Unpredictable winter weather

As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…

Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.

Battling to feed the reindeer on a wild day. Picture credit: Getty Images

Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.

Blasting snow. Picture credit: Getty Images

While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.

Coated in snow

From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.

Leading the herd in along the ridge above the hill enclosure

But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.

Sometimes I’m just not tall enough for this job!

Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…

Hen

Furry Noses

This winter we have prolonged periods of cold snowy weather, as I write this the weather forecast predicts it’s not going to be above zero during the next two weeks! It’s pretty chilly for us herders even under our many layers, but for the reindeer it’s ideal (if a little mild!) and we have a big happy free-ranging herd.
On Hill Trips we often talk about how reindeer are adapted to Arctic and subarctic life by describing their thick winter coat, large hooves, beards, and their amazing clicking back feet. However, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and endearing adaptations of a reindeer is their beautifully soft velvet noses!

Their fuzzy noses also makes them a joy to hand feed as herder Lotti’s smile demonstrates as she feeds Brimick

Out of the 40 odd species of deer in the world, reindeer (and Caribou) are the only deer which have hairy noses rather than shiny, moist ones. This prevents the build up of frost which would occur on a cold wet surface during exhalation; perhaps this is the reason why male polar explorers (and Scottish reindeer herders) often grow beards!

Merida and calf Dr Seuss vacuuming up their breakfast without getting chilly thanks to a completely hairy muzzle
By comparison, here’s a red deer stag with a shiny, wet nose
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However, the most special part of a reindeer nose is actually on the inside. This blog will endeavour to delve under the cute furry exterior to hopefully show how truly remarkable a reindeer’s nose is…. as well as a good excuse to show lots of lovely fuzzy photos!
There is a complicated and highly specialised arrangement of cartilage, bone, fleshy bits, mucous membranes and blood vessels that make up their nasal passages. Together they form an extremely large surface area; the shape of which is often described as a ‘rolled scroll’ or sometimes a ‘seashell’. This specialised structure allows a reindeer’s nose to remain warm and retain moisture in freezing temperatures as well as allowing them to expel excess heat on warmer days.

No cold noses for Sitini and her calf Pratchett as they munch on snow.

A reindeer would soon be chilled if freezing air was to reach their lungs on every breath. To overcome this they have the fascinating ability to change the temperature of the air they inhale before it reaches the lungs, and vice versa. This is all thanks to their ingenious nasal structure, which works as a counter-current heat-exchange system.
For example, if the outside air temperature is -40⁰C, the temperature when the air reaches the reindeer’s lungs is about +38⁰C. In other words, they can change the temperature of the air an incredible 70-80⁰C in less than one second! Additionally, winter air tends to be cold and dry, especially for reindeer that live in higher latitudes. In order for the heated air not to be over dry when it reaches the lungs, a bit of moisture is released from the internal mucous membranes into the air when the reindeer inhales. Move over Rudolph with your shiny red nose, I think that is pretty magic!

Bumble’s snowy nose

On exhalation the opposite happens so a reindeer is able to cool its warm breath, in order to conserve as much body heat as possible. When breathing out they also conserve as much water vapour as possible; especially important when snow may be the only form of water they are able to get!
So when it’s cold in winter, us meagre humans can see our breath as we exhale. However, a reindeer standing at rest in sub-zero temperatures will have no visible breath steaming from their nostrils! That’s because air leaving a human nose is about 32⁰C and the water it contains condenses into visible water droplets as our warm breath meets the cold air. In a reindeer’s nose, warm air is cooled down by about 21⁰C before it is exhaled, saving the majority of the heat. The mucous membranes in the snout recover the moisture, enabling the water in the air to condense inside the nose which then trickles into special folds which direct it to the back of the nose and into the throat, meaning the reindeer exhales drier and partially cooled air.

Beneath Christie’s pretty nose lies an amazing complicated anatomy!
Second doing his best Rudolph impression whilst out on tour last Christmas!
Reindeer noses can also be very useful for sleeping on, as Fergus is demonstrating her!
Last but not least…. Dr Seuss’s gorgeously handsome super soft snozzle!

Ruth

References:

The magical reindeer nose


The Real Rudolph, Tilly Smith

Reindeer calving: Can we predict whether there will be more males or females born?

It has been an exceptionally mild winter here in the Cairngorms; the ski season never really seemed to kick off, the herders are missing the snow and it has just felt a bit wetter and warmer than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed how early the snowdrops and daffodils seem to have emerged and we have noticed that the hills are looking a bit greener with the heather and deer sedge starting to grow already. Looking at the Met Office summary for winter 2016-2017, temperatures are up about 3.0°C on average (average being data from 1981-2010) in the UK.

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This blog is really just an excuse to look at cute calves. Here’s a reindeer and a red deer calf, both being hand reared.

For the reindeer, this warming winter could have lots of effects, and we have recently heard of the reindeer in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia, starving to death due to increased rainfall in the autumn freezing and leaving a thick layer of ice impenetrable to them for foraging.

Our reindeer seem to be coping just fine and it has not frozen here enough for them not to reach their favourite food, lichen. However, research done by previous reindeer herder Heather Hanshaw has shown that weather conditions do definitely affect the proportion of male to female calves born in the spring. Since calving will soon be upon us, I thought it might interest you to know about this research and what our mild winter may mean for us in the upcoming weeks.

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Newborn calf

Heather studied Physical Geography at Edinburgh University and in her final year needed a project to study. Of course, having an interest in climate as well as reindeer, and having worked at the Reindeer Centre, a project about how climate affects them was a natural interest to Heather. She knew that Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren had been very meticulous about the data kept on calves born in the Cairngorm herd, and climate data was easily enough accessed, so Heather devised a project determining if weather (temperature and rainfall) had any effect on the proportion of male to female reindeer calves born. A similar study was conducted with Red deer on the Isle of Rum, and their study found that milder winters led to more male calves. Would it be the same or opposite of Rum, or would weather have no effect on the Reindeer?

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The famous Fergus, asleep on Mel’s rug

It turns out that Reindeer are similar to Red deer and when the winter temperature increases, so does the proportion of male calves. So, will that turn out to be true this year? With only a few weeks until calving begins, it will be interesting to look at whether we have lots of male calves this year.

Last year the winter seemed fairly average, possibly on the warm side a little, and our calving ratio was almost perfectly 1 male to 1 female, so it will be really interesting to see if this mild winter has had an effect on what will be born this May.

Hopscotch and calf
Hopscotch and calf

Please find sources below.

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries/2017/winter

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112958-80000-reindeer-have-starved-to-death-as-arctic-sea-ice-retreats/

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6735/abs/399459a0.html

Imogen

 

 

Memorable reindeer of the past: Eco

Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!

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Young bull Eco

Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.

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10 months old

The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.

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Hen and Eco on a Christmas event together

Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.

Always inquisitive and up to something!
Always inquisitive and up to something!
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old
Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.

A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.

Hen

Spring Buds

If I was a gardener I would be looking out for the first signs of spring, daffodils pushing out of the ground and buds beginning to form on the trees. But I’m not. I’m a reindeer herder so the buds of spring I look out for are the newly growing reindeer antlers which begin to grow first among the mature bulls.

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Yearling reindeer Fly a few years ago, with new antlers just starting to ‘bud’.

Having lost their old antlers at the end of last year our mature bulls, like Balmoral, Bovril and Pera have spent the last few months antlerless which is not a good place to be because with no antlers you are at the bottom of the peck order. Even the wee calves, only 10 months old, still have their antlers and can boss any antlerless reindeer around!

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Fly a few days ago having cast an antler a little early, and presumably with ‘help’ from another reindeer. Antlers cast naturally  in Spring don’t normally bleed.

Mature bull reindeer grow the largest antlers in the herd and so to achieve this they need to start growing their antlers early. Despite still being winter here the bulls will divert food resources to growing these new antlers and this week I have just noticed the first buds of velvet antler appearing on their heads.

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Mature bull Crann in his heydey, with antlers starting to grow long before the end of winter.

Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdom and from nothing on their heads these bull reindeer will have fully grown antlers, measuring up to 1 metre in length and weighing anything up to 10kg by the middle of August. Although the rate of growth will be slow just now, by the spring/summer the antlers visibly grow each day, with a growth rate of about 1cm/day.

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Crann in May with half-grown antlers…
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…and in August the same year, with full grown antlers.

Antlers are entirely composed of bone and to grow need a blood supply to the growing tip. The blood supply is carried by the velvet skin covering the developing bone and the velvet skin also acts as a protective cover. The velvet is also full of nerves, which make the growing antlers sensitive to contact, so protecting the soft growing tissue from injury.

Because the blood is so close to the surface the antlers always feel warm and radiate considerable heat. Indeed some scientists suggest that the antlers are important radiators of heat that help reindeer to ‘keep cool’ in the summer time.

The ultimate size of the bulls antlers depends on a number of factors but genetics and nutrition are the most important ones. The more they eat the bigger their antlers grow and if they come from parents who grew big antlers then they will more than likely grow large ones themselves. Crann has grown the biggest antlers ever in our herd and that is partly due to his parentage, his mother Burgundy grew extremely big antlers for a female. But also Crann has an insatiable appetite, always there for extra food, despite being an old reindeer now!

Tilly

A Jolly January!

As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.

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Olly and I leading the reindeer out of the mountain enclosure for the winter. Tiree, my collie, adding another skill to reindeer dogs by carrying a wee bit of reindeer food to help lighten my load.

Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉

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Tiree and Frankie waiting while we go off to feed the reindeer (top left). Fiona leading Okapi with an improvised head collar (top right). Tiree and Sookie doing office work with me (bottom left). Three of the oldest girls in the her – Tambourine (17 years old), Tuppence (16) and Lilac (18).

On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!

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Feeding the herd on a beautiful sunny day with the northern corries in the background (top left). Moskki, Tiree and Murdoch enjoying their mountain runs (top right). Fiona with Moskki in a rucksack as Moski tries to have a lick of an antler while still attached to the reindeer’s head (bottom left). Hill running with the hounds (bottom right).

So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.

Fiona

Back in business

Well, we’ve had our annual month of closure to the public and are now open again for hill trips! The weather hasn’t been too horrendous this winter and most of us here are really missing the snow; we are all considering going off to the Alps for our skiing and snow fix!

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Of course, it is now the February half term so we are back with a bang and having busy hill trips, even reaching our limit of numbers on some days. Most of us have had a slight panic at the beginning of our first visit: “What do I say again?” “Where do I go again?” “What is a reindeer?(!)” Luckily, once you are faced with a whole load of expectant tourists most of your talk comes flooding back to you and you manage to muddle through, getting the important safety and history information in.

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Although it is not that snowy at the moment, it is relatively cold and we have had some quite windy days too. Most folks have been well enough dressed that they’ve managed to keep the cold out and have enjoyed the trips. If you would like to come visit us in the near future, please remember to dress up warmly, and give us a call in the morning to make sure we definitely are going ahead with the trip. The reindeer are completely free-ranging at the moment, so both they and the weather mean that we can’t always run the trip!

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Imogen

Emm Cassidy Volunteer Blog 3

The final installment of Emm’s blog from volunteering with us in the summer. It was great working with Emm and we’re looking forward to seeing her later in the year. I’m sure Mo is too! Thanks for writing such wonderful blogs Emm, and we’ll see you soon!

Day 5

In the morning, we went to check on Boxer and Kota who were doing a lot better. Boxer had his infected antler cleaned again and started to associate the head collar with people poking his antler so he wasn’t a very happy reindeer but he was very brave and loved the lichen we gave him. I helped Fran take the tracking radio collars off the 6 reindeer as her research had finished. The reindeer got fly spray put on their antlers again.

Me and Julia got the job of cleaning out and hoovering the hire car they used for hill trips as it was nearly time to give the hire car back. We made a good team. I got all the mats out and shook them off and swept them. I got the stones off the floor in the car and swept the car floor. Meanwhile, we had Sookie and Murdo wanting to play with us. Sookie kept dropping pine cones and sticks behind me hinting she wanted me to throw it and Murdo kept wanting to attack the broom and play with it and voiced his opinions about wanting to play. It was funny. The tourists found it funny too.

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Murdo who wanted to play with me while I was cleaning the hire car, and Sookie in the background who had given up

At the 2:30pm hill trip, I did the introduction talk and the history talk. I was so proud of myself. By this day, I knew most of the reindeer by name. The herders were very impressed.

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My finished reindeer herd list

When I adopted Dylan, I did a folder about him and his life. I stuck all the emails the herders wrote about what Dylan had been up to and all his adopters letters, photos, his family trees and any information about him. This included newsletters and anything we had done with the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. I am doing one for Mo and I took it in and showed everyone and they were all very impressed with it. They remembered seeing Dylan’s Folder at 60th Reindeer Anniversary Adopters’ Weekend in October 2012.

Day 6

In the morning, me, Andi and Julia checked on Boxer and Kota. They were doing so much better. We then fed them, we just sat and chilled with the reindeer and did selfies which was brilliant and amazing. It is such a magical experience chilling and relaxing with the reindeer. I couldn’t believe it was my last day, it had all gone so fast. I would really miss being up there with the reindeer and herders as it was such a magical experience.

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Selfie with North, Byron (Mo’s second cousin), Bhuachaille and Fyrish

Today Mum, Dad and David (my brother) came on the 2:30pm hill trip. I got them to carry the hand feed bags up. I did the introduction talk and the herd history talk at Utsi’s Bridge. It was the busiest hill trip which I have done my talks on. There was about 50 people. I felt like a brilliant reindeer herder and they were so impressed with me with how I dealt with the reindeer, the people and said how I did so well with my talks. I stayed on the 3:30pm tour and chilled with the reindeer.

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In my element!

Before we went home, I spent one day visiting everyone and the dogs at Reindeer House and went on 2 hill trips to say bye to the reindeer. I had lunch with them all and met the volunteer reindeer herder for that week.

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Leading the reindeer into the East Enclosure

Being a reindeer herder is such a magical experience and meant so much to me. Mo, the other reindeer, the reindeer herders and the dogs are so special to me. They are like a second family to me and being there is such a relaxing and brilliant place to be where I feel I can be myself. On the hill trips, it was a brilliant feeling telling the people all about the reindeer as I was sharing my passion about reindeer with me knowing I was teaching something they didn’t know. Seeing people’s reactions when they first saw the reindeer and hand fed and stroked them was a special and rewarding feeling and experience as a lot of the people hadn’t ever seen reindeer before.  On the hill trips, I really enjoyed finding out where the people had come from and they told me about their lives and interests. On these hill trips, I met people from Australia, New Zealand (one man owned a Red Deer Farm out there), Israel, Germany, Spain, France, USA, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy, Romania and lots more places. I even met a family who had come from the area I live in and they lived near the hospital I was born in.

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Doing my history talk at Utsi’s bridge

6 reindeer spring to mind who always seemed to be around me or follow me when I had the hand feed bag and they were Cambozola, Glenshee, Fyrish, Blue, Merrick and Anster. They were really eager and try to stick their head into the bag or kick it or try to get the feed mid-air whilst I was giving the feed to someone and then their mouth would be excitedly eating the feed from their hand. Bless them!

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Atlantic chilling

I was so impressed when really tiny young children who wanted to get out of their parent’s arms and onto the ground to give the reindeer hand feed. It was so lovely giving out hand feed to children and adults and to see their faces when they feed the reindeer.  On most of the hill trips, a lot of people are really interested in Blue as he is the only leucistic (pure white with blue eyes) reindeer in the enclosure and Merrick who has only 1 antler. They take a special interest in them and ask all about them. They are always surprised to find out that Blue is deaf as all leucistic reindeer are. A lot of people asked me to take photos of them and it was so lovely to see people taking selfies with the reindeer. My favourite selfies with reindeer are with Mo (my very special adopted reindeer), Glenshee and the selfie with the 4 reindeer.

Update on Boxer

The last hill trip which I went on, Boxer was well enough to be in the herd again. I didn’t recognise him at first as his poorly antler had fallen off and he was left with one antler bless him. But he made a full recovery. Don’t worry, he will still grow 2 antlers next year.

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Boxer with 1 antler

Emm

Emm Cassidy Volunteer Day 2

The second installment in Emm Cassidy’s volunteering blog. This is the second of three and this week Emm got to meet lots of dogs as well as the reindeer!

Day 2

I turned up at Reindeer House at 8am forgetting it was an 8:30am starts as it was a week day and I met Dave who is originally from New Zealand. When Imogen arrived she started doing some knitting, which I found interesting and I enjoyed talking about knitting with her as my Granny had knitted clothes for my teddies.  With Imogen, I did poo picking in the paddocks whilst the others went to check the reindeer on the hill and give them their breakfast. Some reindeer had been in the extra paddock on the Saturday when it was the changeover day where they had been swapping reindeer from Tilly’s farm, the hill enclosure and the paddocks. One was Boris, a lovely reindeer with an odd shaped nose who is Mo’s cousin. We put out breakfast for Beastie, Ost, Aonach and Nutti (the 4 paddock reindeer) in 4 bowls and then put lichen on top of each. Imogen said we don’t mix the reindeer feed and the lichen together as the reindeer don’t like that.

I went with Dave on the 11am hill trip. He wears a really cool green hat with a ptarmigan feather sticking out of it. When Dave did the introduction talk in the carpark, I realised that different reindeer herders had different sayings when they gave their talks. I thought that is really nice and makes the hill tour their own. When most people had gone, we started to make our way down to the enclosure gate. We found the reindeer relaxing and lying down again by the fence sunbathing! I was slowly identifying a few individuals too as I had been making notes on my herd list every time I go up there.

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Glenshee and Sargasso chilling out in the sun

 

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Mo sunbathing

I ate my lunch in the front garden looking out on to the mountains and trees with Fiona and we talked about lots of things. I then played fetch with the 3 dogs and they barked with excitement all wanting the toy – bless.

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Blue, the leucistic reindeer
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Selfie with Glenshee

On the 2:30pm hill trip, which I did with Abby, we met Fran and her mum. Fran is a research student doing a study on where the reindeer graze each day, with radio collars on 6 reindeer in the hill enclosure. It was very interesting and I was there when we took the radio collars off them and she showed me them and how they worked. She also had made them reindeer proof and weather proof. Fran found out why Bourbon (who had a radio collar on) had a poorly tummy by looking back at the data where he had been the night before. It turned out Bourbon was down in the forest eating the wrong type of mushrooms.

I found out my mum and dad had seen me through binoculars and when I got back to my car, they had left a note saying:

3:30pm, lol! Saw you leading them up! Ha Ha! We were up the top looking down!! Mum, Dad xx

Me and Fiona were on duty to give the paddock reindeer their tea and put them to bed in the woods. I put the dark grain pellets in their trough in their stable then went to get some buckets of reindeer feed and lichen. The reindeer were getting very excited as there was food so they followed me up to their troughs. Whilst I put out the reindeer feed and their lichen on top I had to dodge their massive antlers. It was quite funny as one reindeer was trying to eat from the bucket whilst I poured the reindeer feed in the trough.  We then closed the paddocks for the night.

Day 3

Met Imogen’s dog called Brock, Dave’s dog called Tui and Alex (Fiona’s brother) and his dog Tip. At one point, there was 6 dogs in Reindeer House. I put Dave’s hat on Brock and took a photo of him, he looked so cute. I met Sarah who is a part time reindeer herder. Later we separated 8 reindeer from the herd and Fiona showed me how to put a head collar on a reindeer which I enjoyed learning about. I put a head collar on Blue and Duke. In the shed, we had 5 yearlings which included Scolty and Bhuachaille, then a 2 year old called Baltic and the 2 older reindeer called Blue and Duke (the role models) who will show the younger reindeer how to be led and behave on a head collar. For training, we went on a walk around the top enclosure. I led Duke and Baltic up the hill.

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Sleeping Tiree
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Broc with Dave’s hat on

Baltic was stubborn at first but then Duke started trying it on as I was new to this. But by the top of the hill, Duke knew who the boss was and Baltic was happier with being led as he was getting used to it. The training is important for the reindeer as this will get them used to being handled, health checked and to become brilliant Christmas Reindeer.

On my 2 hill trips today, I herded all the reindeer out the shed as they were all cooling off in the shade. The shed doesn’t look like it can fit 41 reindeer in but it does, it is like Doctor Who’s Tardis! One time when I was herding them out of the shed, I realised that I hadn’t seen Blue, I found him by the shed asleep. Blue, who is deaf, didn’t hear his reindeer friends move on – bless him. Near the end of the hill trip, the reindeer leisurely make their way up to the shed gate knowing they will be let back in soon. I really like this time as it is just us reindeer herders approaching them after everybody has left.

We are met by reindeer lying down relaxing and sunbathing. I really enjoyed that quality time relaxing with them and sitting by them giving them some fuss, talking to them and getting to know them more. This is where I did my selfie with Mo!

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Selfie with Mo!

We then let them into the shed for shade if they wanted it before we went back down to Reindeer House. I also learnt the reindeer language today which Utsi did with the reindeer.

Day 4

In the morning, we counted and herded the reindeer into the front enclosure and gave them their breakfast. Kota and Boxer didn’t seem themselves as they were very slow about moving into the front enclosure with the herd so we took them into the shed to check them over. They had their temperatures taken which revealed they both had high temperatures. That can be a bit dangerous for reindeer so Hen gave them both injections to bring their temperature down. Boxer then had an infected antler treated and then had sun cream on to protect his antler. We rewarded Boxer with some lichen. Kota and Boxer were so brave. We then put them out in the pen near the shed enclosure making sure they had plenty of food and where we can keep an eye on them.

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Poor Boxer with an infected antler

We then let the reindeer into the shed as Hen needed to fly spray (citronella) them to keep the flies and midges off their antlers. Hen did the spraying in two groups as it would be chaos if all the reindeer were in at the same time. Mo stood quietly in a corner behind me after he had his done as he realised if he kept running around that he would get more spray on him. I gave him a big fuss and talked to him saying he was a very clever reindeer.

I did the introduction talk at the start of the 11am hill trip and the herd history talk at Utsi’s Bridge on the 2:30pm hill trip. That was such a massive thing for me to do. I was so proud of myself.

Whilst I was poo picking the paddocks, mum visited and Imogen told my mum how well I had done that day with doing the two talks. Everyone was so proud of me and I was very proud of myself and I was getting so much more confident dealing with new people.

 Emm

 

Emm Cassidy Volunteer Blog 1

As a little winter treat to remind us of the better weather we had in the summer, we now have a series of blogs from volunteer and adopter Emm Cassidy who came to visit us in August. This is the first of three installments. We hope you enjoy!

My name is Emm Cassidy and I was a volunteer reindeer herder for 6 days at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. It was such an amazing experience and meant so much to me and I really enjoyed it.

I have known The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre for 9 years now since my family stayed at Wild Farm Cottage in Glenlivet in August 2007 which is owned by Tilly Smith. I was in my element meeting all the reindeer, feeding them and stroking them. I fell in love with a yearling called Dylan who then I went on to adopt for 6 years until he died suddenly of an undetected heart problem in September 2013.

We came to the 60th Reindeer Anniversary Adopters Weekend in October 2012 and I had sat with Dylan fussing him in Tilly’s back garden at her farm and he was talking to me by grunting at me! It was such a brilliant, special and magical time.

I now adopt Mo who is 4. I met Mo last year on my summer reindeer trek and fell in love with him too. The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is so special to me so when I found out I could volunteer there, I was so excited!

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Dylan and Me at teh 60th Reindeer Anniversary Weekend
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Meeting Mo on the reindeer trek. Mo and I are on the right

Working as a reindeer herder was extra special to me as I felt I fitted in perfectly with the reindeer and herders. When I first entered Reindeer House, I felt like I had been there for years and felt I was part of the family. I could just be myself and everyone is so friendly, special and understanding! I even made jokes which I normally don’t do! I have Aspergers Syndrome (a form of Autism) and Anxiety so being a reindeer herder was a very massive thing to me but being part of the team, I felt I hadn’t got any challenges and that I felt normal!

I couldn’t believe how quick the days went! I was really sad when it was all over. I have gained so much from being a reindeer herder and I wish we live closer to the reindeer herd and reindeer herders.

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Ready for my first day as a reindeer herder

Day 1

Went into Reindeer House and it was really brilliant seeing everyone and the dogs again. I met Andy who is originally from Kansas and Paddy (Abby’s boyfriend) and properly met Julia (who I had only seen from a distance last year). I helped Fiona fill up the reindeer feed sack with reindeer feed which is the reindeers’ breakfast then with Fiona, Abby and the 3 dogs called Sukie, Tiree and Murdo went to the ski carpark in the reindeer van to find any free ranging reindeer near the road. Sukie had jumped from the boot to me in the back and snuggled up to me and enjoyed lots of fuss and attention. She had remembered me from last year when me and my brother David had thrown sticks for her outside the reindeer centre. When we had got to the ski carpark, Sukie immediately sat up and looked intently out of the window looking at the mountains with her ears up and very alert. Then we then went to check the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure. The reindeer were in the East Enclosure and followed us up the board walk. The midges were very bad up the hill that morning and they were swarming around us. Abby and Fiona fed the reindeer and then I was able to feed the last bit to them. We counted them very quickly to make sure that all the reindeer are there and ok or identify who is missing.

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Fiona leading the reindeer up the boardwalk

I spotted Mo and went to say hello and I was very excited to see him. Abby and Fiona identified some yearlings (reindeer who were born last year) who had been brought over from The Cromdale Hills the day before and they hadn’t seen them for ages. They were really pleased to see them again and were trying to recognise them and guess who they were as they had changed quite a lot since they had last seen them. They had got much bigger, had antlers and got their summer coat on.

Back at Reindeer House Imogen was hoovering up. Murdo started to play with the hoover by trying to get it which annoyed Imogen who sent Murdo to bed.

Julia showed me how to poo pick the paddocks which we both did together. The 4 reindeer in their sleeping enclosure in the woods were coming near the fence knowing it was nearly their breakfast time. We then let the reindeer into the paddocks and they headed straight for their breakfast. Julia introduced me to the reindeer who were Beastie, Ost, Aonach and Nutti. We then had to get out of the paddocks as it was time to open it to the public.

I was so excited to go in the reindeer office where lots of information is up around the room about each individual reindeer and which ones are in the hill enclosure. I had a herd list so every time I went up there, I could make notes on every individual reindeer till I got to know them all individually.  They store all their paperwork and adopters folders in the office too with individual reindeer photos which is organised alphabetically and this is where the herders organise their Christmas events, do the adopters packs, answer emails, keep up to date with the social media pages and organization of the reindeer centre. I was amazed.

Later  I went on the 11am hill trip with Imogen. I was a bit nervous of the people at first but then slowly got more confident with them. I carried the hand feed up in the rucksack and went at the back to make sure nobody got lost or went the wrong way as the line can be sometimes broken up as going up a steep hill. I started to get to know each individual reindeer and making notes on them on my herd list. Noted their antlers shape and size, any markings, the coat colour, something that made them stand out, their personality etc.

We all had lunch at the big long table at Reindeer House and it was lovely as everybody talked to each other and asked how their day was going and what they had been up to. Everyone was interested in each other. There wasn’t any sugar for my tea so Fiona said that you can also put a teaspoon of honey into tea to make it sweeter and it was very nice. I was also very interested of the defrosting milk on the draining board. It turned out they freeze the milk as it is used up so quickly as there is lots of people in the house so they don’t have to keep going to the shop every day to get more milk.

We filled the reindeer feed sacks and the reindeer hand feed bags for the hill trips. We put 2 scoops of reindeer hand feed in each bag. On the 2.30 trip Julia the herder was telling the people about the characters of the herd and health and safety when hand feeding, I loved the feeling when they tried to nibble on your clothes or bag and how they got close to me when I had the feed bag. Some reindeer followed you as they knew what you have got in the bag and knew what was coming out of the bag.

Nearer the end of the hill trip, we found all the reindeer just chilling and lying down at the bottom of the east enclosure by the gate. They were so laid back and it was really brilliant and special to sit and relax with them. Julia put out most of the reindeer feed and she let me give out the last bit which was brilliant.

When everyone had gone, me and Julia was really surprised that it was 4:45pm. It was a very lovely sunny day and people had just loved being with the reindeer and loved finding out about them.

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Putting the reindeer feed out

Emm