Memorable Reindeer: Esme

I’ve been well aware over the last couple of weeks that it’s definitely my turn to write a blog, and my justifications of going away on holiday, then having to catch up on work, and reorder stock for the shop, and organise the new adopt gifts, and… have started sounding a little too like excuses. Hen started a lovely series about memorable reindeer, and I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon.

Young Esme as a calf

In my first calving season, 2012, Esme was one of the pregnant females who was in the enclosure so we could keep an eye on her when she calved. Being a novice to the world of reindeer midwifery, I would walk out with a more experienced herder and learn the correct way to approach a new mum, how to check over the calf, and how to bring them back in to the herd.

As we neared the end of May, only one female was left to calve – Esme. She was the sweetest of reindeer – calm, docile, and an experienced mum. She was also beautiful, with a silvery sheen to her coat. So when the day came that Esme had left the herd to calve, we spied her with binoculars up on Silver Mount, and Fiona asked if I wanted the honour of going to find her and her new calf. I was apprehensive – What if I didn’t get it right? Or if she wouldn’t let me approach? – but still jumped at the chance. Hiking up from Black Loch onto Silver Mount, the “baby bag” with the essentials on my back, I still remember feeling the nervous anticipation. I needn’t have worried – as I came over the ridge and saw Esme, she looked up calmly and took a couple of steps towards me (well, the bag of food). I scanned around – had she calved yet? – before spotting the tiny bundle of new life at her feet.

I can’t claim to have done everything in a smooth polished fashion, but Esme was the most patient lass ever, standing whilst I fumbled with the headcollar, not quite having the right technique for holding her calf whilst I sprayed his navel, and talking myself through what to do (out loud!). Finally, we were ready, and we proceeded down the hill and back to the “nursery” area of the enclosure. She must have been rolling her eyes at my inadequacy, and I’m fairly sure she did actually yawn a couple of times!

Over the following years, Esme remained one of my favourite females – she was always a friendly face in the herd, dependable and happy to follow a bag of feed to wherever you wanted her to go, and easy to catch if you needed to put a headcollar on her. As she aged, she struggled a little at times to maintain her condition, and we’d slip her extra bits of feed, allowing her to join in when we fed the calves out of the bag. Throughout, she was never pushy, always waiting to be invited, though once her head was in a feed bag it was almost impossible to remove it!

Esme in her prime

Reindeer, like people, age at different rates, and whilst some of our charges still look in their prime at 13 or 14 years old, by the time Esme was 11 she certainly looked like an old girl. She was also spending more time alone, away from the herd, which isn’t uncommon for the older females – they have the confidence to enjoy their own company, and can sometimes be pushed out by the younger, stronger reindeer. In the 2014/15 winter, Esme was often away from the herd for weeks at a time, off doing her own thing, and there was a memorable day when we spied for the reindeer and saw one lone female marching across the Ciste flats towards the car park. Aware that the rest of the herd were a good distance away in the next glen, we peered through the binoculars trying to work out who it was, finally realising it was Esme!

She seemed delighted to see us, and, wondering if she was looking for the herd, thought we should join her up with them. 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…

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Supervising Esme in the van

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.

Enjoying the snow in her last winter

Esme had a good summer that year high on the Cairngorm free range, but when the females started coming down to lower ground in autumn, she was clearly feeling her years. We moved her over to our Glenlivet hill farm, where she could have access to the large straw-filled barn and ad-lib food in the day, with a gentle stroll onto the hill at night, and she settled right in – she was a funny sight – a little old lady amongst all of the big chunky castrates. She also completely won over the hearts of the men at the farm!

One evening, they went to move out the reindeer onto the open hill for the night, and for the first time, Esme didn’t want to go. With no wish to force her, they let her stay in the shed, and slipped her an extra bucket of lichen. In the morning, she had passed away in her sleep, peacefully tucked up in the straw.

Esme with her yearling daughter Okapi, a proper mini-me

It’s always galling when animals die, but I can’t think of a better end for one of the gentlest reindeer I’ve known. Esme’s family members are still in the herd – her daughter Okapi is a slightly less polite version of her, son Elvis is a dependable but enthusiastic fellow, and sister Sambar is a sweet lass who keeps to herself. All of them share the similar silvery coat colouring, and remind me each time I see them of lovely Esme.

Andi

So, what does happen at the Reindeer Centre in January?

We are now once again open to the public, hooray! Each year the reindeer Centre shuts its doors for about 5 weeks from the end of the Christmas holidays to February half term.

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8th of January and we are CLOSED! Re-opening on the 10th of February!

This begs the question what do the reindeer and herders do for these weeks of the year! Well, some herders choose to head off on exotic travels to Australia, others choose to take time off to be with their families. Others remain hard at work clearing up after a busy Christmas season and preparing for a busy year ahead… albeit with some fantastic flexi-time, for example finishing work a wee bit early to make the most of some good weather by running up our local hill (thanks Fiona!).

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View from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille in the late afternoon!

As for the reindeer it’s the time of year when the whole herd heads for the hills, free-ranging for the first few months of the year. Some we still see on an almost daily basis, others weekly, and others not for several months! This winter has been great for the herd; cold, snowy and the usual huge abundance of lichen to keep them going.

Each day, if the weather allows, we usually go up and check on some of the herd…

 

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Reindeer House dogs Tiree and Sookie are ready to head up the hill and search for the cows and calves.

 

 

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Reindeer Herder Chris spies for the reindeer from the ski car park, with the rain and patches of snow it’s sometimes pretty difficult…
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Have you found them yet?!
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And we’re off to check on the herd and give them a wee bit of extra food!
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Found them! We like to make sure the calves get a wee bit of extra feed. It’s a tough job!

 

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How many reindeer calves can stick their head in one bag?

 

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We also ‘need’ to check the calves are nice and friendly ready for when we re-open!
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Counting the cows and calves to see who is about

 

When we’re not out on the hill we have a big list (mostly left by the herders who went to Australia!) to try to complete, such as repairing boardwalk, repainting the floor of the Exhibition, checking first aid kits, oiling the Christmas harnesses, re-packing Christmas kit boxes etc etc…

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Chris has been scrubbing and re-labelling our wellies, ready for our first visitors to make them mucky!
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Morna sorting out the Christmas kit boxes ready for November!

 Meanwhile there are always the adoption packs to make up, reindeer food to mix, Wild Farm Cottage bookings to take, plus emails and phone calls to deal with. On top of all this Captain Christmas herself, Fiona, has been incredibly busy organising Christmas 2018!

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Ruth completing the daily diary after a busy day in January
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Olly writing letters for our adopters

 Now we’ve got the place ship-shape and all the herders and reindeer have had some time off, we are refreshed and delighted to be open again and hope to see you soon on a Hill Trip or in the Paddocks!

 

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Reindeer Herder Dave is raring to go!
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A busy Hill Trip on opening weekend
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Addax and Bumble enjoyed the extra food given on the Hill Trip!

 Ruth

Big boots to fill

We are all sad to see a beloved member of the Cairngorm Reindeer family moving on to their next step in life. With Morna leaving we have the opportunity to welcome a new member, Chris. He has some big boots to fill, but so far he seems capable!

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Morna was always our most fabulous Herder.

When asked what are your favourite memories of being here? Morna replied with “not sure, ask me in a year. That is when you can look back and focus on the really nice memories” Morna recalled one occasion early on in her time here of a hill trip she assisted Imogen on (another previous reindeer herder); “it was a hill trip on the free range and this particular time, just as we were walking out we saw the Reindeer up on plantation hill, just about to go out of sight”. This is a hill between Cairn Lochan na Beinne and Sron a’cha-no that rises behind Lochan na Beinne (Kidney lochen) at 721m. Morna had to race ahead of the tour, up the hill trying to tempt the Reindeer back down to our visitors. Unfortunately, she could not manage to persuade the reindeer to follow as they were off doing their own thing. Though she came back Reindeer-less the group were “amazed at the speed she run up the hill in the snow” and “took much delight in watching” which made Morna very happy with this hill trip.

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Morna picking some nettles to make a scrumptious nettle soup for tea with Topi watching.

What Morna likes most about looking back at her time here, is that she had a “good memory of every place. Whether being in the shop, office, kitchen, paddocks, or up on the hill such as jumping in Black loch. Those memories are shared with friend, visitors, and reindeer”.

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Morna and her favourite reindeer, Hopper, gazing over the beautiful snowy landscape.

Our new recruit to the Centre is Chris, though I say new when in fact he has been an adopter of Kola, Grunter, and now Bumble, for 20 years. He has also been a friend of the reindeer family since 2008 when Chris volunteered here for some work experience.

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Chris with the cows and calves.

Chris came to the rescue at Christmas when it was all hands on deck for us, keeping base under control whilst others were away touring the country. Even after the hectic time at Christmas he wasn’t scared off! Chris has now taken on the duties which Morna once carried out. He is also the current proud owner of the pink badge (which I’m not sure has been mentioned yet in the Reindeer blogging world, but there is talk of it becoming a blog). The pink badge is passed on from one herder to another if they thing you have gone beyond expectations in doing something.

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Not sure how to explain this one? Chris with a pick axe.

Like Morna, Chris gets just as enraged with the computer as she did and as I am currently writing this he is make some strange musical noises to himself, I think he will do very well here.

Chris hoped one day he would work here and now he is, and so is very excited to be as he has loved the reindeer for a long time. We all think he is a real joy to have around and is a hard worker and he “loves it here” and has already won over the hearts of the dogs though really the dogs have won his!

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Morna preparing Chris for his new duties.

So we come to the end of the blog but the beginning of Chris’ time here and we welcome him with open arms. Sadly we say a big GOODBYE to Morna and wish her good health and happiness wherever she goes next. I hope wherever she does go, they realise how lucky they are to have her.

Thank you for reading,

Oliver W.

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Ruth, Morna and Chris on top of Cairn Gorm back in November when he arrived with his travellers beard.

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A Visitor’s Blog

Our blog this week is not written by us, but by one of our visitors. Some of you may have seen it on our facebook page, but it gives a brilliant outsider’s perspective on what we do and what amazing animals the reindeer are. With good information and some wonderful photos, click here to read the blog, written by Traveltoes Shaly.

The importance of reindeer to regions in the Arctic

Reindeer are an integral part of life in the far north. The cultures there rely on the animals for transport, food and skins.

Reindeer are the only animal suited to the cold that can provide the people living in the arctic regions with animal protein. They are raised for venison but almost all parts of the animals are used. The skin is an obvious, valuable and extremely useful product. The skins are used for clothing, rugs and numerous other everyday items. Reindeer are used as draft animals – transporting both people and freight from A to B.

Many of the people of the far north are nomadic. Families or groups migrate large distances to access seasonal pastures. Their reindeer graze and grow and then move on and the people who own them travel with them. Their possessions are on sleighs or directly on the backs of the reindeer. This blog will highlight some of the many arctic cultures and people, and discuss how these people live and especially how they care for, work with and use reindeer.

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Reindeer harnessed for a demonstration of sleigh pulling. Photo taken during visit to Sweden in 2008.
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During a cold winter in Sweden, reindeer historically provide the main means of survival. Photo taken during visit to Sweden in 2008.

Nenets herders of Russia travel up to 1000km seasonally to survive the challenges of life so far north. The Nenets form the largest group of people in Northern Russia totalling around 40,000 people, with some 700,000 reindeer. The Nenets eat reindeer meat and use the skin of the reindeer as clothing.

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A warm jacket made of reindeer skin from the Nenets culture. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

The Chukchi people of Eastern Russia trade reindeer meat and skins with coastal people who provide whale fat and seal skins. The Chukchi people make their tents out of reindeer skins.

The Evenki people in China live with small numbers of reindeer who are milked and used for transport. The reindeer are highly prized and not slaughtered for meat. The antlers are taken and used in traditional Chinese Medicine.

Sami people are the indigenous people of Scandinavia and today live in the far northern areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Currently around 3000 people in this area are involved full time in nomadic reindeer herding. The Sami culture is famous for its connection to reindeer. The Sami people produce wonderful crafts and engravings often using reindeer antlers and skins.

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Knives made by people from the Sami culture. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Reindeer herding is big business in the Arctic regions and without reindeer the survival of the people and their cultures would be in question. The Cairngorm Reindeer herd was of course established by a Sami reindeer herder. Mikel Utsi came from Swedish Lapland and brought his herding, reindeer husbandry skills and Sami culture with him to Scotland. These skills and culture continue and live on through us and our herding here in the Cairngorm National Park.

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A reindeer pulling a sledge in Sweden. Photo taken during visit to Sweden in 2008.
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Mikel Utsi with his reindeer – originally from Sweden – in our current hill enclosure in the 1960s.

Dave

 

 

Calling all deer..

Deer in general are fairly quiet animals, uttering little or no noise in their daily lives. However there are two quite vocal times of year, in the spring when female deer calve and in the autumn when the males are competing for the breeding females.

In spring time whether it is a Red deer hind, a Roe doe or Reindeer cow they will call softly to their young when they are looking for them. In May time when our reindeer calves are born the mothers can get quite agitated if their young calves are not right beside them, grunting incessantly to call them back. Red deer hinds ‘mew’ to their young calves and a Roe doe gives a low whistle when calling her young.

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A Red deer hind with her young. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

But the call of the rutting males can be quite different and is sometimes meant to warn off competing males and signal ‘how big and tough’ they are. At this time of year in the forests and glens of Scotland the red deer are in full rut and they make a fabulous bellowing noise rather similar to the roar of a lion. There have been scientific studies on the meaning of bellowing and it has been proven that the more times a stag roars at one session the more likely he is to be a successful breeding male.

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A Red deer stag bellowing. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

However Reindeer (and Caribou) do not bellow like red deer but instead ‘grunt’ rather like a female calling to her calf, but more ‘gutteral’. And the grunting only really takes place when a bull is chasing after a cow. It is not a loud noise and certainly is not a threatening call in the same way as the red deer bellowing.

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A tussel will often follow reindeer grunting, with the winner going on to breed with the females.

Roe buck, patrolling his territory will bark (like a dog) to challenge other bucks who dare to step a foot in his domain and Fallow bucks are different again, issuing a husky, rolling grunt in an attempt to attract the does and warn off other prospective males.

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A Roe deer buck with velvety antlers, just before the rut. Photo from Geograph.
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The grunt of a Persian Fallow deer buck, to warn off competitors. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

The non-native Sika deer, which were introduced into GB at the turn of the last century, have a characteristic kind of whistle, which turns into a high-pitched scream during the rut.

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The more delicate looking of deer species in rutting season, a male Fallow deer. Photo from Max Pixel.

So there is a vast variation of noises from grunts to screams, even among the deer found here in Great Britain. So if you go out in the countryside at certain times in the year and hear something unusual, don’t take flight, it will probably be a female and young calf, or else a harmless male deer in full flow because it’s the rutting season..

Tilly

 

Glenfeshie Girls

Every year when the cows and calves come off the high tops from the summer one group tend to head towards Glenfeshie, a part of the Cairngorms they aren’t meant to be. We have got good communications with the landowners and gamekeepers over there so they let us know and we head over in the mission to catch them. It is always the same culprits. To name a couple– Fern and Wapiti. You may remember a blog in October of Andi and I recovering Fern from Glenfeshie in the autumn so she must have gone straight back!

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Glenfeshie, where the reindeer like to hang out. Photo from Geograph, labelled for reuse.

Alex is chief free range reindeer herder and knows the hills best over there so he headed out the first few times to catch up with them. Once he knew their location he set up a corral with a few gates in the aim to catch the naughty reindeer. This all happened over the Christmas and New Year period, they like to pick the busy times! Alex went out a few times and fed them which gets them used to the feed again and a bit easier to manage. In the group were three calves who weren’t yet trained so they were fairly timid and didn’t let Alex get very close. But then we got the phone call at Reindeer House from Alex that he had them all in… calves included. Ye-Ha!!!

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It can be hard to spot reindeer on the hill at the best of times, but especially in these speckled snow conditions. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

So Chris and I got everything together and headed off in Brenda (this is the name of our wee livestock truck). Alex was going to start putting halters on them. When we arrived it materialised Alex wasn’t on his own. With Emily (his wife) and two month old son in toe the three of them had caught all the reindeer. Start them young! Being the holiday period the hills were pretty busy with people walking and there were a few dogs around so Emily was on people and dog duty while we walked the reindeer up to the livestock truck. Remember the calves are pretty wild and not halter trained so there was a lot of persuasion going on. Luckily all their mothers are halter trained so they were easy. So in two runs, we walked all 11 reindeer up to the livestock truck and loaded them.

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Fern – the Glenfeshie girl.

On route we phoned the Centre to get extra pairs of hands to lead them across to our enclosure where they have now been for a week. The calves are getting more and more bold everyday, eating the mixture and now joining in with our daily guided tours. It won’t take long for them to get pretty tame… the great thing about reindeer and thousands of years of domestication means working with humans comes second nature to them. We will halter train them over the next few weeks. Their names are Keats, Blyton and Harper to fit into our 2017 naming theme of poets and authors.

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Parmesan and her big healthy female calf Blyton settling into the enclosure and getting used to people beinging food. And all watched closely by Morven (on the left)!

Fiona

Out on the mountains

Hello again, this is Oliver the reindeer herder, and yet again I have been polietly asked to do a blog. I know that others are writing much more interesting blogs than I, but hey ho! This blog is about the weather (not a forecast of the week), and not just any weather, but the reindeer and my favourite weather….. The Snow!

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Byron leading the herd through the snow.

I have now worked with the reindeer in all seasons and there’s no better season than the winter. For me it’s because you’re seeing them in their element, in the conditions they have evolved to live in.

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A stunning sunset,  made all the more mysterious with sideways snow.

Even when the snow is coming sideways so thickly you can’t see two feet in front of you, and all you want to do is to go back and get a cup of tea, the reindeer look as if it’s just a dusting and go about their normal busness. The reindeer are so well insulated that they often get the snow lying on them (which makes them even harder to see). It shows just how hardy they are and to me, makes them look like some sort of ancient-ice-age-yeti-beast.

 

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Bumble the ancient-ice-age-yeti-beast.

Just the other day we herded out the cows and calves on to the free-range (which is always the best part of the job). Who knows where they will go or what mischief they will get up to, out on the hills they are elusive, and I can see how they blend in like a chameleon. Sitting on the hill watching them is one of the most peaceful things I know.  They are so quiet that in a blizard you could walk within inches of them and not know that they are right next to you.

For the reindeer (and us herders) we hope this wonderful snow stays with us at least a little into the new year. But for everyone, from us and the reindeer, have a great one!

Oliver

A different view of Christmas

I’ve been helping up at Reindeer House for a good few years now and, after moving back to England, have had to supplement my reindeer fix with helping at Christmas events near to home. I thought it might be interesting to put together a few thoughts and impressions gathered over the years.

I never cease to be fascinated at how people react to the reindeer. Yes, there are occasional doubters, but the herders are always happy to explain how the Cairngorm reindeer, with 1000s of years of domestication in their blood, and a familiarity with people and handling, seem quite happy to take a short trip away from their free-range life on the mountains.

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At home on the mountain..
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..to down in Bradford pulling a sleigh.

I remember Magnus at Carlisle Races one Christmas. The reindeer pen was set back from the track, but quite near to the large screen which displayed the action. His eyes were glued to the screen when a race was on, only pausing to follow the horses, his head slowly moving right to left, as they galloped past on the track. This cycle was repeated until a race finished.

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Not quite at a Christmas event, but this is Magnus when not glued to a TV screen.

I chuckle when I recall being on the M6 in the reindeer van one snowy year. As we drove past one of those huge illuminated signs, displaying the message ‘Is your vehicle ready for winter?’, I couldn’t help thinking of the six reindeer and sleigh in the back. Now THAT’s what I call being prepared!

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Every time we drive past this sign it makes us smile (even through in Scotland they’re red deer…) .Picture from pixabay.

Some questions from the crowd become predictable (Which one’s Rudolf? Did they fly here? Where do they live?), but antlers (‘horns’) fascinate people. You do need to be sure, though, that no Santa-believing child is nearby when explaining why our Christmas reindeer have antlers. One year an antler broke off whilst the team were being harnessed up for the procession. There was a gasp from the onlooking crowd, followed by silence, then a solitary voice exclaiming ‘You’ve broken your reindeer!’. Cool thinking by the herders and a quick swap around saved the day.

Other questions have included: ‘What are they – donkeys?’. And often there are wide eyes and gasps of ‘But they are real! – and I don’t mean from children. It’s that magic, and the dawning realisation that reindeer are real creatures with very special needs, and not just props in a seasonal fairy tale, which make these encounters worthwhile.

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Stressed? I don’t think so!

Then there are dogs… The places where I help out are very doggy orientated, and folk like to bring their pets along to the Christmas events – some even lifting them up to get a better view. I can only assume that many people think of their dog as a child substitute, and cannot understand that, to a reindeer, it’s a wolf. Most owners will back off quickly when this is politely pointed out, but it was hard to understand the one who tried to push his dog through the barriers so that he could take a photo of it with the reindeer.

Reindeer characters come and go, but this years star for me has to be Svalbard, who spent much of the event attempting to eat the artificial sleigh decorations. By the end of the day the wreath was part dismantled. I’m not convinced, though, that Alex’s suggestion of making them out of real holly to deter nibblers would go down too well with the herders who have to dress the sleigh.

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Job done! Time for Svalbard and Byron to head home to Cairngorm..

Kathleen

 

The making of the Cairngorms

Our reindeer roaming here in the highlands of Scotland live in a truly unique landscape, that has been sculpted over the centuries. However, the formation of the Cairngorms is not known by many, and so here I’ve summarised a brief part of it to explain how the reindeer got their home.

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A herd of females, happy in their home grounds, the Cairngorms.

The Cairngorms are underlain by 427 million year old Granite and were, believe it or not, once in the range of the Himalayas standing far higher than today. Millions of years of degradation and the prolific effects of repeated glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) cycles throughout the last 2.5 million years (Quaternary) have carved out the landscape in which we see today.

About 13,000 years ago, cold glacial conditions were increasing in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. There have been many debates as to why this happened but scientists have hypothesized that this major cooling event was caused by an enormous dumping of fresh water into the North Atlantic by the large North America Lake Agassiz. As the ice retreated from the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago the lake burst its banks causing a catastrophic flood. The flower (Dryas octopetala), the Younger Dryas or, Loch Lomond Stadial, marked the return to what we see today.

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The beautiful wee flower, Dryas octopetula.  Photo from Wikipedia commons.

 

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Photo from Wikipedia commons.

This cold water slowed down the oceans conveyor belt or ‘thermohaline circulation’ to an almost standstill, meaning there was a complete loss of heat transfer and a massive reduction in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. The sea and the atmosphere share a sort of ‘love – hate’ relationship whereby if one is behaving well the other will behave; however if one decides to throw a spanner in the works its counterpart will throw quite the tantrum and this is exactly what happened. The rapid cooling of the previously warm salty sea water coming up the west coast of Scotland caused the atmosphere to cool dramatically; hence resulting in ice growth and incredibly cold conditions across much of Scotland.

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The land cover about 12,000 years ago in Europe. Notice the prevalance of ice and tundra habitat in the highlands of Scotland, where our reindeer now live. Photo from Wikipedia commons.

This last ‘hurrah’ of ice has sculpted much of the landscape we see today. As the ice retreated, Scots pine rose up the mountains pushing the level of steppe tundra with it. The subarctic conditions that now occupy this landscape mirror that of Arctic Canada and Siberia meaning that reindeer can survive and thrive here in the Scottish Highlands. These wonderful animals now inhabit a land forged by ice so can therefore thank these bouts of extreme cold as without them we would not have our reindeer here today.

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A lone Scots Pine in Scotland’s snowy landscape. Photo from Geograph, licensed for reuse.

Rob