It’s always quite a contrast from central London where I work, to the hills of the Cairngorms, where I spend my holidays herding reindeer! This time I couldn’t get further away – a small group of reindeer herders headed up north to wildcamp at Sandwood Bay, one of the most northerly and remote beaches in Britain. After a long clear night (it didn’t really go dark), we headed back south to the Cairngorms where reindeer duties took over. It’s always very varied, from trekking to poop-scooping to manning the shop to taking guided visits.
Calving was finally coming to an end, one of the longest calving seasons there has been, so the last of the females were sent off to the free-range to get the best of the summer grazing on the high mountain tops with their calves, leaving just males in the enclosure to greet visitors. Apart from looking very scruffy at this time of year as their winter coats moult everywhere (I’ll be picking reindeer hair off my clothes for weeks to come in London!), they are also fairly greedy as they bulk up for the summer ahead of the rut in the autumn.
Following a good day’s work at the centre or out in the hills, I headed back out into the mountains for the evenings with the dogs, up to the snow line (yes there’s still snow up here – even in midsummer), to blow the city cobwebs away overlooking the Lairig Ghru or the Northern Corries.
Everything up here functions on a different time-frame. Unlike the city there is rarely any rushing, and meeting people up in the hills is unusual so you have a good old natter. Although the physical work can sometimes be tiring (especially the arrival of the feed lorry and the heaving of seemingly endless sacks into the shed), it is also quite relaxing. More steady than stressful!
Though it’s only a week in the hills, I always get a bit of a jolt returning to city life and the morning commute on Monday! The noise and the people and work kicks in and feels a parallel universe to the reindeer and the hills.
Many people who come and visit the reindeer want to know the answer to this very question: What is the difference between antler and horn?
First of all, just in case you are in any doubt, reindeer grow antlers, not horns! Many folk ask us what antlers are made of and ‘are they made of wood?’ is a surprisingly common question which always amuses us!
Antlers are an extension of the animals skull, found on members of the family Cervidae (i.e. deer). They are made of bone, are a single structure and are shed and regrown every year. Antlers grow from pedicles – bony supporting structures that develop on the skull. Sometimes, the pedicles get damaged and you get a lopsided set of antlers like one of our female reindeer, Hopscotch. Occasionally, they don’t develop on one side at all, for example Dixie who only ever grows one antler.
Generally they are only grown on males but, of course, reindeer are the exception to the rule. Male reindeer lose their antlers shortly after the rut, the breeding season, in autumn. Female reindeer hold on to their antlers over the winter because access to food is critical during winter pregnancy. Having antlers generally makes you more dominant so you can push the antler-less boys off the good food patches! However there are always exceptions… Arnish, who is no longer with us, was a ‘mega hard’ reindeer and never grew a single antler but she was as tough as old boots and just battered other reindeer with her front hooves when required!
Reindeer start to grow new antlers again in the spring and its incredibly fast growing, up to an inch in a week. On some of the big boys, like Crann, you have a few days off and return to see a massively noticeable difference in his antler size. While the antlers are growing, the bone is encased in super soft velvet, hair covered skin, which covers the nerves and the blood vessels feeding the antlers from the tip. Once the antlers are fully grown, end of August for reindeer, the blood supply cuts off and the velvet starts to dry and crack and come away from the bone. The reindeer help this process by rubbing their antlers against vegetation and what ever is about, like a fence post! They can look a bit gory at this stage as flaps of bloody velvet dangle off them like dread locks! Once its all peeled away they are left with solid bone antlers which the bulls now use during the rut to impress females and fight off other bulls.
They lose them, as already mentioned, shortly after the rut or after winter for females and then the whole process restarts the following spring…pretty clever!
Found on sheep, bison, cows, pronghorn and antelopes, horns are made of two parts. They have an interior of bone (also an extension of the skull) covered by an outer keratinized sheath made of a very similar material to your fingernails.
One pair of horns is typical but some species of sheep have two or more pairs for example Jacobs sheep. Horns are usually spiral or curved in shape and often have ridges on them.
Horns start to grow soon after birth and grow continually through the life of the animal and are never shed, with the exception of the Pronghorn which sheds and regrows its horny sheath every year, but retains its bony core. Unlike antlers, horns are never branched and although more commonly grown on males of the species, several females grow them too.
So hopefully that has shed (no pun intended!) some light on the subject. Come and visit the reindeer at different times of the year to see how the antlers change with the seasons. By the end of winter/start of spring, barely any will have antlers still attached and they do look a little strange compared to when they have the magnificent bony antlers of autumn. Just now the reindeer are all growing their new antlers so they are covered in lovely super soft velvet and are about half way to complete size.
As the milder weather is finally arriving, the reindeer are looking extremely scruffy as they moult out their old thick winter coat, allowing the new shorter darker summer coat to come through. A reindeer’s winter coat can have an incredible 2000 hairs per square inch of coat, consisting of a dense wooly undercoat and long hollow guard hairs, which keep a reindeer snug and not even feeling the cold til about -30C. They have even been documented surviving to -72C!
Of course in summer, even in Scotland, its much warmer than that, so the reindeer grow a much shorter, sleeker coat to keep cool. But with so much hair to lose, at this time of year it can seem like its snowing if they give themselves a shake! Whilst most of the hair drops off by itself, the reindeer will groom themselves a little to remove more, and we sometimes give them a hand, stroking handfuls out at a time. This photo of our lovely old boy Crann, from this time last year, illustrates this perfectly!
Here at our Glenlivet farm one of the best times of day is the evening, when the reindeer are herded back out onto the hill for the night. As they slowly walk up through the birch wood, clicking as they go, the wood is alive with songbirds singing as they flit from tree to tree.
The birch wood is rich with young leaves to browse, moist tree lichens to nibble and underfoot fresh herbs and grasses to graze on. So the reindeer take a while to wend their way up to the top of the wood.
Yesterday evening as I reached the open hill with the reindeer in front of me, a pair of curlew were circling above us, madly calling and quite upset that we had disturbed them. Their calls became agitated and one of them landed in front of the reindeer and scuttled ahead trying to lead the reindeer away. It’s at this point that I realised why there is such a commotion. Minute, our biggest three year old bull with very long velvet antlers, was looking inquisitive with his nose close to the ground. Right in front of him was a brown and creamy white fluffy ball of young feathers, a curlew chick, probably only hatched the day before. Minute looked as surprised as the chick at their encounter and turned to join the herd while the wee chick scuttled into the rushes.
Peace returned as the reindeer headed for the hills and the parents of the chick realised the danger had gone. I walked back down through the wood, the sun setting and the songbirds still calling.
Having only been part of the Reindeer Centre team for a month, there are usually novel activities for me to take part in: shovelling bark chippings, painting benches or washing the van to name a few. However, I was not expecting to meet a calf, learn to lead reindeer, tag sheep and drive a Landrover all in the same day!
The day started off as usual, with Fiona and I checking on the free range female reindeer before heading off to feed the girls in the enclosure. We led the girls over to their usual feeding area, but someone refused to come. Considering she is one of our greediest reindeer, this was a little odd. She had been acting strange the previous day, running off on her own. I had since learnt that this was a sign she may be ready to calve, and I was thrilled to see a fuzzy ball of baby reindeer lying next to her when we went to check her. We led the pair into a smaller part of the enclosure to have a proper look at the calf and found out she was a girl. Obviously, I had to get a selfie with her.
We left the pair in peace and headed back to the Centre. We were going to the farm that afternoon so Fiona, Abby and I had an early lunch and hopped over to Tomintoul in the van. It was busy from the word go with sheep ear tagging. The ewes were almost finished when we arrived, but the rams were still waiting.
I was handed what looked like a pair of pliers and some plastic strips with numbers on them. Fiona and Abby knew exactly what to do and started catching sheep. I was a little overwhelmed until I realised, “Oh, these are the ear tags!” I snapped off a tag and tried to load it into the gun, but it was fiddly and I felt uncoordinated. Eventually I managed and felt quite pleased until I saw how quickly Tilly was loading them; I needed to speed up! I got the hang of it and by the time the rams came through I felt like a pro.
We then loaded the ewes and their lambs to be moved to the hill. I presumed we were doing the same with the rams until we started fencing off the garden. This seemed odd, but it turned out that’s where the rams were going. Abby and I were positioned to keep the rams from escaping onto the road while Tilly herded them out of the shed and down to the garden. The Soay sheep at the farm are much smaller than the ‘normal’ sheep you see in the field, and it was quite funny to see their legs going ten to the dozen as they ran to their new pasture. We fenced them in and went inside for a cup of tea before the real work began.
The reindeer herd is split into two in winter, with mainly females at Cairngorm and mainly males at the Cromdale hills. This reduces grazing pressure and stops the boys being bullied by angry, pregnant females! The boys have different grazing areas at different times of the year, and today they were due to be moved closer to the farm. To do this we had to lead each reindeer on a headcollar for a 30 minute walk. And there were a lot of reindeer to move.
We drove to the pen, where they had come in from the open mountainside for their breakfast earlier, and started selecting ones (ok, just whoever was closest really) to be led down the hill. I had never led a reindeer before, but had led a horse, so wasn’t feeling too nervous. All I really had to remember was “Don’t let go”. Because this was my first time, I was given only two very well natured boys. I was put in the middle of the group: boys at the front can be a little reluctant and boys at the back can be a little too enthusiastic to get going, so being in the middle meant a lovely, calm walk for me.
We headed off down the road: 6 herders and 19 reindeer. What a sight we must have been! The boys were all pretty well behaved, but were glad to be released when we reached the farm. In total we completed 5 runs, taking a car up to the pen each time. Luckily as the number of reindeer reduced we were able to spare people to drive back down, or we would have had to walk up one more time to retrieve our myriad of vans, cars and quad bikes.
After our last run was finished, Tilly, Alex and myself drove up in the Landrover to take the remaining cars home and tidy up a little after the reindeer. I’ve never driven a quad bike, so Tilly took that and Alex drove his van, so I was left with the old Landy. I hopped in the driver seat, after taking a minute to figure out how to get in (there’s a button on the handle, who knew!) and tried to move the seat forward. It budged a little, but not as far as I would have liked it to. I have the shortest legs in the world (maybe not, but that’s what it feels like) and could only just put the clutch all the way in, at a stretch. I put it in first, let off the hand brake, and immediately stalled. I put my hand down to turn the key and, no key. What? How is the thing even on? Turns out Landrovers, as well as having buttons on their handles, have keys on the wrong side. Suitably stressed as I had been overtaken by Tilly and was holding up Alex, I turned the key and set off. Excellent! I managed to get going. It was a very slow, very deliberate, and very bumpy ride back to the farm, but the Landy and I made it safely back; I even managed to reverse park it.
Finally, the sheep were sorted, the reindeer safely at their new grazing and all the vehicles back with their correct owner. We set off for home, stopping in at Grantown for a takeaway. Well, we surely deserved a treat after such a long, but rewarding, day!
Andi and I headed out a few weeks ago on a lovely sunny morning to search for the free-ranging herd – we had a spy and there was no obvious sign but they’d been hanging around the northern corries all week so we decided that was the way to go! While we toddled up the path to the corries we realised that pretty much a year to the day was my first week working with the herd and one of the most epic reindeer finding days I’ve experienced so far where we both walked over 10 miles up into the hills and found no reindeer.
As irony would have it the further we walked the less likely it seemed the reindeer were anywhere close to us, we had a wee sit down and a planning session about which one of us would walk where and luckily turned around to see a rather large group of reindeer pretty much at the top of Cairngorm. This was great – we’d found them! However, it was half past nine which meant we had but an hour and a half to walk ourselves back out of the corries and up Cairngorm then back down again to place the reindeer somewhere sensible for the visit at 11 o’clock. Time was definitely against us so we tanked it back to the van, swapped our big bags of food for something a bit more sociable and, hopeful of blagging a lift, headed into the funicular railway station. The lovely people on the desk fortunately took pity on us and we got a lovely ride to the top of the hill, amongst the skiers and snowboarders, with the reindeer shining beautifully on the top ridge in the morning sunshine. Sorted we thought, phase one of our mission accomplished!
Unfortunately, once we walked out of the base station it seemed the reindeer had had other ideas and promptly disappeared. We walked aimlessly shouting and shouting as we followed the path down Windy ridge and eventually we found the group hot footing it over to the Ciste side of the ridge. All were collected in dribs and drabs and we set about getting them down the hill on time. In fact it went amazingly to plan, the girls even made use of the lovely path down Windy ridge and at one minute to eleven they were all deposited out on the flats for the 11am visit. All was well for the day… or so we thought!
In the afternoon we usually go for a second spy around the roads to make sure the girls aren’t on the ski carparks creating havoc and this afternoon seemed normal, the reindeer were out of sight and presumed to be up in the corries again. You should never presume with the reindeer though as at 4.30pm someone dropped in to say the whole herd were pretty much chilling on the carpark – not what you want to hear late on a Friday! Once again, Andi and I trooped up to move the mischievous girls who through a stroke of luck were following really well. In the end we walked the whole group out across the flats, crossing a few burns and getting soggy along the way, into our mountain hill enclosure which is right where we want them to be in time for calving starting in a few days’ time. At six o’clock we dragged ourselves back to Reindeer House soggy, muddy and slightly garlic scented from the reindeer feed. It was a long day but naughty reindeer ended up working in our favour and we had yet another successful epic day!
While the other reindeer herders are spending the first part of the year watching the female reindeer gradually expand outwards and wondering who is going to calve first, I am often preoccupied with the return of the birds – the first fluting song of a Willow Warbler is one of my annual highlights, heralding the onset of summer. An ‘outdoor job’ in such a beautiful location as the Cairngorms means I’m in the right place at the right time to see, bit by bit, the changing of the seasons – and nothing makes me happier than to see winter finally receding! And added to that, I’m lucky enough to work in an area with outstanding birdlife, some of which is very rare elsewhere in the country.
The first sign I look out for is the birds starting to sing once again and I can remember, on Christmas Day in 2010 in Coylumbridge, taking photos (above) in the snow of Fiona, Tilly and our team of reindeer just before our first parade of the day (we do four parades at local hotels on the big day itself) and hearing a Coal Tit sing – the first of the new breeding season. A new season starting before the other had even finished. Ironically that is my most vivid memory of the whole day! That might just have been a particularly enthusiastic, or at least optimistic, bird however, as this year I think it was into February before I heard anything singing.
After that excitement there’s a long lull as winter drags on, seemingly never-endingly, but the days tick by as we retrieve the reindeer for the daily 11am visits each morning, one by one their antlers falling off as we get later into the winter. The Red Grouse get more and more noisy in March, often erupting out of the heather calling as we walk past and startling me, although the reindeer don’t appear to even notice them. Into April and spring is definitely starting to make an appearance, the weather milder (sometimes!), the plants starting to show fresh growth, while curlews, meadow pipits, pied wagtails and black-headed gulls move back into the area from their coastal wintering areas. Meanwhile the reindeer get wider and wider…
Then the migrants start to return, back from Africa. I usually see my first Wheatear up at one of the ski car parks on Cairngorm, the white flash of their rump unmistakeable. Then there are the Ring Ouzels, basically looking like a blackbird with a white chest, but again they’ve come all the way from Africa. At the moment there is a pair hanging around the hill enclosure, shouting at me most days when I enter to feed the reindeer. The Swallows are back too, and as usual are in and out the reindeer shed up on the hill when they nest annually. In the summer, as we harness up reindeer in the shed to go trekking, I wonder how many visitors have noticed there is a swallow on her nest just feet from them, peering down at the daily proceedings. High up on the mountain plateau the Dotterels return in May, one of only two species in Britain where the male incubates the eggs so the female is the one with the brighter plumage.
But it is the little, greenish Willow Warblers that are my absolute favourite, and I keep an ear on the grapevine in April, as news of them making their way north after their arrival at the south coast trickles in, and in mid-April they arrive on mass, the birch trees lining the Sugar Bowl path up to the enclosure suddenly dripping with them. And not long after their arrival, then the calving season kicks in and spring is well on its way, winter is behind us, and all is right with my world!
Zac initially came to work here when he was fulfilling his high school work experience week in September 2010. When he turned up, all 6’8” of him, we couldn’t quite believe the height of this 15 year old… of course going through our minds was ‘great, think how much feed he can carry up the hill!!!’ On his very first day, Zac was certainly keen and a hard worker so fitted in well to the Reindeer Centre team. It was the rutting season and during our guided tour Zac became a bit more acquainted with Grunter (our two and a half year old hand-reared bull with LOTS of character!) than he would have liked, as Grunter managed to mount poor Zac and, even at his height, Grunter got both hooves on each shoulder and did manage to leave him with a wee cut behind his ear… Oops, sorry, don’t tell the school!!! Needless to say this didn’t put Zac off and he finished his week of work experience with us – in fact we liked him so much we offered him a weekend job which he was delighted about.
Over the past 4.5 years, Zac has been an absolute star. He is hard working, trustworthy, and going by our visitors’ reviews gives the best guided tours out of all of us. He is great with the reindeer and although he does tower over them slightly they are always very settled in his company. His quiet nature and calmness is the perfect behaviour around the reindeer. He has been with us through thick and thin, through the depths of winter and heights of summer and has even managed to survive the time of year that tests us all… Christmas!!! He has seen reindeer come and go and I think is still the only herder to have a reindeer calve on their guided tour. A lot of us herders rarely get to see a reindeer give birth at all, let alone for it to happen on a guided tour! Dixie decided that day that wandering away from the herd to calve would mean she missed out on hand feeding so why not kill two birds with one stone and have the calf on the visit so hand feeding was still an option!
He may have been lucky that time, but calving isn’t necessarily Zac’s favourite time of year as in 2014 we all took part in a sweep stake: which reindeer would calve first! Whoever lost had to swim in the loch, which in May is pretty much just snow melt… very, very cold!!! Zac chose Oatcake, a 5 year old female, who not only calved last out of all the chosen females, but calved last out of the whole herd, so it was time for Zac to dig out his swimming shorts. He was a good sport though and completed the forfeit with a smile on his face.
We will all miss Zac a lot and he has certainly left a hole in our weekends. The dogs are definitely going to miss him too as when Mardi (Zac’s mum) picks him up after work she comes with dog treats which have been known to include roast beef… The dogs become completely devoted to her when she is here and we get no sense from them at all! We wish him all the best in his future which I’m sure will include many great adventures along the way. He is a gentle giant who has left a great big footprint at Reindeer House which I am hoping one day he will fill again, even if it’s to visit or pick up the odd bit of work – he knows he is always welcome… Once a reindeer herder, always a reindeer herder!!!
We awoke to a very damp, dreich day on the Cairngorms but we had a mission to complete, come rain or shine! Today was vaccination day for our younger females and yearlings.
Fiona, Abby and I set off bright and early as the first job was to locate the herd, all out free-ranging in the mountains. They were soon spotted, with the aid of binoculars, at the foot of Coire an t-sneachda but being so pale now in their winter coats they stood out very well on the now heathery hills, devoid of snow, so we could actually see them with the naked eye. We called them and they came a-running, food always on their minds! We then set off, sacks of bribery food on our backs, toward the enclosure and they followed along behind us. We crossed the Allt Mor burn which was quite high with meltwater and Fiona stepped over with ease (just like the reindeer!), whereas I ended up with two wellyfulls of water and Abby went off balance and ended up with a rather wet sack of food! Next was the steep climb up the bank and along the top into the enclosure. They followed us in no problem at all.
Once in the enclosure we had to do a massive sorting session – reindeer from 1-3 years old as well as any mothers of yearlings all got kept back whilst the others were let free. We herded them into the reindeer shed in small groups to allow us to sort them more easily. Once sorted, we gave them all some breakfast and headed down the hill ourselves for a cup of tea and a warm up whilst we waited for Tilly to come over and give us a hand.
In the afternoon, we headed back up to the enclosure in the pouring rain, Tilly clutching her lovely pink polka dot reindeer medicine bag, which always amuses us as none of us are very girly! We then began the task of vaccinations for the various tick-related illnesses that reindeer are prone too, especially in the early years before they develop an immunity. The girls were really good, amazingly calm for animals that spend most of their lives free and wild on the hills. Most stood patiently while they got their injections, the odd one wiggled a bit but in no time it was done. Their reward was another tasty meal and we left the gates open so they could wander back onto the hills once they’d had their fill.
They obviously didn’t hate the experience too much as this morning we called them down from Reindeer Ridge where we had spotted them grazing and they came haring down the hill to find us for some more food. Or maybe they are just really greedy!