In the autumn, we move all of our entire males (apart from the 2 or 3 lucky chosen breeding bulls) over to our hill farm, away from the females and out of trouble for the duration of the breeding season. With no hint of love on the air, this keeps them calmer and easier to manage, though they still enjoy play-fighting. By December the rut is over and our breeding bulls have also joined them, so there is a slight vibe of an all-boys hangout. As Tilly is caring for these fellas every day, and she is less up on her social media, I thought I’d take the opportunity to grab some photos for you all this week when I was over at the hill farm.
At this time of year the reindeer look really scruffy and it’s all down to their thick light coloured winter coat falling away to reveal a short dark summer coat underneath.
There’s many an adjective I could use to describe them, moth-eaten, scruffy, hairy, shabby and when taking to people to see the reindeer at this time of year I always apologise in advance for their appearance.
This recent long dry, windless, hot spell we have been experiencing here in the Highlands of Scotland actually hasn’t helped the process, because it’s really wind and rain that speeds up the process of moulting. Once ready to truly moult the winter coat comes off in handfuls
It’s a long process because while the new summer coat grows in underneath there are two layers of winter coat to fall off at the same time. This close up of Anster’s shoulder shows quite nicely the ‘three’ coats. To the left the thick light coloured winter ‘top coat’ . Then the slightly darker and shorter winter ‘undercoat’. And then finally the new very short and dark summer coat.
It occurs to me that there must be an awful lot happening in the skin of a reindeer at this time of year! The two winter coats cannot start moulting until the new summer coat is growing, so while old hair follicles are falling out new ones are being created. Very complicated!
And so I couldn’t resist this little rhyme!
The moult of a reindeer is a complicated affair
With old coats making way for lots of new hair
The process can sometimes take many a week
With the full summer coat making them look so sleek
After the busy Christmas season the entire reindeer herd free-range, either here on the Cairngorms or on the Cromdales. The staff working at the Reindeer Centre take care and deal with any reindeer related antics on the Cairngorms. Meanwhile the reindeer free-ranging on the Cromdales are looked after predominantly by Tilly and the farm crew.
On the days when Tilly needs an extra pair of hands, the shout goes out and one of us herders drive around the hills to help out, never quite knowing what the day will involve until we’re there! I answered the call to help in early January, and what a great day I had! By the time I arrived Tilly had already been out to call in the reindeer. Thankfully reindeer are ruled by their stomachs, so the offer of a free meal was too tempting as Tilly had successfully managed to call almost all of the herd into the corral. Little did they know it happened to be routine temperature checking day…!
After a quick de-tour to help feed the pigs, five of us headed on to the Cromdales on quad bikes. Tilly, Colin S, volunteers Davey and Christine, plus myself. The small number of reindeer who hadn’t come to Tilly’s earlier call, clearly decided they were missing out as they were waiting for us when we arrived.
I’ve never been to Sweden, or any other reindeer herding nation, maybe it was just the blue sky, cold temperature and low sunlight, but it felt like I was somewhere further afield than the Cromdales! I can imagine the corral that Alan has built up on the hill would be little like the one Sami people might use. It’s more rustic than the enclosure on Cairngorm where we take our Hill Trips, but does it’s job perfectly.
There is a corridor which goes around the main corral so the five of us were able to gently push the reindeer out of the corral and into the corridor. This allowed us to open the external gate to the hill allowing the latecomers to enter, whilst not letting any suspicious reindeer out!
We gently pushed the reindeer in batches along the corridor into a small pen at the end where we took the temperatures of all the reindeer, calling out their names to Christine who was armed with a list of the herd and a clipboard, checking everybody off and keeping us right. Once each batch of reindeer had a thermometer in the bottom and was sprayed between the legs with a treatment to prevent ticks from biting they were released back on to the hill. They can’t have had a bad experience as they didn’t dash for the high tops, rather they just milled around the outside waiting for the rest of the herd, and most importantly for their well-deserved dinner! It was a very fun way to spend a day and thankfully all the reindeer were fine and well.
I know snow and ice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for our reindeer it definitely is! Reindeer are incredibly well adapted for arctic life, with thick coats to keep out the cold and large flat feet to stop them sinking in the snow.
And this winter was certainly a ‘proper’ one. Since the beginning of the year through to mid February we had sustained cold conditions in the Highlands and the mountains and hills were clothed in snow. We also saw considerable snowfall at lower levels, with both Reindeer House and my farm being white for many, many weeks.
Over at our second site for reindeer at Glenlivet we over-winter part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd out on the hill, just the same as on the Cairngorms. At this time of year the reindeer are grazing on ground lichens, their preferred winter diet and they will use their lovely big feet to dig down through the snow to the lichen below. Because of their thick insulating coats they do not seek any shelter and so in the worst of storms they remain on the tops of the ridges where the lichen grows best.
We do like to check the herd regularly though and so as often as we can we go out to see and feed them, although this was impossible for much of this winter due to the inaccessibility of the Cromdales in such deep snow. The reindeer never say no to extra food and when we call them down they come running. We don’t need to feed them much to satisfy them because the reindeer have a lower metabolic rate in the winter, so just a little bit of food is sufficient, and allows us to cast an eye over them to check all is well.
It’s a lovely sight watching the herd weave their way down through deep snow. They are past masters at conserving energy, which means they walk in each others footprints, to save working too hard. It often amuses me to consider which reindeer does the hard work at the front. Is it always the greedy ones that break track or do they ‘take turns?! I suspect it’s the greedy ones.
Once fed, they will drift away and settle on the higher ground in the snow for the night. A bed of snow is very comfortable for a reindeer.
Well, we all know what is meant by ‘social distancing’ now after 3 months of lockdown and continued measures for the foreseeable future.
Here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we will be applying the government guidelines to both protect ourselves and our visitors when we re-open next week.
Luckily for us we have helpers, the reindeer themselves, as you can see from the photo above, reindeer are very good at slipping in between groups when we are heading out on to the hill for feed time. The perfect animal to social distance with!
With our own little helpers I decided to ‘measure’ the length of an average-sized adult male reindeer from nose to tail (Beastie ticked all the boxes here) and that comes out on average at 1.8 metres (give or take a little!). And if he (or she) puts her head down the antlers add a little bit more! Ideal for helping people keep the right distance apart when walking along the boardwalk in the hill enclosure.
In fact reindeer as a social herding animal are a very good example of how social distancing can be achieved. Unlike many social animals, reindeer do respect a modicum of social distance. They don’t huddle together; they like their space when they lie down and if another reindeer encroaches into their grazing area, they push them away, with antlers (if they are bony) or feet if their antlers are still growing.
The only close contact between reindeer is usually between close relations, ie a cow and calf. Indeed this close relationship can extend through into their adult lives particularly among females. However last winter that close bond became apparent between an old female and her grown up son. When 9 year old Rubiks joined the Cairngorm herd in January 2020 he ‘found’ his 16 year old mother Fonn and they have been inseparable ever since!
Unfortunately the downside to social distancing for ourselves and our visitors will be that the normal hand feeding that takes place out on the open hillside will not happen. Not only will our visitors be disappointed, but the reindeer will be too. I can think of many of the friendly male reindeer like Olympic, Dr Suess and Aztec who will be extremely confused by the lack of yummy food from everyone!
However a visit to the reindeer will still be an amazing experience (hopefully at least!), with our lovely herd in their natural environment out on the mountainside. Experienced reindeer herders to guide you, answer questions and feed the reindeer, while you all get the opportunity to take photos and enjoy the moment with these gentle creatures.
In this week’s blog we’re taking a diversion from reindeer to dogs, to hear from herd owner Tilly:
Well I have to say I am one of the lucky ones. Living on our farm at Glenlivet, with the wonderful countryside around me I can safely enjoy the great outdoors without compromising the current lockdown requirements.
The Glenlivet Estate is a real gem, with a wonderful mix of open moorland, farmland and woodland and from our farmhouse I can go walking and running with my two border terriers Moskki and her daughter Tuva.
I got Moskki as a 6 week old pup in January 2014 and she has been the best wee dog I have ever had. When there is nothing to do she happily sleeps, but when its time to go out to the hills she’s the first to get ready. She has accompanied me on nearly all my Munros ( Scottish Mountains over 3,000 feet ), which I finished in November last year, so she is certainly fit!
At the end of November 2019 Moskki had a litter of pups and I decided I would keep one of the girls in the litter, hence Border terrier no.2! There were 3 female pups that were quite similar colouring to Moskki and so I decided ( after much procrastination ) on the ‘middle sized’ female of the three. I took some time to choose a name for my wee pup and finally settled on ‘Tuva’. Tuva is the name of South Siberian Reindeer Herding people and I was honoured to meet representatives of these people ( a mother and her grown up daughter ) at one of the World Reindeer Herder Association Congress meetings in Jokkmokk, North Sweden.
Moskki also has a reindeer herding association (can’t think why! ). The ‘moskki’ is ‘a small place’ in a kåta ( Sami tent – pronounced ‘kota’ ) where household items like pots and pans are stored. So my love of reindeer strangely enough strays into my two dogs. We’ve also had a Swedish born reindeer bull named Moskki in the past, and currently have a Kota too!
Tuva has grown up to be a clone of her mother. Sleeps well, enjoys getting out and devoted to me (unless she is on the scent of a rabbit!). So my two borders have given me a huge amount of joy in these difficult times and added to that we have had the warmest and driest April on record.
But I am yearning to get back to normal life, like everyone else. I can’t wait to immerse myself again fully in reindeer herding, general farm life, showing people around the farm, but most importantly seeing my grandchildren and playing with them at home and on the farm. Happy days ahead.
Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…
7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!
7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!
8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!
9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!
Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…
10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.
The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.
11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.
1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).
1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!
3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!
5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!
A few months ago, we found out that we had been nominated for an award for rural tourism at the Scottish Rural Awards ceremony being held mid-March at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. We still aren’t entirely sure who nominated us so if anyone can shed light on this please do. There were 13 awards altogether given out during the night. Some of the categories were Education, Conservation and the Environment, Artisan food and drink, agriculture and more… It was a black tie event so for those of you who know us, you’ll know that black tie isn’t something we do on a regular basis but we made an effort and myself, Tilly, Alex and Emily went down to Edinburgh for it.
Ex-herder Heather let us stay at her house in Edinburgh so it was all very easy. Tilly and I had our first experience of Uber Taxi’s… When in Rome and all! So we made our way to Dynamic Earth in our posh frocks and kilt to be greeted by many more posh frocks and kilts. There was even quite a few tartan trousers! We were certainly out of our comfort zone, considering that morning all four of us were up on either the Cromdale hills or the Cairngorms being blasted by the wind and feeding the reindeer… oh how things changed. Free champagne on arrival… ye-ha! Then we sat down at our tables as guest speaker and Scottish comedian Fred MacAulay opened the night. He certainly knew how to capture an audience. We then had our three-course meal, which was super and afterwards the awards commenced.
We weren’t really sure what to expect but with 150-200 people there, all in their glad rags making the most of a night out it was certainly a good atmosphere all round. The Rural Tourism award came up towards the end and so Fred called out all the finalists. Other business’s we were up against were – Isle of Aaron Distillers, Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, The Famous Grouse Experience, Luss Estates Company, Oban Winter Festival, The Enchanted Forest, Aaron The Island and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Logan. So after all the finalists were announced they came to the three who had won. Cairngorm Reindeer got the highly commended award, runners up were Oban Winter Festival and the winners were Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, so a representative for each went up onto stage to collect their award. Naturally Tilly was our representative so off she went with a big smile on her face to collect our award from Fred MacAulay. Fred also mentioned that many years ago he worked on Cairngorm Mountain and during that time came across the reindeer and that they enjoyed a bit of shieling pie!
This really is a great reflection on what the Cairngorm Reindeer and Wild Farm mean to Rural Scotland and this recognition means so much to all of us so thank you to whoever nominated us! I hope Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren, founders of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, are smiling from above and that we have done them proud.
Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!
In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!
So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.
Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.
Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!
In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.
Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!
Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.
Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.
He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!
Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!
He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!
As most of you know part of the Cairngorm reindeer herd lives over near Tomintoul on the Glenlivet Estate. We first took part of the herd over to our hill farm back in the early 1990’s and to this day the herd is split between Glenlivet and Cairngorm.
Over the winter months the reindeer at Glenlivet are up on the Cromdale range but by the end of April it is time to bring them down for the summer closer to the farm. Reindeer love routine and by the time we get to the last few days of April the reindeer are expecting to be on the move.
From now onwards it is all about eating. With spring just about here many of the reindeer are beginning to grow their new antlers and need to put on weight, lost over the winter. They need extra sustenance to achieve this and the winter diet of lichens and last years vegetation is not enough. The new spring growth and the extra feed we give them is what’s needed. Appetite increases many fold and to be absolutely honest everything we give them, they eat.
Every farmer up in the Highlands of Scotland will tell you that this year spring is really late. Whether it is the fields of grass that need to grow for hay and silage later in the year or the newly sown spring barley, the weather has just been too cold. And despite and recent few days of incredibly high temperatures it is not enough to kickstart the growing season yet. New vegetation on the higher ground is also absent so even more reason for us to be feeding the reindeer more than normal for the time of year.