine, Enya, Wapiti, Chelsea, I say, these are my favourites. These reindeer have a different beauty. These reindeer laugh at us mere humans. These reindeer have few adopters. Who wants to adopt a reindeer that will wallop you, or walk away, if you go near it?
My favourite when I first arrived was Bega. A pale coloured male that was born on the free-range and a real struggle to train. My other favourite was Champagne, a flighty young female, with distinctive spear like antlers. Both Bega and Champagne died before their time.
I guess this is perhaps what makes the herd so wonderful and interesting – we have both tame and less tame reindeer!
So apparently a 2 day stint of volunteering at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre earns someone the dubious honour of writing a blog!!
We have been visiting the reindeer for 14 years or so now. On our first visit we fell in love with a gorgeous calf called Java, immediately sponsored him and the rest as they say is history! We currently adopt Sambar and Orkney for ourselves and a further 3 reindeer for family members at Christmas, Scrabble, Jaffa and Gazelle.
I have been up to reindeer house previously to volunteer, allegedly to help out, but probably cause as much of a hindrance! But I have never been in the snow, so when the opportunity came up this year I jumped at the chance. Although I was away for 4 days, I was only able to be at the centre for 2 days as coming up from Leeds I needed a day travelling at either end.
I arrived at 9am, as instructed, on a gorgeous, cold Tuesday morning to be met by the lovely Chris, Andi and Olly, who were only too keen to introduce me to the delights of being a volunteer reindeer herder. Apparently the most important job, and I really have no issue with this, is making tea! This however can only be done after clearing up the reindeer poo from the paddock area, followed by a quick guide of where all the necessary switches for the fab information displays are, oh and checking the videos are on, stationary filled up, water heater switched on and a general tidy up, and I thought I was kind of on holiday!! Thankfully there was an ‘idiots guide’ for all this, as the next day I ended up doing it on my own! Including bringing the reindeer out of the woods at the side of the paddock into the display area, thankfully, as any of you who have visited the herd will know, all you really have to do is show them some food and they will follow you anywhere!
All that done and tea made and drunk, I was lucky enough to go on the hill visit with Chris and Olly, leaving Andi holding the fort at reindeer house. It was a stunningly beautiful day and the reindeer behaved impeccably, although it had taken Alex some time to bring them down off the mountains, where they had been free ranging, to the enclosure on the hill. I have, as I said, visited a number of times before but have never seen so many people on a hill trip, it is all good for the centre as they obviously need to make money to look after the reindeer and this is such a lovely way to generate income.
When we got back off the hill there was time for a quick bite to eat at the café next door (well worth a visit) and then back to the hard work. My next job was to mix the reindeer feed. Oats, hay, beets, molasses and sheep feed….mmmm lovely. I do have to mention here that the hay is coated with garlic, apparently this helps protect the reindeer from biting insects in summer and is generally good for them. It is also very good at making your hands and clothes very smelly, I suspect I will not have to worry about vampires for some time to come!
I joined the other team members in the office after that. I really would love to have the view out of my office window that they are lucky enough to have there…wow! My suggestion of some form of office Winter Olympics fell on deaf ears, I’m sure chair ice hockey would have been a sure fire hit….think they were too busy though. It did open my eyes as to how much work goes into running the business. Andi has just re-done the website, and a great job she has made of it. Chris was arranging all the Adoption requests that were coming in online and Olly was hammering lots of nails into the wall…think he just likes making a noise! All the day to day stuff does take a lot of time and then there are the reindeer to be looked after too, a herders work is never done.
On my drive back to my accommodation at the end of the day, I joined the steady stream of traffic coming off the mountain from a day skiing. As we were approaching Loch Morlich, everyone was braking and pulling into the side of the road, being the nosey person I am, I followed. I was rewarded with the most amazing sunset over the mountains and loch, absolutely incredible.
Day 2 of my visit was a bit chaotic in the morning. Chris and Olly had gone to bring the herd down from the mountain for the visitors to see in the enclosure, which left poor Dave alone with me at the centre. While he was dealing with everyone in the shop wanting to book on the tour, I opened up the enclosure, following my idiots guide to the letter…no one complained, so I think I did it right. Reindeer were in the right place at the right time anyway! The herd on the mountains, however, were not so obliging this morning and really took a lot of persuasion to move, the hill visit had to be delayed until 12, but no one seemed to mind and it was all worth it in the end.
I did the hill tour with Dave and Chris. It is interesting to look on and see how the different herders give such great tours, but in a different way to each other, they say the same thing but put their own take on it. Dave had to cope with one or 2 interesting questions from a few of the children on the visit and was very patient when one youngster kept putting him right on his pronunciation of ‘lichen’, he is a New Zealander so deserves a bit of stick (Fiona originally wrote ‘slack’ but we think he deserves some stick for it!). When it was time to come down off the hill, we were obviously last out of the paddock, but as there was a bit of a queue in front of us, and we were all hungry, alternative methods of getting down the snowy valley sides were explored. Dave and Chris just ran down the side to the bottom near the river, I’m not sure they actually expected me, a middle aged Yorkshire woman to follow them….but of course I did. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was that their legs are considerably longer and younger than mine, so although I managed to run about 5 steps straight down, I ended up on my backside for the rest of it…my own version of the luge afterall! It was great fun until I was aware the river was fast approaching but thankfully managed to stop in time!
The rest of the day was less of an adrenalin rush thankfully! I was in the office having a fuss with the dogs and generally chilling out until it was time to leave.
I had such a wonderful time in my 2 days there, I will always be grateful to the herders, firstly for letting me spend time there but also for their patience, time and guidance. They are a great group of people and do an amazing job, giving us all the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in their natural environment. Thanks guys!
This winter we have prolonged periods of cold snowy weather, as I write this the weather forecast predicts it’s not going to be above zero during the next two weeks! It’s pretty chilly for us herders even under our many layers, but for the reindeer it’s ideal (if a little mild!) and we have a big happy free-ranging herd.
On Hill Trips we often talk about how reindeer are adapted to Arctic and subarctic life by describing their thick winter coat, large hooves, beards, and their amazing clicking back feet. However, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and endearing adaptations of a reindeer is their beautifully soft velvet noses!
Out of the 40 odd species of deer in the world, reindeer (and Caribou) are the only deer which have hairy noses rather than shiny, moist ones. This prevents the build up of frost which would occur on a cold wet surface during exhalation; perhaps this is the reason why male polar explorers (and Scottish reindeer herders) often grow beards!
However, the most special part of a reindeer nose is actually on the inside. This blog will endeavour to delve under the cute furry exterior to hopefully show how truly remarkable a reindeer’s nose is…. as well as a good excuse to show lots of lovely fuzzy photos!
There is a complicated and highly specialised arrangement of cartilage, bone, fleshy bits, mucous membranes and blood vessels that make up their nasal passages. Together they form an extremely large surface area; the shape of which is often described as a ‘rolled scroll’ or sometimes a ‘seashell’. This specialised structure allows a reindeer’s nose to remain warm and retain moisture in freezing temperatures as well as allowing them to expel excess heat on warmer days.
A reindeer would soon be chilled if freezing air was to reach their lungs on every breath. To overcome this they have the fascinating ability to change the temperature of the air they inhale before it reaches the lungs, and vice versa. This is all thanks to their ingenious nasal structure, which works as a counter-current heat-exchange system.
For example, if the outside air temperature is -40⁰C, the temperature when the air reaches the reindeer’s lungs is about +38⁰C. In other words, they can change the temperature of the air an incredible 70-80⁰C in less than one second! Additionally, winter air tends to be cold and dry, especially for reindeer that live in higher latitudes. In order for the heated air not to be over dry when it reaches the lungs, a bit of moisture is released from the internal mucous membranes into the air when the reindeer inhales. Move over Rudolph with your shiny red nose, I think that is pretty magic!
On exhalation the opposite happens so a reindeer is able to cool its warm breath, in order to conserve as much body heat as possible. When breathing out they also conserve as much water vapour as possible; especially important when snow may be the only form of water they are able to get!
So when it’s cold in winter, us meagre humans can see our breath as we exhale. However, a reindeer standing at rest in sub-zero temperatures will have no visible breath steaming from their nostrils! That’s because air leaving a human nose is about 32⁰C and the water it contains condenses into visible water droplets as our warm breath meets the cold air. In a reindeer’s nose, warm air is cooled down by about 21⁰C before it is exhaled, saving the majority of the heat. The mucous membranes in the snout recover the moisture, enabling the water in the air to condense inside the nose which then trickles into special folds which direct it to the back of the nose and into the throat, meaning the reindeer exhales drier and partially cooled air.