In May 2018 a male calf was born in our Reindeer Enclosure. His mother Ladybird was happy and attentive. He would later be called Bond. He and his mother left the enclosure a few weeks later bound for the tops of the hills and away from the heat of the coming summer.
The pair was seen together a few times in the summer. Bond was progressing fine and enjoying being a calf in the Cairngorms.
In the autumn, as always the reindeer came down from the tops of mountains to the lower pastures. I was out looking for them one morning and spotted a large group up on the ski road. I led them down towards the Allt Mor and over Utzi’s Bridge keeping them interested all along with a bag of treats. This time of year we are always keen to see how the calves have got on so I was checking the group for any calves. I spied just one in this group, very small and without any antlers. Usually a calf will have grown a small set of antlers in their first summer. While I walk I try and identify the calf’s mother, but it’s not obvious which female is his mother! He darts around the whole group and gets bunted away by several females. Where is his mother? By a process of elimination we identify him as Bond and indeed his mother Ladybird in missing. It is very rare for a four month old calf to be without its mother. He was very small for his age but he was in perfect health. We thought he must have been without his mother’s milk for some time. Reindeer calves are extremely hardy and are capable of grazing as soon as a few weeks after birth.
Weeks passed and we began to fear the worst about the whereabouts of Ladybird. Until one morning I was out again and spied a group and was relieved to see Ladybird amongst them. I had images like in the movies of long lost relatives reunited but it was not to be. There was no embrace, no high fives. They were often in the same group but would not stick tightly together like other cows and calves. Bond had ‘roughed it’ on his own and that was how it was going to stay. Ladybird’s milk had dried out so their bond was broken.
Bond is still smaller than the other calves but makes up for it in gusto. He is often one for the first to kick at the bag of feed, but does so gently. I think to make it on your own you must be stoic and gentle if at times a little pushy.
We think around August Bond and Ladybird must have become separated. Dogs can sometimes chase our reindeer and can force a group to split. We are looking forward to watching Bond’s progress and Ladybird is doing fine also.
I suspect it’s definitely my turn to write a blog and Chris has been very polite and not pestering me but it’s definitely in the back of my mind so I’ll give you a wee sum up of Christmas.
As always Christmas went very smoothly in 2018. We covered the length and breadth of the country with our furthest north event in Lairg and our furthest south event in Truro. On our busiest weekends we had eight teams out all consisting of 4-6 reindeer and 2 herders. No weekend for me was the same, I had different reindeer, different team mates and I found myself in as far south as Essex and as far north as Tain and Dingwall. I also flew home (not by reindeer and sleigh!) from the depths of the south at one point as Leonie (fellow reindeer herder) swapped places with me. My first weekend away was with Joe and Sheena. They were in training, learning the ropes for the rest of the season. We had an absolute ball and it was nice for them to experience another part of the Reindeer Company having worked up here in the highlands for so long with the reindeer. The three of us all had hoarse voices when we got home from all the singing in the cab of the lorry. The following week was my long drive south, in what felt like the slowest lorry. Olly joined me as far as the Lakes then Eve jumped in there and we headed to the far south covering events south of London over the Saturday and Sunday. We stayed with friends of ours who have a deer farm down there and had some lovely mornings exercising the reindeer and doing a spot of extra training with the team. Leonie then flew south, joined Eve and that team of reindeer while I flew back north. Spending too much time down south isn’t really my cup of tea anymore; it’s nice to be back on home soil! The following weekend I was with real old timer Colin Delap. When I was a kid Colin lived and worked here so is like a brother to me. Having lived in Australia for over ten years he is now back in Scotland and dots in and out helping us out at busy times of year… i.e. Christmas! We did some more local Scottish events that weekend which was nice. I have to say (with some exceptions of course) the Scottish events are much more hospitable than the events down south. There is always tea/coffee and food on tap… Hint Hint! 😉
The next weekend was completely different to the usual. With Bobby my buddy from the Everest marathon around for a couple of months, Tom (another Everest marathon friend) came to visit us. Tom could only come over on the weekend which meant if he wanted to spend time with us he had to work! He took it all on board and between him and Mo (the reindeer) they had these events down to a T! As a bit of back up, Ruth (ex-herder) joined us for the events as an extra pair of hands as she lived fairly local to them so the four of us had a great time. The following weekend I headed off with Kate who was also taking part in Christmas for her first year. She had already been out with other herders so knew the drill by this point. We had world famous fish and chips in Anstruther, hung out with the posh students of St Andrews and did the longest parade through Linwood. By this point it was getting quite close to Christmas. My next weekend was away with Bobby. But this time there was no Ruth or Tom to help out so instead I took a ‘bomb proof’ reindeer team. In fact Bobby had done the least amount of events out of the whole team, however he took it all in his stride. We joked as we were getting close to our event that the parade will probably all be uphill and he’d have to push the sleigh the whole way… Well we shouldn’t have joked because it was about 1 mile of uphill. Poor Bobby had a quick lesson on pushing the sleigh while I walked merrily at the front leading the two reindeer ‘pulling’ the sleigh and the reindeer at the back plodded along. Ach, Bobby does marathons all over the world, it’ll just go towards his training 😉
The final days running up to Christmas I dotted back and forth from the farm, doing local events at schools, nurseries and hotels… basically trying to avoid Christmas Fun at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. These guys have got it all under control and having organised the events side of Christmas I didn’t need to be involved with Christmas fun as well. I’m clueless when it came to Christmas fun so I was better off keeping out of their hair. Chris finished off Christmas with me doing Christmas Eve and Christmas day round the final events. We also had youngest herders Oscar and Tilly (Colin Delap’s children) join us on Christmas day. They were leading reindeer and sitting in the sleigh, making sure we were all doing the right jobs of course. It reminds me a lot of when I was a child because myself and Alex would have to join mum and dad on Christmas day going round the local hotels before heading home to celebrate Christmas itself. I wouldn’t know Christmas any other way and wouldn’t have it any other way so delighted to see Oscar and Tilly also getting involved because it is such a great way of life working with the reindeer.
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!
Last week we had a brief thaw of the snow, it’s an awful lot harder to spot the reindeer! The first few photos show how well they blend in with their surroundings in these conditions. Luckily they don’t hide and come running for food whenever we call them and they can hear us, as politely demonstrate here 😊. Enjoy some photos of our freeranging herd!
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!
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?!?
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 🙂