There’s a lot to be learned volunteering at the reindeer centre and multi-cultural knowledge is one theme very obvious, just thinking about the reindeer names and the regular herders’ nationalities. However, walking up to hand feed the reindeer throughout December it occurred to me how many visitors travelled many, many miles to experience the thing we have taken for granted over the last 30 years – velvet noses snuggling into your hands for a taste of delicious grains of feed.
(Apologies for the small photo files, they are at their maximum sizing!)
During our three weeks in December 2019 we talked to visitors from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Austria, China, Thailand, Canada, Holland, Egypt and Germany, not forgetting those from England and Scotland.
December in Australia is the children’s Christmas school holidays and for many families a trip to Scotland and the reindeer is a top priority, as we were quite rightly informed. During our second week, beginning the 9th December we had a good drop of snow, which I enjoyed as much as the reindeer and visitors!
The reindeer in my opinion are at their best in deep snow. For two children from Australia the combination of sun, snow and reindeer made just the perfect day and it was such a joy to experience their excitement. Having never experienced snow in their lives it was an exhilarating event. With wellie boots borrowed from Reindeer House it didn’t take them long to jump in the deep snow drifts and fill their wellie boots with the cold stuff – and we were not yet at Utsi’s Bridge!
As many of you know, if you have been on a visit, once in the enclosure we follow the board walk, which the reindeer also like to use and they get in between visitors slowing the speed of progress. Well for two young people this meant having to step to one side to let the reindeer pass and subsequently ‘falling off’ the board walk into the deep snow – their feet were rather cold and wet by this time but no adult advice could curtail their excitement, it was infectious! We then had adults stepping off the board walk to experience the deep snow just for the fun of it! We had a lovely visit and the snow was appreciated by everyone, young, older and the reindeer!
Remember that blog I wrote about a year ago about how everyone started running up hills and mountains as soon as they arrived to work at the reindeer centre? Well I’ve got reasons to write a second blog about the same topic, so here goes!
At the end of my last blog about running reindeer herders I wondered if my running would become more like the long distance running described in the ultrarunner Jan Knippenberg’s book. A quick recap in the form of a quote from my last blog:
“Running for the pure joy of it or because our lifestyle demands it, without the faff of getting involved in fashion and hype, or keeping track of time per kilometre, heartbeat, acceleration etc. seems to be closer to the old type of lifestyle than what is currently in fashion.”
I think I can safely say I’m getting there! Since that blog I’ve participated in lots of hill races, slowly building up distance until I did the Lairig Ghru race, slightly over marathon distance. The fun aspect of it is that most of the races I did, I didn’t do for getting a good result, or the competitive aspect of it, but more for seeing a different part of Scotland and enjoying the scenery whilst running with a lot of other crazy hill running people. I also continued chasing reindeer on the mountain plateaus and thoroughly enjoyed it.
All of this is very much in line with running the way we used to in the history of mankind, in the sense that it’s not necessarily a way to stay fit, but a way to get around in life. One step closer may be what I have planned next. Whilst this blog is being posted, I’m on my way to the Netherlands. Over the past few years I’ve become more aware of the damaging impact of flying on our environment. I think in many cases, if you don’t prioritise money and time over the environment, you’ll find there are loads of alternatives to air travel. For going to the Netherlands, there are lots of forms of public transport you can take, along with using either the ferry or the Eurotunnel to get to the European mainland.
So with this in mind I came up with the idea to run to The Netherlands. Admittedly, I’d not gone for a long time (money and time and resolution to avoid flying as much as I could). In the mean time I’d really started missing my friends and family back there. It seemed like a nice gesture to them as well – missing them so much I’d come and run all the way! Besides that I find that the Scottish darkness in winters gets me down a bit, with on Winter solstice there only being sunlight from 8.53am to 3.32pm (that is 6 hours and 38 minutes of daylight). Being outside as much as possible and exercising regularly both help me a lot in beating seasonal sadness, so it seemed like a great way of getting over that too. So there I was, finding myself yet again planning a run longer than I’ve ever done before!
At the moment this blog is posted, I’m supposed to be just over one third of the journey. I’ve set off from Newtonmore on Monday the 6th of January, early in the morning. I’m pulling a two-wheeled cart, carrying my tent, sleeping bags, stove & freeze-dried food, snacks, a reindeer skin to keep warm at night, and lots of first aid stuff and other needs. I’m staying at a couple of friends’ places (thanks hill runner and blogger Ross Brannigan (@up_to_summit), hill runner Adrian Davies (https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/5939626?s=67&shared_item_type=1&virality_entry_point=1&sharer_id=29161035)& reindeer herder Julia Kenneth!) but otherwise I’m camping. My route is 250 miles (roughly 400km) to Newcastle, then I’ll hop on to the ferry, and it will be another 18 miles (roughly 28.5km) to my mother’s house in Amsterdam, where my friends and family will be cheering me towards the finish line.
So if you’re reading this it must mean I’m getting on all right, as I gave Chris permission to post it only if I managed to get that far! If this is the case, then I think I can safely say that my change in lifestyle from being a student/academically-minded person to being a reindeer herder in the Scottish mountains and hills has changed my way of running. I now run for the sheer joy of running and for the necessity of getting round (be it chasing reindeer or a self-imposed ban on flying) and no longer for ‘staying fit’ or ‘getting a decent time’. And I love it! But maybe don’t ask me whilst I’m actually on my run, as it’s definitely mostly type 2 fun*.
I didn’t want to finish this blog without saying thank you to Chris Shute (Chris’ dad), who helped massively in designing and building the cart, and reindeer herder Chris, without whom my route of choice could have been disastrous, as would the rest of my preparation. And hopefully he will have added some pictures of my journey so far below!
* type 2 fun: the type of fun where you’re not enjoying something whilst doing, often wondering what the heck you got yourself into, but a while (could be minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even longer…) after the activity has finished you start thinking back on it and reconsider it as fun. Opposite of ‘type 1 fun’ where you just constantly have fun all the time whilst the activity lasts, and possibly afterwards as well. Example: skiing holiday where you take lifts up and ski down, 100% at all times.
Quick update from Chris plus some photos:
Manouk’s first two days crossing Drumochter Pass were pretty awful weather wise. 40-50mph wind and torrential rain in a big storm left her completely soaked and a tough start indeed. She got the train home on the evening of day 2 from Blair Atholl to dry her kit and tent out (and cook me dinner for my birthday!)
Knee pain slowed her down to a walk for the early part of Day 3 but Alan turned up to pull Manouk’s cart down to Dunkeld for her! They were also joined by friend of the Reindeer Herd Adrian Davies and his dog Jasper and Adrian put Manouk up in his B&B for the night.
One of the wheels on the cart was struggling even more than Manouk’s knee so on Day 4 Manouk was planning on getting it looked at in a bike shop whilst passing Perth. Hopefully it will hold up to allow her to make it all the way to Newcastle
Brief update this morning on Day 5: Cart has new bearings in the wheels and Manouk’s knee is holding up.
At the end of Hill Trips, we often get many questions about climate change and how it affects the reindeer. For those interested, here’s a blog on how we think it affects our reindeer, how reindeer are affected worldwide and things people could do individually to help fight it.
Weather records of the past decades clearly show that the Cairngorms have gotten milder and more moist. There have always been fluctuations in temperature with periods of warm winters and periods of colder ones, as well as periods of hot dry summers as well as periods of cold and wet ones. However, the overall trend is moving towards warmer and wetter. This of course affects the plants, trees, and wildlife. As warmer and wetter conditions are suitable for ticks, we’ve seen an uprise in tick-related problems. Luckily we are quite savvy in finding ways to battle this, and granted that we spot the illness, are usually able to treat the reindeer.
Other than that we see a problem with winters not finishing ‘cleanly’ and spring showing its face for a few days or a week and then disappearing again. This affects the growth of plants. Once plants start growing but freeze mid-growth, this changes their structure and if reindeer eat these plants this can cause problems with their guts. At the moment we are working on a way to prevent and to treat this, and have managed to succeed in some cases with new vaccinations.
Worldwide, there’s a different story, as reindeer numbers have always fluctuated hugely and it’s difficult to pinpoint whether or not climate change is affecting these fluctuations at all. We do know that over the past two decades, reindeer numbers have more than halved, leaving the current population at about two million. This number is lower than usual lows and the decrease has gone on for a longer period of time than other periods of decline. Problems that may have arisen with global warming are numerous, here are a few to consider. (1) Warmer climates enable other plants than lichen to grow, out-competing lichen. This is the main plant in most species of reindeer’s diets, so as a consequence there may be a shortage of food leading to the starving of part of the population. (2) Warmer weather does not only encourage ticks to multiply, there are more other insects around as well. As the reindeer hate biting beasties, they’ll spend time and energy getting away from them (often going to mountain tops where there’s still snow) rather than staying down spending most of their summer time eating. This means they don’t store enough body reserves to survive winter later in the year. (3) The last major problem is that there’s more rain near the end of winter rather than snow. Whilst reindeer can dig through snow to get to lichen, they can’t dig through frozen rain, again causing starvation.
Reindeer are known to be adaptable, being able to survive temperatures as low as -70 and as high as +35 Celsius. Though their numbers are at a low just now, we can only hope that they up again. And we may still be able to stop global warming too, which would, we assume, benefit reindeer. Of course it doesn’t stop at reindeer though, as global warming is already affecting both animals and people in huge areas all over the world.
Now there are big discussions going on about how to stop global warming, with people even calling Greta Thunberg a climate denier as she advocates that people should make lifestyle changes, thereby indicating that we individuals can still turn it around. To most scientists this seems highly unlikely, and change needs to come from higher up (big businesses and governments) in order to have an effect. However, for a message to come across the messenger needs to be trustworthy and reliable too, which goes hand in hand with Thunberg leading a climate-friendly lifestyle whilst campaigning for governments and companies to change our current system. I’d say in order to do something and make a statement, change whatever you can in your own life to become more climate-friendly, e.g. buying less new stuff, buying local produce rather than import, flying less, and opting for public transport, bicycles and your feet instead of your car when possible. It’s also worth your while having a look at what your workplace could change to be more environmentally friendly (see our blog on ‘our bit for the environment’). If you can then let (local) politicians and companies hear your voice, either via social media, emails and messages, and/or protests, lobbying or similar, you’re practically doing everything you can. System change not climate change! Power to the people.