How Isla became a reindeer herder…

The lovely Isla with one of her favourite reindeer – Busby!

The first time I met the reindeer here at Cairngorm, I was just four years old and a bridesmaid at my mum’s wedding. Mum, being as extravagant as she is, decided she wanted the reindeer to pull the sleigh for us from the service to the party venue. Once we were on the sleigh I was quickly alarmed about the health and safety, as there were no seatbelts on board. Four-year-old me obviously thinking the reindeer would be flying us there! As we were just setting off, I whispered to my cousin “hold on tight, we are about to take off” but was quickly relived and slightly disappointed when I realised the reindeer would just be walking us there.

Four year old Isla – closest to the camera holding on tightly to her cousin. The reindeer is Wallace.
The sleigh firmly attached to the ground, phew!
The happy couple off to the party.

After the wedding it then became a tradition to come and visit the reindeer before Christmas. Even adopting Elvis as a two-year-old boy and always loving getting my certificate through the post before Christmas. Elvis lived to be one of the oldest males in the herd, before sadly passing away this August at the impressive age of 17!

Elvis as a two year old bull in 2008 – the year Isla adopted him.

During the spring this year, just as I was leaving school. I went round to visit my ‘Fairy God Mother’ Sheena, one of the herders here at the Reindeer Center. After explaining to her that I wasn’t sure what to do after school and fancied a change she suggested I got in touch to see if I could work the summer here with the reindeer.

So, after a few back and forth emails (me not being the best at replying during my exams), we eventually arranged a trial day for me to come and meet some of the herders and the reindeer of course. I was pretty nervous but was instantly put at ease when greeted by Ruth and Lisette with big smiles on their faces. I was thrown right in at the deep end as my first task was going up the hill to help give one of the reindeer an injection as she had a sore foot. I quickly realised that having dogs and occasionally helping my granny muck out her horse maybe didn’t quite qualify as having experience working with animals! But I like to think I’m a quick learner. And was super eager to get stuck as I loved the idea of walking up the hills everyday to look after the herd.

Not a bad office!

After a successful trial day, I was then offered to come work the summer here at the Centre which I was super excited for! I started at the end of May, and the weather was amazing! Blue skies everyday for about a month, eventually this bubble did bust. And I then had the proper Scottish herder experience. But even in the rain I still couldn’t believe that it was my job to walk up hills and find reindeer. I even didn’t mind taking a reindeer’s temperature (let’s just say it doesn’t go in their mouths) if it meant I could spend the morning up the hill with the herd! Over the summer I learnt so many new skills and everyone was so patient with me helping me to learn about these beautiful animals.

When Isla first started it was weeks of sunshine and moulting reindeer.
It’s a tough job getting to know all the calves when they come back into the enclosure in the autumn, like wee Shannon here.
Isla this time not sitting on the sleigh but working alongside Druid and Haricot at the back of it this autumn.
Breeding bull Kernel this autumn,
Reindeer during the first decent snow of 2023.

When chatting in the office I let it slip about the reindeer being at mum’s wedding, Our resident Blog Queen Ruth was insistent that it would make the perfect Christmassy blog!

We also realised that Hen, another one of the herders here, was at the wedding as well leading the sleigh! Which is hilarious, looking back on the wedding photos we actually found one of her at the front of the sleigh! (Note from Hen: also a way to make her feel really, really old…)

The back of Hen’s head at the wedding!

I have had the best 7 months here at the Centre and have loved getting to know all the reindeer and the herders of course! I’m off for a new adventure in the New Year but I’m sure I’ll be back soon!! If they’ll have me 😉

Druid thinks Isla should definitely return!
Isla chilling out with Cicero.

Isla

Well hello boys!

In the autumn, we move all of our entire males (apart from the 2 or 3 lucky chosen breeding bulls) over to our hill farm, away from the females and out of trouble for the duration of the breeding season. With no hint of love on the air, this keeps them calmer and easier to manage, though they still enjoy play-fighting. By December the rut is over and our breeding bulls have also joined them, so there is a slight vibe of an all-boys hangout. As Tilly is caring for these fellas every day, and she is less up on her social media, I thought I’d take the opportunity to grab some photos for you all this week when I was over at the hill farm.

Boys hanging out chilling in the sunshine on the hill
Tub heading over to see what’s up
Spartan is a picture of relaxation! Pure white yearling 99, and Cornetto are closest to camera.
Jester and Scoop resting up for winter
Yearling males 99, Kulfi, Cornetto and Zoom
The bulls spend a lot of time practicing their tussling skills – here’s a friendly bout between 99 and Zoom
2-year-old Akubra looks a bit sleepy for tussling just now!
2 year old Cowboy (centre) is certainly in charge of yearlings Calippo (left) and Iskrem (right)
Too close Calippo!
Pure white 99
The more mature bulls have already cast their antlers. Spartan and Sherlock are now getting a rest from carrying all that weight on their heads!
Look at that big fuzzy nose! Mr Morse.
Mr Whippy is the biggest of the yearlings
Like some of the other young bulls, Zap has broken parts of his antlers. He’ll grow back a full set next year after casting this set, a completely natural process.
Sunny, who we hand-reared last year. He’s grown into a very handsome fella.
Big Morse and young Kulfi enjoying the winter sun.

Andi

Christmas shopping

Once again, the festive season is sneaking up on us, and for anyone who is a wee bit stuck for gift ideas, we’ve got lots of options on our webshop.

Adoption pack

For the reindeer fanatic in your life, how about adopting the Herd for them? As an adopter, you become one of our valued supporters and in return for your financial support, you will receive a certificate and photograph of the reindeer and additional information about reindeer along with two newsletters over the year. For UK adopters, we also send a few unique souvenirs. You can also visit the herd for free (one person admitted free per adoption). The adoption subscriptions are spent entirely on the upkeep of the reindeer including their food and welfare in the form of medicines and veterinary care. Click here to find out more.

All sorts of stationary – notepads, pens and pencils.

Toys and cuddly keyrings for all ages.

Handy eco cotton pouch, and locally made leather bookmarks.

Tea towels of different colours, reusable travel cups, locally made wooden coasters and branded thimbles.

A selection of books, telling the story of the herd.

All of these, and lots more, can be found on our webshop by clicking here. Happy shopping!

2020 calves – then and now (Part 1 – the females).

I was recently looking back over photos from the calving season in 2020. This was the first calving season I had worked and it was in the middle of lockdown with fewer staff working so I was very lucky to be totally immersed in what was a very busy month! The calves born in 2020 are now three years old and some of them have had their own calves for the first time this year. I thought it would be nice to look back on a few favourites and how they have changed over the last few years.

Note: This started out being a fairly short blog just going through a couple of my favourite calves but very soon became longer and longer… Turns out I have a real soft-spot for the 2020 calves with lots and lots of favourites amongst them! I decided to split the males and females and make it into two blogs otherwise there was no way anyone would read all the way to the bottom. Part 2 is now online too.

2020 calves heading out to free-range.

Holy Moley

First and foremost, Holy Moley was the first calf born in 2020, the first new-born calf I had ever seen, and still to this day, I maintain she was the most beautiful calf ever to be born. Not that I’m biased.

New-born Holy Moley.

Anyone who watched ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’ (Channel 4, first broadcast on Christmas Eve 2020) will be well aware that Holy Moley didn’t have the easiest start but she’s done really well over the last couple of years and has grown up into a strong, feisty and very cheeky young reindeer! Her name is often accompanied by the word ‘diva’ which I think explains a lot. 

Lotti and Holy Moley.

Sunflower

The most distinguishing feature I remember about Sunflower when she was a calf was the perfect arrow pointing along her back towards her head. We joked that the arrow was to show to ‘insert food here’.

Insert food here.

Sunflower’s arrow sadly didn’t stay longer than her calf coat but luckily we’re pretty well practiced at which end reindeer food goes! Sunflower has grown up to be such a lovely lass. She’s tame but not pushy. She’s also one of the tallest of the female reindeer her age, go Sunflower!!

Sunflower in the snow.
Sunflower out free ranging.

Pumpkin

When Pumpkin was a day or so old it was time to bring her from where she was born to a bit closer by and into our creche area to keep an eye on her. Me and Olly went to fetch Pagan and Pumpkin but about half-way through the walk Pumpkin was getting tired, as it was a long walk for brand new legs, so instead I had to carry her in, what a hardship!!!

Lotti and Pumpkin.

Pumpkin is very greedy much like the rest of her family. She’s usually one of the first in line for handfeeding, so if any of you reading this have been on a hill trip in the winter, you’ve probably met her.

Flax

Ibex, Flax’s mum, was another experienced mum who was totally chilled out around us as we treated and checked her calf. She was also the first reindeer who I’d watched eat her afterbirth which was amazing to see! Flax was born on a beautiful sunny day so we enjoyed ten minutes or so hanging out with the two of them before leaving Ibex to finish her lichen in peace.

Fiona, Flax and Ibex.
Ibex cleaning Flax.

Flax is Ibex’s last calf, so she’s not been pushed away after the birth of a younger sibling. As a result, Flax and Ibex are as thick as thieves and usually still at each other’s sides. Flax can be bossy and greedy just like her mum!

Flax with a snowy nose.

Pip

Pip was Kipling’s first ever calf and motherhood definitely took a little getting used to for Kipling. For the first couple of days when we went to feed them Kipling would come charging over for the feed and we would spend the next five minutes searching for her calf who would be left behind somewhere totally unaware that her mother seemed to have chosen feed over her. After the first week or so, Pip was mobile enough to stick with Kipling easily though. Kipling is Joe’s favourite reindeer and he caught and treated Pip when she was first born so when it came to naming Joe asked if he could name her Pip in memory of his dog who had had the same name.

New-born Pip.
Joe, Kipling and Pip.
Joe and Pip.

Pip has grown up into a very independent young female, she’s rarely with the rest of her family and is quite different from them in personality. Her mum Kipling is probably one of the tamest reindeer in our herd whereas Pip has a wee bit of a wild streak. Ruth thinks that if Pip was a human she’d be a real party girl and I think she’s right!

Party girl Pip spending the February half-term in the Paddocks.

Chickpea

At the end of calving in 2020, Angua was the only cows left to calve. When we went to feed the herd one morning she wasn’t with the herd, so we set off around the enclosure to try to find her and her new-born calf, unfortunately no luck! She was nowhere to be seen! We continued to search for the next few days without any success and were all getting more and more worried, particularly as it was Angua’s first time calving. A couple of days later, after lots of searching, we were bringing the herd in for their breakfast and suddenly realised there was one extra calf than the day before!

Andi and Chickpea having a cuddle.

Chickpea is fairly shy in nature, so we’ve spent lots of time over the last three years bribing her with food. This has definitely worked; you can now see her licking her lips whenever one of the herders approaches with a bag of extra tasty food.

Ruth, Chickpea and Lotti.
Chickpea licking her lips at the white bag – March 2023.

Peanut

Now Peanut came as a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t actually thought that her mum, Roule, was pregnant. Then as we were splitting the pregnant females to stay in the enclosure and the non-pregnant ones to go back out we took a second look at her and decided that her belly looked rather wide, sure enough a few weeks later, Peanut was born.

Peanut.

Peanut has become tamer and tamer over the last three years and in 2022 she also surprised us by having her first calf who we have named Nuii. Nuii is definitely one of my favourite of our ice-creams – she’s a real sweetie!

Peanut in the snow.

Lotti

A Christmas Interrogation (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hen

A Christmas Interrogation (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery, back in 2001

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

Scolty. The ultimate ‘Christmas reindeer’?

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

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

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

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

Cowbridge parade, complete with 6′ elves.

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

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

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

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

Lovely Nuii!

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

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

More to follow in a future blog!

Hen

Newsletter chaos!

Having been here for a long time, the logistics of sending out the bi-annual newsletter that is posted to all our reindeer adopters has, almost by default, become Andi and I’s domain. The two newsletters are sent out in June and October, so for the 6 weeks or so beforehand I spend my time in a bit of a flap, trying to coordinate everything at the same time as doing all the other, day-to-day work (I would say ‘we’ spend our time in a flap, but realistically, it’s probably just me. I’m not known for calmness under pressure. Andi is much more unflappable than I am).

Work on the June newsletter is very much intermittent in May, as May is the calving season for the reindeer and we are usually rushed off our feet, so by the first half of June I am tearing my hair out over it. It needs to be out in the post to all 1800(ish) adopters by around the 20th June, so I am liable to getting a little bit frantic at times! Once upon a time we used to handwrite some additional information about each person’s adopted reindeer that was sent out with the newsletter, but those days are long since passed as our number of adopters has grown significantly over the last 15 years or so. Nowadays, for the June edition, we type a section of bumff about each reindeer, count how many need printed for each individual, and print them on 1/3 A4 sized slips. Much easier. Except that actually it takes ages to write them in the first place as almost every single one of the ~150 reindeer in the herd have adopters – years ago I wrote the entire lot myself, ran a word count and the overall total was longer than my university thesis had been! (I’m confident I know more about reindeer than limpets these days though…) In recent years I’ve managed to palm this job off on Andi, who does the bulk, with myself, Lotti and Ruth taking occasional turns.

The October 2022 newsletter photo, of Morse and his girls earlier in the month (though I did miscalculate and we ran out of these photos towards the end so a few of you will have received a different picture…)

The October newsletter goes out with a photo of the herd instead of individual info about each reindeer, with some more general info about how the year is going printed on the reverse. September is a hugely busy month for us too, with the start of the rut, vaccinations and free-ranging reindeer all over the place generally getting in the way, along with calves to halter train and handle for the first time. We just don’t have time to write 150 blurbs anymore, so a photo of the herd is the next best thing. God knows how we ever hand-wrote anything for the newsletter in the past – madness!

Many, many adoption forms to work through… The 18th Year + folder now goes up to 32nd year!

One day I guess we may get to the point of sending out newsletters digitally, but I, for one, hope those days are far in the future. Everyone prefers getting actual physical post, don’t they? I certainly do. It also means we don’t discriminate between folks who do/don’t use the internet. Our rather idiosyncratic system of working our way through the folders of adoption forms one by one, and cross-referencing the details on the form with the address label that has been printed is time consuming, but does pick up any mistakes that we have made when entering details on to the database. Labels print alphabetically by surname, within each adoption year, and one person’s job is to find the relevant label whilst the other reads out the details on the form. No problem for the long-standing adopters, where there are only a few in each year, but by the time we get down to the folks in their 1st year of adoption that person is on their feet the whole time, dancing back and forth up and down around 900 names. It’s quite a tiring job, mentally in particular!

After actually packing up the newsletters comes the job of franking all the envelopes!

Nothing pleases me quite as much as carting all our boxes of completed newsletters off for the postie to collect – job done for another few months. It’s a good feeling! I can go back to my normal level of flustered confusion finally rather the super-charged fluster I exist in during May and September of each year.

Finally ready to post! And taller than me…

Hen

All Change!

June and July are the months when our reindeer have to complete a full moult from their incredibly thick winter coats to their short, sleek summer coats. They don’t quite look at their most glam at this stage (though obviously they’re always beautiful!) but there can be some entertaining looks going on, which we thought you might all appreciate!

2-year-olds Legume and Arta with just a bit of shaggy winter coat on their backs
Beastie is always one of the first reindeer to be (nearly) into full summer coat
Wee Sunny is in his “calf” coat, which will moult to an adult coat over the next few weeks.
Cannellini is one of the last to get moulting, with just a bit lost on his face.
Poirot’s dark colouring is showing through with only a little winter coat still to lose.
Yearling Cowboy still looking glam despite his questionable coat choice!
The reindeer do groom off loose hair – here’s Olmec with the evidence!
Akubra working at his moulting…
Strudel with a beard of groomed-off winter coat.
Dr Seuss has moulted out all of his lower coat and hardly anything off his back… here he is tapping his antlers to stimulate the growth.
Frost looking incredibly scruffy… but it’ll not be long until he’s handsome again!

Andi

Birds in the enclosure (Spring)

Spring is all around! The days are longer and warmer, buds are beginning to burst into leaf and very soon there will be lots of wobbly new-born reindeer calves taking their first steps in our hill enclosure. As well as the reindeer which increase in number on the hill, so will the bird life as migratory birds arrive from warmer places such as Africa, Southern Europe or even coastal Britain to breed and rear young. All the herders enjoy and appreciate the different birds we get in the enclosure during different times of the year and spring announces the return of some of our favourites.

Ring Ouzel – It may be a fair assumption that this species is the favourite of migratory birds amongst herders. Known as the mountain blackbird, they are a little longer and more upright than their more common cousins and get their name because of the male’s obvious white bib under the neck. They typically nest in gullies or steep scree slopes on the hill side and like many migrants, arrive in April and leave by September. Along with a beautiful song and obvious alarm call it is always a joy to see these birds in and around the enclosure looking for invertebrates to feed on.

Ring Ouzel (image from: https://www.british-birdsongs.uk/ring-ouzel/)

Wheatear – Also summer migrants, these little birds can be common across the more upland environment of the Cairngorms. The males are quite colourful with a blue/grey head and back, black wings and an orange like breast. Wheatears like rocky open land but can be seen on moorlands, and coastal grassland, nesting on the ground in holes, scree slopes or stone walls.  They can be seen hopping about in the enclosure for insects and more so on the footpath towards the Chalamain Gap. Sometimes found in Greenland or Canada and wintering in Africa, Wheatear are among the world’s long distance migratory birds, estimated to fly nonstop for up to 2400km in 30 hours! The first one this season was seen early on the 24th of March.

Wheatear (image from: www.birdwatchireland.ie/birds/wheatear)

Golden Plover – During the winter Golden Plover can be found in the UK near the coast or lower farmlands and are often seen in flocks with Lapwing. For the spring and summer they move to the higher moorlands and hillsides to breed and nest on the ground, they can be be seen in our enclosure but their spotted black and golden camouflage plumage keeps them well hidden, it’s not until you hear their high pitched and rather sad sounding alarm call that you realise they are around. These shy but charming waders can also be seen up on many of the higher hills of Scotland and are a great addition to any hill day.

Golden Plover (image from: https://mkoireland.ie/new-irish-wildlife-manual-released/)

Snipe – Another wader to be found regularly in the enclosure is the Snipe. Like Golden Plover, Snipe are in the UK all year round but many of the wintering birds migrate elsewhere to breed, leaving a much smaller population of residents during the spring and summer. They typically enjoy a damp environment in habitat such as marshes, bogs or wet meadows, all of which is abundant in the reindeer enclosure. Snipe have a long straight bill, short legs and rather dumpy shape. You’re more likely to hear their amazing drumming call during the spring season than ever see them, the only time I ever see Snipe is by accidently getting too close and watch as they fire off the ground and whizz away in a fast zig- zagging motion.

Snipe (image from: https://www.birdguides.com/gallery/birds/gallinago-media/544573/)

Skylark – Another British resident that also moves up onto the mountain side during the breeding season is the Skylark. With a very good population throughout the whole of the UK, these birds are by no means uncommon but it’s always a delight to hear their long and beautiful song high in the sky during the Spring and Summer months. Skylark’s are a rather bland looking bird with a grey and brown speckled plumage that looks very similar to that of a meadow pipit. Get close enough though and you’ll also notice a crested head that helps differentiate them. It’s the sound of a Skylark that makes them unmistakable though, flying well over 100 meters high in the sky and singing for up to 15 minutes long, they make a great additional to a hill trip in the enclosure with the reindeer.

Skylark (image from: https://www.birdguides.com/gallery/birds/alauda-arvensis/1003602/)

Black Grouse – The final bird to mention is the Black Grouse. Black Grouse are a rather large bird, the females are a grey/ brown colour while the males are predominantly black with red eyebrows and white under tail and wings feathers. They live in Glenmore and the Cairngorms throughout the year in secret until the Spring and breeding season when the male birds start to Lek. The Lek is a site usually in a clearing close to woodland where the males compete for the most central positions within it. Flashing their tail feathers, the males can be highly active with plenty of showboating while making bubbling and shrieking calls and sometimes fighting to gain position, the Grouse most central in the Lek will attract the most females who watch the drama from a short distance. We are lucky to have a Lek within the enclosure where the birds are undisturbed within the safety of our private space.

Black Grouse (image from: https://www.scotlink.org/species/black-grouse/)

Joe

Wild weather and tricky walks

After a few weeks of being closed at the start of each year, when we re-open in early February we run our Hill Trips daily (weather permitting), but until late April these are to our free-range herd rather than to the enclosure that we use from May – December. In the winter season we have an age restriction on the Trips with our minimum age being 4 years old. We also recommend against younger children (aged 4 – 11) coming at this time of the year, instead recommending a visit from May onwards.

Dreich weather – wind and sleety snow – can make walking out hard work even when we’re well equipped and used to the conditions. Soggy herders!

Why? I know a lot of people will have visited from February to April before with a toddler, and had a wonderful time. However, the Cairngorm winter can be extreme, and as we just don’t know until the day if it will be a pleasant bluebird day, or gale force winds with a wind chill of -20, we need to be sensible about when and if it is safe for little children to participate.

Reindeer and herders battling the elements (c) Joe Mann

Small children tend to struggle with the weather more than adults, just because they’re wee – this isn’t a criticism of their toughness, just an observation from the years we’ve been running Trips. Indeed, for a large number of our previous Hill Trips in this season we have had to restrict them to “adults only” due to the weather or distance – safety has to be our first priority. We have to be realistic that when folks are booking ahead, it is unfair to everyone to then have to cancel their Trip on the day.

Even when the weather is calm, the walk to the herd frequently involves crossing unavoidable snow patches, which can be waist deep in places

Along with the weather, there is also the difficulty and length of the walk. In the free-range season this can be four or even five times the distance of the walk to the enclosure, meaning that we are out on the hill for much longer. Younger kids often find these longer distances tougher (again no criticism of their ability, just an observation of their smaller legs and reserves) and struggle to keep up with the group, which then leads to the rest of the people getting cold as we stand waiting. Little kids in backpacks often struggle even more, as they are stationary and not generating any muscle warmth. There is also the added risk of the parent slipping with them, resulting in injury.

Conditions like this are far from unusual, and are just not a place for wee kids to be (c) Andi Probert

In addition, the area has been so much busier in the last few years, and as a result we are needing to take our free-range Trips further and further to find a quiet spot where the reindeer are less likely to be disturbed by passing dogs. It is also trickier now that we take advance bookings as it means almost all tickets are sold before the day itself – in the past we used to only sell tickets on the day once we opened at 10am, at which point we already knew what the weather was like up on the mountains. That meant we could literally look people up and down as they entered the shop and judge ourselves whether they were adequately dressed for the current conditions – before selling them tickets. Unfortunately Hill Trips are just so oversubscribed now that advance bookings are our only option.

It looks beautiful but… Eve battles to feed the herd in winter – hypothermia and exposure are a real risk, even for well-equipped adults (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

We know our decision to not allow tiny children in to take part in the Hill Trips is a disappointment to some, so as an alternative we run ‘Winter Herder Talks’ here at the Centre in the Paddocks on afternoons (through the February half term). From 1.30pm each day you will have the opportunity to meet some of our beautiful reindeer and learn all about them from one of our herders. The Paddocks is usually a self-guided experience (and will remain so from 10am until 1pm), but with a herder available in the afternoons to share their knowledge of the reindeer as a species and as individuals, it gives a much more in-depth experience – providing a good alternative for families with small children. We are still delighted to take all miniature children on the Hill Trips from May to December, when the walk (and generally the weather) is more predictable and manageable.

Andi

Book Now