Why Adopt a Reindeer?
People often ask me ‘why do you adopt a reindeer of all things?’ Little do they know I could spend the next 6 hours explaining why; just how lovely they are, relaxing to be with and such gentle creatures to watch. You get free hill trips where you can walk on to the hill and hand feed them, you get certificates and photographs and surprise goodies in your adoption packs every year. You get newsletters twice per year and the adoption money goes straight to supporting the herd, I could go on……but I don’t.
If the truth be known I’ve never adopted a reindeer – they always adopt me, I just pay for the privilege. My first adoptee was Indigo back in 2003. A calm and lovable character who always had her nose in my pocket even when all feed had disappeared from my hands. I fell in love with her at first sight and continued with the adoption until her sad demise. I was lucky enough to be offered one of Indigo’s antlers which my husband, Colin, made a pair of earrings out of for me – I will treasure those forever. After Indigo died I adopted Cheer in 2014, Indigo’s great granddaughter. A very quiet and shy reindeer, not an enthusiastic hand feeder like Indigo but easy to spot, which for me is a distinct advantage! For the past 3 years I have adopted Bumble, as far as I’m concerned one of the best reindeer there has been in the herd.
However, Colin disagrees as his adopted reindeer is the majestic Olympic who adopted Colin at a Lincoln Christmas event in 2017. On this occasion Colin and I just have to agree to disagree.
This month I have adopted another impressive character Svalbard. I have spent these two weeks volunteering by hand feeding him and getting to know his lovable if not occasionally grumpy ways with people. He’s an enthusiastic hand feeder but when the food has gone he’s on his way, thank you! Although his antlers aren’t yet up to his normal impressive spread they are growing so fast you could almost sit and watch them grow to maturity.
I am currently a student at Salford University in greater Manchester, where I study wildlife conservation and practical conservation. At the university I was part of the climbing club and use to go climbing regularly to the cCairngorm National Park during the summer and winter months. During our time up there I had always wanted to visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, but just never really had the opportunity to go visit the centre and the herd.
Until around two summers ago, me and my mum had been travelling the north east coast of Scotland and were making our way up to Inverness. Once we had reached Aviemore I finally got the chance to visit the reindeer up in the hill enclosure. The first reindeer herders that I met were Dave and Lottie and the first reindeer that I fully remember meeting were Glenshee and Viking.
After visiting I wanted to spend more time with the reindeer and the people who managed the herd, so I applied to be a volunteer. Whilst I was a volunteer I had amazing hands on experience with the reindeer and learnt more about how they can live and thrive in the Cairngorm Mountains. I was lucky enough to spend time with the reindeer twins, as well as with some of the male reindeer during the time the velvet was beginning to strip from their antlers.
After my week volunteering I went on my university placement year, and managed to finish my 9 months of placement earlier than expected, and therefore I could accept a job at the reindeer centre. I am currently working as a reindeer herder for the summer. I have been living and working at the centre now for a couple of months now and I absolutely love it.
Bagheera was born in 1994 when we named the reindeer calves that year after story book characters, Bagheera being the black panther in the Jungle Book which, hands down is one of my favourites! His mother, Sami, was a very sweet and very dark reindeer. She only ever grew one antler so stood out from the crowd and like most reindeer in our herd, loved her food! She was my first memory of having a favourite reindeer in the herd. His brother Dubh was actually hand reared by ourselves as poor old Sami passed away as an old lady. He was a real character in but very different to Bagheera and also much paler in colour so he must have got that from his fathers side.
Bagheera was your classic ‘bomb proof’ Christmas reindeer. He toured the country in November and December joining a team of other reindeer and herders spreading the Christmas joy. He was always a great role model to the other younger Christmas reindeer and he grew the most impressive antlers with so many points. His super dark colouring was really quite striking and in the summer months when their coat is much finer and darker he was almost jet black.
Bagheera grew old gracefully and lived to the grand age of 17 which considering they live 12-14 years he was doing really well and just passed away of old age. Some reindeer don’t live as long as we would like and trust me some reindeer live longer than we would like 😉 Nah kidding, they are all characters and make up this wonderful herd in their own way whether it be the nicest most docile Christmas reindeer or the wildest most timid one who gives us the run around when we are herding on the Cairngorms… there is always one. I guess it keeps us fit!
Around mid March Fly, one of our mature female reindeer started to grow her antlers. March is pretty early but I suspect due to a warmer winter than we usually have and possibly the growth of vegetation starting earlier this has brought on an early antler growth in some reindeer. Fly has certainly grown some of the biggest antlers we have seen in female reindeer over the years, as well as producing some of our biggest calves so she’s certainly an asset to our herd and is now the grand age of 12… yet still looking amazing!
Here is a sequence of photos over 9 weeks showing how incredibly fast Fly’s antlers were growing.
So there you have it, a nine week antler growth process. It really is amazing how fast antler can grow and this is proof in the pudding. Thank you Fly for being such a great candidate.
Congo was one of those reindeer who all of us (older herders) here at the Centre remember so well and wish we had more time with him. However the time we did have with him was definitely quality as he was such a lovely reindeer. One of his claims to fame was, after being trained as a three year old to wear harness and pull the sleigh he was so good that one year later he was the trainer. So the new Christmas reindeer that year would be trained alongside Congo as he was such a pro.
Born in 2005, Congo’s mum was a lovely female called Lady. She was named after the Disney cartoon ‘Lady and the Tramp’ and lived to a great age. His father was a really dark male we brought over from Sweden in 2004 called Sarek. Like Lady he also had a lovely nature so Congo had everything going for him really. Congo was a really beautiful reindeer, dark features, lovely shapely antlers and the perfect character to go with it. I had him in my team during one of the earlier years I took part in the Christmas tour. In fact it was the first Christmas I did having just passed my HGV driving test so I hope I drove him around the country comfortably!
I wasn’t actually around during Congo’s younger years as I was working away and travelling the world and considering he died at only 6 years old he made a big impact on me so it just shows how special he was. Unfortunately there are no close relations through his mothers line and it’s much harder to tell through his father’s line as back in the day our record keeping wasn’t quite as up-to-scratch as it is now. That would be thanks to Hen and her methodical office work and not my blasé nature!
Unfortunately at the age of 6 years Congo picked up a disease transmitted by ticks (the bane of our reindeer lives!) called Louping-ill. It was something we hadn’t seen before in our reindeer so it was a real worry at the time and how to deal with it and more importantly how to fix it. Unfortunately Congo wasn’t the only one in autumn 2011 we lost to this particular disease so there must have been a vicious strain of it going around at the time.
So here’s to Congo. A true gent in the reindeer world and a favourite amongst us herders. It’s always nice to remember such characters who have come and gone through the herd, even if it was short lived.
‘You’re never to old to volunteer at the Reindeer Centre’ said Mel as we walked reindeer around St. Marks garden in the middle of Lincoln. We were helping out with the Christmas event.
So we offered. Two, ‘older generation’, only relatively fit people, but willing and still able to do most domestic chores we thought it was a great idea. It has turned out to be exhilarating, enjoyable and far too addictive for words, we have now been back 5 times and still loving it.
To put our past experience into context, we have adopted at least one reindeer for the last 17 years and have taken our two boys to visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd since 1989. I started life as an adopter by being adopted by Indigo during one particular hill visit! A calm and lovable character who always had her nose in my pocket even when all feed had disappeared from my hands. I fell in love with her at first sight in 2002. After she died I adopted Cheer. A very quiet and shy reindeer, not an enthusiastic hand feeder like Indigo but easy to spot, which for me is a distinct advantage! For the past 3 years I have adopted Bumble, as far as I’m concerned one of the best reindeer in today’s herd. Colin adopts Olympic, a truly majestic animal who really adopted Colin at a Christmas event we were helping at in 2017 again in Lincoln.
Therefore we were not unfamiliar with the principles of the reindeer centre or being around the reindeer on the hill. We were both very experienced mountaineers and have extensive walking experience in the Cairngorm Mountains. An amazing place when treated with respect, so daily visits to the hill did not come with any apprehension.
We rent accommodation in Aviemore for between one and three weeks at a time to make the experience a working as well as a relaxing one, after all we need rest days at our age?
The welcome at Reindeer House is always so wonderful and after a few hours we feel as though we have never been away. There are always plenty of jobs to do but our favourite is still the 11oclock hill visit come rain, shine but preferably deep snow for me.
Each member of staff have their jobs to do and we fit in comfortably. I usually help in the shop from 10oclock with tickets for the hill visit, fetching wellie boots for lending out, usually collecting the size asked for, then the next size up or down until a comfortable agreement is reached. We usually have a variety of socks available for those who need them because wellie boots can be very cold particularly in the snow. However, for some reason visitors always return the wellie boots but not the socks, even though we wash them before re-use. My solution to this problem recently has been a request in our local church’s Pews News asking for unwanted socks and in only four weeks accumulated 230 pairs of socks plus hats and scarves! That should keep Reindeer House well stocked for a while yet.
Each day one of the regular herders lead the daily hill trip and Colin and I usually bring up the rear, making sure everyone is making steady progress and closing gates behind the group. It always amazes me how determined some people are to get the opportunity to hand feed the reindeer. Colin and I helped a lady who had recently had knee replacements and was walking with two sticks but she made it up onto the mountain and back in snow and ice such was her determination to succeed and like us she was of the more mature generation.
Colin and I usually give out the hand feed after the herders have put out the main feed and counted and checked the reindeer. The visitors hold out their cupped hands as dutifully instructed and before long the same pairs of hands are reappearing! Our challenge is to make sure everyone who wants to has had at least one chance to feed a reindeer, which is why most people come of course. And really, who couldn’t resist the appealing eyes of Saxon? Just 8 months old.
Eventually, reindeer well fed and visitors happy the party begins to disperse as visitors head back independently to the car park. Feed bags collected and stuffed into rucksacks we make sure we are last off the hill and the reindeer are settled. We head for Reindeer House and a well deserved lunch.
The afternoon jobs usually start off with me clearing the paddocks and overnight woodland area of reindeer droppings ready to be transported to the farm for composting. I often help out in the shop, restocking the shelves or dealing with visitors to the paddocks. Colin usually washes the lunch pots then the wellie boots or you may find him wandering around the paddocks chatting with visitors. December volunteering is the busiest when at the weekends I do crafts with the children in the BBQ hut and Colin keeps the paddocks clean and Santa occupied with excited children.
After filling the troughs with feed in the woods and calling the reindeer through, we help tidy and lock up ready for another adventure tomorrow.
Within a herd of 150 reindeer there are favourites, bold ones, greedy ones and unusual ones that we all talk about and you will hear about, however, 150 is a lot of reindeer and I am sure there are a few out there that you haven’t heard of so much so here is a blog to introduce them. These reindeer are no less friendly but with others being such bold characters they tend to take a back step, out of the lime light.
Santana was born in 2016, the year we named them after artists and bands and she is a lovely little female. She comes from a very well-known family. Her mother was Haze and sisters Gazelle, Caddis and Camembert. Her brother Fyrish who was one of our main breeding bulls last year. She definitely isn’t as bold as her siblings though. For many years she kept herself to herself, however over the more recent years I have definitely grown a soft spot for Santana and she has clocked onto the extra feeding for the older reindeer in the herd. A specific story I remember was during the calving season a few years back and Santana calved that morning. I went down to bring her into our area where other cows had their calves and as I approached her I was expecting to push her towards the open gates as I hadn’t worked with her much in the past and I just expected her to be a bit more timid, especially having just calved. So as I got closer and closer to her, she seemed pretty settled, even a bit interested in what I was doing or maybe just the bag of food I had with me. Then before I knew it I had my arm around her neck popping a halter on. She didn’t bat an eye lid and followed in in with her new bundle of joy hot on her heels!
I started with a female reindeer so here is one of our male Christmas reindeer now, Bingo. Bingo is fairly aloof and I wouldn’t call him timid because he has taken part in some of our busiest events and been an absolute star, but he’s not one for a fuss and when it comes to catching him he can be quite canny. He tends to slink around in the background, not join in with hand feeding and definitely keeps us fit when he decides otherwise when bringing the herd into the shed. His mother Jade, I would say was one of the more timid females, however other members of his family have been some of the tamest and greediest reindeer in the herd over the years but keeping us on our toes obviously floats his boat!
Roule, a 6 year old breeding female over the years has given us the run around… all I can say is thank goodness she is a female and we don’t have to work with her too much. Considering her mother, Rusa was probably one of the greediest females in our herd, back in the day, Roule was the polar opposite and it wasn’t due to her not getting enough handling as a calf… that she got, but It’s just her nature I guess. Brother Atlantic used to be quite head strong but in his older years has mellowed and other brother Hamish is just a massive softy so it just proves that genetics have a huge amount to play when it comes to each individual reindeer and their character. Luckily her latest calf Frost hasn’t followed in his mothers footprints and he is actually a lovely wee chap. Bodes well for his future as one of our Christmas reindeer.
As a calf, Scolty was quite hard work and never really got any tamer. As a result of being a bit more timid we made sure he got lots of handling as a calf and yearling to make the process of becoming a Christmas reindeer better from the age of three onwards. And then he proved us all wrong! Last October we trained him to harness and he went out on Christmas tour visiting various towns across the country spreading the Christmas joy. He was an absolute star! He took everything in his stride and by the end of the tour he was as well trained, if not better, than some of the reindeer who had been doing it for years. I had him out myself and he was an absolute pleasure to work with, and on some occasions was so chilled out in the pen he fell fast asleep.
That’s a few more reindeer you may, or may not have known so well but hopefully I have done them justice in a wee write up. There are lots of reindeer in the herd who all deserve a mention but their time will come.
All farmers and animal keepers know the saying. It’s a phrase often learnt the hard way but once learnt, it’s never forgotten. It’s only too easily remembered though when everything, it seems, is going tits up…
‘When you have livestock, you have dead stock’.
The subject of death might seem an odd choice for a blog but it’s part and parcel of working with animals and therefore not something to be hidden, or never mentioned. I feel that in this sort of job, it could be all too easy to brush over losses, but sometimes people do like a little frankness and want to know more (aren’t I brave?!).
Reindeer probably don’t live as long as many people expect, the average age being around 11-13, so naturally there is a turnover of quite a few animals per year. As to be expected, we have years with good survival rates and some with bad, so therefore we purposely vary our calving numbers from year to year in an effort to hold the herd at around 150 animals. This way we control our overall number without ever having to cull.
But animals being animals, they can find all sorts of ways to turn up their toes before their time, and sometimes we do find ourselves fighting a losing battle with a particular reindeer. Though I must say, in recent times there thankfully hasn’t been quite such a dramatic loss as one I unearthed in ancient diaries of Mr Utsi’s, detailing a bull in the 50s who was found drowned, having become accidentally tangled in wire and then blown into a loch – such is the wildness of the winter weather here at times. What a terrible way to go, and an incredibly hard loss for Mr Utsi, especially in the days when the herd was in its infancy. A striking example of the fact that sometimes, accidents do just happen, however much you try to ensure that they don’t.
In latter years, ticks have been the cause of many a loss in the herd. Twenty years or so ago, we lost reindeer after reindeer until we got to grips with a particular illness that reindeer can suffer which is transmitted by ticks, and though we are on top of it nowadays, having learnt which vaccinations do and don’t work and how often they should be used (no veterinary drugs come with detailed instructions specifically for reindeer!), it does still rear its ugly head every now and then. Most of the time we treat the affected reindeer successfully, but we still do lose reindeer to it on occasion, and one such loss hit us particularly hard last autumn. That was Fergus, our big, handsome three year old bull. If you’ve followed us via our blog and social media pages over the last few years, you’ll have heard all about Fergus, hand-reared in 2015 after his mum died. From the underdog in the herd as a calf he had turned into the biggest, most impressive reindeer of his year, so his death really, really hurt.
Spring is often the most difficult time for reindeer, coinciding with the highest concentration of ticks. In spring, before the good grazing appears, the reindeer have just made it through the winter using up their fat reserves as they go, so their bodies are at a low ebb. This makes them more vulnerable to illness, with lowered immune systems, and it’s probably the most problematic time of year for them as a result. Into the summer and they put on weight, rolling in fat by around August, standing them in good stead for the winter months to come. That said, autumn can be hard too with another spike in the tick numbers coupled with a change in diet for many of the reindeer, females in particular, as they drop from the high tops of the mountains to the lower slopes.
You may remember that in 2018 we had live twins born for the first time in the history of the herd, but that in the early autumn we lost the smaller one, Hutch. We think his immune system just wasn’t strong enough to cope with illness after a difficult start in life, and very sadly his twin Starsky also died, about 6 weeks later. The curse of the autumn months, but in hindsight I think we can be pretty proud to have got them right through the summer when they were so much smaller than their compatriots – reindeer aren’t designed to have twins for a reason. We had great fun with them throughout the summer and will look back on their time with happy memories as, I think, will everyone who met them.
I can fully appreciate how upsetting it can be when people have enjoyed meeting a particular reindeer, and later find out that they’ve died. For us, working as closely as we do and investing a huge amount of love, time and effort into each individual, it can be utterly soul destroying when we lose them. In order to work with animals we have to learn to at least deal with death, but coping doesn’t mean we’re hardened to it – the atmosphere in the house when a reindeer has died is subdued and keeping a cheerful attitude with visitors is difficult. Ironically, it’s often on these days that a visitor will announce that we have the “best job in the world” …
One aspect that can make the loss of a reindeer even harder is then having to write to that reindeer’s adopters to let them know the sad news. In particular, my heart will sink when I realise that I have to let so-and-so know when it’s not too long after they have lost a previous adoptee, but this is the way that luck works, and sometimes it does happen. Conversely, when our ancient female Lilac passed away last year, there were a couple of adopters who had adopted her for almost her entire life of 19 years!
We always do our best to address envelopes to the parents of an adopting child in case they want to break the news themselves, and over the years I’ve had a few visiting adopters here at the Centre, small child in tow, gesturing frantically to me over the child’s head, while saying how sad it is that their adopted reindeer has had to move back to Lapland to live with Santa! However, it is easy to make a small mistake on a computer, so if you find yourself one day receiving a letter addressed to your parents but you’re in your 40s, for the love of God let us know because we’ve ticked the wrong box on the database!
Nobody can be completely guilt free in what they choose to do through life whether it be what they eat, wear or decide to go on holiday by jumping on an aeroplane. However, everyone can do the small things which will add up and help towards a better and more sustainable environment. Here is how we have started at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and obviously we hope to do more in the future.
Two years ago we made a fairly massive purchase at the Reindeer Centre. We got an electric car. As a result, a free electric point was installed at our centre through the incentive of getting the vehicle and it’s been a great success. We use it for dotting up and down the hill which is only a 6 mile round trip each time so it makes a lot of sense. We don’t tend to use it to go further than Aviemore (12 mile round trip) but mainly because the mileage can’t really be trusted with a full charge only giving you 70 miles. Although going downhill means you can gain some miles as soon as you hit an uphill, which there are quite a lot of in Scotland, you rapidly lose those miles.
Andi is chief of shop stock!!! She is always trying to source locally produced souvenirs and gifts for us to sell in our Shop. I make crafts and jewellery out of the reindeer antler, Andi makes fishing flies from reindeer hair, Manouk whittles away at green wood making reindeer figurines and ‘make your own reindeer’ packs, Ali sews together tartan clips and bows, the list goes on. Andi has also sourced biodegradable pens, re-useable coffee cups and tote bags which is great, plus free advertising when folk are out and about doing their shopping and getting a brew. We are always trying to find the happy medium in what we sell and offer so these are all great steps being made. Well done Andi!
Something you all want to know I’m sure… Reindeer herders are now using 100% recycled toilet paper! Buying in bulk from a company aptly name ‘Who Gives a Crap’ (look them up!) they are determined to prove that toilet paper is about more than just wiping bums. They make all their products with environmentally friendly materials, and also donate 50% of there profits to help build toilets for those in need. To date they’ve donated over $1.8m Aussie dollars (that’s the equivalent of over £1,000,000!) to charity and saved a heck of a lot of trees, water and energy. Not bad for a toilet paper company, eh?
Linking this back to the reindeer as a species and their natural environment, by doing these small things it helps with the bigger picture. It’s ironic really that man is extracting energy from the Arctic in the forms of oil and gas and here is a well-adapted animal in that same habitat adapted to conserve it’s energy. The Arctic is a ‘canary in the coal mine’ – the first area in the world to alert man to the affects of climate change and global warming. Melting permafrost, unexplained sinkholes in the tundra, vanishing pack ice, rapid freeze/thaw of snow and invasions of insects more commonly associated with the southerly climes are all effects of human induced climate change. It’s not only the Arctic being affected, all over the world extreme weather patterns are causing carnage to those living there whether it be man or animal. One wonders what the future holds!
So guys and girls I’m sure you heard it before and will continue to hear it again – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! We’ve started here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, good luck with your own journey.
Following from a previous blog about Haze’s dynasty, I thought Fly was another good candidate to look at. Like Haze, she is also a big, striking reindeer, not necessarily the friendliest – she likes her own space – but a dependable leader of the herd and a fantastic mother.
Fly was born in our “green theme” year in 2007, and is probably the largest female in the herd today – she’s a clear inch taller than any of the others. She also grows beautiful large antlers, whilst rearing a calf most years – a sign of a strong healthy reindeer as it takes a huge amount of energy for both of these activities and most reindeer will focus on one or the other rather than both.
Fly reared her first calf, Custard, when she was two – whilst reindeer are perfectly capable of rearing calves at this age, we try to make them wait until they’re a bit more mature at three years old. Fly evidently thought differently, and reliably reared a big strong calf in 2009 (Custard), 2010 (Dragonfly), 2011 (Domino), 2012 (Balmoral), 2013 (Anster), 2014 (Hudson) and 2015 (Aonach). At that point we decided she should definitely have a bit of time off!
In 2015 and 2016, we decided to run Balmoral, Fly’s son, as one of our breeding bulls, and he fathered a lovely selection of youngsters, including Inca, Christie, Burns, Shakespeare and Dante. We are hoping that Inca may have a calf of her own this May.
Fly’s only daughter, Custard, reared several calves of her own – Coe, Cream, Ceram and Tang – and Cream has also been a mum, though unfortunately her calf didn’t survive. Hopefully she may have better luck this year.
Fly has, so far, been a mother seven times, a grandmother eighteen times, and a great-grandmother once, and she’s still in full fitness and looking like she’s got many years ahead of her!