1 year anniversary of reindeer herding

It’s time for me to write a blog and my one-year anniversary of being an (employed that is) reindeer herder is coming up soon, so why not make that my topic?

I arrived at reindeer house July the 5th, after a long drive from Newcastle where I was released from the ferry, ready to start my life as a herder in the Cairngorms. I was immediately swept away with the fast-flowing life of reindeer house, as a few hours after my arrival we were to play a game of rounders on Hayfield. My weekend plans had also already been laid out, there would be a ceilidh on Skye after a hill race the Saturday, and everyone was going. I’d only ever volunteered as a reindeer herder, and had never done a hillrace in my life, yet I’d been to one ceilidh so I kind of knew what was going on (or did I?). What followed was a summer full of running and walking around hills and mountains in rain and sunshine, long nights at the Pinemarten bar, short nights in my bed at the reindeer centre, nightly swims in Loch Morlich, and music gigs where we danced until our feet hurt and then we’d dance some more. I thought that within a year and a bit I might leave again, so I had best make the most of it.

Loch Morlich swims with Lotti

Fast forward to last week (Ed. back in June – it’s taken two months to upload this blog!), where I did a couple of days of reindeer herding, then drove off in a van to spend a long weekend in Arran with Chris. The main reason of our visit was participating in the furthest hillrace I’ve ever run (26k, 2000+m of ascent!!) but also to discover more of Scotland. I’ve now seen a fair bit of Scotland, but the more I see, the more I find I still want to see. I’ve also had every season now in terms of reindeer herding. I saved the best for last, as calving season has just come and gone and now our summer season is just about to start again. In a year I’ve learned lots, but most importantly that one can never know what to expect from a day at the reindeer centre. I’ll briefly go over the seasons as I’ve experienced them the past year.

Summer
Full on, both in terms of reindeer herding and life at reindeer house. At some points there were 7 people living at reindeer house, excluding visiting friends and family for whom there’s always a bed to crash at the centre. On top of that, on frequent occasions there were guests at parties that filled up the house and left it again, like the tides of a sea coming and going. This meant there was constantly a high level of energy in the house, and so were the people living and working in and around it. There were 3 hill trips a day, most of which were quite full. So basically, a standard day looked like this: wake up, get breakfast and a big big coffee. Then either go up the hill first thing, or do the paddocks and/or emails down at the centre. Then take a fairly large group of visitors up the hill to show them the reindeer, work a bit in the shop and the office, shut the centre at 5pm. After work we’d go for a run, eat together with everyone who lived at the centre at the moment and their guests, and this would often then end with a night at the Pinemarten bar for “just one drink” (which often somehow ended up being a bit more than that).

The first of many reindeer selfies

Autumn
There’s no clear boundary between Summer and Autumn, but at one point most of the seasonal staff has unfortunately left, and there’s an eerie kind of quietness that takes over in Reindeer house. All of the sudden some nights no-one took the initiative to go for a run, swim, or visit to the pub. And the nights I sat still I noticed a bit of a tiredness, like a giant hangover from the lack of sleep and excess of activities and drinks over summer. Autumn we took things a little bit slower, there weren’t as many hill trips and visitors anymore, the centre had quietened down and so had the house. It was also time for my first hill race ever, which was absolutely great. The days started getting shorter and the head torches came out for the runs at night..

October = sleigh training

Winter
And then it was winter. First wet and windy, later on a bit colder and snowy, but never as cold as I’d expected it from the stories of the years before. Reindeer house exchanged the running shoes for ski-touring boots and skis, and instead of walking or running up and down mountains we’d “skin” up and ski down, whenever there was snow. The first months of winter were crazy busy again, because of our Christmas events and weekends of Christmas fun. We’d either be at the centre, carrying out Christmas fun duties or regular herding tasks (including lots and lots of adopts), or we were going all over the country in teams, with big lorries for Christmas parades, staying overnight at our farm bases. When Christmas was over, another sort of peace and quiet came over reindeer house, different from the one after summer. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the events, but shutting the centre for a couple of weeks in January allowed us time to work less and enjoy the Scottish winter. We were also able to catch up on all sorts of tasks that had been dropped in the Christmas craziness. Days were very short and this meant energy levels a lot lower, so lots of excuses for going to bed early!

Ho~ro

Early winter free rangers

Proper winter reindeer herding

Spring
Eventually the long nights got shorter, bit by bit. Our female reindeer started showing signs of pregnancy. It was still very quiet at the centre, with the odd school holiday in between. Every time I went down South for a hill race or a trip of a different nature, it was clear that Spring was on its way, but in the subarctic climate of the Cairngorms we had to wait quite a while. Even once spring signs had clearly presented themselves we had a bit of snow every now and then. The last month of Spring was also the best month of my “career” as a reindeer herder so far – calving time is amazing. I’d be willing to drop everything at once if I’d get a shot at walking around the enclosure to find a wee ball of fluff next to its mum somewhere tucked away in a corner. The changing weather and daylight hours gave lots of extra energy, either spend chasing calves and mums or training for or participating in my first proper season of hill racing. What a joy to live in the hills, with such great animals and nature around!

Calving season
Special moments

And so my first year as a reindeer herder was complete. Summer staff came to move back into reindeer house, and the centre started getting busier. Tufts of hair were flying around: the reindeer were moulting their winter coats and the circle would start all over again.

Manouk

Can reindeer swim?

Google will tell you pretty quickly and you’ll also see a cool clip on Youtube from a dude on a boat filming his herd across a body of water.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlJUO5DHcbU

Reindeer are good swimmers and today we’ll find out why and how.

Reindeer have spent millennia migrating across continents to access seasonal pastures. Their habitat grows relatively coarse fodder meaning they must travel vast distances for grazing. These migrations tackle many obstacles and one particularly challenging is water. This water body was often a river but also small sections of ocean between the mainland and an island perhaps. Either way the reindeer needed to swim. And Swim they did. And this is how they do it…

Reindeer have miraculous hooves. Their hooves can be used as snowshoes or spades in the winter for dealing with all that snow and flippers for swimming! Their action is a doggy paddle stroke and I feel we should rename this stroke and call it ‘reindeer paddle’.

We know their fur is hollow trapping air to insulate them from winters’ frosts but did we know this air fill coat also acts as a buoyancy aid! How fantastic is that?!

Manouk’s interpretation of a swimming reindeer

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking yea ok reindeer can cross a river, so can I. I swam across the Spey River once. No, they can really swim. The herds in North America are known for especially large migration routes. These herds swim across huge rivers. The Yukon river flows for over 3000km the Spey just 170km. The Yukon has a volume of 6428 cubic metres per second almost exactly 100 times larger than the Spey. These rivers are big and anything that could swim across would need to be a strong swimmer.

Caribou swimming across the Porcupine river, Yukon.
Photo credit: Niclolas Dory, www.nicolasdory.com

Dave

It’s all in a name.

Some people answer to just one name, others like me have a proper name and a nickname. Although given the name Elizabeth as a baby, I was nicknamed Tiddly because I was the youngest ( and so smallest ) in our family of four children.

Tiddly got shortened to either Tids or Tilly and now many 10’s of years on from being Tiddly I am almost universally known as Tilly, although I do sometimes use my ‘real’ name Elizabeth when I want to sound ‘official’.

Having two names has worked to my advantage. Many years ago, when I was still organising all the Christmas Events with our reindeer ( thankfully our daughter Fiona does all that now ) I received a phone call from one of our clients regarding their event. After our conversation I said to the Centre Manager, ‘ I am going away for a couple of weeks and so if you have any other queries it may be best to wait till I get back’. To which the lady replied ‘ that’s no problem if you are not available, I will just ask for Tilly!’ I didn’t let on, but was amused that in this Centre Manager’s eyes there was a Tilly and an Elizabeth!

Tilly, in action. Photo credit: John Paul

Tilly was not a common name when I was a child but in recent years I have met quite a few young Tillys! I am not someone who keeps up with changing fashions, indeed my mother used to despair of me always wearing jeans and never putting on makeup! But it would seem that I was ahead of the game when it came to my nickname!

As well as other people being called Tilly I have known of various animals with my name. Years ago I was driving up the Ski road from Aviemore back to Reindeer House and there was a chap with his ‘3 legged black labrador’ trying to hitch a lift. Feeling sorry for the dog I drew up and jumped out to let the dog jump in the back. The chap said ‘ jump in Tilly ‘ which rather took me aback before I realised he was talking to his dog!

In the mid 1980’s we became acquainted with a farmer and his wife from Keilder in Northumberland who ran a small open farm. We became best friends and over the years they both looked after reindeer for us at their farm and helped out with our reindeer events at Christmas time. John was a great stockman and could turn his hand to all types of livestock. He acquired some fallow deer and when the doe had her fawn, she wouldn’t raise it and so John and Shirley hand reared the little mite. The wee fallow became incredibly tame and was a winner with all their visitors. I was well chuffed when they announced they had called her, yup you guessed ——-‘Tilly’.

A few of the Wild Farm fallow deer

Not only do we name all our reindeer, but we also name our pedigreed Belted Galloway cattle that live on our farm at Glenlivet. When we name our reindeer calves we choose a theme for that year. Last year it was TV/film detectives, before that poets and authors, ancient civilisations etc etc. But with the cattle we go through the alphabet and in 2018 the letter was T. So strangely enough one of our heifers ( young cows ) is called Balcorrach Tilly.

Some of Tilly’s Belted Galloways, but not Belted Galloway Tilly…

And then today we received an email from a lady in the USA who had recently bought a copy of my latest book Reindeer, An Arctic Life. It transpires that she has a reindeer farm and this is what she wrote in her email:

‘Your book just arrived today and I am only one chapter in, but I already know I absolutely LOVE it. We would be honored to feature this book in our gift shop at our reindeer farm———– Already planning to name our next calf, Tilly.’

So there we go. I don’t think I ever imagined that I would have namesakes that were as diverse as a 3 legged dog, a fallow deer, a Belted Galloway cow and potentially a reindeer. What an honour. And to cap it all, very close friends had a little girl 2.5 years ago and not only did they ask me to be her Godmother but they also named her Tilly!

Tilly