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!
Once the head is ‘inserted’ a sneaky manoeuvre gets the halter on with them barely noticing what’s happened!
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.
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!
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!
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 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!
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.
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!
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!
Each year, September and October become stressful months for me. Although the crazily busy summer season has passed and some sense of normality is returning to the slightly frazzled reindeer herders (shortly to be removed by the onset of the Christmas season, however), autumn is the season of ‘adopt photos’. This is my responsibility (although frequently assisted by Alex and all the other herders that I’ve begged…), so I spend my time armed with a camera and a sense of hopefulness that maybe, just maybe, the sun might come out…
We have been running our Support Scheme for over 25 years now and right from the beginning adopters of our reindeer have received a certificate annually, along with a recent photo of ‘their’ reindeer. Added to the issue of there being about 150 reindeer in the herd, is the problem that they free-range on the mountains a lot of the time and there is never any guarantee that they’ll be in the right place when I need to get that elusive photo. Having been here for years now, I know the details of our adoption database well, and I frequently have a constant niggling worry that I know so-and-so’s adoption renewal form of a particular reindeer is going to crash onto our mat any day, and I STILL haven’t got ‘the photo’…
Reindeer don’t always lend themselves to being easy photo subjects. They spend a large part of the summer being incredibly scruffy as they moult their winter coat, and then part of the winter (ranging from one to several months) with no antlers, having cast their old set. Nobody really wants a photo of a bald reindeer (except, perhaps, adopters of Malawi, who actually is bald, having never grown an antler in her life). I need the weather to co-operate too as cameras and rain don’t mix well, as everyone knows, and this is often one of my main obstacles.
Reindeer look at their absolute best in September and October, with full grown antlers and fresh, thick winter coats. So, this is the season that I aim to get a complete set of photos of every single reindeer, to use for the majority of the next year. I then try and get ‘back-up’ photos in Jan/Feb, to use in the late summer to avoid any possible overlap of photos for the adopters whose renewals are due around that time. Older reindeer don’t change much in appearance from year to year (other than the moulting/antler issue), but the young ones do as they grow, so they usually need more regular photos too.
The natural stance of a relaxed reindeer doesn’t help either, heads down, ears out sideways, somewhat glazed look. If you receive a photo of your reindeer with its head up, ears pricked and an alert look, bear in mind that at the moment I pressed the shutter I probably had another herder dancing around nearby like a nutcase, barking like a dog, or throwing a feed bag in the air! In moments of desperation I have been known to throw the empty feedbag at the reindeer… Unfortunately (for me anyway), the tamest and friendliest reindeer are the most adopted ones, and are always the most difficult to generate a response from. Naming no names. Well, Puddock. Paintpot. Beastie… It’s a well-known and frustrating rule of mine that I always take the nicest photos of shy, un-adopted reindeer.
However, each photo is filed in our photo archive, so whether they have been used on a certificate or not, they still provide a visual record of a reindeer’s life through its various stages. But regardless, one of the highlights of my year (maybe I should try getting out more) is that glorious moment when I press ‘confirm’ on the online order in the autumn, and sit back knowing that in a few days 1000+ shiny photos will arrive and can be filed, awaiting the flood of adoptions over the coming months. Huge sigh of relief!
As some of you may know our female reindeer spend the vast majority of their year pootling about on the Cairngorms in theory not getting into trouble! There are but two times of year when we bring them into our hill enclosure and one of the most important is ready for the breeding season in October.
Our lovely ladies usually start turning up around mid August and us reindeer herders dutifully place them back on ridges day after day until we’re ready to bring them in. We like this time of year as it means we get to eat more cake… this year however we’ve had no cake! August came and went with barely a sighting of a female reindeer and then September arrived and we thought they’ll all turn up any day now (bearing in mind there are about 50 females and calves up on the mountains there) but again no sign. So off we trogged on several missions to see if we could track down some reindeer so the poor bulls, who’ve been ready for the rut for several weeks now, could see some ladies!
Things looked promising when I went on a wee jaunt up Meall a’ Bhuachaille behind the Reindeer Centre and found four cows and calves who we attempted to walk in. Things, however, did not go the plan and we had come to the conclusion that this year the cows have decided that as independent women they have the right to have a calf if and when they choose! We did however see an adder… who can spot it?
By now it was mid September and all was quiet on the reindeer front, every day we religiously checked the roads and spied at the mountains but nothing was seen. Today everything changed, myself and Andi checked the roads as normal and actually spied a reindeer… then a few more on the ski slopes of Cairngorm and the few turned into nine lovely ladies and calfies (eventually… they do so love making you call like an idiot when there’s an audience!). Andi and I often end up being completely unprepared and had no head collars so after a brief wait for the valiant Hen with a halter delivery we embarked on walking them in, pleased that we’d finally been able to get some cows in. It was soon to get even better! A phone call from Hen gave the news that another large group of girls had heard our calls and were enclosure bound too!
One and a half hours later we had 36 beautiful cows and calfies safely in the enclosure, 12 very happy bulls and finally reindeer herders who can justify eating cake again!
As many of you may know, the Reindeer Centre is not only home to many reindeer, but also several dogs. They are all perfectly unique in their look and personality, and don’t usually get in the way too much when we’re doing ‘reindeer stuff’.
There are three dogs here full time: Tiree, Sookie, and Murdoch. Sookie is a little older than the other two, but she can still rough and tumble like the best of them when she’s gone “wild” (by which we mean, she has a little bark and gets excited, but that’s about it). Tiree and Murdoch are the best of pals, and really enjoy having play fights. Sometimes these play fights sound vicious, but they’re all bark and no bite.
There are a couple of other regular visitors, Tip and Moskki. They are both ‘farm dogs’ and are full of energy. Although Moskki is small, she is always up for playing with the other, much larger dogs, and usually wins! She is also a complete sook and will climb onto your shoulder if you’re in the office for a cuddle and a perusal out the window at what’s going on. Tip is very much a ‘one man dog’ and adores Alex. She usually sleeps the day away when he’s not here, but when he is here, Tip is the most vocal of dogs. Ask her to “speak up” and she has a frighteningly loud bark!
And then there’s my pooch. He doesn’t often visit the Centre, but when he does, he’s a little overwhelmed by the madness. Broc is a Heinz 57 of a dog, and is middle aged at least. He loves to cuddle and sleep, and eat and sleep, and chase a ball and sleep. Basically, he is a sleeping machine, and can spend hours in bed quite happily. Here at the Centre, he doesn’t get much chance to sleep, and he disapproves of the young ones and their playing. He usually hangs around with me in the office and then will sit at the door and wait for me to come back if I dare to leave him. He is just a lot quieter than these dogs, but is usually fine after a few hours and after telling the other dogs to leave him alone.
He recently came on his ‘holidays’ to the Centre when my partner and I attended a wedding in Dundee. I filled a huge box of food for him (as every protective mother likes to feed up their babies), left a whole load of Dentasticks, gave him a cuddle and left. I knew he would be well taken care of, and this was confirmed when I got a late night message from Abby, proclaiming Broc as the King of Reindeer House dogs. Now, you need to understand, in Reindeer House, the dogs don’t get on the furniture. Not for any reason other than if all the dogs were on the seats, there’d be no room for people. The picture I received of Broc defied this rule. Broc was cuddled up on a seat, looking down on his minions. His minions were the three Reindeer House dogs, Tiree, Sookie and Murdoch. They were all sat on the floor, waiting for instructions from their King. I was pleased to see that Broc was making himself at home, but thought it a little unfair for the other three to be upstaged by their visitor. Upon my return, Mel also explained that when Broc had the stick, the stick belonged to him, and everyone knew that. Usually Sookie, Tiree and Murdoch will fight over sticks, chasing each other, playing a game. But Broc was different. The other dogs did not dare challenge him, and he was happy.
Broc might not be the best dog for obedience or sharing, but I’ll forgive him for being so cute.
Being a reindeer herder for the summer has been a series of firsts for me: my first job, my first time living away from home and, of course, my first time herding reindeer! It’s been an amazing summer (bar the weather) and for this blog I will be writing about going straight from leaving school, to full time work, and my experiences being the newest and youngest reindeer herder. I have also included a lot of the photos I have managed to take of the reindeer on the hill.
I can remember my first day clearly. I had just arrived and was immediately given my first job: poo-picking in the paddocks. Having been handed a bucket and trowel, I was sent out to tackle the task. Although it may seem ridiculous now, this posed a serious problem: I had no idea what reindeer poo looked like! Being too embarrassed to go back and ask, I continued with the job hoping I was picking up the right stuff. I remember having doubts about being a herder at this point which were soon forgotten when I spent the rest of the day herding reindeer and running around the hills. It was on my first day that I also discovered a certain reindeer we now called Fergus (see our previous blog). Another herder and I were moving the reindeer up the enclosure when I noticed Fergus’ mother Foil wasn’t moving with the herd. I went over to investigate and discovered she had given birth to a tiny, fluffy calf! Sadly she died ten days later but I have been privileged to see Fergus grow up into the confident and slightly naughty reindeer he is today!
Being a naturally shy person, my first time taking a tour was quite nerve racking. I had spent the days before attempting to learn all the facts and information I could about reindeer, as on previous visits I had been unable to answer many questions I was asked. It went quite well I think, and since I have taken many more tours, been on several treks and even managed to learn all the names of the reindeer in the hill enclosure! I have grown to love many of the reindeer such as Duke and Bovril who both are sweet and very beautiful. However, some reindeer I am not so keen on… Macaroon (possibly the greediest reindeer ever), delights in kicking my legs whenever he sees me with the hand feed bag which has resulted in me getting many bruises! Minus this personality defect he is still a very sweet reindeer and I can honestly say I don’t dislike any of the herd.
Outside of work I have been living at Reindeer House. I am moving to Edinburgh for University in the next few days so the experience of living away from home will really help me with this. My spare time has been taken up by manically painting reindeer on rocks to sell in the shop. As I am going on to do a degree in geology, I feel I am justified by this ‘obsession’ with rocks which has proved to be quite a good wee business.
I have been extremely lucky to have worked with the reindeer and I would like to thank Tilly and Fiona Smith for giving me this incredible opportunity. I would also like to thank all the staff at the centre (in no particular order) Imogen, Abbey, Hen, Andi, Mel, Catriona and all the volunteers, you are all amazing! And lastly I would like to thank anyone who has been on my tours or is reading this blog.
Many of you may have already heard about our wee orphan reindeer, Fergus, who we have had the joy of hand rearing this summer. Sadly his mum died when he was just 10 days old but he got several very eager human mums instead, not least myself who has gone completely maternal over him, worrying about him on his first day up the hill (like it’s his first day at school!), texting when I’m away to make sure he has had his milk on time and collecting him fine lichens and bouquets of heather when I’m out on walks!
Fergus quickly adapted to life without his reindeer mum and was very tame from the start. He also befriended the dogs! Wolves are reindeer’s biggest natural predator so it’s an unusual relationship to say the least.
Fergus began his life down at the centre so that we could bottle feed him easily and he hung out with the reindeer in the paddocks, but right from the start Fergus was very happy wandering around the house and quick to seek out a comfy bed! He tried quite a few…
He soon discovered that dog beds were the best bet…
Fergus loves his milk and is always on the hunt for a possible udder! This involves butting us very violently at times and looking in some unusual places:
As soon as we could we began taking him up the mountain to spend the day with the herd, to teach him to be a proper reindeer. He loves his walk up the hill first thing and usually does a few wee skips of joy along the way.
He also likes his walks around Glenmore in the evenings; he gets some exercise and some tasty snacks along the way:
Recently Fergus went on his first half day trek as he needs to get fit for the time when he will go out free-ranging with the herd. He loved it and had a great time eating all the new plants he found along the way.
Fergus is a bit of a local celebrity and has been in two local papers; people come from far and wide to see him….
Fergus has been a great source of entertainment and joy to all of us. He is definitely in the “terrible twos” stage at the moment, always up to antics and eating and drinking things he is not supposed to:
Finally, now the rutting season is about to begin and all the boys are busy stripping their velvet and revealing their splendid antlers, we felt Fergus needed a helping hand as his antlers are just tiny wee ones right now…
But whilst these pictures may give you the impression that Fergus is a house pet, we have to assure you that the majority of his time is now spent with the herd on the mountains – he is a “big boy” now and will very soon spend all his time up there, enjoying the views and the natural life of a Cairngorm Reindeer.
Watch this space for more news on the adventures of Fergus!!!
The heading tells it all. I am the oldest person working at the Reindeer Centre and, at the age of 71 years, it really makes me feel a lot younger mixing with all the youngsters who work there.
Officially, I am the book keeper for the Reindeer Company, but my role involves lots of other jobs from Agony Aunt when hearts are broken, to financial advisor when the young ones are starting out in life and need some good sound motherly advice.
I started working with the Reindeer Company approx 15 years ago, and have seen lots of people coming and going in that time. It is always a lovely family atmosphere at the Centre and throughout all the different years I have made some really good friends.
Sometimes in my job I have to help the staff understand the rules of book keeping but they all seem to accept my advice and “do as they are told” to get it all correct. They dread it when they see me reaching for the RED pen, reminds them of school!
Last Summer my grandson, Christopher, came to work at the Centre for one week doing work experience, and got a gold star for his efforts from Tilly, Alan, Alex and Fiona, so maybe a future generation of my family may carry on working amongst the reindeer.
Some of the shop customers are really envious of us here having such a wonderful view of the Cairngorm Mountains and one lady said you must have the best job in Scotland looking at that view every day. We are indeed very fortunate.
Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal which naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in 9 countries; Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. Most importantly of course our small herd here in the Cairngorms!
There are roughly 30 different reindeer herding cultures (i.e. the Sami in Scandinavia) with up to four million reindeer! (A few more than our 150!). There is often an intimate relationship between herders and their reindeer as well as husbandry, which, wherever practiced is often almost identical.
Reindeer represent one of the only domesticated species with which humans still live to their terms and needs instead of making the reindeer adapt to ours. For example, popping a reindeer in a grassy field prevents them grazing and migrating normally, which is key to a healthy and happy (reindeer) life. Reindeer herding is socially and culturally extremely important as each ‘group’ of herding peoples have unique identities and cultures centring on their way of life with their reindeer. Economically reindeer are also very important as meat and other products make up these cultures’ livelihoods.
In the modern reindeer vernacular you’ll find two terms, ‘reindeer herding’ and ‘reindeer husbandry’ – herding is the much older concept which mainly refers to working with the reindeer whereas the ‘husbandry’ encompasses not only the reindeer but the entire herding industry: socio-economic issues, scientific research and management. As with many traditional occupations around the world the reindeer herding lifestyle is under threat from loss of pasture land, predators and of course climate change, which has an immediate effect on grazing.
As you may know, the Cairngorm herd are a family owned business and this is often true of reindeer herders across the globe where individual owners often work in co-operation with their families, neighbours or villages to care for their reindeer. There are around 100,000 reindeer herders in the circumpolar north today which is a lot more than our 7 full-time members of staff! Reindeer herding varies between different cultures and countries but the one thing which remains constant is the need for herds to migrate between summer and winter pastures. If you’ve visited us here in the summer you’ll know that at this time of year our female reindeer are up and away on the Cairngorm plateau where they find yummy alpine plants and relief from insects; they then return to lower more stable winter pastures where they find their favourite food: lichen.
Reindeer herding is not a 9-5 job but a way of life: here in the Cairngorms, our daily routine is dependent on where the reindeer are, the weather conditions, pasture land and the seasons. In fact, for the Sámi, their yearly calendar is entirely based upon what reindeer are doing during specific seasons. For example, early spring is known as Gijrra – The Season of Returning – winter is ending, snow is melting and the reindeer return to familiar calving grounds for May or Miessemannu – the calf month.
The lovely thing about reindeer herding is by working with these wonderful (sometimes ridiculous) creatures your work is not only focused by your own goals but it is truly dependent on the reindeer themselves and most importantly the natural world around you.