Jonas joined our herd from Sweden in 2011 when we brought over a contingent of bulls to boost the genetics in our own herd. We had to make a decision the next year to which reindeer we would keep as bulls and breed from and which ones we would geld/castrate and have as Christmas reindeer. Jonas never made it to being a bull, which maybe in hindsight is a shame cos he has got a lovely nature. However we cant live off hindsight and to be completely honest he has just made the most wonderful Christmas reindeer… Possibly the perfect Christmas reindeer in his own right.
Although the first couple of years he was still very much learning the ropes alongside our already trained reindeer he took to wearing a harness, taking part in events across the country and settling back into herd life here on the mountain like a duck to water. When we are away from home at Christmas time it is really important the reindeer travel together and do events as a mini herd. Therefore our teams consist of no less than 4 reindeer. They take comfort in numbers so to take 2 reindeer away on their own means they would have little guidance and therefore uncomfortable in their surroundings. The handlers who work with them all year round know these reindeer very well and also become part of the ‘herd’ on Christmas tour.
After about 2-3 years of taking part in Christmas events Jonas became the role model to younger, less experienced reindeer going out for their first year. Jonas isn’t one to be petted or molly coddled and to be honest most reindeer aren’t. They enjoy company however they don’t want to be fussed. There are exceptions within this of course, however I would say only a handful of reindeer in our herd actually want to be fussed, petted or stroked. Putting on harness and working them is completely different, they treat it as a job and do it with the upmost patience and expertise as long as they get their bowl of food and have the company from the other reindeer they really are fantastic at it. I would sooner take any of our reindeer into a busy event in a city than my dog, their behaviour remains consistent as does their appetite!
So at the age of 9 I wouldn’t hesitate to take Jonas out on tour as one of my most experienced Christmas reindeer. He is pale in colour which makes him very striking within the team. He grows nice, shapely compact antlers suiting travelling in our livestock trucks and pulling the sleigh alongside another Christmas reindeer and he just has the best nature but isn’t a pest by being super tame, in your face and pushy which can come with the nature of a very tame reindeer. All in all I think he’s one of my favourite and definitely understated Christmas reindeer in the herd so here’s hoping I get to work with him again this year!
Which reindeer would you most/least like to go on a night out with?
Fiona = Probably Grunter again, for his same social and fun reasons. But Bovril would be my pick for ‘least like to” as he keeps himself to himself and gets all grumpy at Christmas events. I could have said the same about Paintpot to be fair. I feel like my hyper-ness would not be compatible with their grumpiness.
Hen = I’ll say Puddock because I’m 36 going on 65 and Puddock strikes me as the kind of guy who would just like to stay at home and relax, which is my idea of a great night out! On Friday night we could watch gardener’s world together!! Saying that, I reckon Puddock was wild in his day, so I’d take Puddock in his older age.
Andi = I’d least like to go on a night out with the late Dragonfly because he was so unsociable. In my mind he’d have been the old man lurking in a dark corner, nursing a pint, and answering only in grunts.
Manouk = I’d definitely like to most go out with Ochil because she would keep away any unwanted intruders to my personal space. She has actually been known to kick people in their ‘personal space’. Just ask Bobby…
Chris = Kipling because she’s nice around people and good in big crowds. Unless I wanted to have a fight, then I wouldn’t take Camus with me. He seems to like walking into large crowds then batting people away with his antlers as if they chose to surround him!
Lotti = I think I’d want to go on a night out with Fly. I think she’d be pretty sassy and have some great dance moves on her. I also think she wouldn’t take any grief from creepy men in clubs.
Ben = Boris would be great, he’d be able to look around corners for any potential hotties/spaces in the bar queue.
Dave = *sniggers to himself*. Well, definitely not Camus, he’d be a total maniac in the pub.
Izzy = One of the boys. However, I don’t reckon I’d be able to keep up with some of the younger boys like Celt, Roman or Dr Seuss. They look like they’d drink a lot. Also, I think they’d probably enjoy their mushrooms a bit too much for me as well. Svalbard strikes me as a classic “pub go-er”. I reckon I’d have a good night in the pub with him.
Bobby = Svalbard, he’d be a good wing man.
Nell = Spike. He’s the reindeer who I’ve seen jump the most. I think it’d be quite fun going on a night out with a springy reindeer because that means more dancing.
Who’s the cheekiest/naughtiest reindeer?
Fiona = Well, there used to be a reindeer called Revel who had a habit of sticking his head under ladies skirts and then lifting them up…the skirts not the ladies.
Hen = Oh Celt!!! Surely everyone said Celt?! Celt hasn’t learnt his manners yet. His mum, Camembert, is very polite so I’m not quite sure what happened there! He’s such a wayward son.
Andi = Pagan is certainly a contender. She’s completely unabashed in coming into your personal space and demanding your full attention whether you’re busy or not.
Manouk = Dr. Seuss as I had to wrestle him in front of a whole hill trip when his hormones were the first to kick in during last year’s rut.
Chris = In my first winter it was definitely Dr. Seuss. But now…Olympic may have taken over, cheeky but not overstepping the mark.
Lotti = Ooooo. Probably Dr. Seuss. He’s not too naughty but he’s definitely cheeky.
Ben = Ah man, there’s some definite contenders from the young boys here. But for pure naughtiness it’s gotta be Bond. He’s got little man syndrome. I’ve seen him kick young children, adults and reindeer herders. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in mischievousness.
Dave = Calves seem to be the cheekiest ay. I’ve seen calves full on try to jump and roll over their mums as if they were doing the long jump.
Izzy = Celt, he kicked my water bottle. I had to get Dave to fix it for me, before that the spout didn’t work and I had to drink out of it at such a weird angle.
Sheena = BOBBY! Oh wait what? We need to choose an actual reindeer and not a reindeer herder?
Bobby = Celt, he has absolutely no boundaries.
Nell = Bond, definitely! He’s having a time out from hill trips in the enclosure because he’s been a bit too naughty…so definitely Bond.
Which reindeer would make the best husband/wife?
Fiona = Right, well, I think if you’re going for looks then the best hubby would have been Fergus. That’s Fergus in his prime, not as a calf! I think the best wife would be Caddis, actually nah, she could be pretty brutal. Hippo was probably the most beautiful. But this all sounds so shallow thus far doesn’t it. Right, for personality and reliability it’d be Topi for hubby and Dixie for wifey. They’re the attributes that really matter! I can’t think of any reindeer that has the full package mind.
Hen = Probably Olympic, he’s just sooooo friendly. I can imagine that he’d definitely do his share of the washing up. The Svalbard’s and Stenoa’s of this world, you know that they’d be the ones who would just sit in front of the T.V. with a beer.
Andi = Olympic…he’s steadfast, loyal and genial. And for an added bonus, his breeding days are far behind him.
Manouk = Ryvita. She’s such a loyal mother so I think she’d be such a loyal wife.
Chris = Definitely not Kota if you were after a monogamous relationship.
Lotti = I think that Cheese would make a good wife. I think she’s got a strong sense of family, which is very important. She’s always seen hanging around with her family so she’s obviously quite loyal. She’s also a bit cheeky and fun which would be good as a life partner.
Ben = Compatible personalities are everything in a relationship, and Lace has such great character. But she’s also so beautiful. I’d like to think that if I was a reindeer and I woke up with Lace next to me every morning I’d be pretty chuffed.
Dave = If I was a reindeer I would marry Fly because she’s awesome, she’s a reindeer pioneer, she’s super sexy and she has child-bearing hips.
Izzy = Olympic, he’s just so sweet. He’d give me so much attention that I wouldn’t even care about him eating ALL of the food. Tosca would be my contingency; he’s such a handsome boy.
Bobby = Bond – strong, handsome, financially stable, good moral character. He’d be the best.
Nell = Hamish would make the easiest husband because he’d be so easy to please. Just give him food and he’d be your number one fan. Plus, he’s quite cuddly.
I was sorting through some free range photos taken by Manouk’s friend, Lidowij Meijer, from back in March and realised Okapi look liked she was having her own personalised photo shoot. What a perfect opportunity for a blog I thought!
Okapi is one of the more popular reindeer amongst us herders. Whenever we meet up with her on the free range she is always happy to put her head in a bag of food and help lead the rest of the herd to wherever we need to be. Although she is getting on a little, currently 11, she was in fantastic condition over last winter and so made a fantastic model.
When I first arrived here, however, Okapi wasn’t always at the top of my favourite reindeer list. On a few occasions I caught her walking up behind people and giving them a good poke with her antlers. Initially this was a bit stressful when leading large groups of people in amongst the herd but later on whenever I did catch Okapi shaking her head at anyone it always seemed to be the visitors who don’t listen to our clear instructions about how to behave around the reindeer that were told off by Okapi!
Anyway, enjoy the first part of Lidowij’s free range photo blog.
Feel free to check out her pages here, in the name of Jumping Jackdaw:
A frequently asked question on the hill is what noises the reindeer make. Whilst they are mostly fairly quiet animals but there are a few fascinating reindeer noises.
For any of you who have been on the hill trip you will have heard the clicking noise coming from the back feet of the reindeer. Unlike the forest dwelling Roe deer, the reindeer do not have long enough legs to outrun their predators, instead they survive using safety in numbers. They are of course a herd animal. Whilst our reindeer no longer have any predators in the UK they have maintained the mechanism for staying together as a herd. The click is produced by the friction from a tendon slipping over a bone in their back feet. It happens with every single step that the reindeer take and cannot be switched off and on. The calves will have a very quiet click whereas the big bulls will have a quite a loud click, the noise of the whole herd moving is quite amazing. This means that even in the harshest of weather conditions, where they certainly wouldn’t want to open their eyes and wouldn’t be able to see through the blizzard if they did they can still hear where the rest of the herd are. If they were to grunt then opening their mouths would lose heat, the clicking doesn’t use energy or heat so is the perfect communication devise.
Another important reindeer noise is grunting. There are two times of year where the reindeer grunt, the first is the calving season in the spring where the cows will grunt to their calves if they are not close by. The second time of year where the reindeer grunt is during the breeding season, the rutting bulls will grunt to the cows. The reindeer grunt is a bit less majestic than the famous Red deer roaring in the glens or the Roe deer barking in the woods. If you want to read a bit more about the noises of all the native deer species, Tilly wrote a wonderful blog about it last year. https://cairngormreindeer.wordpress.com/2018/01/12/calling-all-deer/
I have saved the best reindeer noise till last, the reindeer yawn. When reindeer yawn they make a lovely creaking noise which is followed by a chin wiggle. Since I first started working with the reindeer I have been trying to record a reindeer yawning as I think it would be the best possible either alarm or text message tone. If anyone has managed to record this fantastic noise, please do get in touch! There seems to be much discussion over the purpose of a yawn. Popular opinion is that animals yawn to remind the rest of the group that they are tired and thus less alert for danger and this is why it is more common amongst social mammals. Recent research shows that the yawn may in fact be to cool down the brain, the long inhalation of air cools down the blood in the vessels close to the surface in the nose and mouth and the stretching of the jaw increases the blood flow to the brain. The blood then cools down the brain making it function better and the animal feel more alert. This would perhaps explain why the reindeer seem to yawn more than normal on a particularly hot day.
One day last summer I was leading Okapi and Ryvita from the Cas flats to the reindeer enclosure. I was just about to cross the burn that is crossed by Utsi bridge further down the hill when with one misplaced step I found myself thigh deep in bog. What followed consisted of much giggling (from both me and the reindeer), a serious struggle to get my leg out and a very wet arm having had to reach down into the bog to retrieve my welly. As a squelched my way to the reindeer enclosure I started thinking about the different plants that grow in a bog, especially the indicator plants that could have helped me avoid my rather soggy fate.
Sphagnum moss is probably the most important plant to look out for. Also known as peat mosses, this group of plants can retain an incredible amount of water (up to 26 times their dry weight). It is so absorbent that it was even used by native North American babies in nappies. This means that standing on this bright green moss (notice it behind me in my bog selfie) will almost always leave you in a similar predicament as I was in. Sphagnum mosses have two types of cells that make up the plant; small living cells and large dead cells. It is the dead cells which have a large water holding capacity. (Disclaimer: if you have no interest in biochemistry then please skip the next sentence or two) Sphagnum mosses are very good at out competing the surrounding plants by carrying out a process called cation exchange, in which nutrients such as potassium and magnesium are taken up and hydrogen ions are released. The increase in concentration of hydrogen ions in the surrounding environment is responsible for making it more acidic and stopping other species from growing there. The acidic conditions along with the layering of the sphagnum produces the peat that we see on the mountains.
Bog cotton is a good indicator of a boggy area as its seed head stick up above the ground and warn you of the wet area beneath. Its white cotton-like seed heads can often be seen bobbing in the wind. Unlike regular cotton, bog cotton cannot be weaved into fabric, however in northern Europe it has been used to produce paper, pillows, candle wicks and wound dressings.
For those of you who have been on the hill trip, you may have seen the yellow spiky flowers of the bog asphodel plant. The Latin name for bog asphodel means ‘bone-breaker’ due to the belief that when sheep eat it then develop brittle bones. However it is more likely that it is correlation rather than causation as sheep eating a low calcium diet are prone to bone weakness and bog asphodel grows in calcium deficient soil. Our reindeer however have no problem getting calcium, as displayed by the wonderful antlers that they grow each year.
Sundew and butterwort
The most vicious of all the plants I have described are these two carnivorous plants. They both survive the harsh environment that they live in by catching insects to eat. Sundew catches insects by sensing their movement and elongating the cells on one edge of the leaf and retracting the cells on the other surface of the leaf causing the leaf to curl around the unsuspecting fly. Butterwort uses a different hunting method, the insects stick to its sticky glandular leaves and are then digested by the plant. If you ask me, the plants up on the hill are not working nearly hard enough to catch the midges this summer.
Which reindeer would make the best prime minister?
Fiona = Dragonfly! But not for the reasons that prime ministers become prime ministers…he thought about everything he did & he was very intelligent. I’ve trained a lot of reindeer but he did everything with precision and thought
Hen = Yeah I think Topi would have been a good candidate, he was quite…well, everyone liked him but he was also quite forthright and offered more hope of leading without dividing the country…unlike our current government.
Andi = Hmmm, it would have to be the late Topi. He was such a likeable character but certainly no pushover.
Manouk = Bovril because he’s been through so much in his life, and I think this has made him into someone who can make adequate decisions at the right time. And by a lot…I mean castration.
Chris = Kipling – she’s a woman of the people!
Lotti = Well Boris would make the worst prime minister. But politics aside…I think Kota would be the best. He seems quite wise and respected but not so showy-offy and the problem with politics at the moment is that it’s all turning so showy-offy.
Ben = Well I think what you need is intelligence, perception and a calm demeanour and Atlantic gives you that. He’s been through some hardships in his life, losing a toe early on, but he’s learnt to live with this, making him stronger, and he’s such a calm reindeer. Calm without being a push-over, even when he was a breeding bull he was pretty level-headed. Plus some of the current world leaders may recognise his impressive antlers as a sign of manliness which could give him a head start. Saying that, I definitely think that females generally best occupy positions of power but being summer staff I don’t really know the females as well as I’d like.
Dave = Fly because she knows how to lead.in an inclusive and respectful way.
Izzy = Kipling because she’d make sure everyone had food and housing. She’s friends with everyone and she’s young, so she could run for office twice. Although, she might neglect her duties if someone put lichen down in front of her.
Bobby = Fly because she establishes a nice dominance over the herd. She’s quick to take control and seems like a really good leader.
Nell = Galilee, she’s the one that often seems to lead the herd through. She’s very….well, she’s a leader.
Which reindeer would be the best/worst reindeer herder?
Fiona = I think Olympic could make a great reindeer herder if he was human, but he definitely wouldn’t if he was still a reindeer. So he’s a bit of a loner which doesn’t quite fit the reindeer herding criteria, but he’s greedy and loves his food, which certainly does fit the reindeer herding criteria. He’s an overall good egg.
Hen = Sequin would have been an excellent reindeer herder because no one had a bad thing to say about her.
Andi = Blondie wouldn’t be the best seeing as a) she’s fairly ditsy and b) would struggle to hear where the rest of the herd are on account of her deafness.
Manouk = Dixie would make the best reindeer herder because all the reindeer already follow her, also, she LOVES her food, and that’s an important quality in a reindeer herder.
Chris = Fly or Okapi would be the best – they’re often leading the girls when we’re with them. Plus, Okapi isn’t afraid to use her antlers if needed.
Lotti = Probably one of the Swede’s would be the worst aye. Because they’d be so terrible with a crowd. Spike’s a nervous nelly, he wouldn’t particularly thrive off of taking summer hill trips with 25 car loads of visitors.
Ben = Druid would be the worst; he’d just neglect his duties in favour of heading out ‘mushrooming’. He’d be far better placed as a café owner in Amsterdam.
Dave = Blondie would be the worst because she’s deaf.
Izzy = Inca would definitely be the worst because she’d end up running at the reindeer and completely scattering them. She just wouldn’t be good at getting reindeer from place to place, she’s too wild.
Bobby = Stuc would be the worst because he seems pretty shy and low on confidence.
Nell = Sherlock would be the worst because he kicks people and you couldn’t have a tour where the reindeer herder’s kicking people.
Which reindeer would you most/least like to be stuck on a desert island with?
Fiona = For good chats, social drinking and fun times it’d be the late Grunter, but for practically reasons it’d have to be Stenoa and/or Scrabble – the fatties. Just because they’d make great burgers. Haha, it sounds like it’d be Grunter and I eating Stenoa and Scrabble doesn’t it?
Hen = Well, I better start naming some living reindeer now…can I name a reindeer who would feed me for the longest? I probably shouldn’t should I? I’ll name Olympic for the companionship and the chats…plus, he’s not too skinny either.
Andi = I’m going to say Strudel because he’s always the first one to locate and break in to a bag of food. So, that has the benefit of him being able to help in finding the food, however I’d then have the problem of trying to get him to share. But hey, at least he’s friendly.
Manouk = Svalbard because after looking at the size of his belly, I reckon he won’t need to eat for a while.
Chris = Svalbard or Scrabble because I mean, come on…look at those bellies.
Lotti = Ooo, these are great questions Ben (thanks Lotti). Well, you’d want to be stuck with someone a little bit fun who you could interact with but not be a real pain. You’d want to be with someone who’s pretty bomb-proof so that they could deal with the situation. Hmmm…Olympic, he’d make me feel happy.
Ben = It’s gotta be Olympic, he’s very social which would be great and with that wagon that he’s dragging, an Olympic sized cuddle would provide me with a lot of warmth. But I think he’d be a popular choice, so if his diary was full then I’d opt for Crowdie. He’s such a sweet reindeer, plus my Dad adopts him so it’d be a nice reminder of my great family.
Dave = It would have to be a tame one. You wouldn’t wanna be stuck with a flighty one who wouldn’t come near you because how’s that for company? So, maybe…Scrabble.
Izzy = I would love to get stuck on a desert island with Olympic. I’d need to make sure he didn’t eat ALL of the food but I reckon we’d have some good conversations and he’d make an awesome spooning partner.
Bobby = Ochil. I would very much not like to be stuck on a desert island with Ochil because she always seems to give me a hard time….and has no mercy when she does so.
Nell = I’d most like to be stuck with Hook because he runs away so often and I think it’d be great exercise chasing him around the island.
In this blog, I will be exploring the way Reindeer and other Deer species are represented within myths, legends and general stories over a variety of cultures. From old folklore to modern day films and books, Deer have been used as symbolism for magic, and an insight into the natural world.
2000 years ago, the Sami people inhabited large parts of the arctic circle. The oldest recorded document regarding the Sami people dates back to 98AD by the Roman Historian Tacitus. The Sami have a close connection with nature and the animals that live and survive around them.
Sami folklore states that the white reindeer was the most magical reindeer of all the reindeer. It was believed that if a human was to catch a white reindeer it would bring them luck, riches and eternal happiness.
In some other cultures they have a beautiful belief of how they believe that in the beginning there was only the sun and the earth, and the white reindeer created the wold. The Veins became rivers, its fur became the forest, and its antlers became the mountains. Either way it seems that people who work alongside reindeer have a deep connection and understanding about nature and its natural balance.
What makes a reindeer white- Leucism is a mutation in the genetics of reindeer. This makes the particular reindeer pure white, however the mutation can also cause them to be deaf too. Reindeer rely on hearing to communicate through involuntary clicking from a tendon snapping against the bone as they walk. If a predator is close by the clicking would be loud and in quick succession, signalling that the herd was running. A deaf reindeer wouldn’t be able to hear this, therefore, not so many white reindeer exist in the wild.
In the Cairngorms we have two pure white Scottish females Mozzarella and Blondie, and one white Swedish male, Matto (although not Leucistic), he was chosen for us, so we would have a white reindeer in our herd. Matto was brought over from Sweden to potentially be a breeding bull, however there were sadly more handsome specimens available, and Matto was a bit on the small side. However, with no large bodied predators in Scotland, such as wolves and lynx, allows the white reindeer to survive, and pass on the lucky trait of being pure white! Or we are just a really lucky herd with huge amounts of eternal happiness.
Deer in general have strong places in the mythology across the world. In Celtic folklore, has several stories involving deer as spiritual figures. In some Scottish and Irish tales Deer are seen as “Fairy Cattle,” and are herded by otherworldly women, who can shapeshift into the form of a red or a white deer.
Furthermore, in many other culture’s deer are heavily featured in songs and poems, such as the beginning proportion of the poem Beowulf, and in the Poetic Edda poem Gimnismal The Four Stags of Yggdrasil, who are four stags who eat among the “Yggdrasil” (the world tree). A theory to these four stags is that they represent the four seasons, and the “World Tree” This poem also relates to mythical stag “Eikbyrnir” who lives on top of Valhalla.
Deer have also got links with Greek Mythology. The Third Labour of Heracles; Eurystheus and Hera were angered that Heracles had beaten the beasts in the first two labours, so gave him the task of capturing the female Cerynein Hind, a hind that could grow antlers, and outrun a flying arrow.
There are different versions of the story, one where Hercules captures the deer by waiting for her to fall asleep; another version says that Artemis intercepts Hercules trying to capture her sacred animal and tells him to relay the message to Hera and Eurystheus and the labour would be considered complete.
The hind was the sacred animal of Artemis, the goddess of hunting and the wilderness. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and one of the twelve Olympians.
Reindeer pee- now this isn’t myth or legend, just a good (and true) story. Reindeer, particularly young males, occasionally enjoy eating a variety of mushrooms. Some of these mushrooms are highly poisonous to humans, however, because reindeer are ruminants, they are able to digest and deal with the poisons within the mushrooms. These mushrooms, however, can have some side effects. They can get high off the mushrooms; this happens in the cairngorm reindeer herd too, our boys go ‘shrooming’.
In some Scandinavian countries, they use this talent of digesting poisonous mushrooms to their advantage and drink the urine of the reindeer. Due to the poisons in the mushrooms being broken down, it just leaves trace elements from the fungi. These can have psychedelic effects if ingested.
Rudolph the red nose reindeer- The shiny nosed reindeer was first introduced by Robert L. May in 1939, in order to save money for annual Christmas promotions in the department store chain, Montgomery Ward. In its first year over 2 million copies were sold. May tried and tested different versions of the story on his young daughter. “Rudolph the red nose reindeer” was first printed on a large scale in 1947, and due to its success, a short cartoon was shown in theatres the following year. From the increasing success since 1939, Rudolph is probably the most famous reindeer of all.
Annabelle’s wish is a Christmas film about a cow who wants to become a reindeer. Is still my favourite Christmas film of all time! Annabelle and the rest of the farm animals are able to talk for one whole day, due to Santa’s magical powers. Annabelle is amazed by the reindeer who pull his sleigh and decides that next year she’ll ask Santa to make her a reindeer too. She is given as a gift to a little boy who cannot speak. She becomes really close friends with the boy and when the following Christmas comes decides to ask for another wish- so Billy can speak again. However, in doing this Annabelle is never given the power to talk again. She grows old and stays with Billy until he’s an adult with his own family. In the end Santa grants Annabelle her original wish and she becomes a reindeer, and part of Santa’s sleigh team.
Bambi- Was released in 1942 produced by Walt Disney and based on the book Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten. Bambi was only the fifth Disney animated feature film.
Bambi is based on a mule deer. However, Disney had to change the species from Roe deer to Mule deer to better fit the native species in north America. The film received three Academy Awards.
Fire Bringer was published in 1999 as a young adult Fantasy Novel by David Clement- Davies. The story follows the life of a young red deer, Rannoch, during the 13th century in the lowlands of Scotland, whose life is subject of an old prophecy among the deer.
Fire Bringer is one of the few books that I have read that I wish I could read again for the first time all over again. It is such a beautiful story with many adult underling themes. If I was to compare it to another book it would be of the same themes of Watership Down. With several different links to historical events throughout the book. I Highly recommend reading this book!
Midges…complete and utter nuisances. That’s what most people tend to say.
Well…I’ve heard quite a few individuals use more colourful language than that, but that’s the gist of most people’s views on this small flying insect that occupies the Highlands. This view is commonly expressed whilst people flap their hands around as if they’re aiming to actually launch off and flee the plague of midges.
In the bible there is reference to a plague of locust but this past week it is the midge numbers that have been of biblical proportions, causing people to look like they have moustaches and tattoos. In the five years that I’ve been reindeer herding last week was by far the worst that I’ve ever seen the midges.
During this past week I also found that the term midge can get lost in translation! We recently had a visitor who complained about being attacked by midgets. It’s amazing the difference one letter in a sentence can make!
It was during the latest inundation of midge attacks that I found myself asking: Where do these midges even live? Why are they biting us? How long do they live? Well, look no further folks…let’s rattle out some midge facts.
• Midges have a life span of around one month. Although adults are only capable of flight for a short portion of that time.
• Midges lay their eggs in wet soil, bogs, mires and the soggy surrounding landscape.
• In the U.K. there is 2-3 batches of midge eggs per year. The first batch is in May or June depending on warmth and moisture levels. A second occurs in late July or early August. And if the season is a warm one, a third batch can occur in September.
• In the U.K. alone there are more than 500 species of non-biting midges, and more than 150 species of biting midges. Most of these are found in Scotland, however they can also be found in Northern England and Northern Wales.
• Only the female midges bite. The male and female midges survive upon sugary food such as plant nectar. However, the females need a protein rich meal of fresh blood in order to mature their eggs. They get this from both birds and mammals, with the majority of blood coming from cattle, sheep and deer.
• Female midges tend to bite in close proximity to their breeding site and rarely go further than 1km away (cough, cough, Utsi bridge).
• Once they’ve found a blood source, midges emit pheromones and summon all their buddies to come on over, hence the swarming.
• They have short and sharp mandibles to pierce the skin of mammals and then they increase the blood flow via histamines in their saliva. This is what causes the wound to swell afterwards.
• Low light spurs their feeding habits so they’re most active at dawn and dusk.
• It takes a midge five minutes of feeding to become engorged.
• Mild and wet winters usually means a bigger midge season. Moreover, a very cold winter can also mean a bigger midge season. In 2010 the prolonged freezing conditions in Scotland reduced the number of natural predators such as bats and birds, meaning more midges.
• It is estimated that midges cost the Scottish tourism industry around £268 million per year in lost visits.
• On the Isle of Rum, folk lore says that as punishment for improperly burying a body, a gravedigger was stripped, tied to a post and left outside for the midges to feast on. They did kill him, eventually.
• Rumour has it that pomegranate skin, marmite, lavender and charcoal are all deterrents.
• They’re attracted to the CO2 that us animals produce. Some people are more attractive than others due to a combination of specific body odour and temperature. They are also more attracted to dark coloured clothing than light coloured clothing.
• There is a midge forecast, detailing how torrential the midge downpour is across Scotland, which can be located at https://www.smidgeup.com/midge-forecast/.
So, there you have it. They say knowledge is power, but I’m not sure this knowledge will stop you being attacked by these small critters, but at least it may give you some happiness to know that you’re playing a part in a midge’s life cycle. Bah, who am I kidding? Probably not! But you may get some happiness in knowing that at least you’re not a midge.
It’s time for me to write a blog and my one-year anniversary of being an (employed that is) reindeer herder is coming up soon, so why not make that my topic?
I arrived at reindeer house July the 5th, after a long drive from Newcastle where I was released from the ferry, ready to start my life as a herder in the Cairngorms. I was immediately swept away with the fast-flowing life of reindeer house, as a few hours after my arrival we were to play a game of rounders on Hayfield. My weekend plans had also already been laid out, there would be a ceilidh on Skye after a hill race the Saturday, and everyone was going. I’d only ever volunteered as a reindeer herder, and had never done a hillrace in my life, yet I’d been to one ceilidh so I kind of knew what was going on (or did I?). What followed was a summer full of running and walking around hills and mountains in rain and sunshine, long nights at the Pinemarten bar, short nights in my bed at the reindeer centre, nightly swims in Loch Morlich, and music gigs where we danced until our feet hurt and then we’d dance some more. I thought that within a year and a bit I might leave again, so I had best make the most of it.
Fast forward to last week (Ed. back in June – it’s taken two months to upload this blog!), where I did a couple of days of reindeer herding, then drove off in a van to spend a long weekend in Arran with Chris. The main reason of our visit was participating in the furthest hillrace I’ve ever run (26k, 2000+m of ascent!!) but also to discover more of Scotland. I’ve now seen a fair bit of Scotland, but the more I see, the more I find I still want to see. I’ve also had every season now in terms of reindeer herding. I saved the best for last, as calving season has just come and gone and now our summer season is just about to start again. In a year I’ve learned lots, but most importantly that one can never know what to expect from a day at the reindeer centre. I’ll briefly go over the seasons as I’ve experienced them the past year.
Full on, both in terms of reindeer herding and life at reindeer house. At some points there were 7 people living at reindeer house, excluding visiting friends and family for whom there’s always a bed to crash at the centre. On top of that, on frequent occasions there were guests at parties that filled up the house and left it again, like the tides of a sea coming and going. This meant there was constantly a high level of energy in the house, and so were the people living and working in and around it. There were 3 hill trips a day, most of which were quite full. So basically, a standard day looked like this: wake up, get breakfast and a big big coffee. Then either go up the hill first thing, or do the paddocks and/or emails down at the centre. Then take a fairly large group of visitors up the hill to show them the reindeer, work a bit in the shop and the office, shut the centre at 5pm. After work we’d go for a run, eat together with everyone who lived at the centre at the moment and their guests, and this would often then end with a night at the Pinemarten bar for “just one drink” (which often somehow ended up being a bit more than that).
There’s no clear boundary between Summer and Autumn, but at one point most of the seasonal staff has unfortunately left, and there’s an eerie kind of quietness that takes over in Reindeer house. All of the sudden some nights no-one took the initiative to go for a run, swim, or visit to the pub. And the nights I sat still I noticed a bit of a tiredness, like a giant hangover from the lack of sleep and excess of activities and drinks over summer. Autumn we took things a little bit slower, there weren’t as many hill trips and visitors anymore, the centre had quietened down and so had the house. It was also time for my first hill race ever, which was absolutely great. The days started getting shorter and the head torches came out for the runs at night..
And then it was winter. First wet and windy, later on a bit colder and snowy, but never as cold as I’d expected it from the stories of the years before. Reindeer house exchanged the running shoes for ski-touring boots and skis, and instead of walking or running up and down mountains we’d “skin” up and ski down, whenever there was snow. The first months of winter were crazy busy again, because of our Christmas events and weekends of Christmas fun. We’d either be at the centre, carrying out Christmas fun duties or regular herding tasks (including lots and lots of adopts), or we were going all over the country in teams, with big lorries for Christmas parades, staying overnight at our farm bases. When Christmas was over, another sort of peace and quiet came over reindeer house, different from the one after summer. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the events, but shutting the centre for a couple of weeks in January allowed us time to work less and enjoy the Scottish winter. We were also able to catch up on all sorts of tasks that had been dropped in the Christmas craziness. Days were very short and this meant energy levels a lot lower, so lots of excuses for going to bed early!
Eventually the long nights got shorter, bit by bit. Our female reindeer started showing signs of pregnancy. It was still very quiet at the centre, with the odd school holiday in between. Every time I went down South for a hill race or a trip of a different nature, it was clear that Spring was on its way, but in the subarctic climate of the Cairngorms we had to wait quite a while. Even once spring signs had clearly presented themselves we had a bit of snow every now and then. The last month of Spring was also the best month of my “career” as a reindeer herder so far – calving time is amazing. I’d be willing to drop everything at once if I’d get a shot at walking around the enclosure to find a wee ball of fluff next to its mum somewhere tucked away in a corner. The changing weather and daylight hours gave lots of extra energy, either spend chasing calves and mums or training for or participating in my first proper season of hill racing. What a joy to live in the hills, with such great animals and nature around!
And so my first year as a reindeer herder was complete. Summer staff came to move back into reindeer house, and the centre started getting busier. Tufts of hair were flying around: the reindeer were moulting their winter coats and the circle would start all over again.