Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!
Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.
The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.
Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.
He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.
He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.
A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.
If I was a gardener I would be looking out for the first signs of spring, daffodils pushing out of the ground and buds beginning to form on the trees. But I’m not. I’m a reindeer herder so the buds of spring I look out for are the newly growing reindeer antlers which begin to grow first among the mature bulls.
Having lost their old antlers at the end of last year our mature bulls, like Balmoral, Bovril and Pera have spent the last few months antlerless which is not a good place to be because with no antlers you are at the bottom of the peck order. Even the wee calves, only 10 months old, still have their antlers and can boss any antlerless reindeer around!
Mature bull reindeer grow the largest antlers in the herd and so to achieve this they need to start growing their antlers early. Despite still being winter here the bulls will divert food resources to growing these new antlers and this week I have just noticed the first buds of velvet antler appearing on their heads.
Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdom and from nothing on their heads these bull reindeer will have fully grown antlers, measuring up to 1 metre in length and weighing anything up to 10kg by the middle of August. Although the rate of growth will be slow just now, by the spring/summer the antlers visibly grow each day, with a growth rate of about 1cm/day.
Antlers are entirely composed of bone and to grow need a blood supply to the growing tip. The blood supply is carried by the velvet skin covering the developing bone and the velvet skin also acts as a protective cover. The velvet is also full of nerves, which make the growing antlers sensitive to contact, so protecting the soft growing tissue from injury.
Because the blood is so close to the surface the antlers always feel warm and radiate considerable heat. Indeed some scientists suggest that the antlers are important radiators of heat that help reindeer to ‘keep cool’ in the summer time.
The ultimate size of the bulls antlers depends on a number of factors but genetics and nutrition are the most important ones. The more they eat the bigger their antlers grow and if they come from parents who grew big antlers then they will more than likely grow large ones themselves. Crann has grown the biggest antlers ever in our herd and that is partly due to his parentage, his mother Burgundy grew extremely big antlers for a female. But also Crann has an insatiable appetite, always there for extra food, despite being an old reindeer now!
As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.
Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉
On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!
So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.
Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!
In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!
So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.
Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.
Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!
In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.
Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!
Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.
Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.
He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!
Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!
He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!
I remember the day Grunter was born. Dixie, his mum, was only two years old at the time and rather than taking herself away from the herd to find a nice wee spot to calve she stuck with them and joined in with our daily guided tour. Things all happened very fast for her and before she knew it, mid hand feeding time for our visitors, Dixie popped out a tiny wee bundle which was Grunter! Much to her surprise she really didn’t know what to do next, instinct didn’t kick in and she legged it off up the hill in panic. Sally and Kathleen were on the visit that day so they reported down for a contingent of herders to come onto the hill to help out.
Alex and Emily first came up to help out getting Dixie back and taking herself and Grunter (who obviously wasn’t named at this point) back to our shed and penned area on the hill. I then joined them to help get Grunter to suckle as it is very important for them to get their first milk which is the colostrum. This plays an vital part in their immune system at the very beginning but also for the rest of their life! Dixie was extremely unsettled and actively using her feet to shoo Grunter away from her so we had to use a bit of brute force as Grunter needed to get the milk. We also supplemented with some formula from the vet, just in case he didn’t get a full quota.
For the next few days we didn’t want to keep them separate in case there was a small chance Dixie would take to having a calf. We left the two of them up in the shed area for a few days but also went up early mornings and late nights to give Grunter a bottle of milk. It was at this point he got his name as Sally and I were walking up towards their pen one morning and the demanding sound of ‘grunt… grunt… grunt’ was echoing. It was a nickname which of course stuck, as most nicknames do with the reindeer. It became very apparent over the next few days and weeks that Dixie was not going take on Grunter so we decided it was best for her to head for the summer free range with the other cows and calves and we would hand rear the wee man ourselves.
Another few days passed and then we sadly lost a female, called Maisie, who had a female calf of 10 days old so now we had two! Its unusual enough having one, let alone two to hand rear in one year – we were left well and truly holding the babies… We named her Hippo as she was as hungry as a hippo when it came to giving them their bottle of milk. The two of them were thick as thieves however it was definitely Hippo leading Grunter astray, he would follow along like a lost little brother. Everyday they would go up and down the hill with us spending the day up there and then back down to our paddocks here at the Centre at night. Not only did we have two reindeer to hand rear but we also ended up with two red deer (from our Glenlivet farm) to bottle feed so it was a right wee crèche out there.
As always they grow up far too fast but it was such a great summer with them. They were full of fun and mischief. Usually reindeer wean off the bottle of milk round October time but Grunter (not Hippo) was very much still enjoying his bottles of milk right into December and even had them while out and about on Christmas events. As a teenager Grunter was a bit of a handful as he loved jumping on people. He has managed to include most of us reindeer herders in that too. Reindeer herder Anna will remember Grunter’s hooves reaching her shoulders in the paddocks and I remember once I was calling the reindeer down and Grunter decided that was his time to pounce (literally) therefore during those younger years Grunter was sent to the farm for the summer months where he couldn’t pick on the general public… or reindeer herders! However he did mellow when he got to about 3-4 years old and he turned into the most amazing reindeer – he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.
When out on Christmas tour I have taken him into old peoples homes and children’s hospitals where patients have been bed bound. The delighted looks on their faces to meet Grunter was priceless. We went to visit my Grandpa when he was fairly frail at his home on the south east coast and we got Grunter right in his conservatory to meet and greet, needless to say my grandpa was delighted! I have had very young children lead him around as he is totally trust worthy. Candice and Pandra (long term supporters of the herd) will have fond memories of Grunter on tour, I think he was a bit of a guardian in the pen when little Pandra would walk round, the other reindeer wouldn’t give her a hard time if Grunter was by her side. That was the only slightly naughty thing about Grunter was that he was so tame and used to humans that he didn’t think twice about giving the other reindeer a bit of a hard time… or was it keeping them in check within the herd, not sure. When we stopped at service stations to fill with fuel Grunter would make himself known by grunting to seek a bit of attention, which let’s face it if he was in my team he always got… I did spoil him rotten!
When back at home he was always used as a role model, whether it be training new reindeer to pull the sleigh, to lead the herd in or moving them round on the hill side. When loading into the livestock truck Grunter wouldn’t even break his stride to go up the ramp which showed how comfortable he was and gave the younger inexperienced reindeer comfort in travelling. He definitely had a cheeky side though and sometimes when pushing the herd in Grunter would leap around dancing and refusing to go through gate ways… he was playing like a naughty child and avoiding doing what we wanted him to do because he knew us so well.
Grunter died almost exactly eight years to the day after he was born. He was over at our hill farm having spent the winter free ranging on the Cromdale Hills. Over the past year he hasn’t seemed to put on weight quite as much as we liked however his spirits were always high. On his last night with us Tilly shut him in so he could get a good pile of lichen to himself and as she left she just pushed the gate to, not quite latching it shut. In true Grunter style he finished up the yummy stuff and then pushed his way out the pen. He headed to the top of the hill beside a birch woodland and that’s where he died. Tilly found him in the morning so we buried him up there in the woodland with a good view of the Cromdale Hills. We suspect his shortened life may have been from not getting the best start to life in the first place and maybe not having as strong an immune system, but this is just speculation, maybe he had something underlying that we didn’t find. The main thing was he was never in pain or horrifically ill, he was the same old Grunter from beginning to end.
Reindeer like Grunter are rare and he has no doubt crossed paths with many of you whether it be here at home in the Highlands of Scotland, out and about on Christmas tour, or both! Feel free to write your story / memory of Grunter and let’s share the antics of this amazing reindeer!
Grunter in 2008, the year he was born, followed by him in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
This is the third and final installment of Sonya’s blog about her week volunteering with us and the reindeer. Thanks so much again to Sonya for all of her hard work and we hope you have enjoyed reading all about what our volunteers and staff get up to on a daily basis!
(Here’s a handy link to the first and second parts of Sonya’s blog)
Day Five of an Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
I only worked a half day today and started at 2pm, it looked like it could be a dry day in Aviemore but by the time I got to Glenmore it was raining as usual. Fiona was making buttons out of slices of antler, to sell in the shop, first she saws the antler into tiny slices, a bit like you would a cucumber, I’m amazed she still has all her fingers. Then she thoroughly sands each tiny piece on both sides until it’s as smooth as glass, then drills two tiny holes in the centre so it can be sewn on.
I started by sorting out the hire wellington boots today, we try to keep them on racks in size order so that it’s easy to find a suitable pair to hire out to visitors. Bizarrely there are three odd boots, a size 5, 6 and 10 with no partner. We have all looked everywhere for the missing ones to no avail.
Only four people are booked on the 2:30 hill trip so Dave suggests I do some of the talking, He says its less intimidating if its a small group but I am just concerned they won’t hear me over the noisy, raging torrent of water at Utsi’s bridge where we pause for the history segment but they huddled close and it was fine. We had to take more feed up than usual today so Dave and I had a sack each and asked for a volunteer to carry the hand feed, which they were only too happy to do. When we put the feed down, only 28 reindeer arrived which means 10 are missing and two are separated in the sick pen because they have upset stomachs. This is probably because they have over eaten and gorged themselves on grass. One of the greedy grass eaters is Gandi so I am especially worried, Dave shakes his head when I express concern which I take to mean there is no hope for Gandi’s recovery, but Dave quickly reassures me that Gandi is likely to recover in 24 hours, just like we do when we have an upset stomach. Must be an antipodean thing, shaking your head when it’s not bad news, but the frequent misunderstandings keep us entertained. I think I am mostly to blame for these as I have often misunderstood foreign tourists, much to Dave’s entertainment. I don’t easily recognise accents but it seems a good conversation starter to ask people where they are from, the problem is they ask me the same question back and we try to answer each other too soon and it gets very confusing to the point where I thought a young couple were asking me if I was from Paris when really they were telling me that’s where they were from. I am learning it’s safer to just listen and nod, and not ask too many questions.
Day Six of a Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
Back to the early morning start today which was a struggle, but at least it wasn’t raining. Dave and I were on paddock duty i.e poop scooping, and we cleared up the shed where the paddock reindeer have sheltered while it’s been so wet, then we did some weeding before going on the 11.00 hill trip. I think I can say Dave and I have now got a well practised routine, I do the ‘welcome’ at the car park and the ‘history’ at Utsi Bridge and he does the ‘health and safety’ at the enclosure and the ‘reindeer characteristics’ at the herd. At feeding time today we were trying to get all the reindeer from the bottom corridor into the east enclosure and about 15 of them were well spread out and comfy in the bottom corridor so Dave suggested I go and get them so they don’t miss lunch. If I was better at it I suppose I should have been able to get them all in one go but they were so far apart I found it difficult to keep them all moving so I resorted to doing small groups of three or four at a time. I went up and down the hill in the bottom corridor many times and I think it was me who needed lunch more than the reindeer by the time I got them all. By the time I was able to bring up the rear with the last of the stragglers, the first visitors were leaving, but they all seemed to have had a good time so no worries. When I join Dave he tells me he thinks we only have 39 instead of the requisite 40 reindeer. I am seriously dismayed and set about my own count but they are moving around now as the food is mostly gone. It takes me two attempts but I count 40, twice, just to make sure.
In the afternoon I do the hill trip with Julia, the weather is glorious and we have a few small children in the group, I am leading the first part and Julia is bringing up the rear. I end up waiting ages at the bridge for the back end of the group to join us. Julia has really aching legs from running up a mountain yesterday. She cleverly disguises her slow progress by making it look like the small children are holding her up! But this photo reveals the truth, as she hobbled back down once the tourists had gone.
At the end of my penultimate day I’ve already had to say goodbye to Hen and Abby. It will be difficult to part company with everyone else tomorrow, when my placement comes to an end.
Day Seven of Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
Ah the last day…….awoke to a lovely morning and I thought you might like to see the tough commute I’ve had each morning, the traffic has been heavy as you can see and the views along this road can be distracting on a bright day, as you can see by the view of Loch Morlich below.
So my last morning began with a trip up the hill with Fiona and Dave to give the reindeer their breakfast. The sun was quite warm even though it was early in the day so the reindeer took a lot of rousing to make their way up the hill, they like to lounge around when it’s warm and it takes a lot of coaxing and shaking of the feed sack to get them going. Fiona asked me to put my half of the feed out to coax the other stragglers up so this is the first group lined up for breakfast.
Gandi seems to be poorly again because he doesn’t express any interest in breakfast and stays sitting at the gate far away. Upon closer inspection it turns out he has a very upset stomach. We try to usher him into the sick pen for Fiona to check his temperature but it’s risky getting too close behind him because his ‘issues’ are non-stop. The unflappable Dave accuses me of being squeamish and shoves Gandi onwards and upwards with little or no regard for his own hygiene. Gandi’s temperature is a little high but not dangerously so, Fiona thinks he’s just been gorging on too much grass again. I wondered why he does it if it makes him ill and Fiona thinks its because it tastes so nice. I guess it’s a bit like us having so much ice cream we get a headache or so much chocolate we feel sick, but we just can’t resist it. Well it seems Gandi has no will power, little sense and a weak constitution. “Sorry Gandi, does that sound harsh? You’re still my favourite but to be fair, you been poorly for more days than you’ve been well, this week”. Despite being so handsome, it’s certain he will be castrated this year. It’s uncertain if he ever did father any calves but if he did, they will be three years old this year and ready to start breeding themselves. Therefore, to avoid any possible in-breeding, Gandi’s new career path will involve being a Christmas reindeer, which I am sure he will excel at. I am a little sad he’ll never grow those lovely graceful silver antlers again so here’s one more photo of them as he munches on some lichen with Moose. For any fans of Moose, he’s fine and well, he’s just keeping Gandi company. Wherever possible, reindeer are never in a position where they do anything alone, it would just distress them more to feel like they were being singled out and not part of the herd.
After a few more busy hill trips throughout the morning, including one at 11:00 that I did completely alone, it was time for lunch and then manning the shop single-handedly for the first time. I’ve not really done much in the shop, beyond clean it, up to this point. But Dave and Julia are the only other herders working today and they really need to do the last hill trip of the day, in case Gandi needs an antibiotic injection.
Dave has christened me the retail queen due to my previous work and assumes I will be fine to just step in and run the shop. I am quick to point out that the tills I used were computerised and not quite like this one. After a quick lesson from Julia, they’re off and the shop is all mine. In case you shopped here on Sunday 19th June, I would like to apologise to any customers who had to wait while I wandered round the shop with a calculator checking the prices and adding up their purchases. In case I worked with you in the past, I would like to point out, in my defence, that there are no barcodes and this beautiful vintage till does not actually add up, nor work out the change! Several postcards, pens, souvenir bags and one expensive reindeer hide later, the day is suddenly over and after closing the paddocks for the last time, its time to go home. It’s been very hard work but the MOST rewarding time I have had, so immense thanks to the Reindeer Centre for this amazing experience and for being the subject of this blog, hope to see you again soon.
So as most, if not all of you know, Glenmore where we are based and the surrounding area is rich in wildlife, and it is always a delight to see other creatures on our walks to the reindeer, as well as the reindeer themselves. It’s been such lovely weather recently and we have seen and heard a wide array of birds and other creatures recently, so I thought you might like to know what to look and listen out for on your trip up to the reindeer in the spring and summer.
The village of Glenmore is surrounded by Caledonian pine forests. Our bird table in the garden attracts lots of little songbirds, including chaffinches, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, siskins, green finches and even crested tits, which are usually quite shy and we take as a sign that snow may be on the way. We get ducks, pigeons and dunnocks on the ground around the table, tidying up after their small friends and we even get woodpeckers on the peanut holder occasionally. We often have red squirrels visit our bird table too, and one in particular at the moment who looks very scruffy and has a broken looking tail
The path on our walk to the reindeer is lined by trees and there are many animals and birds which call the forest home. Most often seen are chaffinches, as they seem to be less shy than other birds. To borrow a phrase from Hen, the trees are “dripping in willow warblers”, which we always hear and sound familiar to chaffinches, but are more ‘flutey’. We also cross a river on the way to the enclosure which means we see birds associated with water. Just a few weeks ago we saw a dipper on the rocks, bobbing away looking for food. We also see grey wagtails, with their yellow bums, and pied wagtails too. Very lucky visitors can also get a glimpse of our ‘tame’ roe deer. Occasionally we see her just to the side of the path, or even in the car park. She doesn’t seem too bothered by us but we always try to keep quiet if she is around. The visitors get very excited that they’ve seen a deer even before getting to the enclosure!
Inside the enclosure, we encounter upland birds and often see red grouse, hearing them shout ‘go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back’ at us as they fly off. There are often curlews calling to each other, wood pigeon, crows, and cuckoos in the forests. If you’ve been on the visits, you’ll know that we are also plagued by ducks from Loch Morlich!
Ring ouzels, a migratory bird which breeds in the north of Scotland during summer, are often seen flying around too. They are fairly similar in size and shape to a blackbird, and look similar to them to except that they have a white collar on their chest. There are some black grouse too, but they are very shy and we only see them when we go up early in the morning. We have snipe in the enclosure, and I once almost stepped on a snipe nest when I was trekking last year!
We recently had some nesting wagtails in the shed in our hill enclosure. The fledglings were so cute and fluffy!
There are always a few roe deer in the enclosure and on our early morning jaunts to look for calving females we often hear them barking. We even seen red deer in the enclosure and Abby and Andi were super lucky to see an osprey flying over the enclosure. We have a few mountain hares running around and a couple of leverets always seem to be hanging around our shed area. We have toads, lizards, mice, weasels and lots and lots of midges too! And years ago Hen was walking along the boardwalk when she and a mole, of all things, passed each other – on the boardwalk!
Jack Ward’s fantastic photographs can be viewed at his Facebook page – Alba Wildlife
**Sidenote: Abby wanted me to call this blog “Oot and Aboot with Imogen” but I refused. This blogging business is much too serious for trivial blog titles, obviously.
The second installment of Sonya’s blog about volunteering is here! The weather isn’t so great in this blog but Sonya’s enthusiasm shines through. If you missed the first installment, here’s a link to days 1 and 2 of Sonya’s week with us.
The weather is dreadful today, I have become obsessed with the weather forecast so I am aware the rain is due to last at least two days or more, this calls for waterproofs and a certain strength of spirit to face heading outside and up the hill. Fiona and Abby take me to help separate six reindeer from the rest of the herd. There is a pre-booked trek the next day so we are getting the trekking reindeer in a separate enclosure, we must be sure to include Bingo in the smaller group as his adoptee is one of the trekkers. As the reindeer head through two gates, my task is to count them to ensure they all come in for breakfast. A simple task you’d think. Well it would have helped if they stood still, or even if they moved at a steady pace in an orderly manner. A few times they stop, then rush through two or three at a time, or occasionally shove their way through the wrong gate and have to come back and be encouraged through the correct gate. I’m aiming to reach a total of thirty five. By the time I’m up to seventeen or was it fifteen….., I’m hoping Abby or Fiona are double checking me and counting too. By the time we get to the last reindeer, I’m only up to thirty two but not feeling too confident about my total.
After settling the smaller group of six, we set about feeding the larger group which means we can more easily recount them. I’m not sure what to wish for at this point because if there are twenty-six it means my count was accurate, but if there are twenty-nine it means all the reindeer are here and we don’t have to walk the 1200 acre enclosure in this downpour, looking for them. There are twenty-six. Three are missing and one of them is my Gandi. Fiona thinks they’re likely to turn up for the 11:00 feed to we don’t rush into looking for them, we will have to do that if they’re not hanging around by then. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to miss the odd feeding session at this time of year as there are such tasty nibbles available elsewhere in the form of a variety of new green shoots all across the hillside.
With all this counting of reindeer and trying to identify which ones are missing, I’ve learnt another name today. I had noticed Puddock’s antlers before, without knowing his name. They are many branching but he is castrated so they don’t grow so tall. They end up in a tangled mass going every which way. He was born in 2007 when calves were named after green things like Fern and Meadow. I didn’t know what a Puddock was but I’m reliably informed it’s an old Scottish term for a frog. My education continues.
I spent quite a lot of time in the shop today as a rainy day is a good opportunity to wipe everything down and have a general tidy up and restock. Some hardy individuals are still out and about in this awful weather and there is a steady stream of bookings for the 11:00 hill trip so the waterproofs are back on and up we go again. Despite the weather I’m eager to see if Gandi has turned up since this morning and sure enough, when we get up to the hill, he’s there at the gate with two companions, all indignant at missing breakfast. We have an adopter on this hill trip who is eager to see Dragonfly but he is not on the hillside at the moment. Dragonfly is due to arrive later in the afternoon as he is currently on the farm and coming over to take his turn in the paddocks. So his adopter can have a leisurely lunch and pop back to see him later on.
Fiona’s brother Alex arrives at lunch time with the reindeer from the farm. He has Ross with him who I haven’t met before. I remembered Imogen’s suggestion about how to look like a local and wear less clothing, so I guess Ross is a true Scot as it is the coolest and wettest of days and Ross is wearing the flimsiest of shorts! I began to share the joke with him and merrily tell the tale of Imogen’s advice…. At the end of my story, Ross looks at me in a confused way and simply says “Sorry?”.
He hasn’t understood a word of what I said, in what must sound to him, like a broad southern accent. My joke is wasted and he thinks I’m crazy! Oh well, you can’t win them all, so we get back to the reindeer.
The plan is to put them in the paddocks and take the current paddock reindeer up to the hill enclosure. I’m not sure how we managed to achieve this swap over but it seemed a well-practised opening and closing of multiple gates and trailers until eventually the right reindeer were in the paddock and the others were stowed in the trailer to go up the hill. We all squeezed in ‘Brenda the truck’ for the short journey but there aren’t quite enough seats so Fiona bravely gets in the back with the reindeer. It’s a big novelty for me to lead them along the public footpath, over Utsi’s bridge and up to the enclosure, I find myself hoping a walker will come along the path as I’d love to see the look on their faces as five reindeer on halters are lead past them, but nobody comes by to witness the incongruous sight of reindeer using a footbridge and they are reunited with the herd without further incident.
Today is the day of the trek for a pre-booked party and I am heading up in the rain again, with Andi. It’s lovely to meet Andi as she was the herder I made contact with to seek this volunteering placement and it’s good for both of us to put a face to the name. Our fellow trekkers are Bessie and Joyce from Glasgow, Bessie has adopted Bingo for a few years and is keen to see him again. Our other companions are Susan and her granddaughter Mira from Whistler in Canada. They are on an extended trip to Scotland in an attempt to track down some family graves as they know their ancestors were from Scotland many generations ago. Susan has a deep love of all hooved animals, she has goats and sheep as pets at home in Canada, and Sooty the reindeer is her best friend within minutes. It’s a cold damp morning but at least it keeps the midges at bay and we ascend through low cloud to the peak of Silver Mount.
I am walking Camus, as a non-paying trekker it’s only fair that I take a reindeer that needs the practise and training, rather than the nice quiet obliging ones that the tourists get. Camus was a jittery boy for the ascent, jumping and prancing around until at one point it took all my strength to hang on to him. Until that point I had been trying to bring up the rear of the group so we didn’t leave anyone behind but Andi quite rightly suggested I bring him into the middle of the group. Reindeer are herd animals and nothing is more comforting to them than a bit of company and by this time I was keen to try anything to calm him down, I just hoped we didn’t end up losing any of the group in the mist on the mountain. When we reached the peak of Silver Mount we stopped for photos and a soggy snack before descending. When the rest of the herd were in sight we removed the reindeer halters and let them re-join their companions. Some other reindeer came to meet us, tempted by Andi’s stash of lichen. More photos were taken and sweet nothings were murmured to all our favourites and as we headed out of the enclosure the reindeer proved themselves to be in a friendly mood and followed us all along the boardwalk as far as the gate. I know they were just hopeful of more food but it looked for all the world like they were waving us off.
For me the summer solstice always fell on June 21st and I never knew otherwise however apparently this year it was on the 20th… Something to do with being a leap year?!? Anyway to mark the occasion it’s always quite nice to do something, whether we get a group of folk together and have a game of rounders or go for a nice ‘summery’ walk. This year we decided to take a wander up into the Northern Coire’s – Coire an Lochain in particular! Looking up from Glenmore and Loch Morlich this is the furthest right Coire with a large patch of snow on the right hand side of it. Mid-summer here always seems to be fairly awful weather, I even recall wearing my waterproof ski trousers for this about 4-5 years ago and in true Scottish Highlands style this year was no different. However, it wasn’t raining so we were already up on other years!
So we set off up the path into the Coire and it took us about an hour of which we chit chatted the whole way, of course putting the world to rights! Right in the back of Coire An Lochain there is, as stated in its name, a wee loch. We arrived with bags filled with tea and cake (very important for us reindeer herders), my bagpipes and four fairly hyper dogs (3 of them being under the age of two). As we arrived into the Coire something caught my eye… 4 reindeer behind the loch. Straight away dogs were called in and put on a leads, just in case, and I scooted over towards them to see if I could see who it was. Malawi, one of our older females in the herd at the age of 11 now was leading them away from us and she was followed by Okapi and two younger females (who I didn’t get close enough to, to ID). A three year old and a two year old, I got that much! They obviously weren’t too keen on coming up to us as we had the dogs but they did stop in their tracks when I started calling them, it was just unfortunate I didn’t any food as a bit of bribery to come a bit closer, then I would have definitely worked out the other two. Malawi is easy to identify because she has never grown any antlers which is pretty unusual.
Like I said the reindeer didn’t hang around as they don’t like dogs so we got onto what was also very important after our walk in – tea, cake and a quick blast on the bagpipes. I’m not really in practice at the moment so any wee slip up with notes I blamed on the cold weather and my fingers weren’t working properly but they sounded pretty awesome in the Coire getting good acoustics bouncing off the head wall. At this time of year it is light until about midnight and light again in the morning round 3.30am. Such a lovely time of year which is why we try to make the most of it by being outside. It’s a bit different in the winter months when it isn’t light until 9am and dark by 3.30pm but it’s also nice to have that comparison throughout the year too. Of course in the far north and Scandinavia they have the midnight sun… I shall have to go and see that one year for sure!
Sonya, author of this blog, came up to us in June to volunteer with our beautiful reindeer. She has very kindly written us a blog about her experience, and we will be sharing it over the next few weeks. Thanks so much to Sonya for coming along and being so helpful, and we really hope to see you again in the not too distant future!
In June 2016 I arrived for my volunteer placement at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore with no previous experience of working with animals but lots of enthusiasm and affection for the reindeer I had visited as a tourist many times before. I had recently taken the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my 20 year career and had a whole summer to fill before starting university in September. I had no idea what to expect but was seeking solace and comfort in the remoteness of the fabulous Cairngorms and the company of the placid reindeer. I was blessed with a rare dry day on the first Monday and arrived promptly at 8am alongside fellow herders Imogen who has a zoology degree and big-bearded Dave who I later found out to be exceedingly well travelled and originally from New Zealand. By the way, it’s the beard that’s big, not Dave himself.
So after meeting a confusing muddle of strangely named dogs, I was introduced to Fiona who runs the Centre, and tasks were allocated for the morning. Can you guess what my first job was? That’s right …… reindeer poop scooping. Keen to carry out all necessary tasks enthusiastically, I wielded the bespoke pooper scooper and collected a remarkable bucketful of the stuff from the paddocks. A few of the herd are kept in the paddocks for two weeks at a time so they are more accessible to very young, old or less-able visitors who can’t manage the hill trip to see the whole herd. After scooping all the poop I could find, transferring the contents of the bucket to a sack was a trickier and less appealing task but the trusty Dave was on hand to show how it’s done without spilling too much. I confess from that moment on I found myself a pair of gloves for this task and many others, much to Dave’s derision, I suspect. But hey, you can take the girl out of Essex………
I had a full and detailed explanation from Dave on how to open up the exhibition ready for visitors and spent some time replenishing the children’s craft materials, I wish I was 5 years old again so that I could make paper chains or make an antler headband, and draw colourful pictures of my reindeer friends. However, with pencils sharpened, loan wellies sorted into sizes and the shop vacuumed, it was time to set off on the first hill trip. The tourists were very impressed with Dave’s authentic appearance of bushy beard and battered green hat and took several photos of him and the van before we even set off. I’m convinced I need to change my image, which currently consists of generic walking attire, so as to appeal to the tourists but I am stuck for inspiration, more of this later.
On the first hill trip the cheeky Svalbard is overly friendly and pushes and prods me repeatedly with his antlers and nose. The tourists mistake his behaviour for affection and there are many oohs and aahs and clicks of cameras, however it’s far more likely that he recognised the smell of food on the jacket I was borrowing from the Reindeer Centre.
I also learnt that my adoptee ‘Gandi’ is there somewhere, in amongst the swirling sea of moulting coats and velvet antlers that greeted us. Correction, they are greeting the sack of food, not us, and I have learnt they couldn’t care less about us or how the food gets there. Despite this pragmatic realisation, I am still deluding myself that Gandi recognised me, if he could talk he’d even remember my name, of course!
I am delighted and relieved to see him in such good health with a remarkably majestic pair of antlers. I feel inordinately proud that I chose such a worthy recipient of my sponsorship, for he is also a recent TV star in the BBC Scotland programme about the Highlands due to be shown across other BBC regions in Autumn 2016.
After lunch Dave teaches me how to mix the reindeer food, I was keen to get started as I love a piece of machinery and rather ingeniously, I thought, a cement mixer is used to mix the food. And when you realise the quantity of food they get through, you realise why it’s necessary to mechanise the process. There is little demand for a commercially available reindeer food, as this is the only large free-ranging herd in the UK, so I was shown the recipe and the shed full of ingredients. We started with sheep food containing corn and grains, then added extra barley, some starchy sugar beet, some fibrous malt pellets which are a waste product from the numerous nearby distilleries, added a sprinkle of a secret mineral supplement and four big handfuls of hay enriched with garlic and molasses. Well this was all fascinating for me and I was enjoying making this tasty treat until we ran out of grain. Dave despatched me to the shed to fetch more barley, all good so far. I located the barley and saw with some dismay how huge the new sack was. I should mention at this point that I only manage to measure five feet with my shoes on, and the heaviest thing I’d lifted in my previous job was a bottle of Chanel No 5! Battle with the barley sack commenced but I should have been grateful for small mercies as some of the other ingredients are much heavier.
By the time we had mixed about half a cubic metre of food, it was a relief to leave behind the previously fascinating cement mixer, and head up to the hill again on the 2:30pm trip. Dave encouraged me to carry the sack of food but I chickened out and took the lighter and smaller sack of hand feed. Poor Dave gets the bigger, heavier sack yet again, but gallantry isn’t completely dead in my world!
Near the end of the trip Dave gets a phone call, we’re a 20 min walk from the nearest road and goodness knows how far from the nearest dwelling but amazingly there’s a mobile signal in the reindeer enclosure. I can’t always get one of those in flat, overpopulated Essex. Anyway the phone call is to invite me to the reindeer shed to see some vaccinations taking place where I met the famous Tilly, Fiona’s mum and owner of the herd. The injection is to help prevent the potentially fatal red water fever that can kill a reindeer if not caught early enough. Imogen had previously told me that Tilly always comes to administer these injections as there is a tiny chance the reindeer will go into anaphylactic shock and she has the most experience to deal with that possibility. Despite their huge antlers and sharp hooves, I had never felt even remotely intimidated by reindeer before. But closed in a tiny shed with six of them circling round and round in an effort to escape the needle, it felt a bit like being caught up in a whirling dervish of hoof and hair and taught me a greater respect for the fact they are still wild animals even though they generously humour us with their presence and grace.
Tuesday starts with much excitement and anticipation when Fiona tells me I can join her and Hen on a harness training session. Hen is the longest serving herder based at Reindeer House other than Fiona and I found out she can recognise and name every single reindeer, as can most of the herders. However, if a pair of antlers are cast in the autumn, Hen knows which reindeer they belonged to as she recognises the distinct and unique form of each and every reindeer’s antlers even when they’re no longer on the animal. The Cairngorm reindeer participate in many Christmas events across the country and it’s important they keep practising with the halter and harness throughout the year so that Christmas is a relaxed affair with no anxiety. Another treat for me is that my adoptee Gandi is one of the reindeer coming along on the practice session because he and Elvis are experienced trekkers and will set a good example to Camus, Balmoral and Shinty. I hadn’t met the last three reindeer before and I’m pleased to say they all did very well with their training. Shinty was the most reluctant to get going and he gave Hen a thorough workout by making her tug him up the hill, but with Gandi encouraging him from behind, we were soon underway on our circuit.
So this is Hen on the left and me on the right with reindeer (from left to right) Elvis, Shinty, Gandi, Camus and Balmoral. It was to be the last glimpse of the sun for several days so I’m glad I took up Fiona’s offer to take a photo of me with the reindeer and I sent it to my ex-colleagues to illustrate the dramatic difference to my working day.
The rest of the day was spent on hill trips with tourists, becoming more familiar with the information we impart to the eager visitors. Many people meet a favourite reindeer on their visit, as I did with Gandi, and decide to adopt them. In between the trips we all work on the biannual newsletter as it’s time to send it out to all the reindeer adopters. This edition of the newsletter features many tales of the reindeer and activities and events at the centre. There are some hilarious stories about Fergus, a hand-reared calf who has turned out to be a very cheeky boy indeed, and sadly, there’s a moving obituary to Grunter, a much loved reindeer who was also hand-reared when he was a calf.
I’ve learnt the name of another member of the herd today, the endearing Blue, who was named in the year of cheeses 2013. He was born with a condition which means he is very pale, almost completely white and he’s also deaf. Many visitors think he is albino but Imogen explained to me that albinism means a complete lack of pigment, whereas Blue just has a reduced level of pigment which means he is Leucistic. His skin is very pink and prone to sunburn and any broken skin could lead to infection so he has bright yellow ‘summer cream’ on his face which is a mix of sunscreen and insecticide to keep the midges away. Blue has been a bit slow to come for food today and hasn’t hand fed from the tourists as much as normal so on one of my hill trips with Imogen, it’s necessary to take his temperature once the visitors are gone. I’ve seen this before and it involves luring them close with an irresistible bucket of lichen to get a halter on them, one person holds the head while the other person takes the temperature from the ‘other end’. Whilst Imogen does the ‘business’ she regales me with detailed advice about insertion of the thermometer, which angle is best, how long to leave it in, etc. I decide it’s time to manage her expectations and make it clear, I’m happy to learn the theory, but as far as practise goes, I think I’ll remain at the head end, thank you very much!
Today I also discussed with Imogen how I could possibly look less like a tourist when we take the visitors out. Her insightful but wildly impractical suggestion is that I should dress for conditions at least ten degrees warmer, so go up the hill in just a t-shirt when everyone else is in hats and jackets, and claim it’s a warm day. I fear this soft southerner might catch her death if she attempted that, so I bear it in mind but keep my multiple layers firmly in place.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!