A broken ankle and a helicopter ride.

Anyone who has come to visit us will know that we have very strict clothing and footwear requirements. On a fair-weather day, this may sometimes seem slight overkill but when the conditions change, or something goes wrong requiring us to stay on the hill longer than usual, the extra layers are absolutely necessary.

A wild day feeding the reindeer (Getty images).

One such occasion happened in December. We had almost come to the end of a hill trip when one of our visitors approached me to ask if I could help her support her wife who had slipped and possibly sprained her ankle. At first they had hoped that between the three of us, we would be able to walk off the hill. When I reached her, it became quickly apparent that the pain was too great for her to walk of the hill even with us taking her weight, making it a very easy decision that we would call mountain rescue. The week before I had done my first aid training and our casualty’s wife was a doctor so hopefully, she was in good hands. While Ben got on the phone, I fetched our group shelter and Isla brought some layers to keep everybody warm. The reindeer, having not seen a group shelter before were very interested in the sudden appearance of a giant orange ‘bag of food’ and Ben and I had to chase them away to avoid any further injury.

Druid, Dr Seuss and Jelly were very interested in the group shelter.

We were very lucky, and the mountain rescue team were with us within an hour and a half. As they arrived there were fits of laughter from inside the group shelter as Ben was telling both the women not to worry, that we had pre-paid for the rescue by getting our kit off for a naked calendar the previous year, raising over four and a half grand for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Mountain Rescue teams are made up of volunteers, when a call comes in, they are all alerted and have to leave their jobs/ whatever else they may have been up to come out. Once the team has assembled, they then have to drive from the base and then walk out to find the casualty, all of this can take a good few hours. On this occasion they had already been alerted for another rescue so the first people to respond had gone to the other casualty and then the next people had come straight to us. The mountain rescue team were absolutely fantastic, they splinted her ankle, with some much-appreciated pain relief, and then lifted her onto a stretcher, ready to walk off the hill.

The whole time this was happening, we could hear a helicopter flying a little way south of where we were. It became apparent that the helicopter was meant for the original casualty who had been climbing in the Northern Corries but they were unable to land due to the weather. So as not to waste the flight, and to get our lovely visitor off the hill and to hospital as soon as possible, the helicopter came to us instead.

The herd walking down past us to the afternoon Hill Trip.
Helicopter landing in the hill enclosure.

By this point we’d been on the hill so long that the afternoon Hill Trip had arrived and was gathered a bit further down the hill. The reindeer have regularly seen helicopters in the distance, but we were unsure if one landing this close to the reindeer would spook them causing a rather abrupt end to the Hill Trip. On the contrary, the reindeer barely batted an eyelid, the visitors were all pretty interested though!

Helicopter with our next hill trip visitors and reindeer behind.

The woman with the broken ankle was lifted into the helicopter and as they flew off her wife told us ‘Once she’s out of hospital and her ankle is fixed, she’s going to absolutely love this, she loves helicopters’. The rest of us walked back down off the hill.

Helicopter flying away.

Accidents such as these are very rare, in fact at my first aid course the previous week I had smugly told the instructor that I hadn’t had to use any first aid since the previous course 3 years earlier. I clearly spoke too soon. In this case, our visitor slipped despite having the correct footwear, she was just very unlucky. All four of us ended up staying on the hill for a total of 4 hours, for the last 2 we weren’t moving. For me it was a very good reminder of why we have to be so strict with the footwear and clothing that our visitors wear, had our casualty not had enough layers, the situation could have become more serious very quickly.

Ruth and Andi all dressed up for a winter reindeer feed.

Lotti

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

Old lady Okapi

I’m lacking in inspiration, motivation and time to think of a new and so-far unused blog topic, so this week I’m going for the old tried-and-tested method – pick a reindeer and write about him/her.

This week’s subject is Okapi. I’ve known Okapi her entire life, and at 15 and a half years old, it’s a long life indeed. Whilst not right up there in my very, very top favourite reindeer, she’s always been in the upper echelons of the reindeer herd, and I reckon most other herders would agree – collectively amongst us, she’s held in extremely high affection.

Okapi was born in 2008, her mum Esme’s third calf. Esme was a lovely reindeer, and was actually the subject of our very first blog, back in 2015! I first met Okapi at a few months old, at which point she was easily distinguishable from the other 2008 calves by the silver hairs on her face, giving her the appearance of wearing war-paint.

Those silver hairs eventually spread across the rest of Okapi’s body, and although she is still want we would call ‘normal-coloured’, she’s a much greyer colour than many of the other reindeer in the same colour category. Coat colour runs in family lines – Esme was on the silvery side too, as were many other members of the family, most notably Okapi’s big brother Elvis. Elvis became a legendary reindeer in our herd, living to 17 and only passing away a few months ago.

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

Okapi has always been a ‘leader’ in the herd, a relatively dominant female and generally one of the first to start moving in the right direction when we call the herd from a distance, leading them towards us. Reindeer like this are worth their weight in gold to us as a lot of the winter season is spent bellowing towards specks on a distant hill, and wondering whether they are going to come to us or we are going to have to go to them… It needs a dominant reindeer to sigh, stand up and start moving to get the rest of the herd underway too.

As a youngster, out free-ranging up on the mountains.

We usually like to breed from our loveliest female reindeer multiple times, but Okapi had a bit of a hitch in this respect. She had two lovely calves, in 2012 and 2013, Murray and Oka. Murray had the best set of antlers that we’ve seen on a calf in our herd, and we were very excited for what he would grow into in the future. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he passed away at about a year old. Win some and lose some with animals, but this felt like a particularly hard loss.

Okapi with 8 month old Murray – look at those calf antlers!

Okapi’s second calf, Oka, was also lovely, but again didn’t survive long term – dying at about 2 years old. A huge shame, as a female she should have gone on to continue Okapi’s genetic line, but hey ho. Again these things happen, but it feels unfair for Okapi to have lost both her calves.

Oka

And that was that for Okapi’s motherhood career, as a few months after Oka’s birth she suffered a prolapse. This came completely out of the blue and we never knew what – if anything – triggered it, but the end result was that everything had to be pushed back into place more than once, and eventually permanent stitches were inserted by the vet to keep poor old Okapi’s bits where they should be. This meant no more calves for her – a real shame for a lovely 5 year old female in her prime.

Okapi’s classic pose – she’s a reindeer who almost always has her ears pricked. This is how I will remember her when she’s no longer with us.

But life as a permanently ‘single lady’ has meant Okapi has since been a lady of leisure, all her energy going into her own body each year, and quite possibly has contributed to her longevity. Almost every year she’s grown pretty big antlers, and it’s only really in the last couple of years she’s started to look ‘old’.

Never having calves at foot means that Okapi also spends a higher ratio of her time free-ranging out on the mountains, as there’s never really a reason for her to spend any length of time in our hill enclosure. She will come in now and then for a few days as all our reindeer need vaccinating a couple of times of year, or sometimes we’ll hold particularly friendly reindeer back in the enclosure so they can be part of a the group for filming, for example. But on average, I’d say Okapi spends 11.5 months a year out living a completely free lifestyle – pretty nice!

A life of luxury!

And finally, Okapi had one particular starring role – on the cover of our Naked Reindeer Herders charity calendar in 2023. But I don’t think too many people were looking at the reindeer, if I’m honest…

Okapi on the right,with Ochil, Ruth, Fiona, Marple and Lotti, left to right. What a line up!

Hen

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

The Story of Zoom

I was over at the hill farm recently helping to feed our bulls and was pleased to see how good yearling Zoom was looking. And that reminded me that I’d promised Ruth I would write a blog telling the story of when we found him last year.

Teenage Zoom this autumn, with buddy Rocket behind him

Zoom was born on the 8th May 2022 to mum Angua, one of the shier members of the herd. He had white face markings, like dad Spartan, and in fact was almost identical to full sister Chickpea. After a couple of weeks bonding with Angua in the enclosure, the pair of them headed to the high tops of the mountains for summer.

The first photo of Zoom – taken when he was just a few hours old

We get out as often as possible over the warmer months to check on the cows and calves, but inevitably the weather and other factors sometimes get in the way of this, and as the reindeer move around a lot too we can go for weeks or months without seeing a particular individual. I saw Angua and her calf high on the mountains in mid-July – both looking very scruffy as they were moulting out their winter coat, but otherwise looking grand.

Zoom at two months old, roaming high on the mountain free-range with Angua. Both are mid-moult so look rather scruffy!

As the autumn came round, cows and calves started returning to the hill enclosure, and we went out to different areas too to fetch back some who had wandered too far. Whilst we don’t worry too much about not seeing a reindeer for a few months, by late September, the main stand out reindeer we hadn’t seen were Angua, her calf (now newly christened Zoom) and also her 2-year-old daughter Chickpea.

October rolled round and we were rushed off our feet preparing for the Adopter’s Weekend, celebrating our 70th anniversary. Typically, it was on the Friday, the day before the weekend, when we received a phone call from a hill walker, Richard, letting us know that his group had met a lone reindeer, and it had started following them. Reindeer are a herd animal so it is unusual to find one alone, and as we knew there were very few out on the mountains, Lotti and I scrambled to head out and try to catch them. We loaded up two of our steady Christmas reindeer, Olympic and Clouseau, from the Paddocks and drove the 35 minutes or so to the walkers’ car park nearest to Richard’s location. He called to update us that he had been up near the summit but had turned round to escort the reindeer back down to meet us – “Please hurry!”.

Myself leading Clouseau and Lotti leading Olympic up on the rescue mission – look at our anticipation!

Olympic and Clouseau were delighted to be out on an adventure and we hurriedly popped their headcollars on, unloaded them and set off up the path through the forest. As we walked we debated which reindeer it could be. Richard hadn’t been able to spot an eartag, which suggested it may be a calf, but a calf was unlikely to have had enough exposure to humans to choose to follow one… We wondered how we would go about catching them too. The idea behind bringing along two tame lads was that even a shy reindeer was likely to want to come up and join other reindeer if alone, and this would hopefully give us a chance to get hold of them – sometimes this involves reaching beneath the tame reindeer’s belly to get hold of a leg, then holding on until your colleague can pop on a headcollar – not the way we’d prefer to do things but sometimes the only option. But if the lone reindeer was very wild it would be hard to get that close…

Much sooner than anticipated, we spied movement ahead, and all of our assumptions were blown out of the water. Not only was the lone reindeer in question indeed a calf, Richard was hurrying down the path literally with his arm over their neck, hand gently guiding on their shoulder. For a species that tends not to like contact, and for a calf that was basically unhandled, this was incredible! No need to worry about how we were going to catch them! We could immediately see from the white face markings and size that this was Angua’s calf, Zoom – rather scrawny and a little underweight, but otherwise looking healthy. It was a simple matter to pop a headcollar on Zoom (for the first time in his life) and after thanking Richard profusely, we headed our separate ways – us back down the track with our extra reindeer, and Richard back up the mountain.

Lotti replicating Richard’s reassuring touch, just a few minutes after first putting on Zoom’s headcollar

Reindeer usually protest a little the first time they are on a headcollar, but wee Zoom just seemed relieved to have found some friends, and Lotti & I had an easy walk back to the truck, still both astounded at the turn of circumstance. We arrived back at the Centre before the end of the day and Zoom quickly looked at home. Any adopters who visited us that weekend might have seen him, already friendly and confident. He buddied up with Sunny, who had been orphaned and hand-reared, and was often closely following Clouseau, latching onto him perhaps because he was the first reindeer he’d seen after being all alone. We joked about how Clouseau had got a calf of his own (despite being a castrate!).

Up with two, down with three – Zoom pottering along as if he’d done this all before (in reality probably just utterly relieved to be back in reindeer company)

Sadly we never saw Angua again, and the probable explanation is that she must have died at some point in the autumn, leaving poor Zoom to wander on his own. But animals are resourceful and he did exactly the right thing – putting his trust in the right kind human – thankfully Richard was good enough to get in touch with us and go out of his way to get Zoom down – we still talk of the special “Richard Ruffle” that he used to guide Zoom at his side.

Zoom settling into life with the herd on the hill… and knowing full well that he’ll get a bit of preferential treatment from us herders!

The other good news was that Zoom’s sister Chickpea made it home too, though it wasn’t for several months. There was the occasional report, and even a photo of her, at the far extent of the reindeer range, but every time we went out searching, there was no sign. Then in February, when we called in the free-ranging herd for breakfast, there she was – she’d found her own way back. She had clearly been unwell at some point – her coat was scruffy and she’d already cast her antlers – but she was otherwise her normal cheeky self.

Chickpea free-ranging this autumn – her and Zoom have almost identical markings!

2023 has been a much better year for both of them, and Zoom and Chickpea are looking fantastic.

Andi

Memorable reindeer of the past: Lulu

Normally I write these sort of blogs about reindeer who are long since passed, but Lulu was a bit of a favourite of mine so despite dying relatively recently, she’s getting special treatment.

Charging towards a feed bag!

Born in 2006, Lulu was one of the very few reindeer in the herd alive until recently who were here when I first started, back in 2007. She was just a yearling at that point, but even at that stage her reputation preceded her and we called her ‘ASBO Lulu’ on a regular basis, due to her habit of occasionally nailing visitors with her small (but still sharp) antlers. I remember having to split her off from the main herd in the enclosure every morning, to keep a nice tall fence between her and any unsuspecting people.

Aged 6 months

Going back to 2006, Lulu was orphaned at about 6 months old, her mother Nugget passing away whilst Lulu was away with one of the Christmas teams at some festive events down south. Having to fend for herself from a relatively young age presumably helped to hone her tenacious character. Lulu was 18 months old when I first knew her, so I sadly don’t remember Nugget.

Lulu at 2 years old

Lulu grew into a very distinctive reindeer, light coloured with a particularly pale forehead, and small, neat antlers with lots of points. A pair of these are on the wall in my house still. Although she never grew particularly huge antlers, throughout her life she was unpredictable with them, and you could never trust her not to go for a visitor. It was never outright aggression – just done for fun. I heard tales from multiple walkers over the years who had bumped into a group of free-ranging reindeer and told me of a white one who kept ‘attacking’ them. Ah, you met Lulu, then.

Butter wouldn’t melt!
I once went walking in the mountains with my Dad, on a day off, and were joined unexpectedly by Lulu, who accompanied us for several hours.

I’ve just looked at Lulu’s calving record, to remind myself of who she had. Incredibly, all of the 8 calves she had over the course of her lifetime were male, an unsurpassed record in the herd surely. She didn’t have the best success as a young mum, with her first couple of calves not making it past a few months old. Then came LX though, born in 2012, and he’s still with us in the herd today. Born light brown with a white forehead, he turned white and looked very similar to Lulu, albeit in male form.

Lulu with LX

Pure white Blue was next, and then Lulu fancied a change in colour and had a jet black calf the following year! Her moment of calving glory however, was the birth of the first live twins in the herd, in 2018. Named Starsky and Hutch, we had great fun with these guys through the summer months, and all the visitors loved meeting them in the hill enclosure on the tours. Sadly neither survived long term, leading us to make the decision that if and when we had live twins born again we would hand-rear one of them and leave mum to cope with only one – a decision that had to kick into action this spring with Suebi’s twins.

With Starsky and Hutch, a few hours old.

12 years old when Starsky and Hutch were born, we decided that that was it for Lulu and it was time to retire from motherhood and enjoy life as an old lady with no hangers-on. That she did, still periodically nailing visitors from time to time – even just last winter we had to move her to join a part of the herd elsewhere away from the tours after she did her best to annihilate a somewhat surprised lady! 16 and a half and still disreputable – what a gal. For context, the average age for a female reindeer is around 13 – to be clouted by a 16 year old reindeer is akin to being beaten up by an ancient granny wielding her zimmer.

The photo of Lulu that visitor Tessa Wingfield sent us last winter, having a closer than expected encounter with her on a Hill Trip! The photo made us cry laughing – we do apologise for her behaviour, Tessa!
ASBO Lulu

Lulu was very healthy all of her life – bar a brief but nasty illness in 2018 when we thought we’d lose her – but this year she started to show her age and she was found out on the mountains having passed away in the late summer. 17 is an excellent age, so Lulu had a great innings and outlived all but two of her compatriots from the 2006 calving, as well as most of her offspring. Her and her bad behaviour have been a constant throughout my time here, so amongst the herders I’ll miss her particularly I think.

Hen

Reindeer Identification

What a lovely herd, but how do you learn all their names?

Reindeer identification is definitely one of the most challenging aspects of the work here at the Reindeer Centre. Of course there are a few individual reindeer that are very distinctive and easy to spot like Sherlock with those enormous antlers and Dr Suess with his with white nose. I’m also pretty confident telling apart the two white yearling males (99 and Mr Whippy) as long as they’re not too far away!

Sherlock is a very distinctive boy with big antlers.
Most visitors to the hill will be able to recognise Dr Seuss within a few mins of meeting him.

I’ve been taking as many opportunities as I can to try to get to know who’s who for the less obvious members of the herd. During the summer months while I’m here, the hill enclosure is home to a lovely smaller herd made up of some of the bulls. It’s a good time to try to learn a few reindeer while they’re part of a smaller group and I can see them most days.

The ear tags on the reindeer are colour coded depending on the year they are born, for example last years calves all have red ear tags (I was lucky enough to be volunteering the day they were tagged!). As a rule, I tend to look for any distinguishing features first like coat colour, markings, antler shape and size, and body size. After that, I’ll try to spot what colour the ear tag is. Some of the older reindeer are easier because there are fewer to choose from with that year’s colour ear tag.

Zoom showing off his red ear tag. But it’s his white face markings and cheeky character which give his identity away!

As well as the more obvious physical features, its been really helpful to speak to the other herders to get hints and tips on how they remember who’s who. For example, Sheena pointed out that Poirot’s antlers come out straight from his forehead like two fingers or the number “11” and his number is “211”. Isla told me how she remembers Arta’s name because the pattern on his nose looks like artwork and Mollie told me that Cicero has the biggest of the silvery coloured antlers.

Poirot having a snooze in the Paddocks. The unique shape of his left antler helps Fran identify him.

This week I learned that Merida, Dr. Suess’ mum, also has a lovely white face and I was able to spot my personal favourite, Beanie, thanks to her lovely speckly nose and the fact that she was with a group of two cows with their calves.

Merida on the left has a very distinctive white hourglass face markings. But who are the others?! Chickpea is in the middle and Solero on the right.

However, often, just when I get the hang of this ID game, things start to change. The boys summer coats don’t really last more that a few weeks it seems so no sooner was I was feeling very confident identifying Lupin and Kernel with their beautiful dark summer coats they’re both already growing their winter coats! We’re also bringing some of the girls into the enclosure which is adding ever more complexity to the task. My ID skills are definitely a work in progress and I’m loving taking every opportunity to watch the herd and learn who everybody is.

Lupin in his short dark summer coat at the end of June…
…2 months later at the end of August, Lupin is growing through his winter coat and is looking more silvery.
Fran helping to bring some more free ranging girls into the enclosure. Yet more names to learn!

Fran

Training Reindeer

During the summer months it’s a good time of year to work on our reindeer handling for both reindeer and herders. With a fair few new faces this summer with seasonal staff picking up a few weeks here and there it’s not just good practice for the reindeer but really important that us herders know the best way to approach, put on halters, putting on harness and generally knowing how to act and move around the reindeer in close proximity.

Andi, Hen and Hannah on a walk with a bunch of harnessed reindeer – some very experienced, others more new to this morning routine!

First of all we pick which reindeer will go through the ropes that morning then we split them off into a separate enclosure at their morning feed and bring them up to our shed on the hill. This is where we do all our handling, whether it’s taking temperatures, tending to unwell reindeer or doing a bit training where the reindeer have a halter on and wear a bit of harness. From our shed we can walk out into a quiet enclosure so they get a feel for wearing the harness while walking. Within the group of chosen reindeer there is always an ‘old boy’ who has done lots of training before so already knows the drill and therefore gives off the right vibes. We stand any newbies next to him so they have a calming influence. As well as being the role model to younger reindeer our older trained reindeer are good ones for new staff to learn how to put harness on as they don’t fuss or move around making it a lot easier to explain and learn. Some of our older boys who are trained are: Aztec, Dr Seuss, Poirot, Sherlock, Frost, Clouseau and Athens. We then train anything who is 1, 2 or 3 years old next to them. The 2 and 3 year old have of course done this for the past few years so it tends to be the yearlings who are a bit more twitchy doing it for their first summer. Of course as 5-6 month old calves they went out and about at Christmas so its not completely new to them.

Cameron and happily, completely unfazed trainees – Jelly and Jester.
Andi with Cicero and Scoop – training no matter the weather!
Harry, Amy and Fiona with very scruffy reindeer – June 2022.

Once we put some harness on we walk them out into another enclosure to get used to it. Our two hand reared calves Winnie and Alba sometime join us for this little excursion each morning so they can get a bit of extra hill grazing. Being the size of a medium dog sometimes the young trainee reindeer forget that the calves are actually reindeer and decide to unnecessarily have a brief panic, before realising how silly they are worrying about a little reindeer calf… or two. It’s quite funny watching them work it out. The old boys are pretty savvy to the calves and just ignore them.

Working closely and being able to handle our reindeer is really important for them and us. As many of you know we run a Christmas tour through November and December so any extra handling prepares our reindeer for some of that work they do. We also handle our reindeer should they need any treatment, vaccines or antibiotics and the more used to this they are the less stressful the situation for both animal and human. Some take to it quicker than others, like us they all have their individual personalities and characters. We change our handling sometimes depending which reindeer it is you’re working with. It’s really important we know our reindeer so if there is one ‘off colour’ then it’s picked up quickly and dealt with.

Here are some photos of us training our reindeer in the summer and also in the autumn time when we are getting ready for our Christmas tour.

Lisette at the front of the sleigh with trainee Poirot in October 2022. Sheena at the back with Athens – also new to the job.
A training display during our Adopter’s Weekend – October 2022. Fiona, harnessing Dr Seuss and Frost whilst Tilly holds them.
Andi at the front of the sleigh with Svalbard and Druid. All three have done it lots before but a good refresher for everyone. October 2022.
Ben and Poirot at the front. Poirot’s first time in trace but acting like he’s done it for years!
Scolty and Frost – October 2021 – having a practice in Glenmore. Dr Seuss at the back.
Mr Whippy wearing harness for the first time as a 5 month old calf – getting used to the feeling at a very young age.

Fiona

Winnie and Alba

We thought it was about time you had an update on our hand reared calves of this year. Back in May, off the back of our calving season, we were left hand rearing two female calves. Last year we raised Sunny, a male calf who lost his mum at only a few days old and this year Alba joined us when she was 3 days old and Winne when she was 10 days old. The two of them are thick as thieves and are always together. They spend the day time up on the hill getting exercise and grazing and also learning to be in amongst the herd and in the evenings they are back down here at the Centre with the paddock reindeer. The reason we bring them off the hill is because they are still getting bottles of milk so this makes it a lot easier for us to do.

Winnie (left) and Alba (right) on their way to the enclosure for the day.

Alba is a twin. Her and her brother were born on the 13th of May 2023 and their mother is Suebi, a 7 year old mature female. We had twins born back in 2018 from Lulu. That was the first time we had twins born alive and with no prior experience we decided to try and leave Lulu with both of them to raise herself. So Lulu spent the summer in our mountain enclosure so we could help her out instead of free ranging with the other cows and calves. Although smaller than normal calves their age both the twins seemed to be doing just fine. However, for what felt like no reason whatsoever we lost one of them at 4 months old and the other one at 5 months old. We don’t know why, maybe reindeer just aren’t meant to raise twins? So, we decided back then if we were to have twins again then we’d need to change something and potentially take one away from the mother leaving her with one to rear herself while we hand reared the other. Alba was the smaller and weaker one of the two born this year. We helped both calves out for the first few days making sure they were getting milk from Suebi then it got to day three and the time had come for us to take one away and leave her with the bigger and stronger calf. Suebi was completely unfazed and satisfied she had a calf. I don’t think the maternal instinct goes as far as counting to two which was lucky for us! We took Alba off the hill and for her first 3.5 days she lived with us and the dogs in the house as she was too small to be with other reindeer at this point.

Suebi and her twins! Alba is the one standing.
Alba taking over Reindeer House living room – blankets down to help with the slippery floor!

After a few days Winnie came on the scene and the two of them teamed up as our hand reared duo of 2023. Winne’s story is a little different. It was mid-May and she was with her mum for about 10 days before one morning she came in with the herd and mum wasn’t with her. This is very strange because if mum wasn’t feeling well and lay down usually the calf would always stay with her so for the calf to be in without mum was really unusual. Maybe she had an accident or if she did become ill it’s been far too long now that we can only assume she passed away. Obviously we immediately looked for her on the day she went missing, however, our mountain enclosure with is 1200 acres (the equivalent of 1200 football pitches). This is made up of heathery mountain ground, peat hags, lots of trees, bog and thick juniper so it is like finding a needle in a haystack sometimes. It got to the afternoon of the day she went missing and we had to give Winnie some milk or she would have starved. We also had to take her off the hill that night as she would not be able to stay with the herd without a mum so down she came and both her and Alba teamed up.

Winnie on the hill, still with her mum.
Winnie clearly very settled after being brought of the hill. Her and Alba already thick as thieves.

We laugh as incidents or problems only ever occur when there is something else happening for us herders or when the long term herders are away on holiday. And true to form this all happened during the wedding of two herders so we were already on minimal staff with the long termers away celebrating. The staff that were working that day came up trumps big time to deal with everything though! I did pop back and help out and also pass on advice over the phone but it was the folk on the ground that held the fort and did a bloody good job of it too considering the complications. Also, as it was a herders wedding we of course had the ceilidh to go to that night. While we were all at the party in the evening, who else had to come along… Alba and Winnie, of course! So into our wee livestock truck they went, along with their bottles of milk ready to warm up mid-ceilidh. Then come 8pm, dressed up in my glad rags, off I went to feed the calves. The scene of walking through a wedding party, in a frock, holding two bottles of milk to go and feed the calves should of looked unusual but nobody batted an eyelid. I was definitely in amongst like-minded people!

Kate enjoying calf time!
Calves being babysat by the bigger reindeer in the Paddocks. Iskrem showing where the food is!

So now we are well into the summer, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster having two calves to hand rear. For herders living at Reindeer House there is a further responsibility with two extra feeds after working hours so Cameron, Kate, EK, Fran, Hannah and myself have all been doing this. When we hand reared Sunny last year he spent a lot of time hanging out with us in Reindeer House but as there are two calves this year they don’t come in so much. Cameron has certainly adopted the two girls this year having done most of the looking after so when he went away for a week’s holiday in July he had to trust us we would do a good job!

Volunteer Emily and herder Hannah bottle feeding the duo.
Winnie in the hill enclosure, starting to grow her antlers.
Winnie’s hilarious milk drunk face.

Obviously we’d prefer not to hand rear reindeer calves, however, sometimes there is no option. Sunny is now a year old and I still call out to him in the mornings ‘calf, calf!’ and he even grunts back to me sometimes. This may be a trait which carries on through his life but it certainly gives us a good laugh. Alba and Winnie this year I can already see are going to be naughty little girls. Both coming from quite independent, head strong mothers I think we’ve got out future work cut out with them so watch this space!

Fiona and Sunny in the kitchen at Reindeer House. Fiona’s hand reared boy born in 2022.

Fiona

2020 calves – then and now (Part 2 – the males).

This week’s blog looks back on a select few of my favourite male calves of 2020 and how they have changed in the last three years. To read stories about my favourite female calves then check out this blog, published a few weeks ago: 2020 calves – then and now (Part 1 – the females). – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

Adzuki

I remember when we found Gazelle and Adzuki just after he was born how relaxed they both were. At the time Gazelle was twelve years old and had had many calves before so she was completely comfortable for us to hang out with her and her new-born calf. (Provided that we had brought her some food, which of course we had)!

New-born Adzuki.
Fiona, Gazelle and Adzuki.

Adzuki is now one of the biggest of his age group. Adzuki was always fairly shy so we have spent quite a lot of time, and bribery, getting him used to us. It helps that he is from a greedy family! Adzuki grew a wonderful set of antlers as a two year old and after a winter free ranging he’s currently back in our enclosure and has grown a whole new set once again – even bigger!

Adzuki growing a beautiful set of antlers as a 2-year-old bull – summer 2022.
Adzuki – summer 2023.

Haricot

Haricot was Ryvita’s last calf, and when he was born he was really wee. In fact as we waved the cows and calves off onto the free-range for the summer, I wasn’t totally convinced that we’d see him again. But we did, in fact by the end of the summer he looked totally great and was just as fat as any of the other calves. Ryvita however was looking a wee bit underweight, potentially due to having done such a fantastic job of raising Haricot, so we gave her some extra food all autumn. And of course, if Ryvita got extra food, so did Haricot! As a result, by Christmas, he was like a little barrel!!

A near miss for Haricot (if you don’t see it at first then look closer)!
Haricot as a new born.
Haricot in the snow as a calf with Lupin and Holy Moley coming up behind.

Haricot’s extra food that first autumn certainly stood him in good stead and he’s now a very handsome young reindeer. Here he is below with half brother Adzuki, you can certainly see the family resemblance!

Haricot and Adzuki. – summer 2022.
Winter Haricot.
Haricot – summer 2023.

Butter

Now Butter came as a bit of surprise. His mum, Gloriana, had never calved (despite running with a bull each year) until the age of 8 when Butter was born! We found Butter on a super soggy day and he had big floppy ears. Butter spent all summer free-ranging and we didn’t see him much and then one day at the end of the summer Gloriana came running into the enclosure with no calf. She was grunting away and still had an udder full of milk suggesting that she’d only recently lost Butter, so we sent her back out to search for him. We didn’t see either of them for quite a while and then one morning, Gloriana showed up with Butter in tow. He was looking fairly skinny so we decided to name him Butter, after a butter bean, in the hope that he would grow to be ‘fat as butter’!!  

New born Butter on a very soggy day!

Sure enough, fast forward almost three years and Butter is doing very well. He also got lots of preferential feeding that first autumn and as a result has done just as well as the rest of his age group! He is incredibly tame and can be pretty cheeky sometimes but it’s hard not to be fond of that white nose!

Butter looking smart in his summer coat.
Butter showing us he hasn’t changed all that much – summer 2022.
Butter free-ranging this past winter.
Butter – summer 2023.

Lupin

Lupin was Marple’s first calf and when he was born he was really small; we wondered if maybe he was a little bit premature. But Marple did a great job, she took motherhood all into her stride and after the first few wobbly days he was charging around the enclosure after her! When they were free-ranging that summer and we headed up to find them Lupin would always come marching over to see us! He was one of the tamest and boldest free-ranging calves that I have seen!

Tiny wee Lupin.

Lupin is now a very handsome young reindeer. He’s not as tall as some of the others but he’s in great condition and grew a fantastic set of antlers both last year and this year. He’s not lost his confidence either, he’s very bold with both humans and reindeer, in fact I think last autumn he got fairly full of himself and was strutting around as if he was one of the big breeding bulls! Lupin had a wee sister born last year who we named Viennetta, and another (as yet unnamed) sister this year. Viennetta could not be more different from him as a calf. She’s very pale with a white nose and was one of the largest calves of last year!

Lupin in the hill enclosure last summer – 2022.
Lupin – summer 2023.

Cicero

I had the great delight of finding Cicero’s mum, Brie, when she was mid-way through calving. I found a spot far enough away to not bother her and watched the whole process through binoculars. When I found her the calf’s front legs were already out and it didn’t take long for her to calve completely. It was totally amazing then to watch the first 20 minutes or so of Cicero’s life. First he was licked dry, then he had his first milk and then fairly soon afterward he took his first steps! 

Cicero taking his first steps.

As Cicero has grown up he has certainly taken more after his dad (Houdini) then his mum (Brie). Brie is the smallest of all our fully grown reindeer and Cicero is the tallest of all the reindeer his age, I think he over took her in height by about a year old.

Cicero on a dreich day – summer 2022.
Cicero – summer 2023.

Jelly

When Jelly was a couple of days old we noticed that he wasn’t suckling properly, after closer examination of Jenga, his mum, we realised that she had passed all of her afterbirth. Both the passing of her placenta and the production of milk are associated with the hormone oxytocin which is released as the reindeer is calving. After chatting to our vet we ended up giving Jenga a dose of oxytocin and kept a close eye on them for a couple of days to make sure he was suckling properly. After a couple of days they were happy and he was getting plenty of milk from mum, by the end of the summer he was in great form, one of the biggest calves.

Jenga and Jelly suckling.
New born Jelly finding his feet.

Not much as changed since then, Jelly is still one of the biggest of the 2020 bulls, definitely with the biggest neck of all of them – what a chunk! Jelly can be a little dopey at times and this reminds me of that tiny wee calf wobbling about to get milk.

Jelly being a dude – summer 2022.
Jelly – summer 2023.

Hemp

When Hemp was wee he was a beautiful slate grey colour with a white nose, much like his dad, Spartan. Whilst Spartan’s characteristics were showing up in many of the calves that year, note the white noses of Adzuki, Haricot, Borlotti and Chickpea, the family resemblance is strongest in Hemp.

Hemp leading the way.

Hemp has grown up into a lovely friendly young reindeer which is no surprise as he comes from a very tame family, on both his mum and his dad’s side. He’s incredibly greedy (which comes from his mother) and can be a little stubborn at times (which comes from his father).

Hemp in the summer – 2022.
Hemp – June 2023.

Lotti

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