With Christmas over and the Centre closed to the public for a month, we have put all of our reindeer out to free-range – the males are on the Cromdale mountains and the females are split between there and the Cairngorm mountains. We don’t necessarily see them every day, but where possible we like to catch up with them, feed them and check everyone’s ok. Here’s some photos from feeding the herd the other day:
Not bad for a place to live, but where is the snow?!?
Last winter I had the amazing pleasure of volunteering at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre for the first time. After two poor winters, and by poor winters I mean that we had a lack of snow. Most people in the UK would probably deem a good winter one with little snow. But here in Aviemore and the Cairngorms, both as skiers and Reindeer Herders, a good winter is one with a plentiful supply of snow! And preferably one with as little of the usual high winds as possible. Thankfully, this year, our snow dances were answered with a good supply of snow and a fairly long winter season.
On the days I volunteered we had calf deep snow to trudge through and 60mph cross winds to battle through to find the Reindeer Herd first thing in the morning. This was my first experience of seeing these magnificent animals in their natural environment out on the Free Range on the mountains. This was also the first time I had the pleasure of hearing the traditional Sami call Reindeer Herders use to summon the Reindeer down from the mountains. To my surprise the Reindeer weren’t sheltering in any of the Corrie’s out of the wind, but instead were standing on the most exposed ridges bearing the brunt of the strongest gusts of wind. Once one of the Reindeer heard the recognisable call and started heading down from the ridge, being a herd animal, the rest soon followed. Once they got up close I was most surprised by how much smaller they were than I expected. We put out a line of food for the Reindeer on the snow, counted them and we checked them for their general health, as we do every time we go and see any members of the Herd.
While on my days volunteering I learned that this species of deer are extremely well adapted to the Sub-Arctic environment we have here in the Cairngorm Mountains, it is perfect Reindeer habitat with an abundance of their favourite foods. So despite being cold and tired from hiking in the snow in the strong winds, I learned that, unlike myself, Reindeer are comfortable in temperatures of down to minus 30 degrees Celsius, and that the lowest temperature they have been known to survive in is minus 72 degrees C.
In the afternoons of my volunteer days I was able to go along on some of the Hill Trips. At most times of the year, a couple of times a day, one or two of the Reindeer Herders will guide a visit up onto the mountains to share their knowledge about the history of the herd, interesting facts about these incredible animals and, the bit that people seem to love the most, hand-feeding these mostly gentle animals. Like most mammals Reindeer have their own characters and personalities, which when it comes to feeding, usually draws out certain characteristics like bolshiness, being greedy or quite cheeky! All of our Reindeer have names, so I was able to get some guidance on how to learn them, not only by getting to know their features but also by their lovely and quirky characters.
Photo – Bumble and the Herd in a windblown enclosure
At the end of my winter volunteering I was honoured to be offered a job working as a part time Reindeer Herder at the Centre starting in April 2018.
As reindeer herders, one of the first things we do in the morning is opening up the paddocks. This includes cleaning out the exhibition areas, getting the dvds playing and, the best job of them all, clearing the grassy bits from reindeer poo. We start our day of work at 8 ‘o clock in the morning, which is not the best time of day for some of the herders (read: me). This quite often results in having to squad down to check if a targeted poo is indeed a poo, or if it was a rock posing as one. If you don’t believe me, try to play this game of “is it a poo or is it a rock?” and see how well you do!
Svalbard was born in the year calves were named after Games and Puzzles, with other reindeer born that year including Hopscotch, Bingo, Monopoly and Jenga. Svalbard was originally named Meccano, however in the autumn of 2011 when he came back off the free-range as a 5-month-old calf we were so struck by his short legs and dumpy body that we nicknamed him Svalbard, after the short, fat reindeer found on the high Arctic island with that name, and it stuck.
Now at seven and a half years old you could hardly describe Svalbard as short and dumpy. Maybe just rotund? Despite being a late born calf and coming back after the summer at 5 months old without his elderly mum Arnish (who must have died), Svalbard has matured into a really fine reindeer with, dare I say it, attitude.
Svalbard comes from a fine family of reindeer. His great-uncle was one of our favourite reindeer of years gone by, Gustav. His mother Arnish was a real character in the herd, who despite being antlerless all her life was certainly not disadvantaged by her lack of weapons on her head. She often took the initiative when it came to confrontations with antlered reindeer and invariably won!
Although a dark reindeer Arnish was prone to producing light coloured calves and in particular white faced calves like Svalbard. Her daughter born in 2008, Addax, has a white face and has gone on to produce calf Parmesan, who has white markings too.
And finally Svalbard reminds many of us of Sven, the reindeer in the Disney film ‘Frozen’ and that says it all.
Pera’s antlers really are worth writing about. As a calf he grew short simple antlers, which would not have given us any idea of their shape and form three years later. As a two-year-old, Pera’s antlers were slightly strange – very wide and ‘flattened’ but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. However, by 2014 his antlers are completely bizarre.
As a general rule reindeer grow antlers of a similar basic pattern, with long brow tines, including the front blade pointing forward low down above the base of the antler. Then as the main beam elongates, the later tines grow pointing backwards. Sometimes the tines can be flattened with extra points coming off them too.
Pera’s antlers, however, look like they are completely the wrong way round with the tines higher up literally pointing the wrong way. Also his antlers are incredibly wide apart at the top with very long splayed tines at the bottom. Apart from looking extraordinary it’s actually quite difficult to get a halter on him!
Antler shape and form is basically inherited – must have been an interesting combination of antlers from his mother and father to come up with Pera’s! However, we will never know exactly what they were because Pera was born in Swedish Lapland and finding out his parentage from a herd of 5,000+ reindeer would obviously be impossible. In 2014 he was one of our breeding bulls and so one of the calves he fathered was Aonach. Now Aonach is 3 1/2 you can certainly see the influence of his father on the shape of his antlers!
Reindeer are incredibly interesting animals. Many people that come on a hill trip or visit the paddocks conclude this after learning a wee bit about them. I thought so too, when I first came here, and it’s one of the reasons I kept coming back, as a visitor, then volunteer, and now member of staff. What I didn’t know then was that the more I would learn, the more fascinating the reindeer would become!
I’m currently finishing reading Tilly’s second book (The Real Rudolph) after having read her first (Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses). I am fascinated by all the new things I learn and try to share as much of that fascination I can with people during tours and paddocks talks. I look forward to starting on Tilly’s third book (Reindeer: An Arctic Life) which has just been published. Below I’ve listed some of the amazing facts I’ve only recently discovered:
– Reindeer are omnivorous: they eat what they can find and in the harsh conditions they live in this does mean that the amount of shrubbery can be limited, which can result in them eating birds!
A mighty rutting bull, strong as they look, is actually weaker than his female or castrated counterparts. I’ve learned the hard way, unfortunately, as we lost one of our beloved breeding bulls to a disease that sometimes can be cured if we spot it early. Even before the rut they will have spent a lot of energy in growing antlers, and their rutting behaviour is also very energy-consuming. This leaves them often exhausted by the end of it, makes them less effective in fighting off diseases, and causes them to go into winter with less energy reserves, which makes it harder for them to cope with the harsh winter conditions.
White reindeer that have leucisim (partial loss of pigmentation) can get sunburned in summer. We sometimes put sunscreen on their faces to prevent this from happening!
Even when we let a female reindeer in with several breeding bulls, we can still figure out which of the bulls was the father if she gets a calf later on. The simple reason for this is that they come in season for one day only, and this is then repeated in cycles of 3 weeks. A reindeer’s pregnancy lasts 221 days so when the calf gets born, it’s a simple calculation of with whom she was that many weeks ago when she was in season, and then we know the dad!
How long reindeer keep their antlers for is affected by hormones. It is for this reason that Christmas reindeer (who are all castrated) keep their antlers longer than breeding bulls. If we contracept females for that year it may cause them to loose their antlers early too!
I first visited the Cairngorms and the reindeer centre around Easter 1998 on a family holiday. There was a foot of snow on the ground in Glenmore and it was beautiful. This started a 20 year journey which resulted in me moving here to work full time last year.
The memory I have from my first ever hill trip was wading through deep snow to a reindeer sat on his own, his name was Kola. I ended up adopting him for the next decade and would return to visit him on hill trips and at the farm when Tilly would show us around on a few occasions.
In 2008 I came for some work experience that really helped me take a step forward into becoming a future reindeer herder as I got to know the reindeer and staff a little better. It was the summer when Hippo and Grunter were hand reared so taking them up and down the hill every day was a great experience. I will always remember having to encourage and push them down the path at night to the van as they were tired and did not want to leave the hill enclosure from having so much fun it seemed. Bottle feeding them wasn’t much of a chore either!
The following few years through my late teenage years I did not visit Scotland or the reindeer much as we had moved down South and all my focus was on racing my bike in Belgium at any opportunity. Through my years during and after University in my early 20s I gradually started to return to Scotland and to see the reindeer once again. Whenever in the area I would always try and help out for a day or two mixing and carrying feed up and down the hill, as I wasn’t much use other than as a mule/poo picker.
In the autumn of 2016 I came to Glenmore for a few days of camping and somehow ended up moving into reindeer house for almost a month and trying to make myself useful. Fiona and Mel were living at the centre at the time and it gave me my first taste of the fantastic lifestyle we have as staff living in here at Reindeer House: have a great day of work on the hill with the reindeer, go running, swimming or cycling after work and then come home to a delicious meal cooked by one of your housemates. I had known for years that I would like to come and work here for a while but that month really confirmed this to me. Fiona also threw one of the greatest parties ever seen over at the farm that year with hill races, tough mudders and bike races during the day followed by some fantastic food and a big ol’ ceilidh in the evening!
So to autumn 2017. I had spent the previous 2 ½ years travelling all over the UK, Europe and other parts of the world working for a professional cycling team which gave me some fantastic adventures, but I missed the mountains. I spent 6 weeks travelling around the west coast of Canada and the USA trying to spend a bit more time in the hills. I arrived back in Scotland as my parents were coming up for the adopters weekend so I tagged along to say hello to Fiona and the others before she then offered me a job. Fiona asked me to work for a month or so up to Christmas. Needless to say I had a brilliant time working here. When I realised Morna, Ruth and Olly were all looking to move on in the early part of 2019 I decided I would stay on for a year or so and settle down for a while in the mountains after a hectic few years of driving and flying all over the place to bike races. Whilst I miss the riders and staff plus some of the travelling of the cycling team I could not be happier here at Reindeer House and may well end up here a little longer than planned once again!
Special mentions to Joe and Rob for making the first 6 weeks of Christmas Fun very fun!
Joe <3 Baffin. Taking a break from running with Joe to herd some reindeer one evening!
Its well over two years now since Viking was born which also means I have been a Reindeer Herder for well over two years. It was my first trip into the hill enclosure that morning and it was chilly in early May when Fiona and I first caught a glimpse of young Viking. He was white all over and extremely floppy. Proud but casual Mother, Caddis, was right behind the wee man. From then on neither of us has looked back.
What great two years they have been. Both Viking and I have been maturing constantly. Keeping fit on the hill and building a real rapport with both staff and visitors. Both Viking and I have developed into real characters with handsome and striking features (haha). Viking has grown a great set of antlers this year and is showing real potential as a dominant male in the herd – I have not.
His coat is very light – silvery in the summer and white as snow in the winter. He has some darker patches on his face. My freckles have developed over the summer creating an equally patchy display. All up Viking and I are quite similar and I hope our friendship will continue for a long time yet.
The years ahead are likely to be fun for both of us. Lots of work to be done keeping ourselves fit and healthy. The changing of seasons will bring many challenges but the rewards keep us going. During the third year of a males life is when the unfortunate and mildly traumatic process of castration is performed. THIS IS MOST DEFINITELY WHEN WE GO OUR SEPARATE WAYS!!
Earlier this year we sadly lost Sequin, one of our most well-known females of the herd. Tilly wrote this article about Sequin back in 2015 which we thought we would share once again.
Born 9th May 2002
Sequin is what we would describe as a ‘normal coloured reindeer’, with a dark back and light sides. However, in contrast, her mother Polo, grandmother Ferrari, great grandmother Vivi, great great grandmother Stina, great great great grandmother Snowflake and great great great great grandmother May were all white or very light coloured reindeer, so Sequin is very much the ‘black sheep’ of her extended family.
Whiteness in reindeer is a recessive gene and it is interesting to see how that colouring has been so persistent through the generations. I think this is probably due to Snowflake, who was actually an albino reindeer and must have passed on strong white genes to her daughter Stina. Sequin may be the odd one out in this long line of direct white relatives, but she has passed on the white gene to her 2013 calf Cambozola.
Sequin’s mother, Polo, was an extremely good looking reindeer, who always grew very pretty antlers and, with her good looks, almost regarded her calves as a fashion accessory! Sequin lived up to her mother’s expectations and is definitely a pretty reindeer, although she doesn’t always measure up when it comes to antlers as they have been known to be rather ‘wiggly’ in the past. But that’s maybe due to age!
At 13 years old Sequin is now one of our older female reindeer, which just makes me feel old too because I clearly remember when she was born – 2002, the year we celebrated 50 years of reindeer in Scotland. The calves born along with Sequin followed a theme of gold and to this day we still have five other reindeer born in 2002: Haze, Foil, Ring, Lilibet and Bangle. So you may well ask how does Lilibet fit into the gold theme? Well, 2002 was the Jubilee year for the Queen as well as for us, and ‘Lilibet’ was her nickname as a child.
Sequin is a real character in the herd; not only does she have four surviving calves of her own – Fern, Stenoa, Cambozola and North – who like their mother are very tame and greedy, but she is a grandmother to Ladybird and great grandmother to Baltic. A great family of reindeer in our herd.