Seasonal Volunteer to Seasonal Herder

Editor’s note: The lovely Hannah wrote this blog when she was here back in August 2023 but I have only just found it lurking in a folder on the computer. Sorry Hannah! Read Hannah’s first blog here about her time volunteering with us here: Hannah’s Volunteer Blog – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. And then try to imagine you’re reading this current one in the warm summer month of August!

The herd within the hill enclosure – August 2023.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since I was up on the hill – it always feels far too long! As usual I signed up for my now annual volunteering stint and was met with an even better offer to come and help for three weeks rather than one! Obviously, this was too good an opportunity to pass up and I quickly abandoned my long-suffering partner (and our impending house move) to come and stay at Reindeer House for the month!

A lot can change in a year – last July I was hand rearing Sunny, now one of our yearlings and a fully-fledged reindeer – antlers and all! My hand rearing days were not over, though – as we had two new calves to meet – Winnie and Alba! Being resident in Reindeer House means extra quality time with these two lovely girls, including late night feeds and mornings taking them up the hill. It’s been amazing watching them progress even over the past few weeks, gaining weight as they should and spotting some antlers beginning to appear.

Hannah and Sunny in July 2022.
Sunny all grown up in July 2023.
Winnie and Alba, our hand-reared calves in August 2023.

I’ve been lucky enough to come at a different point of the year which has included adventures with the free ranging females and tracking the discovery of new calves flourishing out on the hills. Having not had much time with our girls, being mostly a summer presence, it was great to finally put faces to the names of the lovely females I have heard so much about and meet some of their new arrivals.

Hannah on the right helping out with harness training with Andi and Hen – August 2023.
Hannah taking her very own Hill Trip and doing a totally superb job!
Meeting some of the free ranging cows.
Catching up with the calves who were born in May – here’s Holy Moley and calf who we later named Mississippi.

I count myself very lucky to have quadrupled my usual stint here and be a part of the team. Hopefully the next bit of time goes speedily, and I’ll be back out on the hill before I know it!

Hannah

A Brand New Reindeer Centre!

On 4th August 1989 Alan and I took over the ownership and management of the Cairngorm Reindeer. We had both been working for the family who owned the herd for a number of years and when Mr Utsi and then Dr Lindgren passed away the opportunity arose for us to buy the herd.

Back when Alan and Tilly took over the Reindeer Centre in the late 80s (and Alan had more hair!)

To this day the 4th August is etched on my brain. Our children were 3 and 4 years old and we had never had our own business, Alan had been employed by Dr Lindgren and I was initially a volunteer. But we had lots of ideas and we had a beautiful herd of reindeer.

The requisite Smith family photo – Tilly and Alan with Alex and Fiona, and obligatory reindeer.

We immediately converted part of Reindeer House into the ‘Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’, with reception, shop and office at one end leaving the rest of the house for living in with our young family and friends, many of whom who were volunteer reindeer herders. The reindeer paddocks beside the house became a display area for visitors to see a small group of reindeer, along with the 11am Hill Trips to the herd on the mountains.

The shop and reception area, in what was once the living room of Reindeer House.

Nearly 35 years later and the status quo continues. The only difference is that we’ve all got older; Alan and I moved out to our new ventures at Glenlivet (although still closely involved with the reindeer) and our daughter Fiona is living at Reindeer House with many of the other herders (they’re paid now though!). We attract more visitors and there are extra daily visits onto the hill to the herd.

The Paddocks in recent years.

The set-up has worked really well and the homespun infrastructure and hard working herders, along with a unique herd of free ranging reindeer, has been a great story. I have written three books around the life of reindeer and our journey with them and the herd is still looked after by us along with a band of enthusiastic, caring and clever people. Our herders today have brought with them tremendous life skills which have hugely progressed the way the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is run from day to day. But most importantly the welfare and care of the reindeer is still at the heart of everything we all do on a daily basis.

Looking after the herd. Photo: Alex Smith
Tilly with Scrabble. Reindeer are the heart of the business, and always will be, regardless of the changes around them. Photo: John Paul

In the summer of 2021 we received an incredibly generous donation from a long term reindeer adopter who asked that the monies they donated be put towards upgrading the current facilities at Reindeer House, which would involve returning the house to a domestic property and constructing a stand alone building for our reindeer shop, exhibition and office.

Exhibition displays. They’ve improved a lot over the years, but the building housing them was definitely getting shabbier and shabbier!

The following January we engaged with an architect and since then we have been going through the process of agreeing plans and applying for planning permission and the building warrant. With all the statutory requirements in place we began work last September, building a 16 bay car-park close to the Paddocks. The car-park is now nearly finished (but not available for parking in yet) and work is due to start on the new building in early February, which will be situated in our existing Paddock area.

The artist’s impression of the shiny new building!The existing Reindeer House building can be seen at the left hand side here, with the entrance to the new car-park on the right hand side.

As normal we closed for a few weeks on 8th January 2024 and immediately our son Alex, with help from herders, began to demolish the wooden structures in the Paddocks to make space for the new construction. There is a tinge of sadness seeing the old buildings (that we built ourselves) coming down but I suspect the improvements are long overdue and we are imagining a really special place for visitors to come to learn about our wonderful herd of reindeer alongside new displays, children’s activities and of course reindeer. Most importantly the new Centre will be access to all abilities.

We closed to the public on Monday 8th January. By Friday the 12th the Paddocks looked like this!

So exciting (and expensive!) times ahead. Unfortunately a bit disruptive too as the Paddocks will not be available for viewing reindeer while the building is constructed. However once we re-open to the public on 10th February we will otherwise still operate as normal with reception, shop and office where they have always been and the daily Hill Trips to the herd will continue as usual.

Hill Trips will continue as normal – tickets available on our website (from 30 days in advance)!

To check out what is available and how you can still come and visit do keep an eye on our website for updates and once construction gets underway we will have a better idea of how things are progressing, and more of an idea of the duration of the work.

Tilly

How Isla became a reindeer herder…

The lovely Isla with one of her favourite reindeer – Busby!

The first time I met the reindeer here at Cairngorm, I was just four years old and a bridesmaid at my mum’s wedding. Mum, being as extravagant as she is, decided she wanted the reindeer to pull the sleigh for us from the service to the party venue. Once we were on the sleigh I was quickly alarmed about the health and safety, as there were no seatbelts on board. Four-year-old me obviously thinking the reindeer would be flying us there! As we were just setting off, I whispered to my cousin “hold on tight, we are about to take off” but was quickly relived and slightly disappointed when I realised the reindeer would just be walking us there.

Four year old Isla – closest to the camera holding on tightly to her cousin. The reindeer is Wallace.
The sleigh firmly attached to the ground, phew!
The happy couple off to the party.

After the wedding it then became a tradition to come and visit the reindeer before Christmas. Even adopting Elvis as a two-year-old boy and always loving getting my certificate through the post before Christmas. Elvis lived to be one of the oldest males in the herd, before sadly passing away this August at the impressive age of 17!

Elvis as a two year old bull in 2008 – the year Isla adopted him.

During the spring this year, just as I was leaving school. I went round to visit my ‘Fairy God Mother’ Sheena, one of the herders here at the Reindeer Center. After explaining to her that I wasn’t sure what to do after school and fancied a change she suggested I got in touch to see if I could work the summer here with the reindeer.

So, after a few back and forth emails (me not being the best at replying during my exams), we eventually arranged a trial day for me to come and meet some of the herders and the reindeer of course. I was pretty nervous but was instantly put at ease when greeted by Ruth and Lisette with big smiles on their faces. I was thrown right in at the deep end as my first task was going up the hill to help give one of the reindeer an injection as she had a sore foot. I quickly realised that having dogs and occasionally helping my granny muck out her horse maybe didn’t quite qualify as having experience working with animals! But I like to think I’m a quick learner. And was super eager to get stuck as I loved the idea of walking up the hills everyday to look after the herd.

Not a bad office!

After a successful trial day, I was then offered to come work the summer here at the Centre which I was super excited for! I started at the end of May, and the weather was amazing! Blue skies everyday for about a month, eventually this bubble did bust. And I then had the proper Scottish herder experience. But even in the rain I still couldn’t believe that it was my job to walk up hills and find reindeer. I even didn’t mind taking a reindeer’s temperature (let’s just say it doesn’t go in their mouths) if it meant I could spend the morning up the hill with the herd! Over the summer I learnt so many new skills and everyone was so patient with me helping me to learn about these beautiful animals.

When Isla first started it was weeks of sunshine and moulting reindeer.
It’s a tough job getting to know all the calves when they come back into the enclosure in the autumn, like wee Shannon here.
Isla this time not sitting on the sleigh but working alongside Druid and Haricot at the back of it this autumn.
Breeding bull Kernel this autumn,
Reindeer during the first decent snow of 2023.

When chatting in the office I let it slip about the reindeer being at mum’s wedding, Our resident Blog Queen Ruth was insistent that it would make the perfect Christmassy blog!

We also realised that Hen, another one of the herders here, was at the wedding as well leading the sleigh! Which is hilarious, looking back on the wedding photos we actually found one of her at the front of the sleigh! (Note from Hen: also a way to make her feel really, really old…)

The back of Hen’s head at the wedding!

I have had the best 7 months here at the Centre and have loved getting to know all the reindeer and the herders of course! I’m off for a new adventure in the New Year but I’m sure I’ll be back soon!! If they’ll have me 😉

Druid thinks Isla should definitely return!
Isla chilling out with Cicero.

Isla

Photos through the seasons…

These are a selection of my favourite photos taken over the last couple of years showing reindeer throughout all the seasons…

3rd February 2021: Lots of snow. It’s hard work treading a path, in fact Pony almost looks like she’s doing a spot of breaststroke. My beard, and Pony’s face, become covered in falling snow in the blizzard like conditions.
12th March 2022: “Make sure you photograph my good side”.
1st April 2021: Breakfast with a splendid view of the Northern Corries as the clouds seamlessly blend into the snow-kissed mountains.
14th May 2021: I treat Cowboy (who is just a couple of hours old) with anti-bacterial spray on his exposed umbilical cord and some insecticide to reduce the risk of being bitten by a tick at a vulnerable time in his life.
20th May 2021: Wee Beanie, less than an hour old.
30th June 2022: Sherlock is trying to investigate my pockets for any extra food. “I’m a growing boy” he pleads. At this stage of the year, he has been growing his antlers for roughly 3 and a half months, with another two months of growth still to go. His coat is malting in preparation for the hotter summer months.
25th October 2021: Frost appears to be producing a rainbow by means of flatulence. Gazelle can’t quite believe it either.
14th November 2021: Four castrate reindeer (Left to right: Frost, Aztec, Dr. Seuss, and Clouseau) pull Santa’s Sleigh, supervised by Colin and Olly.
20th December 2021: Beanie (exactly 7 months on from her earlier photo) looks a bit surprised that I’d consider taking a photo in this frosty weather.

Ben

A Christmas Interrogation (part 2)

A while back I interviewed a few of my colleagues with some questions relating to the Christmas season. The first half of this blog can be read here. But onward…

THE SMELL YOU MOST ASSOCIATE WITH CHRISTMAS? With this question, I just wanted to check that everyone else had the same – as far as I’m concerned – very obvious answer. Turns out they do. Every. Single. One. ‘I think we all know the smell associated with Christmas…’.  Reindeer pee, obviously!

Maybe I should elaborate though, for the uninitiated. Whilst we do our best to keep our leadropes clean, they invariably end up on the ground at times. Whilst the reindeer don’t actually actively pee on them (unless you’re really unlucky), they tend to stand on the ends regularly (lay a rope over a reindeer’s back, whilst catching another, and they often shake it off). We keep the straw beds in our sheds, at our temporary bases we stay at, and in our lorries as clean as possible at all times, but it is as certain as death and taxes that the ropes always end up smelling of pee from the reindeer’s feet and the straw. Lotti: ‘Reindeer pee on the leadropes. Particularly when drying out in the caravan…’

Ferreting out all the ‘smart’ red leadropes and halters from storage at the start of November, ready for distribution between the team kits. Mostly smelling of washing powder at this stage, but probably best not to sniff them too closely.

Tilly adds ‘Once Christmas is over I wash all the halters and ropes and even if everyone has been really careful not to let the ropes fall on the ground, they still have a very distinct smell of urea’. There were some additional contributions too – both Andi and I cite Tilly’s washing powder as the second smell that instantly brings Christmas to mind, from our red jumpers that we wear at events. Fiona added damp lorry cabs and Joe included mince pies. Along with ropes smelling of reindeer pee. None of this ‘winter spices’ Christmas nonsense.

FAVOURITE FOOD ON CHRISTMAS DAY: I was just being nosy, to be honest. Fiona: ‘The soup and sandwiches from Nethy Hotel – we feel like we’ve earned them [Nethy Hotel provide lunch for us during our last events of the year on Christmas Day]! Who doesn’t like free food! Plus a variety of meat from our farm.’ Generally somewhat carnivorous, Tilly surprised me with ‘sprouts’ (but roasted in the oven). For Lotti and Ruth it was the roast tatties, and the same for me too (as long as gravy and redcurrant jelly are liberally applied). For Andi it was pigs in blankets, and Joe, anything involving smoked salmon.

This was our Christmas party last year, rather than Christmas Day itself, but look at all that yummy food! On the left are Joe, Lotti, myself and Andi, and on the right are Fiona and Tilly. Ruth is in the stripey t-shirt 5th from the right. The only photo I could find with all my interviewees in it!

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT OF CHRISTMAS (PAST OR PRESENT):  This was a bit of an unfair question really, but I couldn’t think of a different way to phrase it. Most memorable moments of our Christmas seasons tend to be those when everything goes tits-up, most of which aren’t necessarily things we’re going to brag about! So this is the slightly sanitized version of ‘most memorable – and publishable – moment of Christmas’ Fiona: ‘Oh god. There’s so many – probably, to go back a few years, the Harrods event in London. All the other attractions would disappear at the end and we were always left to make our own way back to the lorry with 6 reindeer, past all the people going about their day to day business. Waiting for the green man at zebra crossing s!’

One of the Harrods parades, a good few years ago now. Photo by Kim Alston

For Andi the memory wasn’t necessarily a specific one, rather one that happens from time to time at events: ‘The best experience from parades is walking with the reindeer following a pipe band, with them all walking in time. It gives me chills every time.’ I know this feeling well too.

Pen escapes featured highly for Ruth and Joe… ‘Aztec effortlessly leaping the pen fence at Gleneagles in pursuit of food…’. All the reindeer jumping out the pen once! They were very easy to catch and return though – with a big bag of lichen!’. And continuing with the theme of errant reindeer, Lotti came up with a classic from a few years back: ‘Probably when me and Mel tried to let four calves follow the adults up the hill to the enclosure in the dark to re-join the herd, and promptly lost them into the darkness…’.

Memory I wish I’d seen the most belonged to Tilly: ‘When we didn’t have a Santa for the parade on Christmas Eve at Newtonmore and I was the substitute…’. For myself, I have so many, many memories. Some good, some bad. But an affecting one which will stay with me forever is one I’ve written about in the past in a previous blog, so won’t repeat again here.

And finally, REINDEER YOU’D CHOOSE IF SANTA NEEDED A RUDOLPH REPLACEMENT?I guess this could be rather similar to favourite reindeer to work with at Christmas, but not necessarily. Sometimes favourites are those with naughty streaks, and presumably Santa would need a pretty reliable reindeer on loan if Rudolph is side-lined? Lotti agreed: ‘I would say that Frost would be a good Rudolph replacement, as he’s an excellent sleigh-puller, and in summer he does sometimes get a slightly sunburnt nose, giving it a red tinge!’. I agree with the reliability being very important – Origami would be my choice. He is pretty professional for Christmas events – he knows his job and gets on with it.

Likewise Tilly: Well it would need to be a reindeer who is confident and happy to be at the front leading the way, so I think Aztec, with a ‘carrot’/lichen dangling in front of his nose!’. Another vote for Aztec came from Ruth: ‘I would send Aztec as he’s the most nimble – see my answer for the previous question! Or maybe Dr Seuss? Although I wouldn’t want Santa to steal Dr Seuss, so maybe not…’. Segueing neatly on to Andi: ‘Dr Seuss – he’s distinctive, charismatic, can hold his own in a new group of reindeer, and has a pink nose – perhaps it would glow with a little help from Santa…’.

Aztec might be nimble at times, but a lot of the time he’s rather lazy! Seen here busy cleaning his hoof in a care home garden on a visit in November.

Fiona reckoned Santa might prefer a certain type of reindeer, like a ‘hand-reared one, like Grunter or Sunny. They are happy with human company and happier being by themselves if need be.’. Joe hummed and harred a bit. ‘…umm. Kind of before my time, but Topi was amazing. Olympic is far too lazy… Scolty! He’d do a solid job.’

So there we go. My overall impression from writing these two blogs is that it’s impossible to give straightforward answers to any questions involving Christmas, even though everyone valiantly tried. I still only wrote down a very small section of what was said though, as many answers were nonpunishable!

Hen

A Christmas Interrogation (part 1)

Whilst we’re all still recovering from another busy Christmas season, I took it upon myself to accost some of my colleagues with some Christmas themed questions: There’s a limit to how fast I can type, so I didn’t manage to get down everything – some of the answers were very long, with lots of umming and ahhing! But you’ll get the gist. My chosen interviewees were Tilly (herd owner), her daughter Fiona (manager), and long-term employees Andi, Lotti, Ruth and Joe.

First up – FAVOURITE REINDEER TO WORK WITH AT CHRISTMAS(PAST OR PRESENT): I thought I was starting with an easy question, but apparently not, as lots of people had to come back to it later on once they’d had a think.

Andi’s response came after a short pause ‘At Christmas?… Nutkins. He wasn’t easy and you had to think carefully about which reindeer you paired him with, and which events would suit him, but he was such a fun reindeer.’ I’d like to add in here that Nutkins was, a lot of the time, a nutcase. A lovely reindeer, but undeniably a nutcase. He was one of those unpredictable characters – you never knew whether he was going to behave like a kid on a sugar high, or be utterly chilled. He played Russian roulette with us at every event.

Nutkins (left) contemplating whether to behave or not. Laptev looking resigned to be harnessed up next to one of life’s plonkers. Andi has a noticeably tighter grip on Nutkins’ rope. Just in case…

No pause for thought for Tilly though, her answer was quick! ‘Mystery, who was so loyal that he didn’t even need to be led, he just wandered along at the back at his own pace’.

Mystery, back in 2001

Scolty’s, somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), name came up several times, amongst other deliberations. Lotti: ‘Scolty. He’s very good at both the back and the front of the sleigh, and is an excellent role model for the calves’. Fiona: Scolty. Because he’s not too tame and he’s not too wild! He’s a thinker… like Dragonfly. Or maybe Dragonfly?’. Joe: ‘Probably Olympic. Or Baffin was good. Or Scolty. Well technically Kipling would be in there too, even though she’s a female. She has done some events as an adult though!’

Scolty. The ultimate ‘Christmas reindeer’?

Ruth’s answer, when caught off guard, appeared to not be what she thought she would say… ‘The first reindeer to pop into my head, which was a surprise to me, was Poirot! He was just phenomenal this Christmas, and didn’t put a hoof wrong.’ And for myself, the answer would be Topi I think. He was a total professional at events and parades, bombproof, and would always fall asleep on our shoulders when waiting for the off at the start of a parade. I’m sad he’s no longer with us, he was one of the special ones.

Lots of us have photos of Topi like this, but this one of him asleep on Fiona’s shoulder at an event is ultimately the best I think!

FAVOURITE EVENT? For those of us that have been around for years, this is a hard question as we’ve literally been to hundreds. Tilly has over 30 years of events under her belt! Some stand out whilst others – it must be said – all merge into one another after a while. On that note… Lotti: ‘I can’t remember which I’ve done! It’s all a blur!’

Andi: ‘Cowbridge in Wales [Editor’s note: we only go as far south as Manchester area these days, but Cowbridge (in South Wales) was a long-running event before that change]. An enormous but brilliantly organised event with all the police dressed as elves really took the biscuit!’ I also liked some of the biggest events like Cowbridge the best, where we were just a small cog in a large wheel. One of my other favourites was Wells [again, not one we do these days], where we followed a choir singing carols, which is far more festive than loud Christmas music blaring out. I also like Banff, as we usually got a full Christmas dinner at the end before leaving.

Cowbridge parade, complete with 6′ elves.

For Joe, it’s the smaller events nearer the day itself: ‘I really like the Christmas Eve events [Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore]. Everyone is festive and happy, in good spirits!’.

Fiona and Tilly had – completely independently – identical answers. ‘The  Duke of Gordon Hotel – it’s the last one.’  Predictable – by the end of the season they are knackered and ready to put away the harness till the following year! Tilly did add ‘Yee haa, back home for yummy dinner and lots of alcohol afterwards’ too! And as for Ruth’s favourite event? Got a least favourite one… that count?’. I’ll not elaborate.

Fiona and Tilly on Christmas Day, a good few years back. The end of tour for the season firmly in sight! The reindeer are Veikka, Kermit, Bee, Eco and Go.

FAVOURITE CALF BORN IN 2022? This was met with squeals of horror at the prospect of having to choose! I refused to let anyone cop out with ‘all of them’ though. Nuii was a front-runner, ‘The cutest, pint-sized perfection of a calf!’ (Andi) and Lotti had a particular reason for choosing her: ‘Since I thought she was still-born at first, but then she was fine. But oh goodness! SO difficult! They are all very lovely!’

Lovely Nuii!

Ruth was horrified at such a question. ‘Oh Hen, this is mean! [loooong silence] I’ll go with Lolly, since Lotti and I were the ones to bring her in from the free-range… although… Zoom’. Another vote for Zoom came from Tilly ‘A great wee success story and the best friend of Sunny’. Sunny is the calf we hand-reared in 2022, and living at Reindeer House, Fiona was responsible for him a fair bit of the time. I had no need to ask her who her favourite calf was (but I did anyway). ‘Ummm… Wafer. Only joking!’. Another predictable answer came from Joe: ‘Tub. Did you guess that?!’ (Tub’s mum is Joe’s favourite reindeer, Kipling).

This proved a hard question for myself though. As I’ve managed to effectively retire from attending Christmas events these days, instead remaining at Reindeer House, it means I didn’t work quite as closely with some of the calves as others did. It was Choc-ice to start with, as I was so delighted that Cheer had actually had a calf and that he was tame in comparison to her (Cheer is a very shy reindeer) – but he’s turned into a real brute and his little pointy antlers have been responsible for bruises on my backside over the last few months, so I’ve gone off him…

More to follow in a future blog!

Hen

The Legend of the Pink Badge

Many years ago, a reindeer herder made a Badge. This Badge was pink, and he wore it with pride. In time he decided to pass it on to another herder, who had done a Worthy Thing that day (what the Worthy Thing actually was has since been lost in the mists of time). However, that herder then took it upon themselves to pass it on once again, to another Worthy Person, and so it is that the Pink Badge of Worthiness came into being.

Or something along those lines anyway. The badge maker at Reindeer House was a very good investment of ours, many years back, and has churned out thousands of the things over the years for kids visiting the Paddocks and having a go at a quiz (we use different quizzes through the year and not all have a badge to make on them, before you get your knickers in a knot about why your family didn’t get the option of badges on a visit…). We have, of course, made plenty of badges for ourselves too, and this is how the pink badge started off – it was made from a bright pink post-it note upon which one of us had drawn a smiley face.

Managing to identify every single one of a big group of free-ranging female reindeer can be a badge-worthy affair – when they have all changed hugely in appearance since last seen, are moving at a constant jog to avoid the flies, and some won’t come near you at all!

I can’t quite remember the full details of exactly how the tradition of passing on the badge came about, but the essence of it is exactly as I’ve written at the start of this blog. The owner of the badge can hold on to it (usually pinning it on their t-shirt/jumper) for as long as they want, and when they feel someone else has gone above and beyond the call of duty, they award them the badge. And then the next person continues, and so on. There are no real rules, no limit on how long you can have it, or how many times; the badge is an item of supreme simplicity.

The Pink Badge on my t-shirt 😀

As I write this the current holder is Ruth, awarded it for managing to get our ancient and decrepit Landrover into 4WD mode on a early morning reindeer retrieval mission! The badge itself is currently in it’s second incarnation, after one too many accidental trips through the washing machine; but I’m not even too sure where Pink Badge 2 came from, as it’s not the size our own badge-maker produces. We’re also not colour blind – we’re well aware that this model is not pink! But in the best tradition the name endures regardless.

Morse and Jimmy admiring the badge pinned proudly on Ruth’s t-shirt!

At times the badge has been lost, or forgotten about, or unearthed months later on an old jumper in the back of a cupboard. Sometimes it’s just been found on the office pinboard, and no-one has appeared to know how it got there, or who was responsible. Our boss Tilly got it once, but was banned from taking it home with her as we were worried that once it disappeared into the depths of her farmhouse it would never, ever be seen again!

Very few photos of the original pink badge actually exist – this is the only one we could find (thanks Manouk!). It looks like it may have been through the washing machine a few times already by this point…

Fiona wishes me to point out that for the first five years she was only ever awarded it once a year, at the end of December, after organising (and surviving) the Christmas tour season, traditionally the busiest time of the year. I myself have been given it for a range of activities, most of which I can’t remember now, but the most memorable was the time I was given it for managing to not throw a printer through the office window. You may laugh, but deep down everyone reading this knows the deep-rooted and boiling fury a malfunctioning printer can incite – what does ‘general error’ even mean?! – so really I feel it was justified. I have had a hate-hate relationship with every single printer that has ever lived in the Reindeer House office.

Later that same day, however, Andi managed to extract a section of old fencing wire that had somehow become entangled around the antlers of one of our biggest breeding bulls, Kota, and this was right in the middle of the rutting season when he had morphed from a gentle giant to a raging testosterone-fueled beast. To this day I am therefore still the record-holder for the shortest ownership of the badge.

Kota – not an inviting prospect to have to get close to with a pair of wire cutters…

A lot of the other reasons for receival have been forgotten over the years, but have often included epic catches of ‘wilder’ reindeer, or memorable displays of herding. Olly received it last year for a stupendous and skillful effort of getting Rain and her newborn calf Jimmy into the right area of the hill enclosure after she had led Nell and myself on a merry (and ultimately unsuccessful) dance the previous day until a good two hours after we should have finished work. Then there was an interesting episode last Christmas when Sherlock got his antlers caught in the fairy lights of our Paddock shelter, and Joe spent about 45 minutes de-tangling him – again no mean feat with an enormous bull. One antler had come off already, but much to Joe’s annoyance when finally freed, Sherlock wandered out the shed, shook his head and the other promptly fell off! It’s completely normal for a bull to cast his antlers at this time of year, but 45 minutes earlier would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.

What a tangle! Eventually Sherlock, antlers and cable were all separated!

So if you visit us and notice a herder with the Pink Badge pinned to their shirt, then note that this is a Worthy Person, and should therefore be due the utmost respect. Or maybe it’s just me, and I’ve refrained from throwing another misbehaving electronic item through a window.

Hen

A typical day in the life of a reindeer herder

During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?” or “is doing the hill trips the best part of the job?”

During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?”

In this week’s blog I will chronologically outline a ‘typical’ day for a reindeer herder. However, it is worth noting that it’s almost impossible to predict how a day may take shape. The job tends to be incredibly variable and diverse. There are time-dependent jobs that may suddenly arise, such as moving reindeer from where they’re not meant to be to. For example, when they venture down from the mountains on to the road. There are also plenty of seasonal-dependent jobs, such as gardening or leading additional hill trips in the summer months. Or in the winter months you may need to clear footpaths to keep them free from snow and ice. Not to mention the early starts that occasionally occur. These tend to be in the calving season or on the epic days when reindeer need to be moved across the Cairngorms. It’s possible that you could be helping Tilly over at Wild Farm as well, transporting reindeer from the farm to the Cairngorms and vice versa, or helping with the other animals there. The list of possibilities is vast.

Nonetheless, the skeleton of a ‘typical’ reindeer herding day is as follows:

08:00 (summer) or 08:30 (winter): Work starts. Turn up and prepare to be greeted by the dogs.

How every morning starts – getting greeted by the dogs!

There typically may be anywhere between 4 and 7 herders working on a day, depending on the business of the season. Half of us will initially head up to feed the herd their breakfast whilst half of us will stay down at the Centre.

Those of us which stay down at the Centre will be responsible for feeding the paddock reindeer their breakfast, poo picking, cleaning the exhibition, answering emails and any phone calls, cleaning the shop and office, as well as opening the shop and checking in guests after 10am.

Flax lending a hand/hoof in the Paddocks.

The cohort of herders which head up the mountain to feed the herd will initially have to locate the herd. The difficulty of which can depend on weather conditions and whether the reindeer are free-roaming or in the hill enclosure. As I write this – at the end of February 2022 – it took Andi and I three hours to venture out in the snow to where the reindeer were located and then lead them closer to where the 11am hill trip would be.

Moving the free-range herd to a suitable location for a hill trip.

It is at this point in the day which we’re most likely to check the temperature of a reindeer – if we suspect illness – and administer any appropriate treatment. Before the morning feed is put down in a straight line (easier to count) with spaces of approximately 1m in between each pile (to try to stop fighting) there may be a spot of preferential feeding. The young calves are encouraged to come and feed out of the bags whilst one herder will circulate around the herd enticing the less tame reindeer to hand-feed. This preferential feeding is very important for the management of reindeer when they become ill. Catching reindeer can be a long ordeal but it’s important if a reindeer is ill that we can get close enough to help them, so by enticing them into the smaller hand-food bag throughout the year they hopefully won’t always associate the food bag with feeling rubbish. The preferential feeding also allows the young, growing calves to get a bit of extra food from the main bag as they are likely to be lower in the pecking order when it comes to feeding from the line and can get the sustenance they need to continue growing.

Morning feed – Joe putting out a long line of food ready to count the herd.
Routine temperature checks are often done in the morning, before our visitors arrive. Note Andi armed with the thermometer!
Preferential feeding – making sure the calves get some extra food!
Lotti offering the white bag of tasty snacks to our shyer reindeer.
Dixie getting some preferential feeding. Definitely not a shy girl, but at almost 16 she deserves spoiling!

11:00: Hill trip. This is the time when some of our herders are let loose to come and meet yourselves and serenade you with some interesting reindeer-related facts and some terrible reindeer-related jokes. This typically lasts for an hour and a half to two hours, depending on the weather.

Heading out to meet the reindeer on a free-range Hill Trip.

Those herders that don’t participate in the hill trip will be responsible for staying at the Centre and minding the shop, dealing with phone calls and emails, compiling adoption packs for our loyal adopters, mixing reindeer food or even, writing blogs.

A full office – renewals, letting writing, emails, writing the daily diary, generally looking busy…
Fiona and Lotti doing a mammoth food mix!

12:30 – 2: The herders stagger their lunches to ensure someone is always free to mind the shop. Shop visitors can often be caught commenting on the lovely smells coming from the kitchen.

The afternoon: Whilst the morning of a reindeer herder is fairly constant and predictable year-round, the afternoon can vary depending upon the time of year. From May to September there is an additional hill trip at 2:30. During these months the hill trips take place in our hill enclosure so the chance of seeing reindeer is almost definite, and the walk out to see them is shorter and less exposed to the elements. The reindeer herding day generally runs to 5pm, although in July and August we run a third daily tour at 3:30. So for a couple of months the day runs until 5:30.

Recently, we’ve also started been doing ‘Seasonal Herder Talks’ during the school holidays. This means throughout the afternoon one of the reindeer herders will be out in the paddocks talking to visitors about the reindeer and answering any questions.

“Winter Herder Talks” were trialed this February half-term – here’s Lotti with Marple.

Close: At about 4:45 the herders will start to perform the closing dance. This involves one of us cashing up the totals from the shop whilst another herder will head out to the woods located behind the paddock area and put food out for the paddock reindeer. Just before 5 o’clock the reindeer will be let through to the woods area whilst the herder closes and wipes down the exhibition area. The shop will also be shut and wiped down at 5pm. You can always tell it’s 5 o’clock as the dogs begin to stir. They become more energetic and boisterous as they realise the working day is ending and there is now a high chance of them heading out on a walk or run with at least one herder.

Approximately half of the reindeer herders live on-site at the Centre, whilst half of us journey in from the local area. Having some staff on-site means that on the very rare occasion where there is a reindeer emergency after hours, there is staff that can stick their capes on and come to the rescue.

Ben B

2017 Calves part 2: Dr Seuss and Christie

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about Kipling, one of the reindeer born in 2017 (click here to read the first installment). This week I will write about two more reindeer born in that year and given names belonging to the theme famous authors and poets.

Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was the first calf I ever got to know due to his unmistakable white face passed down from his mother Merida. From a young age he was full of cheek and character and also had a large appetite for food. As a little dumpy chubster he was probably the reindeer I gave the most fuss to during my first winter in the form of food and cuddles, although the latter I enjoyed more than him. Reindeer aren’t ones for being fussed but it was hard to resist for this little man.

Dr Seuss and his mum Merida in September 2017 – both with very distinctive face markings.
Joe (with flowing long locks!) and Dr Seuss.
Dr Seuss in February 2018.

Being a male, Dr Seuss went through his 1st and 2nd year in true teenage fashion, spending most of his time at the farm and tussling the other young bulls his age during the autumn. In the summer months he would be in our hill enclosure fattening up and meeting visitors. He’s always loved his food and will never let an opportunity go a miss if he spots the white handfeed bag.

Teenage Dr Seuss in September 2019.

At 3 years old and fully grown Dr Seuss was trained to become one of our Christmas reindeer and pull the sleigh on events. Being so relaxed and friendly by this point he took to it very well and looked super impressive with his distinctive large, wide antlers. He was so good, he also featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘A Baby Reindeer’s first Christmas’ as one of the stars of the show pulling Santa’s sleigh with a team which included his fellow co-star and reindeer celebrity, Holy Moley. Since then Dr Seuss has featured in a couple of other film or photography events but I don’t believe I am allowed to reveal them just yet. Dr Seuss is one of our friendliest and still most distinctive reindeer, he’s a lovely lad who all herders have taken a strong liking too. From a small round calf he’s now a whopping size with a huge backside that’s important fat reserves for the winter. That’s my excuse for him anyway.

Dr Seuss pulling the sleigh in November 2021 in the middle of Bradford – what a star!
Back on the snowy hills in December 2021, after a weekend away on sleigh-pulling duty!

Christie

Caddis and Christie as a young calf.
Christie aged 4 months old – checkout those antlers! She certainly takes after her mum.

From a young age Christie has always been a very pretty reindeer with her white spotted face and legs. Her mother Caddis was a true great of our reindeer herd and it was actually her who caught my attention when I first started getting to know the herd. At the time Caddis was more or less the matriarch of the herd, she was one of the biggest females in both size of body and antlers and for as long as I knew her, always seemed to produce the biggest calf each year. With all her majesty though, she never seemed too pushy with the other reindeer and was very tame. As a young female Christie never left her side until eventually Caddis had another calf, now known as Sherlock, a year later and Christie was naturally pushed away. Unlike her mother, Christie in nature is a lot shyer. As a yearling she spent almost a whole year free- ranging and although I rarely saw her I was always interested to see how she was getting on. Unfortunately Caddis sadly passed away before Christie was 2 years old and as her last female calf, I wanted Christie to one day take after her mother and become as big and strong as she was. As a two year old Christie did spent more time in the enclosure during the winter when I moved to the Reindeer Centre. Like Kipling I would often try to give her a little extra feed and handling to encourage her to be more tame but she’s never quite become completely relaxed around people. I do see her sometimes handfeed from visitors and stand in and amongst groups of people more but not as regularly as our tame or greedier reindeer. I’ve began to enjoy this characteristic about Christie though, I know she’ll never be like her mum was with regards to how she acted around people but with a little encouragement Christie will still accept your presence and a tasty handful of food. This year I was so excited to see Christie become a mum and give birth to her first healthy calf. A surprisingly dark male called Akubra, who we named after our hat themed year. Like Caddis once did, Christie has produced the largest calf of the year and has also grown an incredible set of antlers for a mother. It’s really nice to see that Christie has taken after her mother in this way and has carried on the legacy of family genetics. I still think the best of Christie is yet to come and although she may not be the tamest of reindeer, I’ll keep doing my best give her that extra bit of food during the coming winter months and see if she grows in confidence as time goes on.

Looking fabulous free-ranging in August 2020.
Christie and her young calf that we later named Akubra – May 2021.
Joe and Christie – March 2022.

Joe

Mountain Equipment

Joe, Fiona and Lotti modelling our new kit on their first outing!

If anyone is a regular viewer of our social media pages, you will have seen that there are days on the hill when the weather can be absolutely wild! Particularly during winter months, it can often be very cold and windy, with stormy blizzard conditions. Luckily this sort of weather doesn’t bother the reindeer in slightest, in fact winter is the reindeer’s favourite season. With thick winter coats, they don’t feel the cold until -35 degrees Celsius and have been known to survive down the extreme temperature of -72°C!

A blizzard is nothing for young Pumpkin!

Some people may think we herders are hardy folk but there is no way we could last even 5 minutes on a stormy winter’s day without the right clothing. Thankfully as of this year, Mountain Equipment have been kind enough to sell some of their best waterproofs to protect us against the elements at a seriously discounted rate. From now on we will be wearing their clothing during hill trips and filming. With all our old jackets starting to come to the end of their lives, it’s nice to wear something that actually keeps us dry again. Our old red jackets will be retired to the muckier jobs! Mountain Equipment is an outdoor brand based near Manchester and it’s nice to wear clothing which is made for the worst of the British weather. Keeping to tradition we’ve gone for red jackets to help us stand out on the hill, at the moment they are looking shiny and new but I suspect carrying dirty feedbags will put a stop to that, all of my own personal jackets have a reindeer food stain to them these days. We have gone for the Rupal jacket and Saltoro pants as our waterproof top and bottoms which have been great during the recent stormy weeks and we couldn’t recommend them enough. Here is a link to Mountain Equipment’s website to learn more about them: https://www.mountain-equipment.co.uk/

We think Dr Seuss approves of Ruth’s new jacket.
Andi and Lotti making sure the calves get a bit of extra feed whilst looking very fancy and bright!
Lotti and Andi again, with Witch. Just because it’s a lovely photo!

For now we are more than happy to put our new clothing to the test during the rest of the winter. Hopefully there will be plenty of snow forecast to keep reindeer and herders happy for the rest of the season.

Joe

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