Old lady Okapi

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

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

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

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

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

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

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

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

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

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

Oka

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

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

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

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

A life of luxury!

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

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

Hen

A Family Affair

I thought I’d write a bit about the family trees of our herd for this week’s blog, since they work a little differently from a ‘standard’ human family tree. Those of you who have been adopting an individual reindeer within our herd for a while will probably have received a family tree at some point, as we send them out with adoption packs in even years of sponsorship (2nd, 4th, 6th etc) normally. I say ‘will probably have received’ however, as the Swedish born reindeer in our herd obviously don’t have them, and if you’ve only ever adopted the herd as a whole then you’ll not have seen one before.

We record the lineage of the reindeer born here in the herd, stretching back to the original ones imported from Sweden in the 50s, through the maternal line only (on the trees at least – of course we record the father of each calf on our database to keep track of their genetics). More dimensions than a sheet of A4 can offer would be required for anything more than the maternal line in this form however. Let’s look at a sample of a tree (apologies, you’ll probably have to zoom in to see it properly):

(no, I didn’t mean to scan in a leaf as well as the tree…)

This tree (above) is the one currently in use for the living descendants of female reindeer Russia (highlighted in red), born in 2005. As an example, you would receive this particular tree if you adopt Morse – you can see that he is the second of four calves for his mum Torch, herself the first of three offspring for Pavlova. Pavlova’s mum was Russia, Russia’s mum was Cherry, and so on. This goes right the way back to Vilda at the top, one of the reindeer brought over to Scotland in the 3rd consignment to join the growing herd, back in 1954. This particular family tree currently stands at 10 generations in the maternal line. In reality it’s actually more than that, as Morse himself is a breeding bull with multiple offspring, but let’s just stick to the maternal line and not confuse matters!

Vilda in 1955, aged 2 years old. The ancestor of many, many members of our herd!

But again A4 paper has it’s limitations, and as Russia’s mum Cherry (highlighted green on the tree above) was such a productive breeding female then this tree has had to be split into multiple ones once all her calves started calving themselves and we ran out of space. So Cherry’s descendants are now on three separate trees, the top halves of which are all identical until Cherry and her nine calves, but then different below. So Cherry’s daughter Cello (highlighted red below) went on to lots of descendants mainly via her daughter Fonn, who are on this tree:

…whilst another daughter, Tjakko (highlighted red below), was also very productive, as seen on this version of the tree:

This explains why sometimes we chat away about a relative of your reindeer in your adoption letter – who doesn’t seem to exist on the tree you’ve also received in your pack. We haven’t made them up – they’re just on an adjacent branch of their tree that you don’t have!

At times we get a family line that effectively runs out of breeding females – a so-called ‘dead line’. Not the nicest of names perhaps, but it is what is says on the tin… Tjakko’s tree, above, is an example of this – the only living female still remaining on it is Ibex, now too old to breed, so this tree will never change. As a result in this situation we stop sending the trees out to adopters once they’ve received it in it’s final state, as there’s no point receiving it again and again with no additions. Ibex does actually have descendants but they are on yet another permutation of this tree, showing her offspring and those of Bumble.

Within the animal world, there is quite a ‘flexible’, shall we say, approach to age and generations, in comparison to humans at least. We tend to breed our female reindeer up to the age of around 12 or 13, but usually only with a bull aged 3-5. This is because we castrate our male reindeer at this age, but females are never castrated as there’s no need for us to do so. Reindeer calve first (usually) at age 3, so a 3 year old bull could be three generations younger than some of his ladies, if he has a 12 year old cow in his harem. Questionable, in the human world anyway, but no reindeer eyebrows are raised. 

5 year old bull Sherlock during this year’s rut, with his older ladies (left to right) Feta (10), Jenga (12) and Torch (11).

The shortest family tree I can find is that of Okapi, consisting of only 8 generations in total including Vilda back in 1954. But again this is a family that has calved itself into a breeding cul-de-sac, as it were, with no new additions since 2013. In contrast, the most generations in a tree is 13, with two year old Sombrero and yearling Solero the most recent of the generations.

Okapi’s family tree (she has outlived both of her calves).

I thought that as a final part to this blog – and a way of getting some photos of actual reindeer into it – here’s some photo evidence of the 8 generations of Okapi’s tree. Vilda we’ve seen already, and I can’t actually find a photo of Sarah. We will no doubt have one in the albums, but we’ve only digitised up to the early 60s so far so I don’t have one to hand… But then comes Eidart, who was apparently the first reindeer that herd owner Tilly ever met, when she arrived here in 1981:

Eidart, with one of her calves

Eidart’s final calf was Trout, who held the joint record for oldest ever member of the herd (aged 18) for many years, until 19 year old Lilac stole her crown.

Trout in her latter years

Trout was an extremely productive female, with 11 calves to her name, the final one being Amber:

Amber

…whose first calf was Esme….

Esme

…the mother of Okapi.

Okapi

And finally – the end of the line – came Oka. Sadly she died before producing any offspring herself, effectively bringing this line of reindeer to an abrupt end.

Oka

So there you have it, a bit of info about our family trees. So should you get one in your next adoption pack, you can think about all those reindeer who came before your lovely adoptee.

Hen

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

Memorable reindeer of the past: Chelsea

It’s been a long time since I found time to write about a reindeer who’s no longer with us, but I’m acutely aware that it is high time for me to take my turn to write a blog, so here we are.

This time I thought I’d pick Chelsea, who only died last year but she’d lived a good long life and been around for the vast majority of my time here, so she seems like a good choice. Born in 2009, she was Glacier’s second to last calf, and Glacier was a very productive female so Chelsea was from a large family line! Like Glacier, Chelsea was a light coloured reindeer, but one without face markings, which is actually a rarity in our herd nowadays – most light coloured reindeer also have distinctive face markings. But Chelsea came from a line of light reindeer – mum Glacier, granny Ferrari and great-granny Vivi were all the same colouration, and doubtless ancestors before were too (but I don’t have that info to hand just now).

Chelsea with mum Glacier, back in 2009

Despite Glacier being a lovely, tame reindeer, Chelsea was always much more ‘independent’ – the word we use to describe a reindeer who is on the ‘wilder’ side! I remember her well as a calf – mainly from battling with her trying to get her used to wearing a halter. All our calves are trained to halter at around 5 months old, and Chelsea certainly had a lot of attitude and strong opinions about the whole affair.

At 5 months old, Chelsea’s baby coat had been replaced by her adult, lighter coat

Possibly the headstrong attitude came with the name. She was born the year we named the calves after ‘cakes, biscuits and puddings’, and during our naming evening we had a conversation about the name ‘Chelsea’ being too associated with the football team rather than the bun. And it sounded like a name for a footballer’s wife… Having just vetoed it, we offered our volunteer Paul – a retired joiner who has come to work with us multiple times over many, many years – the chance to pick a name for a calf. Having apparently not paid the slightest attention to the entire conversation, he peered at the list of possibilities and promptly picked ‘Chelsea’. We rolled our eyes and gritted our teeth… and named her Chelsea.

Chelsea and another calf in the back of one of our vehicles at a Christmas event, waiting to be unloaded.

Sally and I had Chelsea on our Christmas team that winter, and were rather embarrassed by her name so we called her Tiffin for a few days! But names just become names, and Chelsea became Chelsea whilst Tiffin disappeared into the ether.

So much attitude! Picking a fight with bull Pera

Chelsea had her first calf at 3 years old, in our diamond anniversary year of the herd. So we named her Diamond, and she has proved to be a lovely reindeer over the years, mellow where Chelsea is feisty, but she looks very, very similar.

Diamond at about a month old – calves born with white foreheads like this invariably turn into white adults

In 2015 Diamond reached maturity and in 2016 she had her first – and only – calf, Pagan. 2016 was also the year when Chelsea and Diamond both grew such similar antlers that year that we continuously got them muddled up. The photo below seems to be the only one I have of the two of them together that year – but look how similar!

Chelsea and Diamond. Or is it Diamond and Chelsea?

Chelsea did mellow a bit with age, but remained a reindeer that never willingly allowed herself to be caught. In a moment of necessity I did once make a bid to catch her by her antlers out on the mountains – once the velvet has stripped away from the antlers no feeling remains, so antlers can occasionally be useful emergency handles – but regretted it immediately, and had bruises to show for my bad decision afterwards.

Such a beautiful girl!

Dying in early 2022 at nearly 13 years old, Chelsea lived a full and rewarding life, most of her time spent roaming freely out on the mountains. Whilst she had a few calves, most were males who we didn’t breed from, so only Diamond continued her line. Grand-daughter Pagan has sadly gone now too, but she has left daughters Pumpkin and Winnie behind – Chelsea’s great-granddaughters – so Chelsea’s legacy continues. The light colour has gone though – both of this most recent generation are the ‘normal’ brown colour.

Hen

Golden Oldies

A common question that we get asked on our Hill Trips is ‘how long do reindeer live for?’. The answer is usually anything between 11 – 15 years old with the females typically living a little longer than the males. The oldest reindeer we’ve ever had in our herd was a female called Lilac living to a grand old age of 19, while our oldest male Elvis is still currently living at 17 years old. The older generation in our herd have a pretty good life, the females spend almost the whole year free ranging on open mountain where they know all the best spots for grazing and where they can find the most peace. The older males do free-range on the hills for 3 – 4 months a year and then spend their days at our hill farm near Glenlivet, even with access to the hill they typically spend there time eating and sleeping but that’s totally fine by us. For me, some of the biggest characters in the herd are the older reindeer and even though I’ve only known them since 2017, I thought it would be nice to tell you a bit about some of my favourite females who are on the mature side of life.

Some of our golden oldies enjoying the free range – Diamond (aged 10), Sambar (15), Gazelle (15), Lulu (17), Silk (13) and Addax (15).

Fly – At 16 years old, Fly is the joint 4th oldest reindeer in our herd along with Fern. For years now she has come across as the natural leader and matriarch of the herd and will regularly be found leading the reindeer to a call or to the areas of best grazing. She’s always grown a cracking set of antlers too which have sometimes been the largest female set of the year and usually starts to grow her new set of antlers before any other female. Other herders have told me that Fly was quite an aloof reindeer when she was younger and even to this day she isn’t exactly tame, but she has maybe learned to trust us a bit more in recent years and will happily take handfeed from us now. Being such a big reindeer she’s unmistakable once you get to know them all as individuals and it’s always nice to see her doing so well at her age. These days she keeps herself on the outside of the bigger groups of reindeer not getting involved in the hustling and pushing of other aspiring females, but I feel like her presence is never missed. For her age Fly is in amazing condition and I hope that she can remain a key member of the herd for some time still.

Fly looking fierce! September 2022,
Fly leading the herd – April 2023.

Fern – Fern was one of the first reindeer I ever got to know, and she’s got such a sweet and friendly character. Also 16 years old, she is once again looking amazing for her age and growing another great set of antlers. I sometimes think that reindeer can give a sense of calmness to people in the way they are so relaxed and docile, and no reindeer acts more like this than Fern. I do feel like I abuse her easy-going nature sometimes, whenever I’m in need of catching out a reindeer to help lead the herd or pair a reindeer up with one that needs to come off the hill, I can always rely on Fern to easily put a halter on and help out in such situations, she never seems to mind ands always does a wonderful job. A couple of years ago Fern also did something I’ve never seen another reindeer do and that was to take on another calf while also raising her own, Kiruna had lost his mother on the free-range, he was adopted by Fern along with her calf Dublin and for some time we didn’t even know which young reindeer was her calf because she treated them both equally. All in all, she’s just a wonderful reindeer.

Fern in February 2023.
Both Fly and Fern together – April 2023. The food crumbs on Fly’s nose are a bit of a giveaway!
Fern growing lovely antlers – May 2023.

Okapi – Okapi turned 15 in May but in my mind I’ve always thought of her as one of the oldies, I sound so mean to write this but she’s always had older looking face compared to any other reindeer her age. She couldn’t be a more friendly reindeer and has very gentle personality. Very unfortunately when Okapi was 5 years old she prolapsed on several occasions and as a result was no longer able to calve. This meant that since then, she has spent a long life of predominantly free-ranging on the open mountains. It’s always great to come across her on the free-range as she usually heads straight toward us once she realises we have food. She’s quite a greedy reindeer but she doesn’t push it like some of the others in our herd. I like to give her little extra handfuls of food most times I see her because she’s always just so nice and I know she’s a reindeer most herders admire too. It’s also worth mentioning that Okapi’s older brother is Elvis, there must be something in the genes for Okapi and Elvis to be living for as long as they have.

Beautiful Okapi!
A more typical picture of Okapi – February 2023.

Ryvita – Everyone loves Ryvita! At 14 years old, she’s been a favourite among reindeer herders for many a year now and is the perfect balance of being friendly, cheeky and confident. She will always come over to say hello, or more likely see if there is any food, and will happily follow you around for as long as it takes until you give in and offer her a little hand feed. Over the years, Ryvita has been one of the most photographed reindeer in our herd. Like Fly she grows her antlers early and always knows how to strike a pose for the camera. She’s also quite distinctive for her having a very wide belly and I’ve regularly been asked if she’s pregnant, my usual reply is ‘no, that’s just Ryvita’. Ryvita is part of a large family group and all the reindeer from that line and very friendly and sweet.

Ryvita – August 2021.
Ryvita – May 2023. Growing lovely antlers already.

Joe

Bingo

Bingo is one of our older Christmas reindeer now at the age of 12 years old. He has always been a pretty, what’s the polite way of saying it, aloof reindeer. He’s not timid, cos he has plenty of confidence but he’s certainly had his moments over the years where he falls into the category of being very head strong or independent. Lets just say when working with him out on the open hill some swear words may have been passed amongst herders when trying to herd Bingo!

Bingo in September 2019 – before his Christmas duties with Fiona and Joe.

The days of bringing the herd down from our winter grazing at Glenlivet usually involved a few of us on foot pushing the herd down to our corral on the hill ready to bring them back to our hill farm for the summer. Without fail for years Bingo would always double back and for anyone who has tried to chase a four-legged animal, flat out going up hill you’ll know it’s a losing battle. On the odd occasion we did either turn him, or he decided to go in with the herd (this was rare), he was first to be brought off the hill to avoid the risk of him somehow finding his way out!

Bingo as a cute calf in September 2011.
Bingo in 2012 – his independent nature starting to show!

As I said earlier he’s one of our Christmas reindeer. This means he’s trained to harness and pull the sleigh and to be fair to him he’s a total pro. Having done some pretty big events over the years including the very prestigious Windsor Castle he doesn’t put a foot wrong and being so handsome he of course looks great too. When I had him in my team Christmas 2019 my team mate, Joe, had to do lots of sweet talking and bribery with Bingo. For whatever reason Bingo took a dislike to Joe. Whenever we had to go about our normal handling of catching, loading, putting on harness Bingo always showed his antlers to Joe. Never me, I could walk up to him and he’s act like a well behaved dog and not put a foot wrong but he did not like Joe. Joe would find himself trying to win him over… extra lichen treats and giving him lots of personal space but more often than none he’d just find Bingo poking him with his antlers… Needless to say I found it very amusing! So much so that when Bingo cast his antlers before Christmas 2019 on Christmas Day I said to Joe I had a present for him but he had to close his eyes. Then I proceeded to poke him with Bingos antlers, this was Joe’s special Christmas present for Joe and now Joe has them mounted in his room, never to forget the wonderful friendship the two of them had…

Bingo at Windsor Castle – so fancy!
Joe and Bingo both being very professional and cracking on with the job at hand, despite Bingo’s desire to poke Joe.

However, I think Bingo has slightly mellowed over the years. Maybe running in the opposite direction every time we want to bring the herd in has worn thin and is maybe just a bit exhausting now in his older years. A couple months ago when we brought the free range herd into out hill corral for some annual management we were handling reindeer and low and behold Bingo come down to the corral of his own accord. I got myself a small bag of feed and halter and open the gate. He comes waltzing in, head in the bag of feed and I pop his halter on… Does that mean we no longer have to chase him around the hill side anymore, I do hope so.

I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Bingo. As lovely as it is having a well behaved Christmas reindeer who never puts a foot wrong and always obliges when we’re doing any handling there is something about a challenge and Bingo has certainly provided us with a challenge over the years. He’s got a spark to him which I love and he didn’t poke me with his antlers so maybe we have a mutual agreement between the two of us? Who knows…

Fiona

Sunny’s Adventures

Over the Christmas period Sunny, our hand reared calf of 2022, was out and about joining in with our Christmas tour. He join me on most of my events and was a great hit with the public. Sometimes if we had a one of our older Christmas reindeer who was in training or just preferred being tucked in at the back of the sleigh and not so exposed to big crowds then Sunny would stride forward on the outside and what a great job he did too!

We sometimes stayed overnight at one of our farm bases away form home between events so we would have to take his milk with us so he could get his morning bottle of warm milk. He was such a mummies boy but lets face it both him and I liked that. Sometimes it would be myself out on a team with either Lotti or Ruth. This was his favourite as it was predominantly the three of us who put the most time into raising him so he was quite happy!

Often we would take a more timid calf who needed the training alongside Sunny as he’s such a good role model. Saying that sometimes they were best buds and other times they would push each other around. Much like small children claiming to be best friends one minute and worst enemies the next.

So a short and sweet blog but here are a few photos of his adventures over the Christmas period. Enjoy! Cos I did!

Sunny all set and ready for his event, just tapping his hoof and waiting for Fiona!
Usually reindeer are transported in our wee truck or one of our hired Christmas lorries, but this is not always necessary for Sunny! He’s so used to human company and very familiar with riding in the back of a van (it’s how he used to get up on to the hill each day over the summer) he’s happy chilling out in the back to get to Aviemore. He met the other members of the team there as they were arriving with Tilly from the farm.
Fiona and Sunny off to the display pen in Aviemore, waiting for Tilly and the reindeer to arrive from the farm.
Sunny plodding along on the outside of the sleigh, doing a super job of making sure 2.5 year old Hemp stays nice and relaxed on his inside.
Sunny (closest to camera) and the rest of the team relaxing in a pen after the parade in Aberfeldy. Sunny takes napping very seriously!
Before an event, Sunny and the team, relaxing in Dunkeld.
Sunny and Fiona in Strathaven.
A normal December evening in Reindeer House! On the nights Sunny stayed in the Paddocks he would sometimes spend a wee bit of time in the house. To be fair to Sunny, the red sign behind him does say “Reindeer Parking Only”.
Oh, Sunny!
Sunny helping Fiona organise the new 2023 calendar..
And after all his Christmas duties were over Sunny was put out on the free range with the boys, and also some cows and calves so he had good company, including his best buddy Zoom.

Fiona

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

Hamish

At 12 years old I can’t believe how time has passed and Hamish is now an ‘old boy’! I remember the day he was born as I was the very first person to see him. This includes his mother Rusa because while she was calving she couldn’t manage on her own and I had to assist in pulling him out. A combination of Rusa only being a young mum herself at just 2 years old she wasn’t fully grown and Hamish being a big boy meant he got a little stuck on exit! This was the first ever time I had to assist a reindeer cow calving so with strict instructions from the vet I felt my way around and managed to pull him out, and even better he was un-scathed but the whole ordeal. Because of the nature of our herd the reindeer calve out on the mountain so for a vet to come out to help too much time would have passed and either cow or calf would then be at risk, so I had to crack on, there was no other option!

Hamish as a very young calf.

In Hamish’s first few weeks he spent a little time here in our paddock area so we could keep an eye on the two of them. This is when he got his name. We don’t name the calves until the autumn but as we spent extra time with him Hamish got his name sooner than the others. He then joined the herd free ranging on the Cairngorms for the summer and came back looking great. Rusa was a good mum, very attentive and they were never far apart from each other.

Hamish free ranging as a calf – July 2010.
Rusa in summer 2010 – doing a great job for such a young mum.

Hamish has grown into a real character in our herd and one of our trusty old pros when it comes to Christmas events. In his hay day he looked fab with great big antlers and always fat as butter… Hamish LOVES his food! A trait passed down from Rusa for sure. But now he is 12 years old he’s starting to look his age. He’s mainly based at our hill farm over the summer months or on our hill grazing during the winter, Hamish is enjoying the easy life. He does pop over here now and again, but his visits are brief nowadays just lasting a few days.

Handsome Hamish – September 2021.

With Christmas just around the corner we may well call on his expertise to help train the new, younger Christmas reindeer. This requires being harnessed up alongside a newbie and pulling the sleigh. This is done next to our Centre in Glenmore, so the reindeer get used to seeing lots of people and cars. Hamish is the perfect role model for this and if the new Christmas reindeer take a leaf out of his book then they will be great!

Hamish sleigh training back in September 2013, and yawning on the job!
Hamish and LX pulling the sleigh through Tain, November 2021.

Fiona

Oatcake

I’ll start with our first meeting as this was also the first time I’d ever seen a reindeer!

On a wee holiday with my boyfriend, enjoying the hills in the Cairngorms, a funny looking deer walked up to us. It was clear it wasn’t a red deer, but we totally didn’t expect a reindeer to join us on the walk! Soon she realised we didn’t have any food (or at least not the kind of food she would like to eat) with us and she left, but I was able to make a few lovely ‘close up’ pictures.

Bumping into the lone reindeer whilst on my holiday.

Later that evening I emailed the Reindeer Centre to let them know there was a reindeer on her own. Not knowing anything about reindeer, but working with sheep, seeing one on its own is usually not a good sign as they like to stay together as a flock (or herd in this case). Showing the picture, they recognised her as, three guesses… yes, it was Oatcake! I learnt that unfortunately, she lost her calf out on the free range and she was likely looking for her little one around that time.

The close-up image I emailed to the Reindeer Centre.

Oatcake made me interested about wanting to know more about reindeer. So really it’s thanks to her I’ve got a job here!

We don’t have any reindeer in the Netherlands where I was born, it’s all way too flat for these beautiful animals who have their habitat above the tree line and out on the hills. I now live in Fort William, with the highest mountain in the UK right at our doorstep, but you’ll not see any reindeer here either. The hills on the west coast are too pointy and rocky rather than the plateaus full of lichen found in the Cairngorms. So I commute to the Cairngorms once a week, returning home the following evening.

Oatcake as a calf in 2009 with her mum Autumn. She was named in the “cakes and biscuits” theme.

This year during calving season I was delighted to go out and try to find Oatcake and her new-born in the hill enclosure. Reindeer being reindeer, often calve on the most exposed and windy spot in our enclosure – at the top of Silver Mount. This is where we found Oatcake. We like to get a hold of the new-born calves to give them a small dose of spot-on (a tick treatment) and spray their navel with antiseptic… and of course, to see if mum and calf are happy and okay!

I was hoping Oatcake would let us come close to her wee one no problem, all we had to do is show her some food, but I was wrong. Oatcake is such a good mum and very protective of her calf, so as soon as she saw us, she started playing hide and seek! Thankfully I wasn’t alone, so my colleague Ben and myself split up, trying to slowly push her towards the part of the enclosure where all the other mums and calves were, so we could get a better look at her calf.

It’s a healthy light grey-ish coloured girl, just like her mum! Well done Oatcake!

Oatcake was one of the last reindeer to cast her antlers this spring and of course we always hope to find them, which isn’t always possible in such a big area. Luckily she made it very very easy for us, she just left her antler hanging on the fence!

The very helpful Oatcake leaving her antler on the fence for us, right by the gate.

Oatcake and calf, together with the rest of our females, are now out on the free range for the summer months enjoying their freedom and finding the best of food to eat. Hopefully very soon we’ll see her back in the enclosure for the autumn months.

Oatcake (with calf behind) free-ranging on the plateau, looking VERY scruffy during the moult – July 2022.
Oatcake September 2021 looking beautiful – her left antler is the one we found in the fence!

Lisette

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