As part of the only UK herd of reindeer that live in their natural habitat, our herd are lucky enough to spend a good portion of each year roaming completely free on the mountains. We have an area of leased land which we have grazing permission for, but the boundary of this land isn’t fenced, so occasionally a few of our females do wander a little further than they’re allowed to. We then have to make a plan to bring them back – usually this entails walking out, finding the group (no easy task at times!), catching what we can and leading them back on headcollars. Missions like this are why we feel we can call ourselves “Reindeer herders”.
This autumn, we received reports of a small group of females who were enjoying the perfect grazing and peaceful setting in a glen several miles east of our normal grazing land. After a few recces to see who was there, myself and Dave headed out on a breezy Saturday morning, equipped with binoculars, reindeer feed, human food and plenty of headcollars. Lotti was able to give us a ride part way in the landrover, shaving about 3 miles off our walk, which was much appreciated! From there, it was a case of hiking, uphill, for an hour or so before we caught sight of the reindeer, having a lovely time grazing with a beautiful view. They were nearly at the top of one of the local munros (not many jobs where you do tick off a few munros from time to time!).
We had a quick scan of the group to see who was there and if we’d be able to catch them. Dixie and Camembert: great, both easy to catch and lead. Malawi and Joni: hmm, catchable if we’re lucky. Puzzle: will hopefully follow mum Dixie. Rain and her calf: one of the wilder, more independent reindeer in the herd, not a chance, let’s hope she follows us! We offered out the food and good ol’ Dixie and Camembert cheerfully let us put headcollars on.
Dave set off in the lead, and I started out as “herding dog” – walking quietly at the back providing gentle pressure to encourage the rest of the group to follow. This is how we usually move the herd, but there is a bit of a knack to knowing how far ahead to walk with the lead reindeer, and how much pressure to put on if you’re at the back – push too hard and wilder reindeer will try to double back, and they’re faster than us!
For the first 10 minutes all was well, Dave leading the way with the small group following happily enough. But as soon as Dave started heading downhill, Malawi and Joni decided that they weren’t so keen to leave their quiet idyll. They started breaking away, dodging among the peat hags, and as older, dominant reindeer, the rest of the herd were keener to follow their lead than Dave’s. And my fielding skills were not quite going to cut it, they could outrun me, however much I waved my arms! So we needed a different plan. The ringleaders were definitely the old lasses Joni and Malawi, both of which were also old enough to be suspicious about whether they wanted to be captured or not! But without them on head collars, we weren’t going to manage our mission.
Malawi was first up – I held out our wee bag of bribery, and thankfully all of the preferential feeding of the older reindeer we did last winter helped as Malawi’s greed overcame her suspicion, and she started guzzling. The tricky thing with her is that she’s one of the few reindeer in the herd who doesn’t grow antlers, so she has no ‘handles’ to aid with catching her, so I slipped my arm round her neck hoping she wouldn’t try to break away. Greed won out and she agreed to stand whilst I popped a headcollar on.
Leaving me holding three reindeer, Dave then managed to entice Joni into the feed bag, and we had our ringleaders on head collars! Knowing Dixie would follow along, we then let her off again, and poor Dave set off downhill leading three reindeer, of which Joni was definitely the most stubborn! I had to do about five minutes of epic fielding to convince the rest of the reindeer to follow Dave, then they gave in and settled in to pottering along in single file.
Down we went, to the valley floor, crossed the river, and up the other side. The hours passed as we meandered our way along (nothing happens quickly with reindeer). We both regretted not taking more snacks, and I hugely regretted not taking a bottle of water… the reindeer had no such problems as they were snacking on blaeberry, lichen and heather as we walked along, and drinking at pools.
As we approached the Ciste car park, after about 4 miles of walking with our wee herd of miscreants, Dave was seriously flagging. Joni was not the best behaved on a head collar and would much rather have stayed trespassing on our neighbour’s land, so was putting the brakes on most of the way. She may be 13 but is still plenty strong enough! It was also 2pm and way past our lunchtime, so I called for reinforcements and Tilly and Lotti came up to meet us and take over from Dave. Relieved of responsibility, Dave lay down on the car park for a few minutes of recovery before heading down for some food!
I carried on following at the back of the group on the last leg home, and our now-well-behaved reindeer followed obediently over one more hill, down and across the ski road, over Utsi Bridge and into the enclosure. They got a well-earned feed before joining our group in the enclosure – for Camembert and Puzzle they went to join handsome breeding bulls Kota and Houdini respectively, in the hope that they’ll have a calf next year. The others joined our non-breeding group, where they’re enjoying plenty of hand feed from our visitors, and Rain’s wee calf Vienna is getting used to be around people. All will head back out to free-range soon, hopefully with fewer thoughts of wandering on land where they’re not meant to be!