A couple of months ago there was a woman on our hill trip who wondered if we ever did sleigh rides with our reindeer. Apart from our parades around Christmas time, at which we use a sleigh for Santa to sit on, we don’t do any sleigh rides. It is simply not along the lines of what we want to use our reindeer for year round.
When I was in Norway before, there were companies that offered sleigh rides with reindeer. The owners of these reindeer seemed to be quite happy taking people along on sleigh rides and the reindeer, being rewarded with lichen, happily obliged. I couldn’t resist, so I gave it a go. It was quite fun, yet a lot slower than I had imagined, even though I had been involved with Christmas last year as well. The reindeer just take it slow and put up a pace you could easily keep up with on foot. Nonetheless, it’s quite calming and relaxing to be in your sleigh, being pulled by your reindeer. Reindeer seem to have a calming effect on people. This is something many people say on our hill trips, and something I’ve found as well from the first time I met them. So in Scotland it won’t be possible to go on a sleigh ride any time soon (unless you’re Santa and it’s Christmas time) but if you do it in Norway, Sweden or Finland, you’re up for a calming, relaxing ride, right through winter wonderland.
After last week’s blog of death, this week we bring you the blog of life.
Calving season arrived a week later than expected this year with the first calf of the year being born on the latest date in recent years. We thought we’d share a selection of photos from the first few calves to be born this year. Later in the month we’ll bring you some more photos.
As ever we will not disclose who the new mothers are until our June newsletter. If you manage to work out who the mother is before June in any of the posts we share please keep that knowledge to yourself so we can let all our adopters know at the same time.
All farmers and animal keepers know the saying. It’s a phrase often learnt the hard way but once learnt, it’s never forgotten. It’s only too easily remembered though when everything, it seems, is going tits up…
‘When you have livestock, you have dead stock’.
The subject of death might seem an odd choice for a blog but it’s part and parcel of working with animals and therefore not something to be hidden, or never mentioned. I feel that in this sort of job, it could be all too easy to brush over losses, but sometimes people do like a little frankness and want to know more (aren’t I brave?!).
Reindeer probably don’t live as long as many people expect, the average age being around 11-13, so naturally there is a turnover of quite a few animals per year. As to be expected, we have years with good survival rates and some with bad, so therefore we purposely vary our calving numbers from year to year in an effort to hold the herd at around 150 animals. This way we control our overall number without ever having to cull.
But animals being animals, they can find all sorts of ways to turn up their toes before their time, and sometimes we do find ourselves fighting a losing battle with a particular reindeer. Though I must say, in recent times there thankfully hasn’t been quite such a dramatic loss as one I unearthed in ancient diaries of Mr Utsi’s, detailing a bull in the 50s who was found drowned, having become accidentally tangled in wire and then blown into a loch – such is the wildness of the winter weather here at times. What a terrible way to go, and an incredibly hard loss for Mr Utsi, especially in the days when the herd was in its infancy. A striking example of the fact that sometimes, accidents do just happen, however much you try to ensure that they don’t.
In latter years, ticks have been the cause of many a loss in the herd. Twenty years or so ago, we lost reindeer after reindeer until we got to grips with a particular illness that reindeer can suffer which is transmitted by ticks, and though we are on top of it nowadays, having learnt which vaccinations do and don’t work and how often they should be used (no veterinary drugs come with detailed instructions specifically for reindeer!), it does still rear its ugly head every now and then. Most of the time we treat the affected reindeer successfully, but we still do lose reindeer to it on occasion, and one such loss hit us particularly hard last autumn. That was Fergus, our big, handsome three year old bull. If you’ve followed us via our blog and social media pages over the last few years, you’ll have heard all about Fergus, hand-reared in 2015 after his mum died. From the underdog in the herd as a calf he had turned into the biggest, most impressive reindeer of his year, so his death really, really hurt.
Spring is often the most difficult time for reindeer, coinciding with the highest concentration of ticks. In spring, before the good grazing appears, the reindeer have just made it through the winter using up their fat reserves as they go, so their bodies are at a low ebb. This makes them more vulnerable to illness, with lowered immune systems, and it’s probably the most problematic time of year for them as a result. Into the summer and they put on weight, rolling in fat by around August, standing them in good stead for the winter months to come. That said, autumn can be hard too with another spike in the tick numbers coupled with a change in diet for many of the reindeer, females in particular, as they drop from the high tops of the mountains to the lower slopes.
You may remember that in 2018 we had live twins born for the first time in the history of the herd, but that in the early autumn we lost the smaller one, Hutch. We think his immune system just wasn’t strong enough to cope with illness after a difficult start in life, and very sadly his twin Starsky also died, about 6 weeks later. The curse of the autumn months, but in hindsight I think we can be pretty proud to have got them right through the summer when they were so much smaller than their compatriots – reindeer aren’t designed to have twins for a reason. We had great fun with them throughout the summer and will look back on their time with happy memories as, I think, will everyone who met them.
I can fully appreciate how upsetting it can be when people have enjoyed meeting a particular reindeer, and later find out that they’ve died. For us, working as closely as we do and investing a huge amount of love, time and effort into each individual, it can be utterly soul destroying when we lose them. In order to work with animals we have to learn to at least deal with death, but coping doesn’t mean we’re hardened to it – the atmosphere in the house when a reindeer has died is subdued and keeping a cheerful attitude with visitors is difficult. Ironically, it’s often on these days that a visitor will announce that we have the “best job in the world” …
One aspect that can make the loss of a reindeer even harder is then having to write to that reindeer’s adopters to let them know the sad news. In particular, my heart will sink when I realise that I have to let so-and-so know when it’s not too long after they have lost a previous adoptee, but this is the way that luck works, and sometimes it does happen. Conversely, when our ancient female Lilac passed away last year, there were a couple of adopters who had adopted her for almost her entire life of 19 years!
We always do our best to address envelopes to the parents of an adopting child in case they want to break the news themselves, and over the years I’ve had a few visiting adopters here at the Centre, small child in tow, gesturing frantically to me over the child’s head, while saying how sad it is that their adopted reindeer has had to move back to Lapland to live with Santa! However, it is easy to make a small mistake on a computer, so if you find yourself one day receiving a letter addressed to your parents but you’re in your 40s, for the love of God let us know because we’ve ticked the wrong box on the database!
Nobody can be completely guilt free in what they choose to do through life whether it be what they eat, wear or decide to go on holiday by jumping on an aeroplane. However, everyone can do the small things which will add up and help towards a better and more sustainable environment. Here is how we have started at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and obviously we hope to do more in the future.
Two years ago we made a fairly massive purchase at the Reindeer Centre. We got an electric car. As a result, a free electric point was installed at our centre through the incentive of getting the vehicle and it’s been a great success. We use it for dotting up and down the hill which is only a 6 mile round trip each time so it makes a lot of sense. We don’t tend to use it to go further than Aviemore (12 mile round trip) but mainly because the mileage can’t really be trusted with a full charge only giving you 70 miles. Although going downhill means you can gain some miles as soon as you hit an uphill, which there are quite a lot of in Scotland, you rapidly lose those miles.
Andi is chief of shop stock!!! She is always trying to source locally produced souvenirs and gifts for us to sell in our Shop. I make crafts and jewellery out of the reindeer antler, Andi makes fishing flies from reindeer hair, Manouk whittles away at green wood making reindeer figurines and ‘make your own reindeer’ packs, Ali sews together tartan clips and bows, the list goes on. Andi has also sourced biodegradable pens, re-useable coffee cups and tote bags which is great, plus free advertising when folk are out and about doing their shopping and getting a brew. We are always trying to find the happy medium in what we sell and offer so these are all great steps being made. Well done Andi!
Something you all want to know I’m sure… Reindeer herders are now using 100% recycled toilet paper! Buying in bulk from a company aptly name ‘Who Gives a Crap’ (look them up!) they are determined to prove that toilet paper is about more than just wiping bums. They make all their products with environmentally friendly materials, and also donate 50% of there profits to help build toilets for those in need. To date they’ve donated over $1.8m Aussie dollars (that’s the equivalent of over £1,000,000!) to charity and saved a heck of a lot of trees, water and energy. Not bad for a toilet paper company, eh?
Linking this back to the reindeer as a species and their natural environment, by doing these small things it helps with the bigger picture. It’s ironic really that man is extracting energy from the Arctic in the forms of oil and gas and here is a well-adapted animal in that same habitat adapted to conserve it’s energy. The Arctic is a ‘canary in the coal mine’ – the first area in the world to alert man to the affects of climate change and global warming. Melting permafrost, unexplained sinkholes in the tundra, vanishing pack ice, rapid freeze/thaw of snow and invasions of insects more commonly associated with the southerly climes are all effects of human induced climate change. It’s not only the Arctic being affected, all over the world extreme weather patterns are causing carnage to those living there whether it be man or animal. One wonders what the future holds!
So guys and girls I’m sure you heard it before and will continue to hear it again – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! We’ve started here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, good luck with your own journey.