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!
Nobody can be completely guilt free in what they choose to do through life whether it be what they eat, wear or decide to go on holiday by jumping on an aeroplane. However, everyone can do the small things which will add up and help towards a better and more sustainable environment. Here is how we have started at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and obviously we hope to do more in the future.
Two years ago we made a fairly massive purchase at the Reindeer Centre. We got an electric car. As a result, a free electric point was installed at our centre through the incentive of getting the vehicle and it’s been a great success. We use it for dotting up and down the hill which is only a 6 mile round trip each time so it makes a lot of sense. We don’t tend to use it to go further than Aviemore (12 mile round trip) but mainly because the mileage can’t really be trusted with a full charge only giving you 70 miles. Although going downhill means you can gain some miles as soon as you hit an uphill, which there are quite a lot of in Scotland, you rapidly lose those miles.
Andi is chief of shop stock!!! She is always trying to source locally produced souvenirs and gifts for us to sell in our Shop. I make crafts and jewellery out of the reindeer antler, Andi makes fishing flies from reindeer hair, Manouk whittles away at green wood making reindeer figurines and ‘make your own reindeer’ packs, Ali sews together tartan clips and bows, the list goes on. Andi has also sourced biodegradable pens, re-useable coffee cups and tote bags which is great, plus free advertising when folk are out and about doing their shopping and getting a brew. We are always trying to find the happy medium in what we sell and offer so these are all great steps being made. Well done Andi!
Something you all want to know I’m sure… Reindeer herders are now using 100% recycled toilet paper! Buying in bulk from a company aptly name ‘Who Gives a Crap’ (look them up!) they are determined to prove that toilet paper is about more than just wiping bums. They make all their products with environmentally friendly materials, and also donate 50% of there profits to help build toilets for those in need. To date they’ve donated over $1.8m Aussie dollars (that’s the equivalent of over £1,000,000!) to charity and saved a heck of a lot of trees, water and energy. Not bad for a toilet paper company, eh?
Linking this back to the reindeer as a species and their natural environment, by doing these small things it helps with the bigger picture. It’s ironic really that man is extracting energy from the Arctic in the forms of oil and gas and here is a well-adapted animal in that same habitat adapted to conserve it’s energy. The Arctic is a ‘canary in the coal mine’ – the first area in the world to alert man to the affects of climate change and global warming. Melting permafrost, unexplained sinkholes in the tundra, vanishing pack ice, rapid freeze/thaw of snow and invasions of insects more commonly associated with the southerly climes are all effects of human induced climate change. It’s not only the Arctic being affected, all over the world extreme weather patterns are causing carnage to those living there whether it be man or animal. One wonders what the future holds!
So guys and girls I’m sure you heard it before and will continue to hear it again – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! We’ve started here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, good luck with your own journey.
Following from a previous blog about Haze’s dynasty, I thought Fly was another good candidate to look at. Like Haze, she is also a big, striking reindeer, not necessarily the friendliest – she likes her own space – but a dependable leader of the herd and a fantastic mother.
Fly was born in our “green theme” year in 2007, and is probably the largest female in the herd today – she’s a clear inch taller than any of the others. She also grows beautiful large antlers, whilst rearing a calf most years – a sign of a strong healthy reindeer as it takes a huge amount of energy for both of these activities and most reindeer will focus on one or the other rather than both.
Fly reared her first calf, Custard, when she was two – whilst reindeer are perfectly capable of rearing calves at this age, we try to make them wait until they’re a bit more mature at three years old. Fly evidently thought differently, and reliably reared a big strong calf in 2009 (Custard), 2010 (Dragonfly), 2011 (Domino), 2012 (Balmoral), 2013 (Anster), 2014 (Hudson) and 2015 (Aonach). At that point we decided she should definitely have a bit of time off!
In 2015 and 2016, we decided to run Balmoral, Fly’s son, as one of our breeding bulls, and he fathered a lovely selection of youngsters, including Inca, Christie, Burns, Shakespeare and Dante. We are hoping that Inca may have a calf of her own this May.
Fly’s only daughter, Custard, reared several calves of her own – Coe, Cream, Ceram and Tang – and Cream has also been a mum, though unfortunately her calf didn’t survive. Hopefully she may have better luck this year.
Fly has, so far, been a mother seven times, a grandmother eighteen times, and a great-grandmother once, and she’s still in full fitness and looking like she’s got many years ahead of her!
Earlier this year, on discovering how long I’d worked here, a visitor asked me what my favourite story or anecdote from over the years was. I was completely thrown – not only had nobody ever asked me that specific question before, but how on earth was I to pick just one thing?
But the question made me ponder, and reminisce a bit. Impossible to pick a single favourite moment, but there have been many, many stand out moments – and like for any job with animals, for both good and bad reasons. So I thought I’d tell you one of them, and will maybe write more blogs with further stories at a later date.
At the time when the question was actually asked of me, I went a bit blank, and despite a million different stories I could have told, suddenly the only one I could think of was a little moment from Christmas tour, several years back. I was on tour with Mel right down south and doing a ‘reindeer only’ event in Exeter. This differs from our normal events with the sleigh and parade etc, as it is just reindeer in a display pen for 2 or 3 hours, with us herders there to chat to people in the crowd. Much less work for both us and the reindeer compared to a parade!
It was a horrible day, absolutely pouring, so I can’t say either Mel or I were particularly enamoured of the idea of standing getting utterly drenched for hours, the sort of day where you know you’re going to get soaked to your underwear and the prospect of dry pants was a long way away (Christmas tour ain’t as glamorous as it sometimes sounds) – at least the reindeer have built in waterproof coats far more effective than any human clothing. We got the pen ready; straw spread out, feed and water in bowls, signage up, and then returned to the lorry to fetch the reindeer. The route to the pen involved walking along the pavement and then through a covered shopping arcade to the pen itself – no problem at all and the reindeer are perfectly happy in such a situation as we make sure that all six stay close together in their mini herd. There’s safety in numbers if you’re a reindeer! Just at the entrance into the arcade we paused, in the pelting rain, for security to clear a route through for us and the reindeer stood gazing around in interest at their surroundings – or more realistically, in hindsight, wondering where their pen and their lunch was. We were right outside a Costa coffee shop which had window seating, full of warm cosy people inside sipping nice hot drinks and oblivious to the world outside, until suddenly 6 reindeer appeared on the pavement, literally just feet away from them. We had big male reindeer Puddock as our of our team members (I can’t remember the others), and he put his nose right to the glass and breathed out, leaving huge steamed up patches. I watched a lady inside slowly put her hand up to the glass and put it flat against it, Puddock’s nose a centimetre away the other side. A few seconds passed and then we moved on, and the moment was gone.
And that was it. In real time just a fleeting moment, but one I have always remembered, and I often wonder too about the lady the other side of the window, and whether she still tells the story of the time she was having a coffee in Exeter and somewhat miraculously a reindeer appeared outside the window and then vanished once again. Years later I remember nothing about the actual reindeer event other than that little moment en route to the pen (and the fact that the herders at every single event across the country that day got completely soaked too apart from, ironically, at Fort William – normally one of the wettest places in the country).
In my head I debated telling the visitor on the Hill Trip about this memory, but standing outside a Costa on a wet day in Exeter, of all places, seemed so at odds with our current situation way out on the mountainside high up on the Cairngorms, on a beautiful winter’s day, surrounded by reindeer roaming freely in their natural habitat, that it didn’t seem worth the effort of explaining it all, and it wouldn’t have been the sort of the story the visitor was expecting anyway. But it’s a memory for me none the less and as Puddock has been one of my very favourite reindeer over the years but is now retired from Christmas tour, it’s a particularly poignant one.
When I think back over the reindeer that have been part of the herd over the years, one which sticks in my mind is Scout. This is probably in part because he was on my “team” the first time I went off on Christmas tour. It was back in 2010, and as I headed off for my first two-week festive reindeer experience with Fiona, those six reindeer made a bit of an impact: experienced old boys Shekel and Shock (or Shockel and Sheck as we sometimes called them if we hadn’t had enough coffee!); Scout and Hughie, our younger Christmas reindeer; and calves Lace and Gnat. When you’re working, living and travelling with the same team for a fortnight you get to know their quirks rather well!
Born in our “Green theme” year, Scout was a big reindeer (so big in fact that we castrated him at 2 years old instead of at 3), one of the tallest in the herd, and a fine looking fellow. He grew some beautiful sets of antlers, with lots of “fingers” coming off them. He was generally also holding almost too much condition, with a generous sized belly, and with this excess of energy he often had bobbles of extra velvet on his antlers, something we only tend to see in our larger (wider!) males.
My main memory of Scout from that Christmas tour is when we arrived at an event in London, set out the feed bowls ready for their breakfast, and Fiona hopped in to the truck through the (human-sized) side door, assuming I would latch it behind her. I meanwhile assumed she was going to latch it herself from the inside (the hazards of having been on tour long enough to stop communicating about everything and make presumptions). Alas, the door didn’t get secured at all and the next thing we knew Scout had squeezed his antlers and ample belly through, bounded down and of course made a beeline for his breakfast! At least he was easy to catch!
I also have a vivid memory from a more recent Christmas of taking part in an incredibly busy parade in England, and looking back from where I was leading the front two reindeer – Scout was one of the reindeer following on at the back and he was utterly at ease, chewing the cud as we pottered along, not batting an eyelid at the noise, lights, marching band, fake snow and bubble machines that we were passing. Reindeer really are incredible animals.
Scout was a dependable fellow out on tour, whether at the back or front of the sleigh, and was a friendly face at home on the hill, though he did have a grumpy streak at times, doubtless inherited from his father Sirkas, who certainly could have an attitude problem! Most of the time though he was lovely to be around, a bit cheeky and playful, and steady as a rock. His brothers included dark coloured Rummy, squinty-nosed Boris and the infamous Fergus. Scout’s grandmother, Fionn, lived to the ripe old age of 16, and her sister was Lilac, the reindeer who holds our record for longevity at 19. Unfortunately Scout didn’t live to quite such an age, but there are still many of his family alive, including two of our other biggest reindeer, Fly and Paintpot, who share the same father.
Recently I got a new phone which made me look back through all my old photos before deciding which ones to keep. Rather than give you some of my best photos from a year and a half of reindeer herding I thought I’d give you some of the ‘worst’ from my first season of Christmas events.
Moose, Jonne and Rubiks were the only ones left enclosed, all other reindeer were freeranging. They thought this was extremely unfair, and took the matter in their own hooves. They decided they’d have none of it, and left for an adventure..
After the Christmas holiday, we shut the centre for a couple of weeks and usually let all reindeer out to freerange. This year however, we had a different plan for 3 of our boys. Over the festive season, Moose had been struggling with a quite persistent ulcer on his eye – we had to keep an eye on him and give him eyedrops (up to 7 times daily!). Of course it would be sad to leave him enclosed on his own, as reindeer like to have company. Jonne and Rubiks had already been free ranging for a couple of weeks, and every time they were seen they seemed a little bit thinner than before. This was enough reason for us to put them in with Moose, and keep all 3 of them under our close surveillance.
During these weeks of being closed to the public, we get to do tasks we otherwise don’t have time for. One of these tasks this year was to re-fence the forest area where our paddocks reindeer stay overnight. Moose, Jonne & Rubiks were staying in different parts of the paddocks enclosure during the daytime and nighttime, but little did the herders know that the gate between their night’s stay and the forest area was open!
More well-behaved, less naughty reindeer would have stayed put nicely, but not Moose, Jonne and Rubiks.. So the next morning, when we went out to give the boys their breakfast and daily walk, we found them gone, taking themselves out for a walk! Luckily, for the first time in weeks, it had snowed a little bit overnight, so we were lucky enough to set off on a little treasure hunt, trying to find our escapee reindeer.
Four herders set off on four different routes – asking any passerby if they had seen any reindeer. They must have thought we’d all gone bonkers. The theory we stuck to is that reindeer like to move uphill, so we did as well. And behind the paddocks is a nice hill we all love to hike/run on, so we figured the reindeer would as well. Five to ten minutes from the top I spotted the first clear hoof prints. Then Andi spotted them on the other side, near the top. Chris also found some, on yet a different route, also near the top. We all followed our own trail of hoofprints, and Andi was the first to find the cheeky boys. Chris and I soon caught up, and all 3 of us led a reindeer on a halter, all the way back to the paddocks. We came across quite a few of the hill walkers we had asked about sightings before, thankfully taking away their concerns about our sanity.
It was past midday when we got back to the centre. The boys had had a blast, and to be honest, so had we. We considered “accidentally” leaving the gate open again, but decided against it as it would appear too much of a coincidence (or stupidity) to do so again. We just accepted that we all had a lovely day, and that it was a one-off! After some more time back in the enclosure recovering Moose, Jonne & Rubiks got what they wanted in the end, and are currently freeranging in the Cromdale hills.
We recently watched the BBC series Dynasties, narrated by David Attenborough, which looked at matriarchs in different species of animal. There are occasional females in our herd who are extremely successful mothers, and I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of these family lines, starting with a gorgeous big female who was named Haze.
Haze was born in 2002 and grew to be a big, solid female who had distinctive large bold antlers – not fancy but quite thick for a female. Over the course of her life she reared six calves: Santana, Gazelle, Caddis, Wiggins, Camembert and Fyrish – four females and two males. She was a relaxed mum and was quite happy to let us humans come up when she’d just calved, give her some food and check the calf over. One of first reindeer calvings I attended on my own as a new herder was when she gave birth to Camembert, and I remember her being completely at ease, putting up with my inexperienced fumblings as I handled the calf briefly to spray its navel and check it had the requisite number of legs.
Haze passed on her large solid build to her offspring, most notably to Gazelle, Caddis and Fyrish, who are all quite chunky. Caddis is the stand out mother from the next generation, consistently rearing one of the largest calves each year: Mozzarella, Lairig, Viking, Christie and Sherlock. Her latest calf, Sherlock, is a real beast of a reindeer, already acting like a bull by 5 months old… Caddis also manages to pull off a huge set of antlers each year, despite the energy put into her new calf – what an incredible reindeer!
Gazelle has reared some lovely male calves, including Aztec and Burns, and whilst Camembert is younger and has only had one calf so far, Celt, he is one of the largest of his year group. He was a special one for me, as I found him as a newborn – the first calf I had found whose mother I had also been the first to find when they themselves were born – I felt like a proud granny…!
Haze died in 2016 at the ripe old age of nearly 14, but her family line is continued – to date she has been grandmother to 10 youngsters, and last autumn we chose her son Fyrish as one of our main breeding bulls, so come May there is the potential for the family to become even larger.