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 🙂
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!