Having worked as a seasonal herder for many years working January is a real novelty for me. Usually on the 24th of December I hop on a train home to Bristol to spend Christmas with my family and then return to uni in the new year. But having graduated last year, and with a gentle bit of persuasion and the promise of reindeer, I convinced my family to spend Christmas up in the Cairngorms. It is now January and I am delighted to still be here. So on Monday the 6th, with no more hill visits for over a month we merrily waved the reindeer off onto the free-range for the winter.
The first full day ended up being incredibly wild and windy (gusting at 100mph) and the reindeer were very far away so we left them to find their own food for the day, something that they are absolutely fine doing as they live in their natural habitat. We spent the days slowly working through the seemingly endless list of ‘January Jobs’ some of which I think were on the list last year and still haven’t been done. On day two however, the sun was shining and then reindeer were slightly closer to home. So me, Sheena and Chris headed up to the Cairngorm ski carpark with rucksacks full of food. Upon arriving we saw lots of cars pulled over with people taking photos, a clear sign of reindeer. About a third 30 of the reindeer were waiting for us, just by the road. We walked these reindeer away from the road, a task easier said than done. Whilst the reindeer were good as gold, walking across incredibly uneven ground in the snow with 20kg of food on your back is quite difficult . Throughout the walk, Sheena lost a wellie in a patch of bog, Chris didn’t fall over once(!), and I fell over completely and couldn’t get back up because of the rucksack full of food. I can’t certainly say that I now know exactly how a woodlouse feels.
As we were leading the group of reindeer away from the road about half a mile away we could see another group of mostly male reindeer coming over from the top of the reindeer enclosure. Eventually we also saw another group of cows and calves coming from the other direction. As the reindeer were getting closer and closer the race was underway, who would come first, the boys or the girls. The boys certainly are greedier but the girls are fitter. Both groups went out of site as they ducked onto a lower area and then eventually the boys showed up, just ahead of the girls. Turns out that the motivation of an easy meal was enough to overcome their lack of distance training. Once the entire group of reindeer currently free-roaming in this area had arrived we fed them all, took plenty of photos of the beautiful reindeer in the snow and then walked back to the van.
Whilst for most people January seems like a bit of a dreary month, I can certainly now see why reindeer herders love January so much. Having all the reindeer free-ranging the hills and going up to feed them with not a soul in sight really is a fantastic experience.
As I received so many positive comments on my blog about running to The Netherlands whilst I was on my way, and as some people requested to hear all about it, here’s my follow-up blog to tell you how it went! For those not knowing what I’m on about, here’s my previous blog: ….
The idea had come quite last-minute and it left me with a limited amount of time to prepare. Things I had to think about were ‘where do I sleep and how do I stay warm’; ‘what do I eat and where can I top up supplies’; ‘what route am I taking and how do I navigate en route’. As I can be a little impulsive and prone to just winging it at times, my voice of reason came from Chris. Supportive as though he was, he was constantly asking me critical questions of ‘what if’. This made me think twice about most things (and sometimes about setting off altogether) and meant I left as prepared as I could. However much he insisted I’d go out on a rainy stormy day and run for a day and camp afterwards to test my gear and capability, I couldn’t find the time to do it before I eventually left.
The first day was hard, it rained all day, the distance seemed much further than any 30k I’d ever done before, and pitching a tent whilst it’s raining must be amongst the top 3 least favourite things I’d ever done. It made it extra hard that I was only 20 miles from my own warm cosy bed, roughing it in a tent in the rain near the Drumochter pass. The next day it rained again.. And my tent hadn’t been 100% waterproof, I had had to pack it whilst it was wet and I was dreading the night to come. Besides, it was Chris’ birthday, and I was passing a train station from which I could get home… I decided to go home for the night, dry all my kit, and set off again from the same station the morning after. Man, did I appreciate my shower and bed that night.. And it was great to be able to spend Chris’ birthday with him.
The next few days were relatively sunny and I had support, in the form of meeting my friend Ross, staying at Adrian’s, and having Alan come along for half a leg. However, this was the point my body was at its sorest. A nagging knee (and leg and hip and back) and a half-broken cart made it the hardest section running-wise. Thankfully most of the views were great around Pitlochry, Birnam, and South of Perth. By the end of day 5 I started to develop a new type of run, which I decided to call ‘granny-shuffling’. By hardly lifting my feet but shuffling forwards at varying paces I managed to speed up a bit, and give my muscles and joints a rest. During this period I met up with fellow herders Fiona and Joe, who made me coffee and gave me fudge and teabags (thanks!!), stayed at fellow herder Julia’s in Edinburgh, who did a bit of bike support too, had bike support from Chris who camped out with me for a night too, had help from Brian Marshall, and eventually ran into the next bit of rain.
Completely soaked and windswept I arrived in the castle gardens of Duns Castle. I’d seen lots of deer (creepy red lights staring back at my head torch whenever I gazed into the woods), an owl, and lots of other wildlife. I couldn’t bear to get into my tent all wet and make myself food, so decided to walk an extra mile into Duns after pitching my tent in the woods. There I treated myself to a kebab (I’d never usually..) and set foot in a local pub. Hilariously enough, on a Monday night, it was completely packed, as 2 local darts teams were playing each other. Thankfully there was one other woman in the bar, otherwise I would have probably turned right around. The other woman was the bartender, who turned out to be great company, as were some of the local darts players. Guinness hardly ever tasted as good as it did that evening. The next day was easy and I had the great outlook of staying overnight at one of our enthusiastic reindeer adopters’ holiday home, free of charge! A lovely palace of warmth and cosiness made for a perfect night. It also meant I got to wash and dry all my stuff, which by now was a kindness to my own nose and that of everyone I was to encounter from there onwards.
Then my section in England properly began the next day, and I quickly found out that finding suitable spots to wild-camp wasn’t easy in England. One miserable night of looking out for a spot whilst battling storm Brian was enough for me, and I decided to book accommodation for the next 2 nights. This was my best decision yet, as they were 2 awesome nights again. The first I stayed at a cabin in the garden of a couple, Andy the UTMB ultra runner and Lynn the circus acrobat! What an amazing couple! And the next night I had a whole barn turned hostel to myself at an Alpaca farm, with a fireplace. If sipping cider next to the fire overlooking a field of alpacas isn’t yet on your bucket list, make it so because it was fantastic. The last day with my cart went amazingly well, and I was speedier than ever, had the sun on my face and the wind in my back. I felt like I could continue for miles and miles, but the best bit of the day was arriving in Whitley bay, supported by Chris’ mum, and running up to the hotel where Chris was waiting. Cart Larry got disassembled there and then, as it was getting a ride to get stored in Shropshire whilst I’d be on the ferry to the Netherlands. A good diner, lovely breakfast, and the lack of a cart made the last 10k in the UK to the ferry easy peasy lemon squeezy.
The ferry journey went smoothly and when we arrived on the other side my mom and her boyfriend were there with my best friend and 2 bicycles, one for her and one for Chris. They’d support me on the last 30k. The first 2/3s were bleak and ugly and made my question my choice of final destination. However, the last 10k, straight through Amsterdam, dodging cyclists and tourists, whilst getting half-high of the smell of weed everywhere, strangely made me a bit nostalgic in a weird way. It was great seeing my friends and family at the finish line too, and we celebrated my finish at my mum’s flat with prosecco, beer, homemade soup and salad. What a journey. The more time passes the more I seem to forget about the hard times and the more fondly I look back on it.
What’s next? A question people ask me quite a lot nowadays. No idea, there are lots of vague plans or it may be something impulsive again, we’ll see! I’m 100% it will be some crazy thing again though, so maybe ask me again in a year ;).
Thanks to everyone for all the lovely messages and comments!
I imagine that there might be quite a few ‘newbies’ to the reindeer herd and to our social media pages just now, being as Christmas is the busiest time of year for our reindeer adoption scheme. Several hundred people will have had an A4 white envelope under their tree on Christmas morning last month, with a brand new, shiny reindeer adoption tucked inside. Hopefully some of those people have since tracked us down online to see what on earth they’ve just become part of… I thought I’d write a little bit of an introduction to us, and primarily to the adoption scheme, to shed some light on what we’re all about. So if you’re ‘new’, then welcome!
We have the only reindeer herd in the UK whose reindeer are in their natural habitat, and who spend at least some of each year living out on the mountains in complete freedom, with no fences to be seen. Reindeer are native to the UK but died out here thousands of years ago, and our herd was re-introduced from northern Sweden in 1952. We’ve been running guided walks out to see and feed them on the hill ever since.
Guided walks form a large part of our income, directly supporting the management of the herd, but we have several other ways of earning money too – one of the main ones being the Support Scheme, the income from which is all ploughed back into the upkeep of the herd. This was started in 1990, and I see from our database records that we still have two adoptions that were originally set up in 1990 which are still going today, in their 30th years! We have about 1200 adopters in total just now, having had over 9000 adoptions in total over the years.
I think the biggest appeal of our adoption scheme, in comparison to those available for other animals, is that we still hand-write the majority of our correspondence to our adopters. No printed packs pulled off shelves and ready to go for us… Maybe it makes it a bit less ‘professional’ but I feel it’s so much more personal, and there can be very few animal adopters in the UK who receive a personal letter direct from the people who look after ‘their’ adoptee (complete with spelling mistakes and the likes!). A generic typed letter must be so much more the standard nowadays. Perhaps we’re just old-fashioned here at Reindeer House.
In the run up to Christmas, all hell breaks loose here in the office. Adoptions, both renewals and new ones, start pouring in and reindeer herding becomes a delicate balance of outdoor work, dealing with visitors, and frantically making up adoption packs. I liken them to a tide, at times threatening to overwhelm us and at times receding as we battle them under control. In November and December the tide never recedes for too long though, before returning with fury. There was a memorable Friday this Christmas just past when we started the day with 30 adoptions waiting to be made up, several of us then working at them pretty much all day, and finished the day with 45, as they came in faster than we completed them! Panic stations.
Along with the yearly adoption pack come the two newsletters, printed in June and October and posted out to everyone. By snail mail – we’ve not really got on board with the idea of emailing digital copies yet. Lots of our adopters are in the “mature” category too, many of whom don’t use email regularly. And to be honest, sometimes the old fashioned ways are much more straightforward – give me printed material over PDFs anyday. Don’t even get me started on whether direct debit is an option for renewing adoptions or not… (Our computers, and my brain, would melt.)
Along with the pack and the newsletters, adopters also get one free admission each time they visit. For some this is never, for some, multiple times a year. We also always do our best to ensure adopters get to meet their adoptee when they visit too if they give us advance warning of their visit, although this is not always possible depending on the time of year. Nothing beats the delight of hand-feeding your ‘own’ reindeer!
Many adopters have become very familiar faces to us now, and with the rise of social media, friendships have formed between adopters. On the subject of social media and the internet in general, gone are the days when adopters saw one sole photo of their reindeer per year. Now we do our best to be relatively active online, posting photos regularly and (no surprise here) blogs. A social media course told us a few years back that, as a business, we should be blogging regularly, so we started doing so every Friday, and have not missed a week yet. All hail the ability to ‘schedule’ blogs far in advance, meaning there’s not a last minute panic!
So thank you, each and every one of all you adopters! You help fund every aspect of the herd and the company (including paying our wages 😉 ) and enable it to be so successful, and your generous support is NEVER forgotten. And if this has whetted your appetite and reindeer adoption sounds like the thing for you, more details can be found on our website.
Here’s to the next 30 years of reindeer adoptions!
After the hustle and bustle of the festivities and Christmas events, the Reindeer Centre is closed for most of January and part of February. For the staff it’s peaceful here at Glenmore, and a great time for keeping busy catching up on all types of jobs related to all aspects of the Centre: Christmas kit, shop, office and outdoor, involving cleaning, maintenance, decorating, and even a new bathroom for those that live in!
But one of the perks of the job is that we do also have to find time periodically to hike up and find, check on and feed the reindeer. This year is the first time in a long time we have had not only the usual females and calves out free ranging in the Cairngorms for the winter months, but also some of our boys with them too.
For myself, after working here almost two years now, I have become confident at learning the names of most of the male reindeer, due to leading frequent hill trips with visitors up to see them all through the Summer months. However, with the females usually free-ranging along with any calves all through the warmer months, this has given me little opportunity for familiarising myself with the girls. The winter hikes this January to check on our free-ranging reindeer have given me a better chance to get to know the females, and with Andi’s tuition and constantly testing me each week, I finally feel like I am making some progress!
The ones with distinctive markings such as Oatcake, Camembert, Parmesan, Christie and Texel, or that are lighter in colour like Lulu and Mozzarella are the easier ones to learn. I am also guilty of learning them by the size and shape of their antlers, which are like a fingerprint and unique to each reindeer, but also fall off once a year, thus leaving you back at square one! Until they regrow again, but a year is a long time to wait.
When I first started and was learning the names for the male reindeer on my first hill trips, I actually discovered that learning the colour and number of the ear tags was the easiest method for me. By law we have to give each of our reindeer an ear tag with a number, similar to if you keep cows or sheep. To make it more exciting (and easier to learn their names), each year our ear tags are a different colour, and we also pick a theme. For example in 2009 they are pink tags and named after cakes, biscuits and puddings. We have Clootie (after the Scottish Clootie dumpling), Jaffa, Hobnob, Pavlova to name a few. And in 2016 they are named after Ancient Civilisations, so we have Pagan, Inca, Chola, Suebi, Celt, and many more.
The longer you are with the reindeer the more attuned you become to the subtle differences between coat colour, variations in face and body shape, and more obviously their individual personalities and traits. I guess if you have ever worked with horses or dogs before, as I have, or any other animals for that matter, then it’s similar. To the untrained eye a species of animals is just that, but the more you get to know them the more obviously they stand out as individuals, and also the more fond of them you become.
If all the reindeer were to have a 100m race, who would win?
Fiona = I reckon Shekel would have won because we exercised them at Christmas he was always in the lead. There’s a great photo of him on our playing cards that we sell in the shop where he looks like The Joker with his tongue out and this is due to all the running he used to do which made him thoroughly exhausted.
Hen = Well not Svalbard, he’s too fat to run fast. It’s gotta be a female, they’re far more fit and active than the males. Probably Sika, but only if she was running in the opposite direction to humans.
Andi = I can think of plenty of reindeer who would be contenders for coming last. But for first place I think it would be one of the younger females, as they tend to maintain their fitness, when compared to the over-indulging males who have slightly let it slide. Let’s go for Spy…she has some speed on her when she doesn’t want to be caught.
Manouk = Monopoly because he would have just cheated. He was a cheeky chappy.
Chris = Well it’s likely to be a female because they get more practice at running around, and some of the boys are carrying a bit too much timber. I can’t think of an obvious winner but Chelsea is the only reindeer that I’ve had a proper race with so I’d have to pick her.
Lotti = Ooooo, who’s got long legs? Lace has got long legs hasn’t she? Plus she’s so beautiful. I’d like to think one of the females would be the fastest so that they can break general stereotypes and beat the males.
Ben = Drambuie or Hook. They’d find a way to win. Don’t get me wrong they’d be in last place with 2 metres to go but I’ve tried to herd them into paddocks before and they can move so quickly when they feel like being sneaky. So yeah, make either of those two feel sneaky and they’d be my outside bets for the victory.
Dave = Roman would probably have a pretty good crack. He’s a young and athletic bull.
Bobby = Bond: the fastest, the best muscle fibres in any reindeer EVER.
Nell = Well I’m not sure; I haven’t seen any of them run. It’d be quite interesting to see all the reindeer herders in a 100m race. I reckon Fi would win, or maybe Chris, or maybe you (Ben). Either way the reindeer would beat all of you.
Which reindeer is/was the easiest to bribe/coax with food?
Fiona = Urmmmm probably Crann to be honest, especially in his elder years because if he got his head in to a bucket of lichen then there was no way of getting him out.
Hen = Hmmm…Dixie. Every time you want to catch her you can count on her to fall for the bag of feed trick. So she ends up being the decoy reindeer (the one we lead to get the rest to follow) quite a bit.
Andi = Most of the yearlings can be bribed with mere crumbs. Nancy was pretty awful come to think of it, she was pretty much climbing on me for some food whilst I was out on the free-range.
Manouk = Svalbard!!!
Chris = Oh wow, there’s too many to name really. But I guess I’ll have to go for Kipling again.
Lotti = Ahhh, they’re all so greedy! I think I could make either Olympic or Sherlock follow me absolutely anywhere with food. They’re so greedy. They’re always at the front of visits.
Ben = Haha, so many of the boys: Bond, Sherlock, Dr. Seuss, Olympic. Kipling as well could be a contender. I think we’re all grateful for those greedy boys and girls; it makes the actual herding part of the job a lot easier.
Dave = Kara. She’d follow you anywhere man, as long as there was promise of a feed.
Izzy = Svalbard. I remember one time; Svalbard was standing in the middle of the boardwalk, blocking a group of visitors from getting past. He was there for a good few minutes and he just wasn’t budging. Nevertheless, one shake of my food bag and he quickly dashed over to me. He was pretty disappointed when he realised that the hill trip had finished and the food had gone however at least he’d budged.
Bobby = Dr Seuss definitely.
Nell = Ryvita for sure! She walked to the very top of Cairngorm with me and her calf just in case I had food in my bag. This was immediately after she had eaten all of the food in my bag.
Which reindeer has done the funniest thing in your presence?
Fiona = There was a reindeer called Pepsi and we were on a Christmas event when a noise from the visitors startled him, and his response was to jump right up on to the sleigh. Ooo, and, we used to have a hand-reared reindeer called Utsi back in the day. Dad was leading them on two events that day, and the afternoon one was down in Perth. Utsi obviously didn’t know that it was one of those rare days where we had two events in a day because he exited the van in Perth with so much enthusiasm, but when he saw that we weren’t indeed home and we had another event, his response was to just turn around and get back into the van.
Hen = Hornet once used me as a stepping stone after I fell over into the river right in front of him. Luckily he was a calf at the time. Ooooh, actually I’ve got another one for you as well…last year when we were worming the reindeer, Roule made a break for it but managed to do so by going through my legs, which meant that I was being dragged through the shed by a full grown female who possessed an impressive set of antlers. I was essentially riding a reindeer backwards. Chris mentioned that he thought about grabbing Roule to attempt to stop her, but he was concerned it may well have spurred her on. Anyway, the whole experience culminated in me having an impressive set of bruises, some of which I could show my friends, some of which I couldn’t.
Andi = Midway through a trek years ago, on a hot summer’s day, we stopped for a break at Utsi’s hut, as we usually would. Scout then suddenly decided that the coolest place to stand was inside the tiny hut. But in order to do this he had to climb through an absolutely tiny doorway. However the boy managed it, and then subsequently enjoyed his lunch in there.
Manouk = Screel, she full on managed to knock over a guy who was the size of a rugby prop forward. It was pretty unbelievable.
Chris = Kipling AGAIN, sorry. There are lots of others which could be contenders, but she had the most recent incident. Trying to eat a bag of boardwalk staples and inspecting our bag of tools when Izzy and I were doing some repairs recently.
Lotti = The first thing I can think of is a funny thing that I’ve done in a reindeer’s presence, I once fell in to a bog and sunk all the way up until the top of my thighs, and then I was really struggling to get out and I just remember Okapi and Ryvita looking at me with their puzzled expressions almost saying “what on earth are you doing?”.
Ben = We had a reindeer called Lego who has sadly passed away but I remember on my first summer here in 2014…Lego was partial to long siestas and Lego was deaf. Whoever was taking the 14:30 hill trip with me had called the herd and was busy leading them towards where they’d have their meal. However, Lego was too busy sleeping. Being at the back, I saw this unfold, so I approached Lego, lay 50cm away from him, and then eventually he woke up….his face when he saw none of his homies around him – just the face of a reindeer herder looking back at him – that was something that still makes me laugh to this day. It all happened over the course of a second but I could see when ‘the penny dropped’ and he realised he was all alone. Boy oh boy, he moved quickly to re-join the herd after that. Didn’t even give me a wave goodbye or nothing.
Dave = The late Fergus! I mean…he tried to head butt me on my first day whilst I was working in the paddocks. He also followed me round the paddocks when I was painting the fences red, resulting in him getting his nose all red and looking like Rudolph. And then he tried to mount me.
Izzy = Chris and I were repairing the boardwalk not long ago when Kipling came over and no joke, she tried to eat the nails. I think it was because these nails were being stored in an old food bag but when we then took the bag away she got in a right mood and started stamping her feet like a right missy. We actually lost a few nails down the slats of the wood as a result of her mardy episode.
Bobby = I’ve seen a bunch of reindeer pee on people which is always kinda funny but I don’t know if you can put that in your blog (yes, we definitely can). Just put Bond again, he tells the best jokes, he’s such a special reindeer.
Nell = I remember hearing about how traumatic castrations were (granted all the boys told me this whilst crossing their legs) however when Atlantic’s time came he just stood there and chewed the cud. He wasn’t bothered in the slightest.
There’s a lot to be learned volunteering at the reindeer centre and multi-cultural knowledge is one theme very obvious, just thinking about the reindeer names and the regular herders’ nationalities. However, walking up to hand feed the reindeer throughout December it occurred to me how many visitors travelled many, many miles to experience the thing we have taken for granted over the last 30 years – velvet noses snuggling into your hands for a taste of delicious grains of feed.
(Apologies for the small photo files, they are at their maximum sizing!)
During our three weeks in December 2019 we talked to visitors from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Austria, China, Thailand, Canada, Holland, Egypt and Germany, not forgetting those from England and Scotland.
December in Australia is the children’s Christmas school holidays and for many families a trip to Scotland and the reindeer is a top priority, as we were quite rightly informed. During our second week, beginning the 9th December we had a good drop of snow, which I enjoyed as much as the reindeer and visitors!
The reindeer in my opinion are at their best in deep snow. For two children from Australia the combination of sun, snow and reindeer made just the perfect day and it was such a joy to experience their excitement. Having never experienced snow in their lives it was an exhilarating event. With wellie boots borrowed from Reindeer House it didn’t take them long to jump in the deep snow drifts and fill their wellie boots with the cold stuff – and we were not yet at Utsi’s Bridge!
As many of you know, if you have been on a visit, once in the enclosure we follow the board walk, which the reindeer also like to use and they get in between visitors slowing the speed of progress. Well for two young people this meant having to step to one side to let the reindeer pass and subsequently ‘falling off’ the board walk into the deep snow – their feet were rather cold and wet by this time but no adult advice could curtail their excitement, it was infectious! We then had adults stepping off the board walk to experience the deep snow just for the fun of it! We had a lovely visit and the snow was appreciated by everyone, young, older and the reindeer!
Remember that blog I wrote about a year ago about how everyone started running up hills and mountains as soon as they arrived to work at the reindeer centre? Well I’ve got reasons to write a second blog about the same topic, so here goes!
At the end of my last blog about running reindeer herders I wondered if my running would become more like the long distance running described in the ultrarunner Jan Knippenberg’s book. A quick recap in the form of a quote from my last blog:
“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.”
I think I can safely say I’m getting there! Since that blog I’ve participated in lots of hill races, slowly building up distance until I did the Lairig Ghru race, slightly over marathon distance. The fun aspect of it is that most of the races I did, I didn’t do for getting a good result, or the competitive aspect of it, but more for seeing a different part of Scotland and enjoying the scenery whilst running with a lot of other crazy hill running people. I also continued chasing reindeer on the mountain plateaus and thoroughly enjoyed it.
All of this is very much in line with running the way we used to in the history of mankind, in the sense that it’s not necessarily a way to stay fit, but a way to get around in life. One step closer may be what I have planned next. Whilst this blog is being posted, I’m on my way to the Netherlands. Over the past few years I’ve become more aware of the damaging impact of flying on our environment. I think in many cases, if you don’t prioritise money and time over the environment, you’ll find there are loads of alternatives to air travel. For going to the Netherlands, there are lots of forms of public transport you can take, along with using either the ferry or the Eurotunnel to get to the European mainland.
So with this in mind I came up with the idea to run to The Netherlands. Admittedly, I’d not gone for a long time (money and time and resolution to avoid flying as much as I could). In the mean time I’d really started missing my friends and family back there. It seemed like a nice gesture to them as well – missing them so much I’d come and run all the way! Besides that I find that the Scottish darkness in winters gets me down a bit, with on Winter solstice there only being sunlight from 8.53am to 3.32pm (that is 6 hours and 38 minutes of daylight). Being outside as much as possible and exercising regularly both help me a lot in beating seasonal sadness, so it seemed like a great way of getting over that too. So there I was, finding myself yet again planning a run longer than I’ve ever done before!
At the moment this blog is posted, I’m supposed to be just over one third of the journey. I’ve set off from Newtonmore on Monday the 6th of January, early in the morning. I’m pulling a two-wheeled cart, carrying my tent, sleeping bags, stove & freeze-dried food, snacks, a reindeer skin to keep warm at night, and lots of first aid stuff and other needs. I’m staying at a couple of friends’ places (thanks hill runner and blogger Ross Brannigan (@up_to_summit), hill runner Adrian Davies (https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/5939626?s=67&shared_item_type=1&virality_entry_point=1&sharer_id=29161035)& reindeer herder Julia Kenneth!) but otherwise I’m camping. My route is 250 miles (roughly 400km) to Newcastle, then I’ll hop on to the ferry, and it will be another 18 miles (roughly 28.5km) to my mother’s house in Amsterdam, where my friends and family will be cheering me towards the finish line.
So if you’re reading this it must mean I’m getting on all right, as I gave Chris permission to post it only if I managed to get that far! If this is the case, then I think I can safely say that my change in lifestyle from being a student/academically-minded person to being a reindeer herder in the Scottish mountains and hills has changed my way of running. I now run for the sheer joy of running and for the necessity of getting round (be it chasing reindeer or a self-imposed ban on flying) and no longer for ‘staying fit’ or ‘getting a decent time’. And I love it! But maybe don’t ask me whilst I’m actually on my run, as it’s definitely mostly type 2 fun*.
I didn’t want to finish this blog without saying thank you to Chris Shute (Chris’ dad), who helped massively in designing and building the cart, and reindeer herder Chris, without whom my route of choice could have been disastrous, as would the rest of my preparation. And hopefully he will have added some pictures of my journey so far below!
* type 2 fun: the type of fun where you’re not enjoying something whilst doing, often wondering what the heck you got yourself into, but a while (could be minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even longer…) after the activity has finished you start thinking back on it and reconsider it as fun. Opposite of ‘type 1 fun’ where you just constantly have fun all the time whilst the activity lasts, and possibly afterwards as well. Example: skiing holiday where you take lifts up and ski down, 100% at all times.
Quick update from Chris plus some photos:
Manouk’s first two days crossing Drumochter Pass were pretty awful weather wise. 40-50mph wind and torrential rain in a big storm left her completely soaked and a tough start indeed. She got the train home on the evening of day 2 from Blair Atholl to dry her kit and tent out (and cook me dinner for my birthday!)
Knee pain slowed her down to a walk for the early part of Day 3 but Alan turned up to pull Manouk’s cart down to Dunkeld for her! They were also joined by friend of the Reindeer Herd Adrian Davies and his dog Jasper and Adrian put Manouk up in his B&B for the night.
One of the wheels on the cart was struggling even more than Manouk’s knee so on Day 4 Manouk was planning on getting it looked at in a bike shop whilst passing Perth. Hopefully it will hold up to allow her to make it all the way to Newcastle
Brief update this morning on Day 5: Cart has new bearings in the wheels and Manouk’s knee is holding up.
At the end of Hill Trips, we often get many questions about climate change and how it affects the reindeer. For those interested, here’s a blog on how we think it affects our reindeer, how reindeer are affected worldwide and things people could do individually to help fight it.
Weather records of the past decades clearly show that the Cairngorms have gotten milder and more moist. There have always been fluctuations in temperature with periods of warm winters and periods of colder ones, as well as periods of hot dry summers as well as periods of cold and wet ones. However, the overall trend is moving towards warmer and wetter. This of course affects the plants, trees, and wildlife. As warmer and wetter conditions are suitable for ticks, we’ve seen an uprise in tick-related problems. Luckily we are quite savvy in finding ways to battle this, and granted that we spot the illness, are usually able to treat the reindeer.
Other than that we see a problem with winters not finishing ‘cleanly’ and spring showing its face for a few days or a week and then disappearing again. This affects the growth of plants. Once plants start growing but freeze mid-growth, this changes their structure and if reindeer eat these plants this can cause problems with their guts. At the moment we are working on a way to prevent and to treat this, and have managed to succeed in some cases with new vaccinations.
Worldwide, there’s a different story, as reindeer numbers have always fluctuated hugely and it’s difficult to pinpoint whether or not climate change is affecting these fluctuations at all. We do know that over the past two decades, reindeer numbers have more than halved, leaving the current population at about two million. This number is lower than usual lows and the decrease has gone on for a longer period of time than other periods of decline. Problems that may have arisen with global warming are numerous, here are a few to consider. (1) Warmer climates enable other plants than lichen to grow, out-competing lichen. This is the main plant in most species of reindeer’s diets, so as a consequence there may be a shortage of food leading to the starving of part of the population. (2) Warmer weather does not only encourage ticks to multiply, there are more other insects around as well. As the reindeer hate biting beasties, they’ll spend time and energy getting away from them (often going to mountain tops where there’s still snow) rather than staying down spending most of their summer time eating. This means they don’t store enough body reserves to survive winter later in the year. (3) The last major problem is that there’s more rain near the end of winter rather than snow. Whilst reindeer can dig through snow to get to lichen, they can’t dig through frozen rain, again causing starvation.
Reindeer are known to be adaptable, being able to survive temperatures as low as -70 and as high as +35 Celsius. Though their numbers are at a low just now, we can only hope that they up again. And we may still be able to stop global warming too, which would, we assume, benefit reindeer. Of course it doesn’t stop at reindeer though, as global warming is already affecting both animals and people in huge areas all over the world.
Now there are big discussions going on about how to stop global warming, with people even calling Greta Thunberg a climate denier as she advocates that people should make lifestyle changes, thereby indicating that we individuals can still turn it around. To most scientists this seems highly unlikely, and change needs to come from higher up (big businesses and governments) in order to have an effect. However, for a message to come across the messenger needs to be trustworthy and reliable too, which goes hand in hand with Thunberg leading a climate-friendly lifestyle whilst campaigning for governments and companies to change our current system. I’d say in order to do something and make a statement, change whatever you can in your own life to become more climate-friendly, e.g. buying less new stuff, buying local produce rather than import, flying less, and opting for public transport, bicycles and your feet instead of your car when possible. It’s also worth your while having a look at what your workplace could change to be more environmentally friendly (see our blog on ‘our bit for the environment’). If you can then let (local) politicians and companies hear your voice, either via social media, emails and messages, and/or protests, lobbying or similar, you’re practically doing everything you can. System change not climate change! Power to the people.
…our reindeer turn into cows… Not quite, but it is the time of the year when they are casting their antlers, and beginning to look perhaps a little like people imagine a reindeer to.
Casting antlers is a completely natural process, and is one of the huge differences between antlers and horns (no deer in the world have horns!). Reindeer grow their antlers from scratch every year, from an area on the top of their skull called the pedicle. The growth period is from about March to the end of Summer, at which point it calcifies into solid bone, with no feeling remaining. After use in the autumn rut, the males cast their antlers, meaning they don’t have to carry a heavy weight through the winter snows, and leaving the coast clear to start their new set in Spring.
This means that from November antlers drop off on a regular basis, sometimes at the most inopportune moments (in the middle of a Hill Trip for example, causing panic among visitors and frantic reassurances of “It’s normal, it’s ok!” from the herder!). As we get nearer to Christmas, our choice of which reindeer join a Christmas event team becomes more and more influenced by who still has antlers on their head – event organisers can be a little grumpy if a team turns up with just one antler between six reindeer!
Most of our males are castrated at 3 years old, helping to prevent inbreeding and giving them a much calmer life in general. A side effect of castration is that the antlers are not as dense as the bulls’, and tend to be cast in sections rather than in one piece. Hence we end up with reindeer with “One and a half” antlers, or often just the front points remaining after the more top-heavy upright points are cast. It’s interesting that members of the public often don’t realise that a reindeer with their front points has actually got any antler missing, whereas a reindeer who has cast all of one antler but none of the other looks more lopsided and draws many more questions of “Did they lose it fighting?”
Sometimes antlers are lost in squabbles, but only when they’re ready to fall off anyway, and I think as many go from being bumped against a tree (or a herder’s backside!). And whilst there is sometimes a little residual blood on the pedicle when the antler is cast, it isn’t a painful process, the only insult being to their pride, as they often drop down the pecking order. But this is often when a bully gets their comeuppance, as the other reindeer they’ve pushed around see the tables turned and get their own back. So don’t feel too sorry for them!
Each autumn we bring in most of the freeranging females to either run them with a bull if they didn’t calve in the previous spring or to begin getting their calves used to being handled. Most of the girls turn themselves in voluntarily as they seem to know the score but every year there seems to be a hardcore group of girls that do not want to come back to the hill enclosure so we have to spend a while locating them and subsequently rounding them up.
One morning in late September Chris and I were sent to check in on them on our way in to Glenmore. Luckily there were a few greedy girls in the group that couldn’t turn down a tasty bit of handfeed! Here’s what went down….