A couple of months ago there was a woman on our hill trip who wondered if we ever did sleigh rides with our reindeer. Apart from our parades around Christmas time, at which we use a sleigh for Santa to sit on, we don’t do any sleigh rides. It is simply not along the lines of what we want to use our reindeer for year round.
When I was in Norway before, there were companies that offered sleigh rides with reindeer. The owners of these reindeer seemed to be quite happy taking people along on sleigh rides and the reindeer, being rewarded with lichen, happily obliged. I couldn’t resist, so I gave it a go. It was quite fun, yet a lot slower than I had imagined, even though I had been involved with Christmas last year as well. The reindeer just take it slow and put up a pace you could easily keep up with on foot. Nonetheless, it’s quite calming and relaxing to be in your sleigh, being pulled by your reindeer. Reindeer seem to have a calming effect on people. This is something many people say on our hill trips, and something I’ve found as well from the first time I met them. So in Scotland it won’t be possible to go on a sleigh ride any time soon (unless you’re Santa and it’s Christmas time) but if you do it in Norway, Sweden or Finland, you’re up for a calming, relaxing ride, right through winter wonderland.
After last week’s blog of death, this week we bring you the blog of life.
Calving season arrived a week later than expected this year with the first calf of the year being born on the latest date in recent years. We thought we’d share a selection of photos from the first few calves to be born this year. Later in the month we’ll bring you some more photos.
As ever we will not disclose who the new mothers are until our June newsletter. If you manage to work out who the mother is before June in any of the posts we share please keep that knowledge to yourself so we can let all our adopters know at the same time.
All farmers and animal keepers know the saying. It’s a phrase often learnt the hard way but once learnt, it’s never forgotten. It’s only too easily remembered though when everything, it seems, is going tits up…
‘When you have livestock, you have dead stock’.
The subject of death might seem an odd choice for a blog but it’s part and parcel of working with animals and therefore not something to be hidden, or never mentioned. I feel that in this sort of job, it could be all too easy to brush over losses, but sometimes people do like a little frankness and want to know more (aren’t I brave?!).
Reindeer probably don’t live as long as many people expect, the average age being around 11-13, so naturally there is a turnover of quite a few animals per year. As to be expected, we have years with good survival rates and some with bad, so therefore we purposely vary our calving numbers from year to year in an effort to hold the herd at around 150 animals. This way we control our overall number without ever having to cull.
But animals being animals, they can find all sorts of ways to turn up their toes before their time, and sometimes we do find ourselves fighting a losing battle with a particular reindeer. Though I must say, in recent times there thankfully hasn’t been quite such a dramatic loss as one I unearthed in ancient diaries of Mr Utsi’s, detailing a bull in the 50s who was found drowned, having become accidentally tangled in wire and then blown into a loch – such is the wildness of the winter weather here at times. What a terrible way to go, and an incredibly hard loss for Mr Utsi, especially in the days when the herd was in its infancy. A striking example of the fact that sometimes, accidents do just happen, however much you try to ensure that they don’t.
In latter years, ticks have been the cause of many a loss in the herd. Twenty years or so ago, we lost reindeer after reindeer until we got to grips with a particular illness that reindeer can suffer which is transmitted by ticks, and though we are on top of it nowadays, having learnt which vaccinations do and don’t work and how often they should be used (no veterinary drugs come with detailed instructions specifically for reindeer!), it does still rear its ugly head every now and then. Most of the time we treat the affected reindeer successfully, but we still do lose reindeer to it on occasion, and one such loss hit us particularly hard last autumn. That was Fergus, our big, handsome three year old bull. If you’ve followed us via our blog and social media pages over the last few years, you’ll have heard all about Fergus, hand-reared in 2015 after his mum died. From the underdog in the herd as a calf he had turned into the biggest, most impressive reindeer of his year, so his death really, really hurt.
Spring is often the most difficult time for reindeer, coinciding with the highest concentration of ticks. In spring, before the good grazing appears, the reindeer have just made it through the winter using up their fat reserves as they go, so their bodies are at a low ebb. This makes them more vulnerable to illness, with lowered immune systems, and it’s probably the most problematic time of year for them as a result. Into the summer and they put on weight, rolling in fat by around August, standing them in good stead for the winter months to come. That said, autumn can be hard too with another spike in the tick numbers coupled with a change in diet for many of the reindeer, females in particular, as they drop from the high tops of the mountains to the lower slopes.
You may remember that in 2018 we had live twins born for the first time in the history of the herd, but that in the early autumn we lost the smaller one, Hutch. We think his immune system just wasn’t strong enough to cope with illness after a difficult start in life, and very sadly his twin Starsky also died, about 6 weeks later. The curse of the autumn months, but in hindsight I think we can be pretty proud to have got them right through the summer when they were so much smaller than their compatriots – reindeer aren’t designed to have twins for a reason. We had great fun with them throughout the summer and will look back on their time with happy memories as, I think, will everyone who met them.
I can fully appreciate how upsetting it can be when people have enjoyed meeting a particular reindeer, and later find out that they’ve died. For us, working as closely as we do and investing a huge amount of love, time and effort into each individual, it can be utterly soul destroying when we lose them. In order to work with animals we have to learn to at least deal with death, but coping doesn’t mean we’re hardened to it – the atmosphere in the house when a reindeer has died is subdued and keeping a cheerful attitude with visitors is difficult. Ironically, it’s often on these days that a visitor will announce that we have the “best job in the world” …
One aspect that can make the loss of a reindeer even harder is then having to write to that reindeer’s adopters to let them know the sad news. In particular, my heart will sink when I realise that I have to let so-and-so know when it’s not too long after they have lost a previous adoptee, but this is the way that luck works, and sometimes it does happen. Conversely, when our ancient female Lilac passed away last year, there were a couple of adopters who had adopted her for almost her entire life of 19 years!
We always do our best to address envelopes to the parents of an adopting child in case they want to break the news themselves, and over the years I’ve had a few visiting adopters here at the Centre, small child in tow, gesturing frantically to me over the child’s head, while saying how sad it is that their adopted reindeer has had to move back to Lapland to live with Santa! However, it is easy to make a small mistake on a computer, so if you find yourself one day receiving a letter addressed to your parents but you’re in your 40s, for the love of God let us know because we’ve ticked the wrong box on the database!
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!