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 🙂
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!