Having worked as a seasonal herder for many years working January is a real novelty for me. Usually on the 24th of December I hop on a train home to Bristol to spend Christmas with my family and then return to uni in the new year. But having graduated last year, and with a gentle bit of persuasion and the promise of reindeer, I convinced my family to spend Christmas up in the Cairngorms. It is now January and I am delighted to still be here. So on Monday the 6th, with no more hill visits for over a month we merrily waved the reindeer off onto the free-range for the winter.
The first full day ended up being incredibly wild and windy (gusting at 100mph) and the reindeer were very far away so we left them to find their own food for the day, something that they are absolutely fine doing as they live in their natural habitat. We spent the days slowly working through the seemingly endless list of ‘January Jobs’ some of which I think were on the list last year and still haven’t been done. On day two however, the sun was shining and then reindeer were slightly closer to home. So me, Sheena and Chris headed up to the Cairngorm ski carpark with rucksacks full of food. Upon arriving we saw lots of cars pulled over with people taking photos, a clear sign of reindeer. About a third 30 of the reindeer were waiting for us, just by the road. We walked these reindeer away from the road, a task easier said than done. Whilst the reindeer were good as gold, walking across incredibly uneven ground in the snow with 20kg of food on your back is quite difficult . Throughout the walk, Sheena lost a wellie in a patch of bog, Chris didn’t fall over once(!), and I fell over completely and couldn’t get back up because of the rucksack full of food. I can’t certainly say that I now know exactly how a woodlouse feels.
As we were leading the group of reindeer away from the road about half a mile away we could see another group of mostly male reindeer coming over from the top of the reindeer enclosure. Eventually we also saw another group of cows and calves coming from the other direction. As the reindeer were getting closer and closer the race was underway, who would come first, the boys or the girls. The boys certainly are greedier but the girls are fitter. Both groups went out of site as they ducked onto a lower area and then eventually the boys showed up, just ahead of the girls. Turns out that the motivation of an easy meal was enough to overcome their lack of distance training. Once the entire group of reindeer currently free-roaming in this area had arrived we fed them all, took plenty of photos of the beautiful reindeer in the snow and then walked back to the van.
Whilst for most people January seems like a bit of a dreary month, I can certainly now see why reindeer herders love January so much. Having all the reindeer free-ranging the hills and going up to feed them with not a soul in sight really is a fantastic experience.
As I received so many positive comments on my blog about running to The Netherlands whilst I was on my way, and as some people requested to hear all about it, here’s my follow-up blog to tell you how it went! For those not knowing what I’m on about, here’s my previous blog: ….
The idea had come quite last-minute and it left me with a limited amount of time to prepare. Things I had to think about were ‘where do I sleep and how do I stay warm’; ‘what do I eat and where can I top up supplies’; ‘what route am I taking and how do I navigate en route’. As I can be a little impulsive and prone to just winging it at times, my voice of reason came from Chris. Supportive as though he was, he was constantly asking me critical questions of ‘what if’. This made me think twice about most things (and sometimes about setting off altogether) and meant I left as prepared as I could. However much he insisted I’d go out on a rainy stormy day and run for a day and camp afterwards to test my gear and capability, I couldn’t find the time to do it before I eventually left.
The first day was hard, it rained all day, the distance seemed much further than any 30k I’d ever done before, and pitching a tent whilst it’s raining must be amongst the top 3 least favourite things I’d ever done. It made it extra hard that I was only 20 miles from my own warm cosy bed, roughing it in a tent in the rain near the Drumochter pass. The next day it rained again.. And my tent hadn’t been 100% waterproof, I had had to pack it whilst it was wet and I was dreading the night to come. Besides, it was Chris’ birthday, and I was passing a train station from which I could get home… I decided to go home for the night, dry all my kit, and set off again from the same station the morning after. Man, did I appreciate my shower and bed that night.. And it was great to be able to spend Chris’ birthday with him.
The next few days were relatively sunny and I had support, in the form of meeting my friend Ross, staying at Adrian’s, and having Alan come along for half a leg. However, this was the point my body was at its sorest. A nagging knee (and leg and hip and back) and a half-broken cart made it the hardest section running-wise. Thankfully most of the views were great around Pitlochry, Birnam, and South of Perth. By the end of day 5 I started to develop a new type of run, which I decided to call ‘granny-shuffling’. By hardly lifting my feet but shuffling forwards at varying paces I managed to speed up a bit, and give my muscles and joints a rest. During this period I met up with fellow herders Fiona and Joe, who made me coffee and gave me fudge and teabags (thanks!!), stayed at fellow herder Julia’s in Edinburgh, who did a bit of bike support too, had bike support from Chris who camped out with me for a night too, had help from Brian Marshall, and eventually ran into the next bit of rain.
Completely soaked and windswept I arrived in the castle gardens of Duns Castle. I’d seen lots of deer (creepy red lights staring back at my head torch whenever I gazed into the woods), an owl, and lots of other wildlife. I couldn’t bear to get into my tent all wet and make myself food, so decided to walk an extra mile into Duns after pitching my tent in the woods. There I treated myself to a kebab (I’d never usually..) and set foot in a local pub. Hilariously enough, on a Monday night, it was completely packed, as 2 local darts teams were playing each other. Thankfully there was one other woman in the bar, otherwise I would have probably turned right around. The other woman was the bartender, who turned out to be great company, as were some of the local darts players. Guinness hardly ever tasted as good as it did that evening. The next day was easy and I had the great outlook of staying overnight at one of our enthusiastic reindeer adopters’ holiday home, free of charge! A lovely palace of warmth and cosiness made for a perfect night. It also meant I got to wash and dry all my stuff, which by now was a kindness to my own nose and that of everyone I was to encounter from there onwards.
Then my section in England properly began the next day, and I quickly found out that finding suitable spots to wild-camp wasn’t easy in England. One miserable night of looking out for a spot whilst battling storm Brian was enough for me, and I decided to book accommodation for the next 2 nights. This was my best decision yet, as they were 2 awesome nights again. The first I stayed at a cabin in the garden of a couple, Andy the UTMB ultra runner and Lynn the circus acrobat! What an amazing couple! And the next night I had a whole barn turned hostel to myself at an Alpaca farm, with a fireplace. If sipping cider next to the fire overlooking a field of alpacas isn’t yet on your bucket list, make it so because it was fantastic. The last day with my cart went amazingly well, and I was speedier than ever, had the sun on my face and the wind in my back. I felt like I could continue for miles and miles, but the best bit of the day was arriving in Whitley bay, supported by Chris’ mum, and running up to the hotel where Chris was waiting. Cart Larry got disassembled there and then, as it was getting a ride to get stored in Shropshire whilst I’d be on the ferry to the Netherlands. A good diner, lovely breakfast, and the lack of a cart made the last 10k in the UK to the ferry easy peasy lemon squeezy.
The ferry journey went smoothly and when we arrived on the other side my mom and her boyfriend were there with my best friend and 2 bicycles, one for her and one for Chris. They’d support me on the last 30k. The first 2/3s were bleak and ugly and made my question my choice of final destination. However, the last 10k, straight through Amsterdam, dodging cyclists and tourists, whilst getting half-high of the smell of weed everywhere, strangely made me a bit nostalgic in a weird way. It was great seeing my friends and family at the finish line too, and we celebrated my finish at my mum’s flat with prosecco, beer, homemade soup and salad. What a journey. The more time passes the more I seem to forget about the hard times and the more fondly I look back on it.
What’s next? A question people ask me quite a lot nowadays. No idea, there are lots of vague plans or it may be something impulsive again, we’ll see! I’m 100% it will be some crazy thing again though, so maybe ask me again in a year ;).
Thanks to everyone for all the lovely messages and comments!
I imagine that there might be quite a few ‘newbies’ to the reindeer herd and to our social media pages just now, being as Christmas is the busiest time of year for our reindeer adoption scheme. Several hundred people will have had an A4 white envelope under their tree on Christmas morning last month, with a brand new, shiny reindeer adoption tucked inside. Hopefully some of those people have since tracked us down online to see what on earth they’ve just become part of… I thought I’d write a little bit of an introduction to us, and primarily to the adoption scheme, to shed some light on what we’re all about. So if you’re ‘new’, then welcome!
We have the only reindeer herd in the UK whose reindeer are in their natural habitat, and who spend at least some of each year living out on the mountains in complete freedom, with no fences to be seen. Reindeer are native to the UK but died out here thousands of years ago, and our herd was re-introduced from northern Sweden in 1952. We’ve been running guided walks out to see and feed them on the hill ever since.
Guided walks form a large part of our income, directly supporting the management of the herd, but we have several other ways of earning money too – one of the main ones being the Support Scheme, the income from which is all ploughed back into the upkeep of the herd. This was started in 1990, and I see from our database records that we still have two adoptions that were originally set up in 1990 which are still going today, in their 30th years! We have about 1200 adopters in total just now, having had over 9000 adoptions in total over the years.
I think the biggest appeal of our adoption scheme, in comparison to those available for other animals, is that we still hand-write the majority of our correspondence to our adopters. No printed packs pulled off shelves and ready to go for us… Maybe it makes it a bit less ‘professional’ but I feel it’s so much more personal, and there can be very few animal adopters in the UK who receive a personal letter direct from the people who look after ‘their’ adoptee (complete with spelling mistakes and the likes!). A generic typed letter must be so much more the standard nowadays. Perhaps we’re just old-fashioned here at Reindeer House.
In the run up to Christmas, all hell breaks loose here in the office. Adoptions, both renewals and new ones, start pouring in and reindeer herding becomes a delicate balance of outdoor work, dealing with visitors, and frantically making up adoption packs. I liken them to a tide, at times threatening to overwhelm us and at times receding as we battle them under control. In November and December the tide never recedes for too long though, before returning with fury. There was a memorable Friday this Christmas just past when we started the day with 30 adoptions waiting to be made up, several of us then working at them pretty much all day, and finished the day with 45, as they came in faster than we completed them! Panic stations.
Along with the yearly adoption pack come the two newsletters, printed in June and October and posted out to everyone. By snail mail – we’ve not really got on board with the idea of emailing digital copies yet. Lots of our adopters are in the “mature” category too, many of whom don’t use email regularly. And to be honest, sometimes the old fashioned ways are much more straightforward – give me printed material over PDFs anyday. Don’t even get me started on whether direct debit is an option for renewing adoptions or not… (Our computers, and my brain, would melt.)
Along with the pack and the newsletters, adopters also get one free admission each time they visit. For some this is never, for some, multiple times a year. We also always do our best to ensure adopters get to meet their adoptee when they visit too if they give us advance warning of their visit, although this is not always possible depending on the time of year. Nothing beats the delight of hand-feeding your ‘own’ reindeer!
Many adopters have become very familiar faces to us now, and with the rise of social media, friendships have formed between adopters. On the subject of social media and the internet in general, gone are the days when adopters saw one sole photo of their reindeer per year. Now we do our best to be relatively active online, posting photos regularly and (no surprise here) blogs. A social media course told us a few years back that, as a business, we should be blogging regularly, so we started doing so every Friday, and have not missed a week yet. All hail the ability to ‘schedule’ blogs far in advance, meaning there’s not a last minute panic!
So thank you, each and every one of all you adopters! You help fund every aspect of the herd and the company (including paying our wages 😉 ) and enable it to be so successful, and your generous support is NEVER forgotten. And if this has whetted your appetite and reindeer adoption sounds like the thing for you, more details can be found on our website.
Here’s to the next 30 years of reindeer adoptions!