Herder Zac – Moving on to Pastures New

Zac with the herd
Zac in his element

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.

3yo Zac
Starting our herders young… Zac visiting the reindeer at the tender age of 3

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!

Reindeer one-sies
Trying to be reindeer – Zac and Ben showing off their reindeer onesies!

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.

Sleigh training
Sleigh training – the Pattison family catching a ride whilst Zac acts as the “brake”

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!!!

Fiona

Vaccination Day

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.

Leading in the reindeer
Abby and I and the girls, a bit soggy, at the top of the hill post-river crossing

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!

Mel

Travelling in Style

All of our female reindeer are currently free-ranging on the Cairngorm mountains at the moment, so every morning we head out early, track them down and lead them to a suitable area to be fed. Today we moved them from one side of the ridge to the other, where they could enjoy some fresh grazing. Having led the majority of the herd out and settled them happily eating their breakfast, we had another quick drive round the roads to check that there were no others in sight.

Reindeer are very much a herd animal, and tend to stick together, though small groups will frequently splinter away, perhaps when they have a difference in opinion about which direction they should head! It’s fairly unusual for reindeer to head off alone, apart from at calving time, but there are a few of the independent older females who sometimes do wander away for a few days. We hadn’t seen one of our older girls, Esme, in a few days, but hadn’t been unduly worried as she’s a known “loner”.

Driving back to the other side of the ridge, we spied a lone reindeer making its determined way towards the car park. A glance through the binoculars informed us that yes, it was Esme! And she was looking in super condition. Our delight turned to slight consternation though – she was now left alone on the “wrong” side of the mountain, with the herd having moved on. Esme is a super sweet and tame lassie, and whilst we could have hiked over the ridge with her on a headcollar to reunite her with the herd, we wondered if we could save both her energy and ours (of course we were thinking about the fact that she’s an OAP rather than our own tiredness level…) and hop her into the back of the van…

Reindeer in the van
Esme in the van

Esme was delighted to see us, well, delighted to see the bag of feed anyway, and once we’d popped the back seats down to give her some more room, she gave no objections to following us into the van. She must have thought it was a definite upgrade on the usual trailer, with a much better view, and being allowed to munch her way through a bag of feed enroute was also an added bonus! A short 5-minute drive and it was time to emerge at the other car park nearer the herd. There was a car pulled up with a few people admiring the view, and the last thing they must have expected was for a reindeer to hop out of a van! Esme didn’t bat an eyelid at the whole experience, and was quickly reunited with the herd.

Reindeer never fail to amaze me with their no nonsense approach to life and quick assessment of whether unusual situations are anything to worry about. At the grand age of nearly 13, Esme has definitely sussed out that us humans are trustworthy, and as long as a bag of feed and a reassuring voice is on offer, she has no problem following us into slightly unorthodox situations!

Andi