Wanna buy some antlers? It’s a complicated business…

Over the years I’ve established myself as ‘chief of antler sales’ here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. As with most reindeer related things, it’s not really a job that is straight-forward but one that has evolved with time, and I’ve tweaked and tweaked each year until it is as workable as possible. But – in usual fashion – the devil is in the details, much of which are in my head and memory and it’s therefore not a job that I will delegate to anyone else at any point.

The dream set of antlers everyone wants… (thanks Spartan).

We’ve always sold antlers from the reindeer herd. But is it as easy as 150 reindeer equals 150 pairs of antlers per year to sell? Of course it isn’t…

Firstly, we only find around 30-40% (at a rough estimate) of the antlers each year. This is because the reindeer roam on a huge area of rough, upland land, and the time of year when most antlers are shed – January to April – is exactly the time that almost the entire herd are roaming completely freely and are not enclosed at all. The proverbial needle in the haystack. (In fact sometimes finding the herd itself can be a needle/haystack situation, let alone their cast antlers!).

So many antlers, so few of them found.

Secondly, whilst around half of our herd are males, we tend to castrate them at around three years old. This means the bone of their antlers doesn’t calcify to the same extent, and they will usually break their antlers off in pieces as a result. So instead of a nice, clean antler, we get broken sections of – to be quite honest – often rather manky antler, still partly covered with the velvet skin that covered it whilst it grew. Smaller pieces disappear into deep vegetation, never to be seen again, far more easily than a whole antler.

A classic bit of antler from a castrated male. This one’s from Frost – the top third of his right hand antler, still with remaining skin and a little velvet hair. But it’s still a bit of Frost none-the-less, regardless of it’s appearance.
Classic antlers from a castrate male in around February – the upright sections have broken off and only the points at the base remain, still with the remnants of the velvet skin and hair. Not particularly glamorous, eh Caribou?!

Once castrated, males also tend to grow relatively smaller antlers than they did as a bull. So we really only get two or three big, mature bull sets of antlers each year. But some of these we keep – for example we have almost all of Sherlock’s antlers, and most of Crann’s. Crann holds the record for the biggest antlers ever in the herd, and as such we’ll never sell them as they are of great nostalgic value to us, even though Crann himself is long gone.

Crann with his 2009 antlers (his second biggest set). They are the ones currently in our shop window that we hang stuff for sale on! COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY: LES WILSON

Antler selling starts in January each year. The mature bulls have dropped their antlers in November/December, and some of our immature bulls then have their antlers cut off in December before they are let out to their winter grazing up on the mountains. This is done for the safety of hill-walkers – a testosterone-charged ‘teenage’ bull could really inflict damage. It’s done long after the feeling in the antler has gone, so causes zero pain.

Two year old bull Domino, looking mighty miffed with his antler stumps.

From (usually) around March onwards the cows start dropping their antlers, but life gets very busy in the spring with the calving season, followed by writing/editing the June newsletter, so it’s often well into the summer before I pick up the antler list once again.

So… here’s some info for those of you now imagining a nice set of antlers adorning your wall.

Firstly, I give members of our reindeer adoption scheme priority for purchasing antlers over ‘unconnected’ members of the public. I feel it’s a privilege someone who supports our business should get. My method for this is to have a waiting list for adopters to add their name for dibs on ‘their’ reindeer’s antlers, which I work my way through gradually as and when I have something suitable. Should you want to add yourself to this list, drop me an email through the contact form on the website FAO Hen (please don’t just comment on the blog/social media – email means I can keep everything together, and gives more chance of a reply one day from me actually reaching you, rather than disappearing into spam).

If you’ve asked to be on the waiting list in the past, no need to get in touch again – you’ll still be there. Well you will as long as your adoption is still current. I’m afraid that I always double-check someone is still an adopter before emailing them, and you’re scratched off the list if your adoption has lapsed. My list, my rules.

If I have no-one on the waiting list for a particular reindeer’s antler(s), then I will send a letter to all of their (UK based) adopters in one go – and it’s first come, first served. Miss out, and you go on the waiting list. This does mean sometime multiple people are all waiting for the same reindeer to shed his/her antlers – which we might never find from year to year anyway. I’m well aware some poor souls have been languishing on the waiting list for years… sorry.

If you aren’t an adopter of a reindeer and are reading this in despair, wondering whether there’s ever a chance of you getting anything, then all is not lost. Email me anyway, and I have a password-protected webpage with any available antlers on that I can give you details of, and on which you can sign up for occasional email alerts when new ones become available (if I get my arse in gear, this is still only about twice a year, so don’t worry about me flooding your inbox. Also, I hate Mailchimp – it’s totally user-unfriendly). I have separate webpages for single antlers and for pairs, and usually have a much better range of single antlers, since finding both sides of a pair is rarer in the first place.

A small, single antler can be very beautiful – size doesn’t always matter 😉

Final info:

Yes, they do cost a lot. The biggest sets we ever get to sell are in the region of (at time of writing in 2024) £300. The single antler in the photo above was about £60. I guess other places with reindeer in the UK maybe also sell their antlers, but I’ve never actually heard of them doing so. I do my best to price antlers fairly though – every single one is utterly unique and in someway it is a snapshot of that reindeer at that particular point of their life. I’m sure I could push up the prices hugely and they would still sell eventually, but that isn’t the point. It’s a balancing act to try and get it right.

If you perhaps can’t afford the antler(s) you been contacted about, it’s still worth going on the waiting list. I might have a glorious £200 set of beautiful antlers one year from him/her, and a single broken-off half antler the next year. But hey, it’s still a piece of antler that your reindeer actually grew, and really it means just as much.

Conversely, you miss out on something small that you had your heart set on. But hey presto you might then be first in line for the potentially much more impressive effort from your reindeer next year. It’s all utterly unpredictable and there’s definitely an element of luck involved.

I can’t post abroad, sorry.

If you can collect your antler(s) rather than me having to package and post them, a) it’s cheaper and b) I love you.

Postage nightmare.

If you receive an ‘antler letter’ through the post – read it properly! I always do my best to describe the antler fully before you phone up to buy it – but have never forgotten the lovely couple who arrived to pick up a set of antlers from their adopted reindeer. The bloke was a bit worried about fitting them in the car. The antlers were about 30cm tall.

Antlers come in all sizes but all shapes too. Forget that classic set of ‘perfect’ shapely reindeer antlers you’ve got in your mind’s eye – they probably aren’t going to look like that… If I’m emailing you directly I’ll attach a photo, and if I’ve sent you a letter, you can ask to see a photo before you decide.

Tall and thin…
…or short and wide?

As mentioned before, we keep some of the biggest bull antlers. Herders also usually have first dibs on their favourite reindeer’s antlers (I’ll add that (depending on the size of antler) we do usually still have to pay for them!), so there are certain reindeer in the herd whose antlers will come up for sale very rarely, if ever. Huge apologies, if you also adopt one of those reindeer… let’s mention no names.

I do also try to be fair to people – if I know you already have multiple antlers from a certain reindeer but are keen for more, I will usually try and give their other adopters a look in at some point.

And if you adopt Juniper, well don’t give up hope. Ferrari was also a ‘polled’ reindeer (one who doesn’t grow antlers at all) and suddenly sprouted one when she reached 9 years old, so all is not lost. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.

Ferrari in her latter years. Just one antler! But what a nice antler, after 8 years of baldness.

And finally, I’m only human so bear with me as the old brain doesn’t get everything right every time. Apologies again to the lovely lady who I posted the entirely wrong set of antlers to a couple of years ago, and then had to go through a whole rigmarole of getting her to post them on to the correct new owner (Editor’s note: we did get permission to pass on the address first!), whilst I sorted out the right set for her. And years ago I died a little bit inside when I realised we’d sold the same antler to two separate people, and I was going to have to make a very awkward phone-call (although in my defence, it wasn’t actually me that forgot to mark that antler as ‘sold’ on the list). Oh, the horror.

Hen

Characters

Visitors often ask how on earth we tell apart the 150-strong herd of reindeer. Whilst there is variation in colour, markings and antler shape, one of the biggest distinguishing features is actually character. Just like people, reindeer come in every shade of cheeky, shy, friendly, stand-offish, bolshy, greedy, intelligent, daft… I thought I might mention a few stand out character types, past and present!

Overexcited Labrador

Aztec leading the herd – look at that expectant face

Step up, Aztec! Always the first to be involved, always wanting to “help”, very friendly, lovable, and not a manner to be seen if there is a mere sniff of food… Fun, but a bit of a liability.

Also falling into this category: Kipling, Bumble, Eco

The Thinker

Olmec paying careful consideration to all potential outcomes

Reserved and steady, not always the easiest to catch but utterly dependable when out on tour. Olmec, I’m looking at you.

Also applies to: Dragonfly

TV Diva

HM with her adoring fan Lotti

Introducing the one and only Holy Moley… who knows full well that she basically had her own TV documentary and hence feels that every visitor is there to see her and her alone.

Also: Dr Seuss appears to feel that his minor starring role in the same show entitles him to extra food portions every single day too.

Sweet as Pie, Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

Sweet Diamond, with Hopper in the background

Beautiful light-coloured Diamond has to be one of the gentlest souls in the herd. She walks with a slight limp after an injury back in her younger days, which of course means we all (needlessly) slip her extra bits of feed. 

Also: Amber, Esme, Sunflower

Loyal and True

Okapi in her usual position – right in the footsteps of the herder

Certain reindeer can always be relied upon when we’re moving the free-range herd – they’ll be near the front, they willingly have a headcollar put on, they trustingly plod behind you whilst the rest of the herd debate whether your bribe is worth coming for. Okapi, you’re the star here.

Also: Olympic

The Boy Band Pin-Up

Sherlock, admired by all!

Sherlock has to be one of the most impressive looking reindeer in the herd today, and he also knows how to work it. Some reindeer naturally prick their ears for a photo, and seem to offer their best side!

Also: Elvis, of whom there was never a bad photo taken!

Grumpy Old Men (and Women)

That look in Pony’s eye which was the precursor to antlers being aimed at you! We were always grateful when she cast her antlers each year, though she would then resort to using her front feet!

Bond may only be 5 years old, but he definitely ticks every box for “grouchy” – you only need to look at him and he rolls his eyes at the thought that you might try to interact with him. Likewise, walking too near Lace or Turtle is likely to extract a swing of the antlers and a snap of the mouth as a warning.  Turtle is Pony’s daughter, who was perhaps the grumpiest reindeer we’ve ever had in the herd, so it’s definitely inherited!

Also: Addja once implanted his antlers into my leg when in a bad mood, only to cast one, which definitely didn’t make him any more cheery (though it did make me chuckle at the instant karma).

Big Friendly Giant

Scrabble, our very own BFG!

One of the tallest, heftiest reindeer in the herd, Scrabble was a bit of a liability in his youth as he was just so keen to meet everyone, and somewhat unaware of his sheer size. It almost seemed that his bum was so far away from his brain that he couldn’t keep track of the children he was wiping out as he turned around… Now he’s an old fella so a bit steadier, but just as friendly and enormous!

Also: Comet

Don’t Mess With…

Brie acting like butter wouldn’t melt… until she disagrees with the program

Brie may look little and cute, but her first instinct if she doesn’t like something is to beat it/them with her antlers, and whilst she both she and her antlers may be small, she is ANGRY. As Mel once found out when leading Brie, and Brie decided she did NOT want to be there…

Also: Spy. If Spy has calved, it usually takes about four herders, all hiding behind gates/fences to move her where we want her to be.

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

Okapi’s nose

Okapi is one of my favourite reindeer, and I think one of the prettiest reindeer in the herd. So, I often find my self taking a photo of her. Sometimes I manage to get a very lovely photo of her looking beautiful. More often though, before I have managed to take the photo she’s come so close that the photo ends up just of her nose! I’m not sure if she thinks my phone is food or if she just really wants a nostril shot. I thought in this week’s blog I would share various Okapi noses over the seasons, plus the occasional successful photo to show how bonnie the rest of her face is. Enjoy!  

The whole of beautiful Okapi as she leads in the herd.
A more typical photo of Okapi.
A snowy nose.
Another snowy nose.
At it again….
One-antlered Okapi still loving a nostril shot.
Yet another snowy snozzle.
Here is the bonnie lass leading the herd, with Inca following behind.
Okapi and Beanie posing on a lovely winter’s day.

Lotti

A Christmas Interrogation (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hen

A Christmas Interrogation (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery, back in 2001

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

Scolty. The ultimate ‘Christmas reindeer’?

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

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

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

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

Cowbridge parade, complete with 6′ elves.

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

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

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

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

Lovely Nuii!

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

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

More to follow in a future blog!

Hen

The Greediest Reindeer of 2022

It’s the post-Christmas crash. The time of year where most people have completely de-railed from their usual eating habits and are feeling overwhelmed by how much food has been consumed in such a short space of time. Bodies are working at their very best to digest food as quickly as it has been eaten and to be honest with ourselves, not too much will change before the New Year. For some of our reindeer in the herd this food coma state happens all too often and not just around the festive season. We as herders have come together to create an official Top 5 list announcing the greediest reindeer in our herd for 2022. For those of you who know our reindeer well this may not come as a surprise. We created a short list of 10 reindeer before putting it to a vote to get our finalists. Without further ado starting from 5th place, we have…  

Joint 5th – Pagan

Just squeezing her way into the top 5, Pagan isn’t a reindeer who is particularly pushy when it comes to food, but she will seize any opportunity that comes her way and is usually always the first reindeer to come down the hill and meet us in the morning. This year we decided to cut off Pagan’s antlers because she is very good at using them on visitors, herders, and other reindeer. With no antlers on her head, she is the master of stealthily getting into the food bags, blending in when we allow the younger calves to eat first. On Hill Trips Pagan loves handfeeding from visitors inhaling the food as quickly as possible. This has been passed on to her 2-year-old daughter Pumpkin who is also very greedy when it comes handfeeding and certainly deserves a mention.

Pagan in October 2022. The stare all herders are familiar with (and slightly scared off)!
Pagan’s bulging eyes whenever food is nearby!
Pumpkin, Pagan’s daughter, has definitely inherited her mum’s greedy streak and loves her handfeed. October 2022.

Joint 5th – Magnum

Magnum is probably our largest calf this year and already has a ferocious appetite. He spent the first 3-4 months of his life free ranging before coming into out hill enclosure for the rest of the year and instantly became obsessed with food. When we feed the calves, he will bully his way into a bag and keep his head in there for as long as possible. He’s also devised a way of making holes in the bags so he can steal food when they are closed. We do like him as herders, but he is a real handful and a pest when we are trying to feed the reindeer. At only 7 months old, I worry just how greedy this cheeky chappy will become!

Butter wouldn’t melt in this cute pic of Magnum with his mum Torch in September 2022. It’s a different story a few months later…
Magnum the food monster and destroyer of feed bags! November 2022.

4th – Scully

The apple didn’t fall far when it comes to Scully. Taking after her mother Screel, she has a real appetite for food and has spent almost the whole year free ranging. It’s testament to how good the grazing is for our reindeer on the open hillside as Scully is now officially the fattest reindeer in our herd after a recent condition score on all the reindeer. Even at 4 years old Scully still feels she has the right to put her head into a bag of feed like our calves and I don’t see that habit changing anytime soon. She’s a nice reindeer with the body of a sumo wrestler!

Scully, looking round and moody, as she attempts to stare us down for more food! April 2022.

3rd – Kipling

Kipling is a one in a million, this is very biased because she is my favourite reindeer. For the last 3 – 4 years she has been exceptionally greedy and will always be the first reindeer waiting to handfeed from visitors, where she will try her very best to feed from every single person. When Kipling had her first calf Pip, Kipling would happily leave her for the chance of a quick feed even if her calf got lost in the process, we would constantly have to remind her that she was a mother a food wasn’t everything in the world. I’ve seen her so full of food in recent months that she acts and looks ill. Unfortunately, some other herders have become a little less patient with her is recent times, trying to get the attention of other reindeer is now an almost impossible job when Kipling is around as she won’t leave you alone if there is a bag of food in your hand.

Kipling on the hunt for a feed bag!
Kipling coming up for air very briefly as she inhales her food! Next to her is Kipling’s younger sister Juniper.

2nd – Dr Seuss

Anyone who knows the reindeer herd particularly well might be surprised that Dr Seuss is not first in our 2022 list of greed. If he was a human you would probably class him as morbidly obese however fat reserves are very important for a reindeer to see them through the harsh winter months, even if he does have some to spare. Dr Seuss has been a greedy lad from birth and absolutely loves his food. He can be a bit of a bully when it comes to food sometimes, but he never tends to be that bad. Like Kipling, he tries his very best to consume as much hand feed as physically possible when meeting visitors and will happily plough his way through a group of people when he see’s food from a far. The problem is that because he is so big and determined, if he ever manages to get his head in a bag of feed it extremely difficult to get him out again. With Dr Seuss in second place its time to announce the winner….

Dr Seuss in a food coma after a Hill Trip,
A slightly unflattering angle of Dr Seuss’ rotund belly.

1st – Aztec

Coming in first place for nearly every reindeer herder, Aztec is officially the greediest reindeer of 2022. He’s a fun and energetic reindeer who acts like food is the only thing on his mind. You may not see him on Hill Trips very much because he is sometimes banned for his bad behaviour and greed when it comes to handfeeding, he’s exceptionally pushy and forceful you could be lead in to thinking that he never gets enough food. Aztec is also very athletic and uses this to his advantage when it come to greed, he will happily jump over a fence or display pen if he sees a bag of lichen and at the front of sleigh once dragged all remaining reindeer and herders into a pen when he saw the food bowls. I suspect Aztec’s greed comes from his mother Gazelle who is also known to be very vigorous at times when it comes to food. For this year he is the winner, but I can’t decide what to give him a prize, surely not more food?

Aztec looking all cute and innocent – May 2022.
Aztec on a Christmas event in Gleneagles (and the fence he effortlessly popped over in pursuit of more food!) – December 2022.

Joe

The making of the charity naked calendar

It’s hopefully common knowledge amongst our reindeer supporters and adopters by now that we have released a charity naked calendar for 2023. Raising money to support our local Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team and over a period of 18 months we braved the weather in all conditions taking off our clothes and posing with the reindeer for 13 pictures to feature. Initially we had planned to sell 500 copies but due to popular demand have sold 750 with a further 300 just ordered and under pressure to sell them before early January!

I had the pleasure (if you can say that) of being the photographer for the calendar, seeing all my friends and colleagues in their birthday suits and helping to put the whole thing together. It wasn’t something I had ever thought I’d be doing when I first came to work here five years ago but we are a quirky bunch, and I wasn’t at all surprised when as a group we decided to go ahead and create a calendar baring all!

Photographer Joe with his favourite reindeer Kipling. The face behind the camera, and the one that belongs to Mr September’s bottom 😉

The Idea

I think the idea came from several of us when our reindeer had featured in The Royal School of Veterinary Studies Charity Naked Calendar in 2020. We got a free copy from them, and the calendar hung proudly in our kitchen for the duration of the year. I guess during this time we became inspired to do one ourselves and celebrating our own 70th year anniversary, it seemed like the perfect time to do such a thing. Raising money for a charity was the second thing to consider and I don’t think we ever looked passed the idea of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. The dedicated volunteers involved already do an incredible job in the mountains and all the funding they receive goes back into the service they provide. So, with the idea set and charitable cause in mind, it was time to start taking off our clothes and get the photos!

The Early Stages

When planning how to make the calendar, it seemed only best to take a picture during every month of the year to showcase the reindeer looking different in the various seasons. With this in mind, January was to be the first month and the January of 2021 was particularly cold with temperatures being recorded as low as -18 as well as up to three feet of snow lying at a time. Fiona stepped up to be the driving force and get the calendar going by volunteering to get her picture first and Lotti also paired up to do it together. There was so much snow that it was easier to approach the reindeer by skis and the plan was set to involve these as well. Taking my camera out for the first time to do this I had no idea how to plan the picture or whether my camera should indeed focus on the bums or reindeer. What seemed like a straightforward idea turned out to be harder than first appeared with the reindeer constantly moving, never staying in the same position for more than two seconds. I clicked away taking several different pictures and hoped that one would suffice. January done, only 11 more months to go!

Miss and Miss January! This photo didn’t make the grade but has been used as a promotional picture – it even made it on to the front cover of a German newspaper.

The following few months saw a familiar trend with the reindeer not behaving for the camera, either facing the wrong direction, not interested in what was happening or sometimes we simply couldn’t find them on the free-range. Maybe they too thought it was a strange idea for the herders to stand next to them with no clothes on.

Coming Together

As the months got warmer, not surprisingly we had more herders volunteering to take part in the action. One of the things I noticed was the different ways in which people participated in. Some herders would arrive to the photo shoot with a dressing gown, and we would practice a clothed shot to make sure we were happy. I would then turn around while they removed their gown and we’d be able to get the picture without me seeing too much of them, a rather dignified way of doing such a thing.

Hen and Andi (Miss and Miss October) making sure they’re happy with their poses before baring all.
The ever chic Mel (Miss December) in her dressing gown!

Another technique of having their photo taken was to strip off completely starkers baring all and plan a photo pose on the spot. Sometimes I wouldn’t know where to look but there was lots of laughter about the ridiculousness of it all. We had to get quite imaginative towards the end making sure no two pictures or poses were the same. Some photos were taken on the free – range, others in our hill enclosure, woodland and one shot also involved water. The entire team of herders did an amazing job getting their kit off and we managed to feature every member of staff who worked here at the time along with a couple of past herders. I should also say an extra well done to Hen, Lisette and Harry who went out of their comfort zone to feature and Amy, who within her first month or working with us also volunteered to be in the calendar no peer pressure involved!

Ben (Mr February) was unfazed about being in his birthday suit and continued to carry out his reindeer herding duties unclothed. Needless to say the reindeer were also not bothered.
Sheena (Miss June) and Sherlock getting ready for the photoshoot in Black Loch.
After the photoshoot, Sheena went for a wee swim and Sherlock decided to follow… anything for food!

The Cover Shot

The final picture to take was the cover shot which was also the harshest weather experienced throughout. On a snowy and windy morning, Fiona, Lotti and Ruth took one for the team and shivered away as I tried to fumble with the camera and take a photo. By the time they got their clothes off they could barely feel a thing and the whole experience was very uncomfortable. The reindeer of course were fine. When we got back to the house and the girls had thawed out, we glanced at the photos to see how they looked. Unfortunately, the snowflakes blurred every single picture and none of them were good enough. We went out again a few hours later to repeat the whole freezing ordeal once more (sorry girls!) but thankfully on the second time of asking we got a picture we were happy with and no resulting frost bite.

Joe, Fiona and Lotti (plus dogs) attempting to take the photo for the SECOND time that day!
Snow flurry over – Ruth, Fiona and Lotti get into position…

The Finished Calendar

After the final editing tweaks, the calendar had finally been created. It was great to hold a copy for the first time and start selling them in our shop. It wasn’t long until several newspapers got in touch wanting to write a story about the calendar. The Daily Record and a couple of other tabloids did an online piece about us, and our local papers also wrote two stories. We even featured as page 3 models in the Strathspey Herald and also on the cover of German newspaper BILD showing some of our bare bottoms. It’s still all quite surreal that we have created the calendar, everyone is immensely proud of it and couldn’t be happier with how many we have sold so far.

The day the first batch of calendars arrived!!
Page 3 models!

For now, I just hope we can sell as many as possible and I can’t wait to see what the final figure will be for the mountain rescue team.

Joe

The Many Uses of Antlers at Reindeer House

With a herd of 150 reindeer, nearly all of whom are growing and casting a pair of antlers every year (exceptions include 2-year-old Juniper who doesn’t grow any, 16-year-old Dixie who only grows one, and 2-year-old Holy Moley who also only grows a single antler), it’s fair to say that we see our share of antlers. From that we’ve figured out some interesting uses for them as the following pictures show… although some photos may contain red deer antler as well as antler from reindeer…

The lovely Dixie, back in 2017, proudly showing off her single antler!
Skip next to a pile of collected antlers found on the free range April 2022 – she’s disappointed none are for her!
Firstly, they make great displays in the shop, we use them to hang all sorts of ornaments and pieces of shop stock – demonstrated here by our lovely headbands.
A slightly stinkier variation on the hanging technique, in the kitchen of reindeer house this large set of antlers are used for drying shoes, gloves and all other sorts of equipment. Very effective!
Dog leads, ski goggles, head torches. This antler sees a lot of use here at reindeer house, as the dogs are always looking to go for a walk.
They even work as door handles!
And make great wall hangers for cards and decorations.
Sometimes used for shelving support, as precarious as our mugs and plates look, I am yet to see the antlers let us down.
More shelves and shop stock supported by antler.
Our bird feeder is decorated with antlers which the red squirrels love chewing on.
We also make use of some antler nubbins (yes, that is the technical term) in the kitchen. Seen here keeping our cupboards shut,..
…..and our pepper grinding smoothly (or roughly?)
And finally, my favourite use of an antler, because sometimes s*** happens.

Harry

The Legend of the Pink Badge

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

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

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

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

The Pink Badge on my t-shirt 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hen

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