A moment in Hen’s memory

Earlier this year, on discovering how long I’d worked here, a visitor asked me what my favourite story or anecdote from over the years was. I was completely thrown – not only had nobody ever asked me that specific question before, but how on earth was I to pick just one thing?

But the question made me ponder, and reminisce a bit. Impossible to pick a single favourite moment, but there have been many, many stand out moments – and like for any job with animals, for both good and bad reasons. So I thought I’d tell you one of them, and will maybe write more blogs with further stories at a later date.

On tour with Mel at Christmas time

At the time when the question was actually asked of me, I went a bit blank, and despite a million different stories I could have told, suddenly the only one I could think of was a little moment from Christmas tour, several years back. I was on tour with Mel right down south and doing a ‘reindeer only’ event in Exeter. This differs from our normal events with the sleigh and parade etc, as it is just reindeer in a display pen for 2 or 3 hours, with us herders there to chat to people in the crowd. Much less work for both us and the reindeer compared to a parade!

I have no photos directly associated with this blog, so have only some general ones to add to it! Here’s Puddock, in his prime several years ago

It was a horrible day, absolutely pouring, so I can’t say either Mel or I were particularly enamoured of the idea of standing getting utterly drenched for hours, the sort of day where you know you’re going to get soaked to your underwear and the prospect of dry pants was a long way away (Christmas tour ain’t as glamorous as it sometimes sounds) – at least the reindeer have built in waterproof coats far more effective than any human clothing. We got the pen ready; straw spread out, feed and water in bowls, signage up, and then returned to the lorry to fetch the reindeer. The route to the pen involved walking along the pavement and then through a covered shopping arcade to the pen itself – no problem at all and the reindeer are perfectly happy in such a situation as we make sure that all six stay close together in their mini herd. There’s safety in numbers if you’re a reindeer! Just at the entrance into the arcade we paused, in the pelting rain, for security to clear a route through for us and the reindeer stood gazing around in interest at their surroundings – or more realistically, in hindsight, wondering where their pen and their lunch was. We were right outside a Costa coffee shop which had window seating, full of warm cosy people inside sipping nice hot drinks and oblivious to the world outside, until suddenly 6 reindeer appeared on the pavement, literally just feet away from them. We had big male reindeer Puddock as our of our team members (I can’t remember the others), and he put his nose right to the glass and breathed out, leaving huge steamed up patches. I watched a lady inside slowly put her hand up to the glass and put it flat against it, Puddock’s nose a centimetre away the other side. A few seconds passed and then we moved on, and the moment was gone.

Reindeer exercising while at a ‘base’, away on tour. Good stretch of the legs required!

And that was it. In real time just a fleeting moment, but one I have always remembered, and I often wonder too about the lady the other side of the window, and whether she still tells the story of the time she was having a coffee in Exeter and somewhat miraculously a reindeer appeared outside the window and then vanished once again. Years later I remember nothing about the actual reindeer event other than that little moment en route to the pen (and the fact that the herders at every single event across the country that day got completely soaked too apart from, ironically, at Fort William – normally one of the wettest places in the country).

Frosty morning

In my head I debated telling the visitor on the Hill Trip about this memory, but standing outside a Costa on a wet day in Exeter, of all places, seemed so at odds with our current situation way out on the mountainside high up on the Cairngorms, on a beautiful winter’s day, surrounded by reindeer roaming freely in their natural habitat, that it didn’t seem worth the effort of explaining it all, and it wouldn’t have been the sort of the story the visitor was expecting anyway. But it’s a memory for me none the less and as Puddock has been one of my very favourite reindeer over the years but is now retired from Christmas tour, it’s a particularly poignant one.

I have had a love-hate relationship with Puddock over the years, although mostly love! He can be a bit of a pillock at times though…

Hen

Memorable reindeer of the past: Scout

When I think back over the reindeer that have been part of the herd over the years, one which sticks in my mind is Scout. This is probably in part because he was on my “team” the first time I went off on Christmas tour. It was back in 2010, and as I headed off for my first two-week festive reindeer experience with Fiona, those six reindeer made a bit of an impact: experienced old boys Shekel and Shock (or Shockel and Sheck as we sometimes called them if we hadn’t had enough coffee!); Scout and Hughie, our younger Christmas reindeer; and calves Lace and Gnat. When you’re working, living and travelling with the same team for a fortnight you get to know their quirks rather well!

Scout as a six month old calf

Born in our “Green theme” year, Scout was a big reindeer (so big in fact that we castrated him at 2 years old instead of at 3), one of the tallest in the herd, and a fine looking fellow. He grew some beautiful sets of antlers, with lots of “fingers” coming off them. He was generally also holding almost too much condition, with a generous sized belly, and with this excess of energy he often had bobbles of extra velvet on his antlers, something we only tend to see in our larger (wider!) males.

Scout as I first knew him, with fingery points going everywhere

My main memory of Scout from that Christmas tour is when we arrived at an event in London, set out the feed bowls ready for their breakfast, and Fiona hopped in to the truck through the (human-sized) side door, assuming I would latch it behind her. I meanwhile assumed she was going to latch it herself from the inside (the hazards of having been on tour long enough to stop communicating about everything and make presumptions). Alas, the door didn’t get secured at all and the next thing we knew Scout had squeezed his antlers and ample belly through, bounded down and of course made a beeline for his breakfast! At least he was easy to catch!

I also have a vivid memory from a more recent Christmas of taking part in an incredibly busy parade in England, and looking back from where I was leading the front two reindeer – Scout was one of the reindeer following on at the back and he was utterly at ease, chewing the cud as we pottered along, not batting an eyelid at the noise, lights, marching band, fake snow and bubble machines that we were passing. Reindeer really are incredible animals.

He had beautiful big antlers even as a two year old

Scout was a dependable fellow out on tour, whether at the back or front of the sleigh, and was a friendly face at home on the hill, though he did have a grumpy streak at times, doubtless inherited from his father Sirkas, who certainly could have an attitude problem! Most of the time though he was lovely to be around, a bit cheeky and playful, and steady as a rock. His brothers included dark coloured Rummy, squinty-nosed Boris and the infamous Fergus. Scout’s grandmother, Fionn, lived to the ripe old age of 16, and her sister was Lilac, the reindeer who holds our record for longevity at 19. Unfortunately Scout didn’t live to quite such an age, but there are still many of his family alive, including two of our other biggest reindeer, Fly and Paintpot, who share the same father.

Andi

Outtakes of Reindeer Herding

Recently I got a new phone which made me look back through all my old photos before deciding which ones to keep. Rather than give you some of my best photos from a year and a half of reindeer herding I thought I’d give you some of the ‘worst’ from my first season of Christmas events.

Manouk and were sent off to Stonehaven for our first event together for a display pen event. Much of the time was spent playing with the inquisitive young Kips who was also on his first eventas a Christmas Reindeer.
On that same event in Stonehaven we were faced by a recurring problem. Every time we walked in or out of the display pen then we had to negotiate all the tasty plants of the garden centre. On one occasion Pratchett was too quick for us and helped himself to the tasty heather!
Back at the centre we had forgotten how to run the shop so had to ask Tiree to help us out/
Mel and I had Marple and Scully along with us one weekend and they both discovered their own reflection in a window. Scully, a relatively shy and polite young girl was inquisitive but nervous with her reflection. Marple however, is not shy or gentle so decided to attack her own reflection. Hence the blurry photo of me realising what she was about to do and trying to stop her in time!
There was a regular occurrence that weekend with Marple and Mel. Every time we pulled up in the lorry at an event, fuel station or overnight base: Marple would have her nose poking out the side of the lorry trying to see what was going on. Mel would then reward Marple with a tasty bit of lichen .
Overall, Marple and Scully were well behaved on their first Christmas events despite not always having the best example set by the older boys. One evening Mel and I went to check on the boys before putting them to bed and we found that Monopoly had decided he wanted to wear Santa’s sack which was drying out on the fence. Incidentally Mel has been doing Chrsitmas events for 10 years and the event we did in Larkhall was the wettest she had ever done!
Olly on a quad bike
Is a blog really a blog without a photo of Dr Seuss?
Any time we were away on tour it was always nice to come home to our ridiculous hounds. Sookie, in the background, is never happier than being curled up in a pile of blankets/jumpers that aren’t hers.

Mr Moose’s Great Escape

Moose, Jonne & Rubiks on a big adventure…

Moose, Jonne and Rubiks were the only ones left enclosed, all other reindeer were freeranging. They thought this was extremely unfair, and took the matter in their own hooves. They decided they’d have none of it, and left for an adventure..

After the Christmas holiday, we shut the centre for a couple of weeks and usually let all reindeer out to freerange. This year however, we had a different plan for 3 of our boys. Over the festive season, Moose had been struggling with a quite persistent ulcer on his eye – we had to keep an eye on him and give him eyedrops (up to 7 times daily!). Of course it would be sad to leave him enclosed on his own, as reindeer like to have company. Jonne and Rubiks had already been free ranging for a couple of weeks, and every time they were seen they seemed a little bit thinner than before. This was enough reason for us to put them in with Moose, and keep all 3 of them under our close surveillance.

During these weeks of being closed to the public, we get to do tasks we otherwise don’t have time for. One of these tasks this year was to re-fence the forest area where our paddocks reindeer stay overnight. Moose, Jonne & Rubiks were staying in different parts of the paddocks enclosure during the daytime and nighttime, but little did the herders know that the gate between their night’s stay and the forest area was open!

More well-behaved, less naughty reindeer would have stayed put nicely, but not Moose, Jonne and Rubiks.. So the next morning, when we went out to give the boys their breakfast and daily walk, we found them gone, taking themselves out for a walk! Luckily, for the first time in weeks, it had snowed a little bit overnight, so we were lucky enough to set off on a little treasure hunt, trying to find our escapee reindeer.

Looking through the Pass of Ryvoan after bringing the boys off the back of Mealle a’ Bhuachaille
Quick pause at Lochan Uaine on the way home.

Four herders set off on four different routes – asking any passerby if they had seen any reindeer. They must have thought we’d all gone bonkers. The theory we stuck to is that reindeer like to move uphill, so we did as well. And behind the paddocks is a nice hill we all love to hike/run on, so we figured the reindeer would as well. Five to ten minutes from the top I spotted the first clear hoof prints. Then Andi spotted them on the other side, near the top. Chris also found some, on yet a different route, also near the top. We all followed our own trail of hoofprints, and Andi was the first to find the cheeky boys. Chris and I soon caught up, and all 3 of us led a reindeer on a halter, all the way back to the paddocks. We came across quite a few of the hill walkers we had asked about sightings before, thankfully taking away their concerns about our sanity.

It was past midday when we got back to the centre. The boys had had a blast, and to be honest, so had we. We considered “accidentally” leaving the gate open again, but decided against it as it would appear too much of a coincidence (or stupidity) to do so again. We just accepted that we all had a lovely day, and that it was a one-off! After some more time back in the enclosure recovering Moose, Jonne & Rubiks got what they wanted in the end, and are currently freeranging in the Cromdale hills.

Manouk

After their Great Escape, and Moose only needed a few eyedrops a day rather than 7, we moved them up to the hill enclosure for some extra room and browsing.

Dynasties: Haze

We recently watched the BBC series Dynasties, narrated by David Attenborough, which looked at matriarchs in different species of animal. There are occasional females in our herd who are extremely successful mothers, and I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of these family lines, starting with a gorgeous big female who was named Haze.

Beautiful Haze in her prime

Haze was born in 2002 and grew to be a big, solid female who had distinctive large bold antlers – not fancy but quite thick for a female. Over the course of her life she reared six calves: Santana, Gazelle, Caddis, Wiggins, Camembert and Fyrish – four females and two males. She was a relaxed mum and was quite happy to let us humans come up when she’d just calved, give her some food and check the calf over. One of first reindeer calvings I attended on my own as a new herder was when she gave birth to Camembert, and I remember her being completely at ease, putting up with my inexperienced fumblings as I handled the calf briefly to spray its navel and check it had the requisite number of legs.

Haze’s first set of antlers weren’t too impressive
Delighting in motherhood with her calf Wiggins

Haze passed on her large solid build to her offspring, most notably to Gazelle, Caddis and Fyrish, who are all quite chunky. Caddis is the stand out mother from the next generation, consistently rearing one of the largest calves each year: Mozzarella, Lairig, Viking, Christie and Sherlock. Her latest calf, Sherlock, is a real beast of a reindeer, already acting like a bull by 5 months old… Caddis also manages to pull off a huge set of antlers each year, despite the energy put into her new calf – what an incredible reindeer!

Grown up Caddis with mum Haze behind – their bond remained strong throughout their life
Proud mum Caddis with her calf Christie – Christie has enormous antlers for a calf

Gazelle has reared some lovely male calves, including Aztec and Burns, and whilst Camembert is younger and has only had one calf so far, Celt, he is one of the largest of his year group. He was a special one for me, as I found him as a newborn – the first calf I had found whose mother I had also been the first to find when they themselves were born – I felt like a proud granny…!

Gazelle with her calf Aztec – note her similar style of antlers to Haze
Camembert with her first calf Celt

Haze died in 2016 at the ripe old age of nearly 14, but her family line is continued – to date she has been grandmother to 10 youngsters, and last autumn we chose her son Fyrish as one of our main breeding bulls, so come May there is the potential for the family to become even larger.

Fyrish, potential new father this spring…

Andi

Bond’s bond, or not

In May 2018 a male calf was born in our Reindeer Enclosure. His mother Ladybird was happy and attentive. He would later be called Bond. He and his mother left the enclosure a few weeks later bound for the tops of the hills and away from the heat of the coming summer.

Bond as a calf

The pair was seen together a few times in the summer. Bond was progressing fine and enjoying being a calf in the Cairngorms.

Free-ranging Bond

In the autumn, as always the reindeer came down from the tops of mountains to the lower pastures. I was out looking for them one morning and spotted a large group up on the ski road. I led them down towards the Allt Mor and over Utsi’s Bridge keeping them interested all along with a bag of treats. This time of year we are always keen to see how the calves have got on so I was checking the group for any calves. I spied just one in this group, very small and without any antlers. Usually a calf will have grown a small set of antlers in their first summer. While I walk I try and identify the calf’s mother, but it’s not obvious which female is his mother! He darts around the whole group and gets bunted away by several females. Where is his mother? By a process of elimination we identify him as Bond and indeed his mother Ladybird in missing. It is very rare for a four month old calf to be without its mother. He was very small for his age but he was in perfect health. We thought he must have been without his mother’s milk for some time. Reindeer calves are extremely hardy and are capable of grazing as soon as a few weeks after birth.
Weeks passed and we began to fear the worst about the whereabouts of Ladybird. Until one morning I was out again and spied a group and was relieved to see Ladybird amongst them. I had images like in the movies of long lost relatives reunited but it was not to be. There was no embrace, no high fives. They were often in the same group but would not stick tightly together like other cows and calves. Bond had ‘roughed it’ on his own and that was how it was going to stay. Ladybird’s milk had dried out so their bond was broken.

Bond back in the enclosure in September

Bond is still smaller than the other calves but makes up for it in gusto. He is often one for the first to kick at the bag of feed, but does so gently. I think to make it on your own you must be stoic and gentle if at times a little pushy.

Bond in December

We think around August Bond and Ladybird must have become separated. Dogs can sometimes chase our reindeer and can force a group to split. We are looking forward to watching Bond’s progress and Ladybird is doing fine also.
Dave

Christmas and New year!

I suspect it’s definitely my turn to write a blog and Chris has been very polite and not pestering me but it’s definitely in the back of my mind so I’ll give you a wee sum up of Christmas.

Christmas team 2018… or at least most of it, including dogs.

As always Christmas went very smoothly in 2018. We covered the length and breadth of the country with our furthest north event in Lairg and our furthest south event in Truro. On our busiest weekends we had eight teams out all consisting of 4-6 reindeer and 2 herders. No weekend for me was the same, I had different reindeer, different team mates and I found myself in as far south as Essex and as far north as Tain and Dingwall. I also flew home (not by reindeer and sleigh!) from the depths of the south at one point as Leonie (fellow reindeer herder) swapped places with me. My first weekend away was with Joe and Sheena. They were in training, learning the ropes for the rest of the season. We had an absolute ball and it was nice for them to experience another part of the Reindeer Company having worked up here in the highlands for so long with the reindeer. The three of us all had hoarse voices when we got home from all the singing in the cab of the lorry. The following week was my long drive south, in what felt like the slowest lorry. Olly joined me as far as the Lakes then Eve jumped in there and we headed to the far south covering events south of London over the Saturday and Sunday. We stayed with friends of ours who have a deer farm down there and had some lovely mornings exercising the reindeer and doing a spot of extra training with the team. Leonie then flew south, joined Eve and that team of reindeer while I flew back north. Spending too much time down south isn’t really my cup of tea anymore; it’s nice to be back on home soil! The following weekend I was with real old timer Colin Delap. When I was a kid Colin lived and worked here so is like a brother to me. Having lived in Australia for over ten years he is now back in Scotland and dots in and out helping us out at busy times of year… i.e. Christmas! We did some more local Scottish events that weekend which was nice. I have to say (with some exceptions of course) the Scottish events are much more hospitable than the events down south. There is always tea/coffee and food on tap… Hint Hint! 😉

Oryx relaxing in Peterhead
Cake given to us at our event in Essex by one of our lovely adopters… Thanks Michelle!

The next weekend was completely different to the usual. With Bobby my buddy from the Everest marathon around for a couple of months, Tom (another Everest marathon friend) came to visit us. Tom could only come over on the weekend which meant if he wanted to spend time with us he had to work! He took it all on board and between him and Mo (the reindeer) they had these events down to a T! As a bit of back up, Ruth (ex-herder) joined us for the events as an extra pair of hands as she lived fairly local to them so the four of us had a great time. The following weekend I headed off with Kate who was also taking part in Christmas for her first year. She had already been out with other herders so knew the drill by this point. We had world famous fish and chips in Anstruther, hung out with the posh students of St Andrews and did the longest parade through Linwood. By this point it was getting quite close to Christmas. My next weekend was away with Bobby. But this time there was no Ruth or Tom to help out so instead I took a ‘bomb proof’ reindeer team. In fact Bobby had done the least amount of events out of the whole team, however he took it all in his stride. We joked as we were getting close to our event that the parade will probably all be uphill and he’d have to push the sleigh the whole way… Well we shouldn’t have joked because it was about 1 mile of uphill. Poor Bobby had a quick lesson on pushing the sleigh while I walked merrily at the front leading the two reindeer ‘pulling’ the sleigh and the reindeer at the back plodded along. Ach, Bobby does marathons all over the world, it’ll just go towards his training 😉

Fiona, Tom and Bobby heading off on their first events
Ruth joining the team to make sure we were doing all the right things
Catching up on sleep!

The final days running up to Christmas I dotted back and forth from the farm, doing local events at schools, nurseries and hotels… basically trying to avoid Christmas Fun at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. These guys have got it all under control and having organised the events side of Christmas I didn’t need to be involved with Christmas fun as well. I’m clueless when it came to Christmas fun so I was better off keeping out of their hair. Chris finished off Christmas with me doing Christmas Eve and Christmas day round the final events. We also had youngest herders Oscar and Tilly (Colin Delap’s children) join us on Christmas day. They were leading reindeer and sitting in the sleigh, making sure we were all doing the right jobs of course. It reminds me a lot of when I was a child because myself and Alex would have to join mum and dad on Christmas day going round the local hotels before heading home to celebrate Christmas itself. I wouldn’t know Christmas any other way and wouldn’t have it any other way so delighted to see Oscar and Tilly also getting involved because it is such a great way of life working with the reindeer.

Fiona

Mini Tilly and Oscar on Christmas day. Start em young!

Coming Home

As the Reindeer Centre was shut to the public in January Manouk and I were able to take a couple of weeks off to head off skiing in Austria. We had a great time and Manouk patiently taught me to ski so it was a great success. Any time we head away we are always happy to be home as we live in such a fantastic place and love being around the reindeer everyday. We returned home to find winter had finally arrived properly. Loch Morlich was frozen, snow everywhere and the temperature regularly dropping to minus 10 overnight for almost a week. It’s good to be home and we had a stunning first couple of days back here in the Cairngorms so here are a few of my favourite photos. It just so happened that Fiona had also been away skiing for a couple of weeks  at the same time, slightly further away from home than us, so we all had a big reunion on a sunny snowy day feeding reindeer together, lovely!

Austrian Ski selfie. Always wearing our red jackets ready to lead a hill trip at short notice!
Frozen Loch Morlich, what a sight to arrive home to!
Manouk captured me leading the girls from high up on Windy Ridge down to meet her and Fiona where we would feed them. Ibex and Clouseau leading the way.
Chelsea and Pavlova, amongst others, up on a snoy and sunny WIndy Ridge.
Fi was delighted to see DIxie as always after a couple of weeks away herself.
Manouk counting all our girls, thankfully we didn’t forget any names after two weeks sithout seeing any reindeer!

Chris

A big thank you to greedy reindeer

At the moment we do our hill trips with our free ranging females that are roaming around the Cairngorms. As the word free ranging suggests, they are free to go as far as they like. This also means that, if we want to have a trip that doesn’t take up the whole day and that is doable for most people, every morning we have to convince the reindeer to come to an area that is easily accessible.

Jaffa leading the girls on a beautiful morning high on the hills.

 

For this reason, we set off first thing in the morning with 2 members of staff to go and find them and to lead them nearer to a carpark. We usually have a rough idea of the area where the reindeer are from the day before. However, reindeer walk at a rapid pace and could move from one place to another in a short timespan, so this often involves some sort of search. Besides that, they are often quite far out, and as reindeer like to go uphill, so must we in the early morning. When we then finally find the herd, it can take some time to convince them to go down the hill with us. That’s where some reindeer come in very handy: the greedy ones. We will have a wee bag of handfeed, and, knowing if they get to us first they will get a handful, there are always a few that are on their feet right away to follow us. And as the Dutch like to say: ‘if one sheep crosses the dam, the others will follow’ – only it’s reindeer. And they don’t cross a dam, they go down a hill. Anyhow. By having a handful of reindeer interested in following us, we are usually able to get the whole herd on their feet and get them to follow us to a nice spot before the 11am visit arrives. Without greedy reindeer our lives would be a lot more difficult!  Thanks Okapi, Fly, Lace, Lulu, Sika, Ibex, Jaffa, and all of the other ones I might have forgotten here!

Manouk

 

Dixie and Lulu
Fly

 

Ibex, Clouseau and Bond

 

Okapi

 

Camouflaged reindeer

Last week we had a brief thaw of the snow, it’s an awful lot harder to spot the reindeer! The first few photos show how well they blend in with their surroundings in these conditions. Luckily they don’t hide and come running for food whenever we call them and they can hear us, as politely demonstrate here 😊. Enjoy some photos of our freeranging herd!

The females kept us waiting last Thursday as they meandered down off the mountains slowly to meet us.
Chris leading the likes of Frost, Wapiti, Angua, Fly and Tap in for the final few metres.
Fly leading the herd in as she does most days.

Bond’s beard blowing beautifully in the breeze.
Dave giving the calves their bonus feed.
Camouflaged reindeer running down the hillside
Reindeer can be quite tricky to spot far away on patchy snow!
Chris got fed up of waiting for the reindeer so went to slide down the snowbanks 🙂

Manouk