As the Reindeer Centre was shut to the public in January Manouk and I were able to take a couple of weeks off to head off skiing in Austria. We had a great time and Manouk patiently taught me to ski so it was a great success. Any time we head away we are always happy to be home as we live in such a fantastic place and love being around the reindeer everyday. We returned home to find winter had finally arrived properly. Loch Morlich was frozen, snow everywhere and the temperature regularly dropping to minus 10 overnight for almost a week. It’s good to be home and we had a stunning first couple of days back here in the Cairngorms so here are a few of my favourite photos. It just so happened that Fiona had also been away skiing for a couple of weeks at the same time, slightly further away from home than us, so we all had a big reunion on a sunny snowy day feeding reindeer together, lovely!
At the moment we do our hill trips with our free ranging females that are roaming around the Cairngorms. As the word free ranging suggests, they are free to go as far as they like. This also means that, if we want to have a trip that doesn’t take up the whole day and that is doable for most people, every morning we have to convince the reindeer to come to an area that is easily accessible.
For this reason, we set off first thing in the morning with 2 members of staff to go and find them and to lead them nearer to a carpark. We usually have a rough idea of the area where the reindeer are from the day before. However, reindeer walk at a rapid pace and could move from one place to another in a short timespan, so this often involves some sort of search. Besides that, they are often quite far out, and as reindeer like to go uphill, so must we in the early morning. When we then finally find the herd, it can take some time to convince them to go down the hill with us. That’s where some reindeer come in very handy: the greedy ones. We will have a wee bag of handfeed, and, knowing if they get to us first they will get a handful, there are always a few that are on their feet right away to follow us. And as the Dutch like to say: ‘if one sheep crosses the dam, the others will follow’ – only it’s reindeer. And they don’t cross a dam, they go down a hill. Anyhow. By having a handful of reindeer interested in following us, we are usually able to get the whole herd on their feet and get them to follow us to a nice spot before the 11am visit arrives. Without greedy reindeer our lives would be a lot more difficult! Thanks Okapi, Fly, Lace, Lulu, Sika, Ibex, Jaffa, and all of the other ones I might have forgotten here!
Hen noticed the other day that we were fast approaching our 200th blog milestone, so thought we’d better mark the occasion!
We started blogging in April 2015 – we’d taken part in a Digital Marketing course for local businesses and one of the pieces of advice is that doing a regular blog can help build a connection with people who are interested in what you do. We thought we’d better give it a go, and somehow (sometimes by the skin of our teeth) we have managed to post a blog every Friday without fail since – the “schedule” function means that we’ve even covered Christmas Day and New Year’s day.
Whilst everyone one here is asked to contribute blogs, we have one herder in charge of making sure one is posted at the correct time, complete with pretty pictures and hopefully with spelling mistakes removed! As it was my “idea” (as I’m reminded bitterly at times…) I took this role for the first year or so, before passing on to Imogen. Imogen certainly had the most luck getting blogs written – we’re all a bit scared of her and when she cornered you and said it was overdue, you’d drop whatever you were doing to get typing! When Imogen moved on, she passed over to Morna, who has now relinquished the title to Chris. Chris goes for public shaming in his efforts to get blogs produced – a list materializes on the office door with everyone’s name and promises of rewards for the first person to get their name crossed off, and punishment for the last one…
So we hope this may inspire you to have a look through our “back catalogue” of blogs. We do have to apologise that some are missing their photos after we migrated our website to a new server last year, but hopefully it gives you some reading material. If there is just one blog you look back at, we can recommend this one for a laugh…
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over the years is how long do reindeer live? I’ve always answered about 12-14 years on average, but a conversation with Dave earlier today in the office got me thinking about the topic.
The askers of the question tend to be surprised by the answer, expecting the reindeer’s lifespan to be more in the region of a horse’s, say 25 to 30 years. But (very much as a generalisation) in the animal kingdom, the larger the animal the longer they tend to live, and reindeer are considerably smaller in body size than a horse, or indeed even a small pony, an adult weighing only between 100 – 150kg.
Female reindeer in our herd tend to live a little longer on average than males, and looking at the herd list on the office wall here, currently indeed 9 out of the oldest 11 reindeer in the herd are female. In a totally wild situation this may be due to the stress the rutting season puts on a bull’s body each year, during which they can lose a third of their body weight, subsequently going into the hard winter months in much poorer body condition than the cows. Year on year this annual loss of condition really takes its toll. But our males are mostly castrated as 3 year olds, meaning they take no part in the rutting season and remain fat right into, and in an easy winter, right through to the spring. So I don’t really know what their excuse is, but there is certainly a noticeable difference in the average age of our males and females!
After Dave and I’s conversation, we’ve come to the conclusion that it may be more realistic to state 12-14 as the average age for a female reindeer, but perhaps more like 10 -12 for a male. Maybe we’ll settle for 12 overall to cover all bases. It’s worth noting that some reindeer in permanent captivity may have longer lifespans as they have very little environmental stresses on their bodies, with food provided all year around and shelter from the elements. A reindeer named Valeska reached 21 at the Highland Wildlife Park, just 10 miles down the road from us. Valeska was actually owned by us, back in the day when we used to very occasionally send reindeer from our herd to live elsewhere. We’re talking 30+ years ago though, and don’t do this anymore.
The harsh fact is that the vast majority of captive reindeer, however, in fact have much, much shorter lifespans brought about by incorrect diet, climate and lifestyle, but that’s another matter entirely and beside the point for this blog. Our reindeer, while pampered to some extent, do live as natural a lifestyle as we can possibly provide for much of the year, and have to cope with the rigours of life in a sub-arctic habitat and climate – the Cairngorms in the grip of a winter storm is not a friendly environment to any animal. Staying alive in -30°C in howling winds when your grazing is concealed under hard-packed snow and ice, for days at a time, obviously uses a lot of precious energy and vital body reserves.
Until last year, 18 was the record age in our herd here for any reindeer, achieved by females Trout and Tuna in 2002. The oldest male was Scapa, who got to 17. But Trout and Tuna’s record was finally beaten last year by Lilac, who certainly reached 19. We last saw her a week after her birthday, still looking great out free-ranging a couple of miles away, but we don’t know the exact date of her passing. An early retirement from motherhood (Monopoly was her final calf, at age 12) no doubt added to her longevity, as did her sheer bloody-mindedness! Lilac lived her life exactly as she wanted, and quite often where she wanted too – which was not always in concurrence with us. Her backside, disappearing over the nearest horizon in the opposite direction from the rest of the herd, became a common sight over the years.
So, who are the geriatric members of the herd today? The oldest of all is actually a male, one of our 2004 import of Swedes, Addjá, who is nearly 17, and has always had a squint nose. Most of you will be more familiar with Boris, our squinty nosed 6 year old, but Addjá was the original ‘ugly’ reindeer in the herd. Hot on his heels are Cailin and Fonn: females who are approaching 16 (Fonn being the older by two days), and then there are females Malawi (13); Lulu, Santana, Joni, Blondie, Enya and Dixie (all 12), and male Elvis (12). Age isn’t everything though, and reindeer have such varying characters than some can go on for donkey’s years without ever seeming to really make themselves known (looking at you, Joni), while others make a huge impact even before they’ve reached a year old (stand up and take a bow, Dr Seuss…!). But perhaps that’s the beauty of working on a daily basis with a herd of 150 animals.
The weather here has been chilly but there really hasn’t been more than a sprinkling of the white stuff – maybe it’s all being saved up for February but it has to be the most snow-free January I’ve had up here. We had a few days with a dusting of snow on the ground on the hill, but with a mild day today much of it has melted. The reindeer don’t mind, and are enjoying the cool temperatures whilst having easy access to the grazing still.
There’s a forecast for more snow in the next week though, so we’ll wait and see!
It may not come as a huge surprise to readers that many of our herders are hill runners. In fact, I think almost any herder could be described as one depending on how you define runner. A run in the area where we and the reindeer live is almost automatically a hill run and sometimes herding reindeer includes running or fast walking in the hills.
On that note, much to my surprise, I found a Dutch book lying around in the office a couple of weeks ago. Being the only speaker of Dutch at the centre (apart from some inappropriate use of Dutch words by Chris which I have absolutely nothing to do with, I swear), I decided to have a wee look through it. It was an incredibly interesting book about humans and long distance running, written by legendary long distance runner Jan Knippenberg. Later on I found out that Tilly (the owner of the herd) had been given the book, as some chapters involved the reindeer herd and Mikel Utsi, the founder of the herd. Apparantly, Knippenberg is even the one who initially got Alan into hill running, a form of pastime he is known to be very fond of these days. Tilly asked if I wanted to read bits of the book and write a blog about it, so here goes.
In the book, Knippenberg explains that, in the history of the human being, it’s relatively very recent that we changed our active lifestyle of walking or running around for spending most of our days sitting or standing still. As examples of how we used to live he mentions the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the lifestyle of shepherds or herders of animals, and the Scottish gillies (helpers of lairds) who walked long distances to convey messages. Eventually he makes the point that the “running hype” is not, like we tell ourselves, a way to battle the new inactive way of life most people live, but rather a creation of society brought forth by the hype of commercial marketing and a desire to be “fit”. This “being fit”, according to him, is something completely different than the state we once had to be in, in order to survive.
Knippenberg argues that the marketing and popularising of “jogging” makes it a commercial thing, alienating it from what we used to do as children, simply because we felt like it. Running around on the beach, chasing each other around in a field, competing against our playmates to see who is the fastest, these are all examples of unlimited running that are closer to our native human nature instinct. 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.
Right, back to hill running and reindeer herding. As a new herder in summer, I built up my stamina quite quickly. This happens automatically, especially in the summer months, when we sometimes chase free ranging reindeer to where they are supposed to be, go up the hill a couple of times a day, and spend a lot of our days off walking or running around in the mountains. Because we have a purpose none other than doing something with reindeer or enjoying nature, I think this comes quite close to what Knippenberg describes. I think most of us herders enjoy being in the mountains, a bit like a child enjoys running around on the beach. I don’t know if the job attracts the type of person that is likely to enjoy hill running, or that the job changes herders into hill runners. All I know is that there are a lot of people that take up hill running while working at the reindeer centre. It’s also striking that nonetheless, most of us don’t necessarily describe ourselves as runners. This confirms my theory that the way we “run” is not for running’s sake or for fitness, but for work purposes or for having a good time in the hills. It’s interesting that the lifestyle of a herder is mentioned by Knippenberg as one of the old ways of living prior to our sedentary lifestyle, and that the type of running described by him as long distance running seems very close to how it’s done at the centre, with a childlike joy.
As a runner who before did partake in the running hype, keeping track of pace and heartbeat and acceleration etc. this book provided an interesting frame, linking the lifestyle of a herder and the gradual change in how I run and what the purpose behind that is. I look forward to seeing if new herders experience a similar change, and to seeing if my running will become more like the long distance running described by Knippenberg and carried out by some of the herders (including Alan Smith) or if the links I laid in my head are a bit far-fetched and it’s basically all just coincidence 🙂
This Christmas the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre has been given a very fancy Christmas present. Jaguar cars have given us a 4 x 4 F Pace to drive around free of charge for the next 6 months. Adorned with Cairngorm Reindeer and Jaguar logos it has certainly turned a few heads!
So on Christmas Day when we were just about to do a local reindeer event at the Coylumbridge Hotel, Santa was in a dilemma, there were two modes of transport. A team of reindeer and sleigh, with a hard wooden seat and a team of exhausted reindeer (who had done too much flying on Christmas Eve) – or an extremely comfortable, fully automatic Jaguar F Pace 4 x 4.
He chose the Jag, but of course the children waiting at the hotel would be very disappointed if Santa rocked up in a car so he was ceremoniously booted out and plonked in the sleigh instead!
All our reindeer events have gone extremely well this year and everywhere we have gone we have put a smile on people’s faces. All those reindeer we train to harness are now back on the hills and enjoying a well-deserved rest, and it will not be until next October that we bring out the harness, dig out the sleighs and decorations and prepare for another Christmas season. For the Christmas reindeer it’s not a bad life, 10 months off and 2 months doing some work. I can think of worse jobs!
All our reindeer have now grown their lovely thick winter coats and laid down substantial fat layers to survive the winter. But where is that cold snowy weather, indeed this is one of the mildest Christmases I can remember. Maybe the New Year will bring the snow, we will just have to wait and see.
So from all of us here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we hope you had a good one this Hogmanay and best wishes for 2019!
Ever since the early days of the herd, there has been a “Daily Diary” written, keeping track of the movements of the reindeer, amounts fed, illness and veterinary care, visitors, weather and anything else of note. We still keep this up to this day, though throughout the years this has varied from handwritten to typewritten and now typed on a computer. It is an invaluable record for us, and also really interesting to look back through. I was looking through old records a while ago and started snapping photos of some humorous entries, which I thought were too good not to be shared:
One year after spending Thanksgiving as the lone American in Nepal with a group of runners that included Fiona Smith, I could have never imagined that I would be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a group of reindeer herders in the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, here I am, still the lone American, but with a whole bunch of great friends surrounding me and accepting me as the, ‘token yank’.
My road to becoming a reindeer herder was unconventional to say the least. Actually, is there really any conventional way to end up working at the Cairngorm Reindeer Center? And yep, that is Center spelled with an ‘er’ at the end because there are just some things that I refuse to conform to including British spelling of certain words. So if you receive an adoption pack describing your reindeer’s ‘color’ you can bet that I wrote it.
It all began last November while in the Himalaya finishing up my mission to run a marathon in every continent, and Asia was my last one. I was part of an expedition running the Everest Marathon, a group that included the one and only reindeer extraordinaire, Fiona Smith. When we were doing our introductions on the first few days of the trek, I honestly thought that she was joking when she enlightened us all to her incredibly unique profession. C’mon now, no one actually herds reindeer for a living? They just sit at the North Pole and eat carrots; no one looks after them but Santa. Boy, was I wrong. I knew virtually nothing about these incredible animals and the amazing people that take care of them here in Scotland.
Fast forward to this past July, Fiona, our friend Tom from the Everest Marathon, and former reindeer herder Ruth Molloy found themselves on a plane to America to join me on my hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT). And for about a week, they all enjoyed the delightful experience of arduously trudging through the muddy hemlock forests of Vermont.
Anytime you meet someone while traveling, you know them in a very isolated context, so it becomes quite odd when you see them outside of that original encounter. However, when participating in something like the Everest Marathon, it enables you to create a bond with people that transcends far beyond what is normal. Because of this we stayed in close communication in the months following our journey through the Himalaya. When I had first told them that I would be hiking the Appalachian Trail, they must have done little to no research because they were quite keen to join me!
While we all hiked there were many jokes made on my behalf regarding my homelessness and unemployment, simply living in a tent for five months in the mountains of the east coast of the United States. These jokes however, led to an offer that seemed to be taken more seriously as the days on the trail with Fiona and company went on. She suggested that when I had finished hiking, if I would like to visit her in Scotland, I’d be welcome to come help out at the Reindeer Center for November and December. The Christmas season tends to be a busy time of year for reindeer (I at least knew that), so they always welcome an extra set of hands.
Next thing I knew, I had myself a plane ticket to Scotland and not the slightest clue into what I had gotten myself into. The first few days as a reindeer herder were a whirlwind of fact learning, feed mixing, and poo picking. Very different than my normal job occupation in the United States as a paramedic, I found it quite enjoyable being in an environment where no one was yelling at me or bleeding on me (hopefully). And on my measure at how successful I am at a task, I was doing very well, no one was dying!
There have been several learning curves thus far that many other herders don’t generally experience. As I’ve alluded to already, my spelling of certain words has been critiqued by many of my colleagues; they are especially disturbed by ’aluminum’. Conversely, I have a particularly difficult time attempting to pronounce many of the names of the Scottish towns and hills. People have been very amused by my attempts to say them in an American accent as well.
Additionally, I have never seen so many hot drinks consumed in my life! It seems like tea kettles are constantly boiling at all hours of the day! Honestly, I feel it would be more efficient to set up an IV infusion of tea for some of my coworkers!
Driving on the left side of the road has also evoked a sense of paranoia that even distracts me from singing along with the radio. I find myself constantly repeating the mantra of, “left, left, left” while driving on the winding narrow backroads of the Highlands. But with the help of my fellow herders, all of these hurdles (see what I did there) have been uneventfully navigated.
Often times while I blogged during my time on the Appalachian Trail, I wrote how it wasn’t necessarily the place, but the people that dictate an experience. Living at Reindeer House certainly does not fail to hold true to that theory. With seven of us from four different countries living under the same roof, from morning to night we certainly have a lot of fun. Friends that I have been with for only a month now feel like I have known them for years (in a good way). And last night the staff of the Cairngorm Reindeer Center held the first Thanksgiving in the sixty-six year history of the herd.
To say my experience as a chef is limited would be an understatement. Aside from my mother’s fantastic meals, I’ve essentially lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and noodles for the past twenty-four years, cooking a full turkey dinner was an ambitious exploit to say the least. The thought of preparing a meal of this magnitude for so many people left me more unsettled than being in the back of an ambulance with a trauma patient. But with a day off and Google at my fingertips I was eager to give it a go nonetheless. Having a bit of help from Fiona and the internet I’m happy to say it all went off without a hitch and the food was very enjoyable.
Everyone dressed up in their finest American attire, Fiona made an American playlist, and laughs and delicious food were shared by everyone. Even Scotty and Kate the owners of the local bar, the Pine Marten, decorated the walls with American flags, the Declaration of Independence, and many other photos of American symbols and monuments.
It was truly one of the greatest Thanksgiving celebrations I have ever had with people that I am certain will be lifelong friends. Although I missed my family, this wild bunch of reindeer herders made the holiday very special for me.
I think this says a lot about Cairngorm Reindeer Center and the people it attracts here. If you’ve ever come for a visit you may have noticed the kindness and attentiveness the staff has exhibited, but what you see is just a small sample of the true personality of all the herders. This incredible group of people that I have been working and living with are some of the most caring and altruistic humans I have ever met. Their love for the reindeer, their job, and each other is unparalleled to most environments I have witnessed. So from the bottom of my heart I need to thank Fiona and the whole Smith family because now I feel incredibly fortunate to also be a part of this wonderful community.
So as most of you already know, during the winter time we locate the herd every morning and a couple of us walk out to bring them in a bit closer for our daily visit at 11am. You’ve heard many stories of this over the years but I thought I’d just put together some of my best photos. Its been a pretty snowy winter this year with the odd stormbound day preventing us from getting up the hill at all but some of the days we have been up it is absolutely glorious and by far the best place to be in the whole country (In my eye anyway)
There are always the same ones leading the way – Fly, Caddis, Kara and Okapi but some newer ones are starting to show a bit more greed in their characters and coming up front more and more. Some of these ones are Brimmick, Morven and Lora. Through January they are always super keen and come from anywhere to a call. However, as the winter goes on and into the spring they become less and less reluctant to come charging down the hill when we call them. This is because they are pregnant and sometimes the thought of staying where they are on that nice ridge seems like the better option. When this is the case we walk right out to them, one of us will lead them in while the other walks along at the back keeping them moving. They never object at this point, especially when they realise a lovely bag of food is at the other end!
The dogs also get to join us for part of this walk every morning. Sookie and TIree are allowed to come so far then they know they have to wait wherever they are asked to wait until we return with the reindeer. Reindeer and dogs don’t mix well and our dogs are very respectful of this and keep a low profile whenever the reindeer are around. Sometimes we are gone for a couple of hours but you can be sure the dogs will be exactly where we left them, waiting eagerly for our return! Needless to say there is two very excited dogs when we do come back.
I hope you enjoy my photos as much as I enjoyed going out and bringing the reindeer in daily and taking the photos.