Truckin’

For just six weeks a year, the normal job description of a reindeer herder changes a little, and many of us start driving massive trucks around the country. Well, 7.5 tonne trucks anyway, which are pretty big in comparison to our wee 3 tonne truck (affectionately named Brenda) who we use for day-to-day transport for the rest of the year.

Kuh
My truck for both this season and last, nicknamed the “Coo” as her number plate ends in KUH

On a busy Christmas weekend we can have up to 8 teams of reindeer and herders out and about across the country, so we hire 5 flatbed trucks and put our own specially designed and built boxes on the back, each with ample space for sleigh, kit, feed and of course most importantly, the reindeer themselves. There’s even internal lights! Each of the 5 boxes is a slightly different design, and over the years everyone has gotten attached to a particular box. Alex’s box is the most unique in design, with the space for the feed and equipment running down the side of the reindeer compartment. Great for Alex, who is tall, but not ideal for someone short like Hen, who can’t reach far enough over the barrier to grab the bags at the bottom! Fiona’s box has a rather heavy ramp, again difficult if you’re shorter, though Fi has the strength to heave it up herself. The “Post Box” did indeed start out its life as a Royal Mail box, and still has a few bits of red paint! It has a roller door into the sleigh compartment which takes a fair bit of practice and agility to get open and shut! The Metal box is a little smaller than some of the others so tends to be used for more local events – fitting enough feed in it for 2 weeks away can leave you short of room to move.

And then there is the newest box, nicknamed the Royal box as it seemed so posh and shiny when first made, and the name stuck. This is my favourite box, and having taken it out on tour for the last few years I’m now very familiar with its quirks. Our ramp has been tensioned beautifully (i.e. quite a lot) so it’s easy for us shorties to put up, but also meaning that you can unintentionally “ramp-surf” as you’re opening up the back gates, finding yourself hovering several feet in the air and having to gingerly edge your weight down the ramp until it touches down.

Xmas Compartments
The compartments of the Royal box

Like most of the boxes, the Royal box has a “corridor” with access to storage for all of the reindeer feed, lichen, straw, buckets, odds and ends, shovel, broom, etc; the sleigh compartment for the sleigh itself, all the decorations and harness; and then of course the biggest area is for the reindeer. Our reindeer travel loose, and whenever we check on them (if we stop for fuel, for example) they’re usually lying down catching some shut-eye! It’s reassuring for us that they seem to like the box, and virtually load themselves, always happy to walk up the ramp.

Reindeer Box
Sleepy reindeer as seen from above!
Origami Morven
Origami and Morven having a restful journey, I sometimes wish I could join them back there!

The boxes are bedded thickly with straw, poo-picked after each journey (let’s just say we’ve discovered another use for the “diesel gloves” you can pick up at garages…) and completely mucked out & pressure washed each time we return home. Keeps us and the reindeer smelling fresher and helps prevent that embarrassing moment when you emerge from the box with “something” stuck to your shoe!

Poo picking
The less glamorous side of the job – poo picking!

Getting kit in and out of the corridor can be fairly entertaining, and over the years the pastime of “lorry yoga” has evolved, providing gentle muscle stretches for the herder on tour as you manoeuvre and contort into weird positions to get (sometimes heavy or awkward) things in and out. The straw bales are the worst, as they frequently try to take you with them as you eject them from the shelf! Getting them back in is even harder, especially when they weigh half as much as you do…

Lorry Yoga2
Just a bit of morning lorry yoga to warm up the muscles…
Lorry Yoga1
… and reach!

Driving the trucks is something I half dread and half look forward to each year. As I’m not old enough to drive them on “grandfather rights”, I did a training course a few years ago and passed the dreaded test to get my license. The problem is we go for over 10 months of the year without driving anything so big, so there’s always a bit of apprehension when the trucks are picked up for the season and you first get behind the wheel… It’s funny though, as everything is bigger, the mirrors are bigger, and they just feel totally different to a car, and your brain automatically seems to click into “slow careful truck-driving” mode. Everything has to be done slower as the trucks are so big, and it’s essential to give the reindeer a smooth ride, so it instantly stops you hurrying and gives you a new sense of patience. Our top speed, even on a motorway, is restricted to 56mph, but it’s quite delightful to pop on cruise control and just potter along to your destination.

DrivingTruck2
Onward!

There are a several things I didn’t know about before starting to drive the trucks. Firstly, the ruts on motorways, created by the endless trucks using the slow lane – whilst I never tend to notice them in a car as the wheels are closer together, when you’re in a truck you can get “sucked in” which is rather disconcerting. Secondly, the frustration of being limited to 56mph when trying to overtake on a motorway. All trucks theoretically have the same limit, but speedos can have a bit of variation, meaning that you’ll sometimes get stuck trying to overtake a bigger truck that’s going just fractionally slower than you. When going uphill, their extra weight slows them down and we gain on them, but once we reach the top of the hill and start heading down again, their weight speeds them up and off they shoot again! This may explain why you sometimes see trucks “duelling” for miles along a motorway… The other time your limiter is frustrating is when you come up behind a car doing 50mph on the motorway, you pull out to overtake, at which point they instantly speed up, just enough to pull ahead, so you tuck in behind them again, at which point they slow back down again!

TyCap Max
That’s what the gap’s for! Max the cat using our truck as a surveillance point

Most of the time though it’s great fun driving a truck, and I still love arriving at an event, the organiser pointing out a tricky bit of manoeuvring that you’ll need to pull off (archways being a major culprit, sometimes with mirrors folded in and a couple of inches to spare each side) and looking hugely impressed when a girl manages to pull it off!

Andi

 

 

Snow!

To any southerner just an inch of snow means great excitement, school closed for a week and the front page story on every newspaper! Having spent the first 18 years of my life living in Bristol, where the yearly day of snow is celebrated (before everything grinds to a halt) you can imagine my excitement to wake up to snow one morning in early November!

Morning commute
The morning commute

Seeing as my room (fondly known as the Cave) in Reindeer House has no external windows, it was not till I opened the curtains in the kitchen, I saw the snow covered wonderland that was Glenmore. I proceeded to eat my porridge in the garden and then spend the last ten minutes before work throwing snowballs for the dogs, before realising I had no gloves on and could no longer feel my hands.

Caddis
Caddis looking beautiful on the snow covered mountain side!

Initially my excitement was laughed at as the dusting that we woke up to barely counts as snow if you’re Scottish. By mid-morning however I was told by Fiona that we now had ‘real snow’ which looked a lot like a blizzard to me!

Arrochar
Arrochar looking a wee bit shocked by the whole thing (I think that may just be her resting face)

I was away on Christmas events the first three weekends that it snowed here, but I just about managed to fit in a few rounds of torch-lit sledging before work (dogs in tow of course) and a snow angel or two. This weekend was the first weekend to be at home for the snow (enough for the snow plough to be out) and I took up a lovely snowy visit.

Feeding the herd
Feeding the herd on a lovely snowy morning

The reindeer are absolutely in their element at this time of year; they couldn’t be happier in the snow. If you’re coming up to visit us make sure you’re well wrapped up (as many layers are you can wear and still move and a full set of waterproofs) so you can feed the reindeer in the snow and love it as much as I do!

Brimick, Spy and Cioch
Brimick looking incredibly cute, Spy posing for the camera and Cioch pulling a silly face

Lotti

Mel’s Marathon Madness

I have decided to run the Paris Marathon in April 2016, what have I let myself in for!

I will be raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, aiming to reach a target of £1000. Luckily, working as a Reindeer Herder is fantastic fitness training….running around the mountains looking for free-ranging reindeer, carrying feed up the hill, running after non-conforming reindeer!….. and the years of ‘compulsory’ hill-running, prompted by Alan Smith, are going to set me in good stead, I hope! However, I still definitely need to train in long distances and having someone to run with always helps with motivation… and here are some of my eager running partners:

1

All the Reindeer House dogs… Tiree, Moskki, Tip, Sookie and Murdo (not pictured… off eating something no doubt!)… they never say no to a run… and of course Fergus!

2
Fergus offering some training tips from his months of running experience!

I chose to run for Macmillan as cancer seems to affect so many of us these days, whether directly or indirectly through friends or family. I am running the Marathon with one of my best friends, Ailsa, who hasn’t as much running experience as me but as she lost a friend recently to cancer she has been motivated to give it a go and I think it’s really brave of her so want to support her and raise money for a great cause. Macmillan nurses provide amazing support to people who are fighting cancer and their work is invaluable.

3

Fergus is providing fundraising support! I did try to persuade him to come to Paris too but he says he prefers the hills to the cities!

4

Fergus counting the donations so far…

If you would like to support me please donate by going to:

https://www.justgiving.com/Melanie-Gaff

Thanks and wish me luck!
Mel

River Stars Reindeer

We’re pleased to tell you about an exhibition we’re helping to host up here in Glenmore.

Riverstars
“Reindeer with pack & crib held by Kardin & Nikolaevich Buldotovsky.” Baramakan Camp, Inner Mongolia

Life in the snow forests: 100-year-old photographs displayed for the first time

Indigenous people from the snow forests of Inner Mongolia and Siberia have been reunited with century-old photographs of their family and communities as part of a research project and exhibition at the University of Cambridge.

Previously unseen photographs capturing life in a remote corner of the world a hundred years ago will now be displayed in Glenmore, following the River Stars Reindeer first unveiling at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

The photographs record the indigenous Evenki and Orochen communities and were made by Russian ethnographer Sergei Shirokogoroff and his wife Elizabeth between 1912-1917, and by Cambridge graduate Ethel Lindgren and her husband, Oscar Mamen, between 1929-1932.

The exhibition, was the culmination of a painstaking curatorial process, which involved choosing 70 images from more than 26,000 photographs. A process further complicated by the research team coming from ten different institutes located in three different countries.

One of the curators of the Cambridge exhibition, Jocelyne Dudding said: “This is a unique opportunity to see the very best of their images together for the very first time. The photographs are not only a wonderful record of the ways of life for Evenki and Orochen, but they also speak of the more personal stories behind every image.

“Each photograph tells many, many different stories about the lives of the people, the clothes they wore, the animals they raised and the places they called home.

The conversations Dudding and her fellow researchers from Aberdeen, St Petersburg and Hohhot had with the indigenous communities directly influenced the selection process for the exhibition. As the project developed and word spread, more and more communities from other areas came forward and asked to be included.

River Stars Reindeer comes about from a digital sharing project to reunite Evenki and Orochen communities with their photographs, and thereby their histories and their cultural heritage,” added Dudding. “We are now in the process of digitally sharing our photographs with them – having spent the last 18 months digitising 16,000 images so far.

“A shaman, a shamaness, and a Achinsk Lama with their helpers.”
“A shaman, a shamaness, and a Achinsk Lama with their helpers.”

The exhibition title River Stars Reindeer speaks of the cosmologies and realities of the lives of Evenkis and Orochens in an area known as the three rivers region.

Many of the photographs to be displayed at the exhibition were gathered by anthropologist Dr Ethel Lindgren and photographer Oscar Mamen. Lindgren went on to continue her studies and immersion with reindeer husbandry and in later years married her second husband Mikel Utsi, Swedish Sami reindeer herder. In 1952 Lindgren and Utsi successfully re-introduced reindeer to Scotland. The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd still thrive today and exist freely within the Cairngorm mountains.

River Stars Reindeers exhibition runs from 26 November 2015 until 3 January 2016 and will be displayed at Glenmore Visitor Centre. The exhibition is on loan from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge where it has recently been shown.

Getting Ready for Christmas (Tour)

Whilst our reindeer spend the vast majority of the year leading a very relaxed life out on the Cairngorm mountains, for the six weeks running up to Christmas, some of our full-grown adult males and six-month-old calves take it in turns to join in Christmas events across the country. These events serve several purposes: spreading the word and educating people about the reindeer, raising vital funds to sustain the herd through the coming year, and of course spreading some festive cheer, especially to those who are unable to make it up to see the herd at home.

Xmas signs
Sleighs and sign boards waiting to be varnished, whilst some of the “farm boys” observe from their part of the barn
Xmas kit
Boxes of sleigh decorations, useful kit for the trucks, spare everything…

Of course taking up to eight teams of six reindeer away on tour requires just a bit of preparation. Or rather, a lot of preparation. Poor Fiona deals with all of the paperwork and logistics, starting in January (it’s always Christmas for her!), whilst Tilly is the queen of organising the rest of us into helping her sort out the physical kit required. In October, most of the team end up spending a day or two at the farm, helping to scrub, sort, varnish, count and clean the various bowls, head collars, harness, ropes, boxes and sleighs, and to mix numerous bags of feed.

Xmas Headcollars
Digging out the smart event head collars and ropes from storage
Xmas varnish
Giving the sleighs a fresh coat of varnish
Xmas bowls
Imogen got the short straw of pressure-washing all of the feed and water bowls

Our specially designed “boxes” which the reindeer travel in, similar to a large horse box but with additional room for a sleigh, also have to be taken out of storage and painted, cleaned and bedded down ready for the first trip of the year.

ReindeerLorryFleet1
Some of the trucks and freshly painted boxes ready to go ©Alex Smith
Xmas feed
Mountains of feed waiting to be mixed – we use a cement mixer for speed!
Xmas ropes
Nearly 100 lead ropes and head collars are needed to kit out all of the teams (each reindeer has a “smart” set and an every day set)

All in all, it’s a lot of work, but meeting so many excited and delighted people out on tour with our beautiful reindeer makes it all worthwhile!

Andi

A Reindeer Wedding

Wedding
Greg and Karen (the happy couple) with Svalbard (left) and Duke (right).

A few weekends ago a selection of our beautiful reindeer were invited to a wedding, with a special request for the lovely Fergus (the wee calf we are currently hand rearing). Along with Fergus we took four of our Christmas reindeer; Moose (an old hand at pulling the sleigh and wearing bells and harness), Svalbard (a rather small and stocky but very handsome reindeer aptly named after the reindeer from the island of Svalbard who are much smaller than their Scottish cousins), Monty and Duke (two of our three year olds who have recently become Christmas reindeer this year and will be trained to pull the sleigh and go out on tour with Father Christmas this winter, both are very handsome reindeer with lovely big antlers).

Wedding
Svalbard, Fiona, Moose, Fergus, Duke, Lotti and Monty eagerly waiting in their bells and harness for the music to finish and the wedding party to arrive.

First we took the boys out of the Brenda (our fondly named livestock lorry) and gave them a good bit of lichen. This bribe allowed us to slip the harness and bells onto the boys, who barely batted an eye lid. Having worn harness for many years Moose was the perfect role model for Svalbard who has only done one Christmas season and Duke and Monty who have never worn bells before but behaved themselves fantastically. Fergus has always followed us like a little lamb and jumped in the back of our van, so I think his nose was a put a bit out of joint when he had to wear a halter and travel in the reindeer lorry with the other reindeer (instead of in with the herders and dogs).

Wedding
Duke, Svalbard, Fergus, Moose and Monty with Greg, Karen and their friends and family.

Once the ceremony was finished the wedding party and guests came out to meet the reindeer, all of them posed fantastically for photos and Fergus charmed everybody with his cheeky personality.

Wedding
Svalbard (left) and Duke (right) posing with ex reindeer herder Zac and his partner Emily.
Wedding
The blushing bride leading Duke for a walk in the woods, with both Greg and Svalbard checking the path behind for any oncoming dogs (other than Fergus the reindeer are not keen on dogs).

 

Wedding
The boys showing off their slightly less photogenic end!

All in all a fantastic afternoon was had by everybody. The boys behaved themselves wonderfully and had a little practice for the madness that is Christmas. I think after a bit of sleigh training for Duke and Monty, they will all be ready in time to pull Santa’s sleigh all over the country. The real question is will we be?

Lotti

Disappearing Under Paperwork

Newsletters. The very word strikes alarm into the heart of a reindeer herder. Twice a year, our very outdoorsy, active job becomes a little more office bound for a few days, as we frantically scrabble to prepare, write, and compile about 3000 words into a comprehensible piece of A3, and then mail it out to our supporters of the herd, each of whom ‘adopts’ one of our reindeer. Or more than one, and in the case of one particular adopter (you know who you are…) – six!

We send out the newsletter twice a year, in late June and late October. The June one isn’t usually as fraught as the October one, which coincides with a hectic time of year for us: calf halter training, reindeer sleigh training, the run up to the Christmas tour and the October half term. Over time they have evolved from a single, black and white sheet to a glossy, double-sided and full colour affair. We always include info about each adopter’s particular reindeer in June, but over the years as the support scheme grew, this became too much for us to cope with in October and now we send a photo of the herd instead, with a little info on the back.

Newsletters
Some of our more recent newsletters

There’s no fancy computerised system for us though, we instead trawl through the filed adoption slips for each year of adopters, bit by bit double-checking the info on the form and the printed label is correct, and combining a newsletter with the correct photo or info slip – and then lots of envelope stuffing ensues! When I started working here, years ago, newsletter time seemed to go on for weeks, but now it is a matter of days, usually driven by panic by the amount of other work building up that is on hold. Newsletters come first for a few days! There always seems to be one envelope that floats around the office for a few extra days, with a scribbled post-it on it saying something like ‘can’t find form in folders!’, or ‘why isn’t this on the database!!!!’.

Newsletters
A clear kitchen table and massive amounts of water are needed as preparation
Newsletters
Even Tiree is roped in to help spot the right address labels
Newsletters
All of these folders are full of adoption forms… and all of them must be manually checked

While we do our best to save paper and only send one newsletter to each person who adopts more than one reindeer, there’s no way for adoptions to be easily linked together, so it relies purely on the memory of person working their way through the filed forms, one by one. Many of us recognise most adopters’ names straight away, and the office talk will involve lots of ‘hang on, I think these guys adopt someone else too. Where’s their other form?!’. Often punctuated with ‘bugger, I forgot they adopted so-and-so too. It’s been posted already…’. So if you receive two separate newsletters in the post, bear with us, one day we’ll get it right! (and on that note – if you spot anything wrong with your address, do drop us an email so we can correct it!)

And then, finally, comes the mission of franking all 1000 plus envelopes. A mind numbing job, but quite soothing as the machine beeps away – known to us as ‘the franking song’. The beeping ditty is stuck in the head of the unfortunate herder tasked with this job for the rest of the day.

Newsletters
The hardest week of the year for the franking machine
Newsletters
At last – envelopes stuffed, labelled, checked, franked, boxed and ready to wing their way across the country!

So hopefully by now (or within the next few days at least), you adopters out there should have your shiny new Oct 2015 newsletter in your hands. And if don’t adopt a reindeer, and want to get your paws on one of these hallowed pieces of literature (ha!), then there’s only one way to do so. Now, where’s that adoption form got to???

Hen

Calf Training 101

October is a fun time of year as it’s when we train this year’s calves as well as harness training our young Christmas reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh. Halter training and handling the calves makes them much tamer and easier to handle for the rest of their lives so even if they don’t end up pulling Santa’s sleigh at least we can catch them if we ever need to when they are out in the hills…well, most of the time anyway, some are always wild…it’s in the genetics!

Luckily reindeer are very food orientated, aren’t we all! So stage one is to get their heads in a bucket full of tasty lichen, chocolate for reindeer!

Calf training
Lotti luring the calf into the bucket of delights!

Once the head is ‘inserted’ a sneaky manoeuvre gets the halter on with them barely noticing what’s happened!

Calf training
Mel putting on the calf’s halter while Lotti holds the bucket

Once the wee ones are caught we get ourselves a couple of steady old boys to come alongside and ‘teach’ the calves…this day it was Puddock and Parfa’s turn to be the companions. We have found that they are better behaved without their mums, like some children! So mum’s go back up the hill once they have accompanied the calves down to the ‘training centre’ and the big boys take over.

Calf training
All haltered up, we are ready for a wee walk around Glenmore to see the new sights and sounds…….
Calf training
To try and make the walks a ‘fun’ thing we go off into the woods in search of yummy snacks!
Calf training
Enjoying some freshly picked tree lichen from Lotti.
Calf training
The boys enjoy the smorgasbord walks just as much as the calves! Puddock nibbling lichen from the trees.
Calf training
Fresh birch leaves are another favourite, Grunter snacking on leaves while Lotti feeds the wee calf.
Calf training
Moose ready to grab a big mouthful of leaves, it’s interesting to watch the technique. They grab the twig some way toward to base and then pull it throw their teeth and hard pad to strip off all the leaves but leave the twig and tip intact so they don’t actually damage it, clever!
Calf training
The training/buffet walk finishes with a wee graze of the grass.

Lastly with heads snuggly back in buckets of lichen, halters are carefully removed! After 2 or 3 outings like this they will be pretty much halter trained. The key to winning them round is lots of tasty snacks and pockets full of lichen as you will have seen and a couple of old boys who can be a good influence!

Mel

Introducing the bulls

Since some of our female reindeer finally decided to join us at the hill enclosure, the rut has got underway. We use different sections of our 1,200 acre hill enclosure to help us manage the bulls during the rut, as it would be complete chaos if we just put them all in together and left them to get on with it! By splitting each bull with a small group of females, everything is a bit more relaxed and the big lads feel less at risk of losing their girls. We do, however, let some of the younger, smaller bulls “have a go” by letting them remain in with a big bull, and if they manage to sneak a female away and have their wicked way, then good for them. Of course, most of the time, they don’t stand a chance!

Gandi
Swedish Gandi with his distinctive white nose

This year we have quite a few bulls who may be getting a chance to spread their genetics in the herd. As usual, most of these are of Swedish descent. Whilst we keep a record of the parentage of each calf born here, it is a lot easier to prevent inbreeding and promote genetic diversity if we use bulls that we know aren’t related to anyone else. Bovril, Gandi, Boxer, Nutti, Pera and Bandy all started their lives in Sweden, before joining our herd in 2011. After we have bred from them for a few years, they will join our Christmas team and live out the rest of their life as a part of the Cairngorm herd.

Bovril
Big handsome Bovril

Bovril and Gandi are perhaps the biggest and most impressive of the boys this year, especially Bovril as he is black in colour, and whilst he’s actually very sweet natured, when he’s strutting his stuff and chasing away the other males he can look extremely intimidating! Pera is another black reindeer, but is slightly smaller than Bovril. He is easily recognised due to having rather bizarre antlers – the top points point forwards rather than backwards. As antler shape is determined genetically, it will be interesting to see what the antlers of Pera’s offspring turn out like!

Pera
Pera with his bizarre antlers

Boxer is another dark coloured reindeer, but Nutti is much lighter and has a white nose, as does Gandi. Bandy is the one right in the middle – what we would call a “normal” colour. He’s quite a slight build and a bit less scary than the other big bulls, but is perfectly capable of holding a group of females.

BoxNutBand
A range of different colours: dark coloured Boxer, normal coloured Bandy and white-nosed Nutti

Of our Scottish born bulls, three-year-old Balmoral is the biggest and most impressive. He comes from a great family line – Fly is his mum – and his family has a good record for producing big strong calves with large antlers, so hopefully any offspring he fathers will inherit these traits. A few of the younger bulls may also get a look in – notably Cambozola, Mo and Atlantic are convinced that they are handsome enough to win over any female… its just a case of whether they can steal them away from the big lads or not!

Balmoral
Three-year-old Balmoral
CamMoAtl
The Young Hopefuls: Cambozola, Mo and Atlantic

Watching the bulls performing is always entertaining – unlike the red deer stags who roar their challenge at other males, reindeer bulls merely grunt. They also lick their lips, pee on their hind legs and generally swagger around thinking they’re the bees knees. Personally, they remind me of drunken lads out on the town, but they do seem to have some degree of success at impressing the cows. Quite how successful will only be proven next year in May!

Andi

Awesome autumn

The reindeer look superb in Autumn, with their fully grown antlers and thick winter coats just come through. Here’s some photos to give you an idea of how good they’re looking…

Cambozola
Young bull Cambozola, having freshly stripped the velvet from his antlers
Hudson
Yearling bull Hudson, with Mo in the background. Often a few ‘streamers’ of velvet cling on after most has been stripped.
Lairig
One of the biggest and oldest female calves of the year
Tinto
A wee male calf with unusual facial markings. It doesn’t take long for the calves to learn that we provide tasty food for them!
Wapiti
Wapiti grows one of the biggest sets of antlers among the females
Brie
Little Brie looking amused!
Caddis
Beautiful Caddis is easily recognisable with her patchy white face
IMG_6266
Grunter and Max enjoying a drink at the loch at our Balcorrach Hill farm