Svalbard was born in the year calves were named after Games and Puzzles, with other reindeer born that year including Hopscotch, Bingo, Monopoly and Jenga. Svalbard was originally named Meccano, however in the autumn of 2011 when he came back off the free-range as a 5-month-old calf we were so struck by his short legs and dumpy body that we nicknamed him Svalbard, after the short, fat reindeer found on the high Arctic island with that name, and it stuck.
Now at seven and a half years old you could hardly describe Svalbard as short and dumpy. Maybe just rotund? Despite being a late born calf and coming back after the summer at 5 months old without his elderly mum Arnish (who must have died), Svalbard has matured into a really fine reindeer with, dare I say it, attitude.
Svalbard comes from a fine family of reindeer. His great-uncle was one of our favourite reindeer of years gone by, Gustav. His mother Arnish was a real character in the herd, who despite being antlerless all her life was certainly not disadvantaged by her lack of weapons on her head. She often took the initiative when it came to confrontations with antlered reindeer and invariably won!
Although a dark reindeer Arnish was prone to producing light coloured calves and in particular white faced calves like Svalbard. Her daughter born in 2008, Addax, has a white face and has gone on to produce calf Parmesan, who has white markings too.
And finally Svalbard reminds many of us of Sven, the reindeer in the Disney film ‘Frozen’ and that says it all.
One year after spending Thanksgiving as the lone American in Nepal with a group of runners that included Fiona Smith, I could have never imagined that I would be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a group of reindeer herders in the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, here I am, still the lone American, but with a whole bunch of great friends surrounding me and accepting me as the, ‘token yank’.
My road to becoming a reindeer herder was unconventional to say the least. Actually, is there really any conventional way to end up working at the Cairngorm Reindeer Center? And yep, that is Center spelled with an ‘er’ at the end because there are just some things that I refuse to conform to including British spelling of certain words. So if you receive an adoption pack describing your reindeer’s ‘color’ you can bet that I wrote it.
It all began last November while in the Himalaya finishing up my mission to run a marathon in every continent, and Asia was my last one. I was part of an expedition running the Everest Marathon, a group that included the one and only reindeer extraordinaire, Fiona Smith. When we were doing our introductions on the first few days of the trek, I honestly thought that she was joking when she enlightened us all to her incredibly unique profession. C’mon now, no one actually herds reindeer for a living? They just sit at the North Pole and eat carrots; no one looks after them but Santa. Boy, was I wrong. I knew virtually nothing about these incredible animals and the amazing people that take care of them here in Scotland.
Fast forward to this past July, Fiona, our friend Tom from the Everest Marathon, and former reindeer herder Ruth Molloy found themselves on a plane to America to join me on my hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT). And for about a week, they all enjoyed the delightful experience of arduously trudging through the muddy hemlock forests of Vermont.
Anytime you meet someone while traveling, you know them in a very isolated context, so it becomes quite odd when you see them outside of that original encounter. However, when participating in something like the Everest Marathon, it enables you to create a bond with people that transcends far beyond what is normal. Because of this we stayed in close communication in the months following our journey through the Himalaya. When I had first told them that I would be hiking the Appalachian Trail, they must have done little to no research because they were quite keen to join me!
While we all hiked there were many jokes made on my behalf regarding my homelessness and unemployment, simply living in a tent for five months in the mountains of the east coast of the United States. These jokes however, led to an offer that seemed to be taken more seriously as the days on the trail with Fiona and company went on. She suggested that when I had finished hiking, if I would like to visit her in Scotland, I’d be welcome to come help out at the Reindeer Center for November and December. The Christmas season tends to be a busy time of year for reindeer (I at least knew that), so they always welcome an extra set of hands.
Next thing I knew, I had myself a plane ticket to Scotland and not the slightest clue into what I had gotten myself into. The first few days as a reindeer herder were a whirlwind of fact learning, feed mixing, and poo picking. Very different than my normal job occupation in the United States as a paramedic, I found it quite enjoyable being in an environment where no one was yelling at me or bleeding on me (hopefully). And on my measure at how successful I am at a task, I was doing very well, no one was dying!
There have been several learning curves thus far that many other herders don’t generally experience. As I’ve alluded to already, my spelling of certain words has been critiqued by many of my colleagues; they are especially disturbed by ’aluminum’. Conversely, I have a particularly difficult time attempting to pronounce many of the names of the Scottish towns and hills. People have been very amused by my attempts to say them in an American accent as well.
Additionally, I have never seen so many hot drinks consumed in my life! It seems like tea kettles are constantly boiling at all hours of the day! Honestly, I feel it would be more efficient to set up an IV infusion of tea for some of my coworkers!
Driving on the left side of the road has also evoked a sense of paranoia that even distracts me from singing along with the radio. I find myself constantly repeating the mantra of, “left, left, left” while driving on the winding narrow backroads of the Highlands. But with the help of my fellow herders, all of these hurdles (see what I did there) have been uneventfully navigated.
Often times while I blogged during my time on the Appalachian Trail, I wrote how it wasn’t necessarily the place, but the people that dictate an experience. Living at Reindeer House certainly does not fail to hold true to that theory. With seven of us from four different countries living under the same roof, from morning to night we certainly have a lot of fun. Friends that I have been with for only a month now feel like I have known them for years (in a good way). And last night the staff of the Cairngorm Reindeer Center held the first Thanksgiving in the sixty-six year history of the herd.
To say my experience as a chef is limited would be an understatement. Aside from my mother’s fantastic meals, I’ve essentially lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and noodles for the past twenty-four years, cooking a full turkey dinner was an ambitious exploit to say the least. The thought of preparing a meal of this magnitude for so many people left me more unsettled than being in the back of an ambulance with a trauma patient. But with a day off and Google at my fingertips I was eager to give it a go nonetheless. Having a bit of help from Fiona and the internet I’m happy to say it all went off without a hitch and the food was very enjoyable.
Everyone dressed up in their finest American attire, Fiona made an American playlist, and laughs and delicious food were shared by everyone. Even Scotty and Kate the owners of the local bar, the Pine Marten, decorated the walls with American flags, the Declaration of Independence, and many other photos of American symbols and monuments.
It was truly one of the greatest Thanksgiving celebrations I have ever had with people that I am certain will be lifelong friends. Although I missed my family, this wild bunch of reindeer herders made the holiday very special for me.
I think this says a lot about Cairngorm Reindeer Center and the people it attracts here. If you’ve ever come for a visit you may have noticed the kindness and attentiveness the staff has exhibited, but what you see is just a small sample of the true personality of all the herders. This incredible group of people that I have been working and living with are some of the most caring and altruistic humans I have ever met. Their love for the reindeer, their job, and each other is unparalleled to most environments I have witnessed. So from the bottom of my heart I need to thank Fiona and the whole Smith family because now I feel incredibly fortunate to also be a part of this wonderful community.
Pera’s antlers really are worth writing about. As a calf he grew short simple antlers, which would not have given us any idea of their shape and form three years later. As a two-year-old, Pera’s antlers were slightly strange – very wide and ‘flattened’ but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. However, by 2014 his antlers are completely bizarre.
As a general rule reindeer grow antlers of a similar basic pattern, with long brow tines, including the front blade pointing forward low down above the base of the antler. Then as the main beam elongates, the later tines grow pointing backwards. Sometimes the tines can be flattened with extra points coming off them too.
Pera’s antlers, however, look like they are completely the wrong way round with the tines higher up literally pointing the wrong way. Also his antlers are incredibly wide apart at the top with very long splayed tines at the bottom. Apart from looking extraordinary it’s actually quite difficult to get a halter on him!
Antler shape and form is basically inherited – must have been an interesting combination of antlers from his mother and father to come up with Pera’s! However, we will never know exactly what they were because Pera was born in Swedish Lapland and finding out his parentage from a herd of 5,000+ reindeer would obviously be impossible. In 2014 he was one of our breeding bulls and so one of the calves he fathered was Aonach. Now Aonach is 3 1/2 you can certainly see the influence of his father on the shape of his antlers!
Reindeer are incredibly interesting animals. Many people that come on a hill trip or visit the paddocks conclude this after learning a wee bit about them. I thought so too, when I first came here, and it’s one of the reasons I kept coming back, as a visitor, then volunteer, and now member of staff. What I didn’t know then was that the more I would learn, the more fascinating the reindeer would become!
I’m currently finishing reading Tilly’s second book (The Real Rudolph) after having read her first (Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses). I am fascinated by all the new things I learn and try to share as much of that fascination I can with people during tours and paddocks talks. I look forward to starting on Tilly’s third book (Reindeer: An Arctic Life) which has just been published. Below I’ve listed some of the amazing facts I’ve only recently discovered:
– Reindeer are omnivorous: they eat what they can find and in the harsh conditions they live in this does mean that the amount of shrubbery can be limited, which can result in them eating birds!
A mighty rutting bull, strong as they look, is actually weaker than his female or castrated counterparts. I’ve learned the hard way, unfortunately, as we lost one of our beloved breeding bulls to a disease that sometimes can be cured if we spot it early. Even before the rut they will have spent a lot of energy in growing antlers, and their rutting behaviour is also very energy-consuming. This leaves them often exhausted by the end of it, makes them less effective in fighting off diseases, and causes them to go into winter with less energy reserves, which makes it harder for them to cope with the harsh winter conditions.
White reindeer that have leucisim (partial loss of pigmentation) can get sunburned in summer. We sometimes put sunscreen on their faces to prevent this from happening!
Even when we let a female reindeer in with several breeding bulls, we can still figure out which of the bulls was the father if she gets a calf later on. The simple reason for this is that they come in season for one day only, and this is then repeated in cycles of 3 weeks. A reindeer’s pregnancy lasts 221 days so when the calf gets born, it’s a simple calculation of with whom she was that many weeks ago when she was in season, and then we know the dad!
How long reindeer keep their antlers for is affected by hormones. It is for this reason that Christmas reindeer (who are all castrated) keep their antlers longer than breeding bulls. If we contracept females for that year it may cause them to loose their antlers early too!
I first visited the Cairngorms and the reindeer centre around Easter 1998 on a family holiday. There was a foot of snow on the ground in Glenmore and it was beautiful. This started a 20 year journey which resulted in me moving here to work full time last year.
The memory I have from my first ever hill trip was wading through deep snow to a reindeer sat on his own, his name was Kola. I ended up adopting him for the next decade and would return to visit him on hill trips and at the farm when Tilly would show us around on a few occasions.
In 2008 I came for some work experience that really helped me take a step forward into becoming a future reindeer herder as I got to know the reindeer and staff a little better. It was the summer when Hippo and Grunter were hand reared so taking them up and down the hill every day was a great experience. I will always remember having to encourage and push them down the path at night to the van as they were tired and did not want to leave the hill enclosure from having so much fun it seemed. Bottle feeding them wasn’t much of a chore either!
The following few years through my late teenage years I did not visit Scotland or the reindeer much as we had moved down South and all my focus was on racing my bike in Belgium at any opportunity. Through my years during and after University in my early 20s I gradually started to return to Scotland and to see the reindeer once again. Whenever in the area I would always try and help out for a day or two mixing and carrying feed up and down the hill, as I wasn’t much use other than as a mule/poo picker.
In the autumn of 2016 I came to Glenmore for a few days of camping and somehow ended up moving into reindeer house for almost a month and trying to make myself useful. Fiona and Mel were living at the centre at the time and it gave me my first taste of the fantastic lifestyle we have as staff living in here at Reindeer House: have a great day of work on the hill with the reindeer, go running, swimming or cycling after work and then come home to a delicious meal cooked by one of your housemates. I had known for years that I would like to come and work here for a while but that month really confirmed this to me. Fiona also threw one of the greatest parties ever seen over at the farm that year with hill races, tough mudders and bike races during the day followed by some fantastic food and a big ol’ ceilidh in the evening!
So to autumn 2017. I had spent the previous 2 ½ years travelling all over the UK, Europe and other parts of the world working for a professional cycling team which gave me some fantastic adventures, but I missed the mountains. I spent 6 weeks travelling around the west coast of Canada and the USA trying to spend a bit more time in the hills. I arrived back in Scotland as my parents were coming up for the adopters weekend so I tagged along to say hello to Fiona and the others before she then offered me a job. Fiona asked me to work for a month or so up to Christmas. Needless to say I had a brilliant time working here. When I realised Morna, Ruth and Olly were all looking to move on in the early part of 2019 I decided I would stay on for a year or so and settle down for a while in the mountains after a hectic few years of driving and flying all over the place to bike races. Whilst I miss the riders and staff plus some of the travelling of the cycling team I could not be happier here at Reindeer House and may well end up here a little longer than planned once again!
Special mentions to Joe and Rob for making the first 6 weeks of Christmas Fun very fun!
Joe <3 Baffin. Taking a break from running with Joe to herd some reindeer one evening!
Its well over two years now since Viking was born which also means I have been a Reindeer Herder for well over two years. It was my first trip into the hill enclosure that morning and it was chilly in early May when Fiona and I first caught a glimpse of young Viking. He was white all over and extremely floppy. Proud but casual Mother, Caddis, was right behind the wee man. From then on neither of us has looked back.
What great two years they have been. Both Viking and I have been maturing constantly. Keeping fit on the hill and building a real rapport with both staff and visitors. Both Viking and I have developed into real characters with handsome and striking features (haha). Viking has grown a great set of antlers this year and is showing real potential as a dominant male in the herd – I have not.
His coat is very light – silvery in the summer and white as snow in the winter. He has some darker patches on his face. My freckles have developed over the summer creating an equally patchy display. All up Viking and I are quite similar and I hope our friendship will continue for a long time yet.
The years ahead are likely to be fun for both of us. Lots of work to be done keeping ourselves fit and healthy. The changing of seasons will bring many challenges but the rewards keep us going. During the third year of a males life is when the unfortunate and mildly traumatic process of castration is performed. THIS IS MOST DEFINITELY WHEN WE GO OUR SEPARATE WAYS!!
Earlier this year we sadly lost Sequin, one of our most well-known females of the herd. Tilly wrote this article about Sequin back in 2015 which we thought we would share once again.
Born 9th May 2002
Sequin is what we would describe as a ‘normal coloured reindeer’, with a dark back and light sides. However, in contrast, her mother Polo, grandmother Ferrari, great grandmother Vivi, great great grandmother Stina, great great great grandmother Snowflake and great great great great grandmother May were all white or very light coloured reindeer, so Sequin is very much the ‘black sheep’ of her extended family.
Whiteness in reindeer is a recessive gene and it is interesting to see how that colouring has been so persistent through the generations. I think this is probably due to Snowflake, who was actually an albino reindeer and must have passed on strong white genes to her daughter Stina. Sequin may be the odd one out in this long line of direct white relatives, but she has passed on the white gene to her 2013 calf Cambozola.
Sequin’s mother, Polo, was an extremely good looking reindeer, who always grew very pretty antlers and, with her good looks, almost regarded her calves as a fashion accessory! Sequin lived up to her mother’s expectations and is definitely a pretty reindeer, although she doesn’t always measure up when it comes to antlers as they have been known to be rather ‘wiggly’ in the past. But that’s maybe due to age!
At 13 years old Sequin is now one of our older female reindeer, which just makes me feel old too because I clearly remember when she was born – 2002, the year we celebrated 50 years of reindeer in Scotland. The calves born along with Sequin followed a theme of gold and to this day we still have five other reindeer born in 2002: Haze, Foil, Ring, Lilibet and Bangle. So you may well ask how does Lilibet fit into the gold theme? Well, 2002 was the Jubilee year for the Queen as well as for us, and ‘Lilibet’ was her nickname as a child.
Sequin is a real character in the herd; not only does she have four surviving calves of her own – Fern, Stenoa, Cambozola and North – who like their mother are very tame and greedy, but she is a grandmother to Ladybird and great grandmother to Baltic. A great family of reindeer in our herd.
What do reindeer herders do when they meet reindeer when they are travelling abroad? Right, try to get some interaction! After having volunteered with the herd for a couple of weeks at different times last year, I had to finish my studies and for that I needed to do an internship in Norway (I know, poor me ;D). The lovely Trondheim, the town I lived in for 4 months, is surrounded by distant reindeer areas North, East and South of the city. I was really looking forward to meeting some Norwegian reindeer, and since I hadn’t seen them during the first week I was there (I mean, come on, it’s reindeer country!) I decided to just go to the nearest herd with a visitors centre, which was at a 2/3 hour drive away from home (practically nothing in Norwegian standards).
I met some beautiful reindeer behind a fence, but they were a bit far away… Then I got the slightly mad idea of trying to call them over the way we do in Scotland. I started at a very low volume but once I got their attention I decided to go for it, and they all came and meet me at the fence. It was really funny to see that these reindeer, so far from our herd in Scotland, actually seemed to react to the call we use there.
Later on I bumped into a herd that was free-ranging, tried the same thing, and had success again. The reindeer had been lying down, probably regurgitating some food they ate before, and they got up and came running towards me as soon as they heard the call.
I wonder if the reindeer I encountered reacted because our call is the same call used by Mikel Utsi, the Swedish Sami herder who was the founder of our herd in Scotland, or if reindeer are just greedy and associate human beings that show interest with the prospect of a nice meal! Reindeer sure are keen on their food, and if they can find any way to preserve energy by having it brought to them they are not likely to skip that opportunity.
Later on at the centre I told the story to many a colleague and found out that they had tried similar things in other countries. Guess the quirkiness of reindeer herders is just as prominently present as the love for food in reindeer!
The first association that most visitors have with the Centre is when they come into the shop. This room is at one end of Reindeer House, and is where we greet visitors, book them onto tours, and provide a selection of souvenirs.
Back when Mr Utsi and Ethel Lindgren first built Reindeer House, this was the room where they entertained guests and had a wood fire burning to provide warmth and cheer. Sami artefacts and pictures adorned the walls.
Nowadays our exhibition has outgrown the room and has moved to the Paddocks, and somehow I’ve inherited the responsibility of stocking the shop with (hopefully) interesting things to buy. The one rule that I was told by Tilly is that everything must be reindeer-related! We’re keen to keep it a bit different and not just end up selling the same souvenirs as every other shop, so I spend lots of time trying to track down locally made, unique products. It’s lovely to be able to support other small businesses based in the area by buying their products.
Some of the products are very local indeed – herder Fiona uses reindeer antler to craft jewellery, cheese slices and knife handles, and I dabble in tying fishing flies made using shed reindeer hair. A local photographer creates brooches and pendants with photos of our herd, and green wood worker Wooden Tom makes model reindeer out of branches, complete with removable twigs for antlers. We’ve also recently started stocking a locally made 100% natural midgie repellant, helpful for actually getting out on the hill to see the reindeer (I’ll make an argument for a tenuous link to reindeer!).
Being a bit of a bookworm myself, our book selection is pretty good – including several books written about the Herd, some more general ones about reindeer and the local area, and children’s books. Talking of children, everyone needs a soft toy reindeer, so there’s a choice including some more realistic options and others which focus on being cuddly and cute. It’s certainly the area many kids make a bee-line for, though there is a slight problem that some dogs that are staying with us (especially puppies) will also decide to help themselves if we forget to shut the door!
In January we take the opportunity for a deep clean, and also use the floor space for cleaning all our harness after Christmas tour. I do love a nice ordered system and usually commandeer this job!
Reindeer House does live up to its name and many of the reindeer have popped into the shop for a few minutes over the years, mostly ones who were hand reared, but also the occasional one who is being trained – just as you expose a puppy to lots of situations to help make them confident and relaxed with whatever life throws at them, calmly introducing reindeer to unexpected scenario helps create a chilled-out individual! The only problem is that reindeer, with their amazing thick coat, often find it a little warm in there, and after a minute or two need to lose some heat, most quickly achieved by spreading their legs and having a pee!