We’re lucky to see some pretty awesome wildlife whilst looking after the reindeer on the mountains, but its less usual to see wildlife in our back porch. We were taken by surprise last week when we glanced out the back door and saw a rather worked up male sparrowhawk, who had somehow flown in then lost the door out… thankfully we were able to sneak past and open up the door for him to “escape”.
We were pretty delighted to see a sparrowhawk close up, as the normal view of them is them dashing over at top speed, and even happier to see him fly safely away!
Summer is well underway with Scottish schools off and English schools just breaking up and here at the Reindeer Centre we have certainly noticed the rise in visitor numbers. We now offer three guided tours onto the hill daily over the next two months with our additional 3.30pm tour on Monday – Fridays. Trekking has been running for a month now and already we have taken over 23 groups made up of 68 people of which two of them were hardy 5 and 6 year olds! It has all gone very smoothly and the reindeer have been absolute stars. On the whole we have been very lucky with the weather with only a couple of wet trekking days but if you come to Scotland to go trekking in the Cairngorm mountains you have to come with the frame of mind that you may experience all four seasons in one day!
The reindeer that have been trekking already this year are – Marley, Puddock, Caribou, Gnu, Topi, Paintpot, Oryx, Grunter, Strudel, Macaroon, Hornet, Beastie, Tanner, Spider, Hamish, Horse, Rummy, Domino, Origami, Monopoly, Bingo, Svalbard, Rubiks, Stenoa, Olympic, Second, Nutkins, Monty, Balmoral, Duke, Minute, Boris, Mo, Orkney, Ost, Drambuie, Jonne, Kota, Gandi, Bovril, Hook, Boxer, Gin, Max and Nutti. Grunter is used for our younger trekkers. He is what I’d describe as a bombproof reindeer. He is quite happy either at the front of the group or at the back. A wee Dutch lad who led him a couple of weeks ago headed off on his own route jumping all the puddles – I think him and Grunter covered almost twice as much ground than us!
They have all got their different characters, some love the attention and a good fuss while others are quite happy to plod along at the back at their own pace. Some reindeer are super cheeky and others know how to ‘take the mick’ out of trekkers who maybe aren’t so confident in their leading so what I always like to do to match up characters of reindeer to the characters of my trekkers and 90% of the time I get it right. I’ll let my previous trekkers work out how I see their characters compared to the reindeer they led 😉 The 10% I get wrong is my fall back excuse!
As well as our additional summer activities we are still doing our day to day work both out on the hill checking the free-ranging herd of cows and calves as well as here in our office putting adoption packs together, so naturally we need a few extra hands at this time of year and therefore employ more staff. Our latest member of the team has taken to the reindeer herding life very well indeed. She is super fit which is great when out in the hills and although still a bit shy with our visitors she is only young so confidence will come and by the end of summer I’m sure she will be on full form. Recently we have been showing her how to set up adoption packs as we have a great support network of adopters all over the world and each pack has its very own hand written letter because we really feel they deserve that personal touch. She does a great job and who knows we may even keep her on after the summer months if she continues to show hard work and commitment to the job in hand. Everybody, meet Tiree! She is my 10 month old Aussie Shepherd pup and is by far the best looking member of our team here…
Every year we reindeer herders have a little flutter into betting around calving time of year – the idea is to pick a reindeer you think is going to calve first and if your reindeer calves last you have to take an icy dip into Loch Morlich. As you can imagine this makes it all the more serious and some proper consideration should always go into picking your ‘bet’ reindeer. This year turned into a two handed contest between Abby and Hen, and it was never going to end well for one of them…
Abby: Last year (my first calving) I took all the advice on board, I learned about families who calve early, I checked out tummy size and I looked at udder size; and ended up with a female who calved pretty near the beginning.
You would think that after a year of reindeer herding I’d enter this year’s bet with a bit more wisdom and expertise: after all, I’ve got to know the reindeer pretty well now. However, I committed the cardinal sin, and chose a reindeer who I just really liked before weighing up the facts properly. A lovely four year old called Hopscotch, and indeed she was pretty rotund looking when I picked her but there was no sign of an udder, but I’d made my choice and had to stick by it.
Hen: Bets have to be in by the end of April, and this year I went with Lulu. I had dutifully peered between hind legs at udders, assessed general belly size, and considered previous calving patterns, and Lulu seemed like a pretty safe bet. Everyone else made sensible bets too, with the exception of Abby. We ripped her to shreds continuously as she was very obviously going to end up in the loch, and deserved to as well – Hopscotch (daft choice, ha!) was looking pretty slim compared to everyone else’s bets, who were waddling around huffing and puffing.
Abby: By the 30th of April it all kicked off and the calving storm began – one by one the females started popping and one by one my colleagues became safe from the dreaded swim. By mid-May most of the females had calved and all that was left from the bet was me with Hopscotch and Hen with Lulu. Lulu was the size of a barge with an udder to match, and was like the vision of doom every time I saw her up the hill. I began to think myself very foolish indeed and resigned myself to the fact that a very cold swim was coming my way as there was no way Hopscotch would calve before an old pro like Lulu!
However, much to my surprise on Monday the 18th of May Hopscotch was missing, I was all a-flutter and stoked thinking that I was free of the swim and off we headed to track down her and her new calfie. We were, however, a wee bit disappointed, finding her on the top of Silver Mount (which is a very popular calving spot) chillin’ like a villain. There would be no calf today it seemed. It’s very common for reindeer to go off and faff about for up to a week before they actually give birth and I resigned myself to fact once again that I’d probably end up in the water. However the next day the same thing happened, no Hopscotch, hopes were high until once again she was found and pootled back to the herd quite happily but by our afternoon visit she was once again gone… this was it I thought. If a female goes missing in the afternoon a herder will head up the hill at the ungodly hour of 5am to track her down and this is just what I did! Once again she was on Silver mount (a bit of a shock for my legs that early in the morning – this is why reindeer herders get through so many biscuits!), but she didn’t look quite right and upon taking her temperature I realised she had an acute case of ‘Man Flu’! She got a wee dose of antibiotics before I popped her in with the cows and calves. 10 yards later she went down and in my head my thoughts ran along the lines of ‘Oh my god, I’ve killed a reindeer!’ until she started huffing and puffing away… she seemed to be going into labour! I left her to it and waited with glee to meet a new calfie in the afternoon.
Hen: I had foolishly chosen this week to have a few days off, and was away from home too. A smug text message on the Monday told me that Hopscotch was away to calve, but frantic texts from me after that, trying to gauge what was happening, mostly seemed to go unanswered or got a cryptic reply that didn’t really tell me what was going on. I started to sweat. Surely I wasn’t going to be beaten by Abby?! Having been here for a year, she is still ‘new’ compared to me – I’ve been a reindeer herder for over seven years and have experienced a lot more calving seasons than Abby, I should have been able to sail through the bet with no problems! Towards the end of the week I started to doubt myself.
Abby: By Wednesday afternoon Hopscotch was acting completely normally and stuffing her face with glee and was most definitely not giving birth. At this point I felt it was all a bit cruel and gave up on the idea of no swim and as Thursday rolled around with still no sign of a calf I decided it was definite.
Hen: I arrived home from my days off to discover Hopscotch had had a temperature but nothing else, and all was back to normal up the hill. Huge relief, false alarm and all that, and I went back to teasing Abby relentlessly about when she was going swimming! I was stupidly overconfident once again that I was completely safe, Lulu must surely calve any minute, but reindeer have a nasty way of bringing you back down to earth and the ringing phone the following morning signalled the end for me… Andi’s voice sounded like she was stifling the giggles, informing me that she’d just found Hopscotch with her new-born male calf. Abby collapsed in relief and I cursed Lulu, Hopscotch, everyone else and to be honest, reindeer in general.
Being as it was about 8°C at this point, I was given until the end of June to swim. Loch Morlich is only a few hundred metres from Reindeer House, but at this time of year consists mainly of snow melt, and I am not someone to throw myself into cold water with abandon unless there’s a damn good reason.
Summer didn’t arrive right until the end of June in the Cairngorms this year, so I bided my time and kept an eye on the forecast. I left my swim right till the bitter end, on 30th June, and at least the dogs had the decency to come in with me, although everyone else stuck to paddling! I don’t appear to have hypothermia either. Or at least not yet. Maybe it’ll be slow onset hypothermia.
Lulu did eventually calve, far too late for Hen of course, completely unaware of everything that had been riding on her!
It’s always quite a contrast from central London where I work, to the hills of the Cairngorms, where I spend my holidays herding reindeer! This time I couldn’t get further away – a small group of reindeer herders headed up north to wildcamp at Sandwood Bay, one of the most northerly and remote beaches in Britain. After a long clear night (it didn’t really go dark), we headed back south to the Cairngorms where reindeer duties took over. It’s always very varied, from trekking to poop-scooping to manning the shop to taking guided visits.
Calving was finally coming to an end, one of the longest calving seasons there has been, so the last of the females were sent off to the free-range to get the best of the summer grazing on the high mountain tops with their calves, leaving just males in the enclosure to greet visitors. Apart from looking very scruffy at this time of year as their winter coats moult everywhere (I’ll be picking reindeer hair off my clothes for weeks to come in London!), they are also fairly greedy as they bulk up for the summer ahead of the rut in the autumn.
Following a good day’s work at the centre or out in the hills, I headed back out into the mountains for the evenings with the dogs, up to the snow line (yes there’s still snow up here – even in midsummer), to blow the city cobwebs away overlooking the Lairig Ghru or the Northern Corries.
Everything up here functions on a different time-frame. Unlike the city there is rarely any rushing, and meeting people up in the hills is unusual so you have a good old natter. Although the physical work can sometimes be tiring (especially the arrival of the feed lorry and the heaving of seemingly endless sacks into the shed), it is also quite relaxing. More steady than stressful!
Though it’s only a week in the hills, I always get a bit of a jolt returning to city life and the morning commute on Monday! The noise and the people and work kicks in and feels a parallel universe to the reindeer and the hills.
Having only been part of the Reindeer Centre team for a month, there are usually novel activities for me to take part in: shovelling bark chippings, painting benches or washing the van to name a few. However, I was not expecting to meet a calf, learn to lead reindeer, tag sheep and drive a Landrover all in the same day!
The day started off as usual, with Fiona and I checking on the free range female reindeer before heading off to feed the girls in the enclosure. We led the girls over to their usual feeding area, but someone refused to come. Considering she is one of our greediest reindeer, this was a little odd. She had been acting strange the previous day, running off on her own. I had since learnt that this was a sign she may be ready to calve, and I was thrilled to see a fuzzy ball of baby reindeer lying next to her when we went to check her. We led the pair into a smaller part of the enclosure to have a proper look at the calf and found out she was a girl. Obviously, I had to get a selfie with her.
We left the pair in peace and headed back to the Centre. We were going to the farm that afternoon so Fiona, Abby and I had an early lunch and hopped over to Tomintoul in the van. It was busy from the word go with sheep ear tagging. The ewes were almost finished when we arrived, but the rams were still waiting.
I was handed what looked like a pair of pliers and some plastic strips with numbers on them. Fiona and Abby knew exactly what to do and started catching sheep. I was a little overwhelmed until I realised, “Oh, these are the ear tags!” I snapped off a tag and tried to load it into the gun, but it was fiddly and I felt uncoordinated. Eventually I managed and felt quite pleased until I saw how quickly Tilly was loading them; I needed to speed up! I got the hang of it and by the time the rams came through I felt like a pro.
We then loaded the ewes and their lambs to be moved to the hill. I presumed we were doing the same with the rams until we started fencing off the garden. This seemed odd, but it turned out that’s where the rams were going. Abby and I were positioned to keep the rams from escaping onto the road while Tilly herded them out of the shed and down to the garden. The Soay sheep at the farm are much smaller than the ‘normal’ sheep you see in the field, and it was quite funny to see their legs going ten to the dozen as they ran to their new pasture. We fenced them in and went inside for a cup of tea before the real work began.
The reindeer herd is split into two in winter, with mainly females at Cairngorm and mainly males at the Cromdale hills. This reduces grazing pressure and stops the boys being bullied by angry, pregnant females! The boys have different grazing areas at different times of the year, and today they were due to be moved closer to the farm. To do this we had to lead each reindeer on a headcollar for a 30 minute walk. And there were a lot of reindeer to move.
We drove to the pen, where they had come in from the open mountainside for their breakfast earlier, and started selecting ones (ok, just whoever was closest really) to be led down the hill. I had never led a reindeer before, but had led a horse, so wasn’t feeling too nervous. All I really had to remember was “Don’t let go”. Because this was my first time, I was given only two very well natured boys. I was put in the middle of the group: boys at the front can be a little reluctant and boys at the back can be a little too enthusiastic to get going, so being in the middle meant a lovely, calm walk for me.
We headed off down the road: 6 herders and 19 reindeer. What a sight we must have been! The boys were all pretty well behaved, but were glad to be released when we reached the farm. In total we completed 5 runs, taking a car up to the pen each time. Luckily as the number of reindeer reduced we were able to spare people to drive back down, or we would have had to walk up one more time to retrieve our myriad of vans, cars and quad bikes.
After our last run was finished, Tilly, Alex and myself drove up in the Landrover to take the remaining cars home and tidy up a little after the reindeer. I’ve never driven a quad bike, so Tilly took that and Alex drove his van, so I was left with the old Landy. I hopped in the driver seat, after taking a minute to figure out how to get in (there’s a button on the handle, who knew!) and tried to move the seat forward. It budged a little, but not as far as I would have liked it to. I have the shortest legs in the world (maybe not, but that’s what it feels like) and could only just put the clutch all the way in, at a stretch. I put it in first, let off the hand brake, and immediately stalled. I put my hand down to turn the key and, no key. What? How is the thing even on? Turns out Landrovers, as well as having buttons on their handles, have keys on the wrong side. Suitably stressed as I had been overtaken by Tilly and was holding up Alex, I turned the key and set off. Excellent! I managed to get going. It was a very slow, very deliberate, and very bumpy ride back to the farm, but the Landy and I made it safely back; I even managed to reverse park it.
Finally, the sheep were sorted, the reindeer safely at their new grazing and all the vehicles back with their correct owner. We set off for home, stopping in at Grantown for a takeaway. Well, we surely deserved a treat after such a long, but rewarding, day!
Andi and I headed out a few weeks ago on a lovely sunny morning to search for the free-ranging herd – we had a spy and there was no obvious sign but they’d been hanging around the northern corries all week so we decided that was the way to go! While we toddled up the path to the corries we realised that pretty much a year to the day was my first week working with the herd and one of the most epic reindeer finding days I’ve experienced so far where we both walked over 10 miles up into the hills and found no reindeer.
As irony would have it the further we walked the less likely it seemed the reindeer were anywhere close to us, we had a wee sit down and a planning session about which one of us would walk where and luckily turned around to see a rather large group of reindeer pretty much at the top of Cairngorm. This was great – we’d found them! However, it was half past nine which meant we had but an hour and a half to walk ourselves back out of the corries and up Cairngorm then back down again to place the reindeer somewhere sensible for the visit at 11 o’clock. Time was definitely against us so we tanked it back to the van, swapped our big bags of food for something a bit more sociable and, hopeful of blagging a lift, headed into the funicular railway station. The lovely people on the desk fortunately took pity on us and we got a lovely ride to the top of the hill, amongst the skiers and snowboarders, with the reindeer shining beautifully on the top ridge in the morning sunshine. Sorted we thought, phase one of our mission accomplished!
Unfortunately, once we walked out of the base station it seemed the reindeer had had other ideas and promptly disappeared. We walked aimlessly shouting and shouting as we followed the path down Windy ridge and eventually we found the group hot footing it over to the Ciste side of the ridge. All were collected in dribs and drabs and we set about getting them down the hill on time. In fact it went amazingly to plan, the girls even made use of the lovely path down Windy ridge and at one minute to eleven they were all deposited out on the flats for the 11am visit. All was well for the day… or so we thought!
In the afternoon we usually go for a second spy around the roads to make sure the girls aren’t on the ski carparks creating havoc and this afternoon seemed normal, the reindeer were out of sight and presumed to be up in the corries again. You should never presume with the reindeer though as at 4.30pm someone dropped in to say the whole herd were pretty much chilling on the carpark – not what you want to hear late on a Friday! Once again, Andi and I trooped up to move the mischievous girls who through a stroke of luck were following really well. In the end we walked the whole group out across the flats, crossing a few burns and getting soggy along the way, into our mountain hill enclosure which is right where we want them to be in time for calving starting in a few days’ time. At six o’clock we dragged ourselves back to Reindeer House soggy, muddy and slightly garlic scented from the reindeer feed. It was a long day but naughty reindeer ended up working in our favour and we had yet another successful epic day!
We awoke to a very damp, dreich day on the Cairngorms but we had a mission to complete, come rain or shine! Today was vaccination day for our younger females and yearlings.
Fiona, Abby and I set off bright and early as the first job was to locate the herd, all out free-ranging in the mountains. They were soon spotted, with the aid of binoculars, at the foot of Coire an t-sneachda but being so pale now in their winter coats they stood out very well on the now heathery hills, devoid of snow, so we could actually see them with the naked eye. We called them and they came a-running, food always on their minds! We then set off, sacks of bribery food on our backs, toward the enclosure and they followed along behind us. We crossed the Allt Mor burn which was quite high with meltwater and Fiona stepped over with ease (just like the reindeer!), whereas I ended up with two wellyfulls of water and Abby went off balance and ended up with a rather wet sack of food! Next was the steep climb up the bank and along the top into the enclosure. They followed us in no problem at all.
Once in the enclosure we had to do a massive sorting session – reindeer from 1-3 years old as well as any mothers of yearlings all got kept back whilst the others were let free. We herded them into the reindeer shed in small groups to allow us to sort them more easily. Once sorted, we gave them all some breakfast and headed down the hill ourselves for a cup of tea and a warm up whilst we waited for Tilly to come over and give us a hand.
In the afternoon, we headed back up to the enclosure in the pouring rain, Tilly clutching her lovely pink polka dot reindeer medicine bag, which always amuses us as none of us are very girly! We then began the task of vaccinations for the various tick-related illnesses that reindeer are prone too, especially in the early years before they develop an immunity. The girls were really good, amazingly calm for animals that spend most of their lives free and wild on the hills. Most stood patiently while they got their injections, the odd one wiggled a bit but in no time it was done. Their reward was another tasty meal and we left the gates open so they could wander back onto the hills once they’d had their fill.
They obviously didn’t hate the experience too much as this morning we called them down from Reindeer Ridge where we had spotted them grazing and they came haring down the hill to find us for some more food. Or maybe they are just really greedy!
All of our female reindeer are currently free-ranging on the Cairngorm mountains at the moment, so every morning we head out early, track them down and lead them to a suitable area to be fed. Today we moved them from one side of the ridge to the other, where they could enjoy some fresh grazing. Having led the majority of the herd out and settled them happily eating their breakfast, we had another quick drive round the roads to check that there were no others in sight.
Reindeer are very much a herd animal, and tend to stick together, though small groups will frequently splinter away, perhaps when they have a difference in opinion about which direction they should head! It’s fairly unusual for reindeer to head off alone, apart from at calving time, but there are a few of the independent older females who sometimes do wander away for a few days. We hadn’t seen one of our older girls, Esme, in a few days, but hadn’t been unduly worried as she’s a known “loner”.
Driving back to the other side of the ridge, we spied a lone reindeer making its determined way towards the car park. A glance through the binoculars informed us that yes, it was Esme! And she was looking in super condition. Our delight turned to slight consternation though – she was now left alone on the “wrong” side of the mountain, with the herd having moved on. Esme is a super sweet and tame lassie, and whilst we could have hiked over the ridge with her on a headcollar to reunite her with the herd, we wondered if we could save both her energy and ours (of course we were thinking about the fact that she’s an OAP rather than our own tiredness level…) and hop her into the back of the van…
Esme was delighted to see us, well, delighted to see the bag of feed anyway, and once we’d popped the back seats down to give her some more room, she gave no objections to following us into the van. She must have thought it was a definite upgrade on the usual trailer, with a much better view, and being allowed to munch her way through a bag of feed enroute was also an added bonus! A short 5-minute drive and it was time to emerge at the other car park nearer the herd. There was a car pulled up with a few people admiring the view, and the last thing they must have expected was for a reindeer to hop out of a van! Esme didn’t bat an eyelid at the whole experience, and was quickly reunited with the herd.
Reindeer never fail to amaze me with their no nonsense approach to life and quick assessment of whether unusual situations are anything to worry about. At the grand age of nearly 13, Esme has definitely sussed out that us humans are trustworthy, and as long as a bag of feed and a reassuring voice is on offer, she has no problem following us into slightly unorthodox situations!