Photo Blog: May 2024

Who takes a holiday at the beginning of May? Yep, three full-time reindeer herders! Myself, Fiona, and Lotti got back on the 8th of May to 13 calves already romping around on the hill. What a treat to see them all and catch up properly on all the news from home.

We got straight in to the thick of it and the calves kept on coming. Hill Trips were fully booked during the bank holidays and Whitsun Week. We had some shorts and t-shirt weather and some FULL waterproofs and warm hat kinda weather. We’ve also been busy in the office running our Crowdfunder campaign which is going incredibly well (please check it out here if you haven’t seen it yet: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/a-reindeer-experience-for-all). Adoptions are still flying out the office and the June newsletter is being written. Oh, and the brand-new Reindeer Centre went up before our eyes in around 3 days in the middle of the month! An action-packed month!

Just a reminder – we won’t reveal the names of the new mothers until after we’ve let our adopters know in the June newsletter so I’ve tried to be deliberately vague. Enjoy… !

8th of May: On my first day back to work I have the pleasure of being the first person to lay eyes on this tiny lass. Ignore her blue toes – we always spray their navel with an antiseptic spray and I accidently got her foot!
10th of May: As I fed the cows and calves this little dude comes to say hello.
11th of May: The father to around half of this year’s calves!! Sherlock looking very proud of himself.
15th of May: Little and Large. Big bull Spartan walks past a mum and her new calf!
16th of May: Zambezi is no longer a calf! She’s now classed as a yearling, but is still just a beautiful!
17th of May: Calf peek-a-boo! This wee one is still not brave enough to come say hello.
17th of May: Calves come in a variety of colours from pale to dark.
17th of May: Merida and her seven year old son Dr Seuss sharing a moment together!
20th of May: Another cutie with distinctive dark eyebrows.
22nd of May: Aztec on a very ‘atmospheric’ Hill Trip! His favourite time of the day is the hand feeding session, this is him recovering.
26th of May: Four-day-old calf, he’s small but doing very well!
27th of May: This is where we found Ochil this morning! She’d managed to break-in to the lichen store and was having the time of her life.
29th of May: A gaggle of chilled out calves on our Hill Trip.
30th of May: Dr Seuss again, this time with his younger bro Ärta.

Ruth

COVID calves

Our usual annual practice is the reindeer calves born that spring will join a Christmas team of adult reindeer and go out and about on tour joining in Christmas festivities across the country. This is the start of their training and handling with us which means when the male calves grow up and go on to join a team as an adult with potentially a different role to play (i.e. trained to harness and pulling the sleigh) then they have already seen what events are all about so it’s helpful for their training going forward.

Haricot as a new born in spring 2020.
Tiny new born Lupin in 2020 – hard to imagine him pulling a sleigh three years later!

Back in 2020 all the calves born that year didn’t take part in many Christmas events due to our lack of bookings off the back of the COVID pandemic. We knew further down the line that we would have to work harder on these reindeer. Now Christmas 2023 is well behind us, this was the first Christmas where the three year old males were trained to wear harness and pull the sleigh for the first time. We don’t use female reindeer at Christmas as they tend to be pregnant at that time of year and the males we do use are castrates (non-breeding).

So our Christmas reindeer class of 2023 consisted of – Adzuki, Lupin, Haricot, Hemp and Cicero. Although there were more from that year these were the main five boys who went out and about on tour and pulled the sleigh for their first year. While training here in Glenmore I would say they certainly didn’t all take to it like a duck to water. Some were stubborn, some a bit too forward, however, we definitely got to the point over a number of days where they were used to wearing the harness and pulling the sleigh. Some better than others. I’d say Hemp, Haricot and Lupin did really well, whereas Adzuki and Cicero took a little longer but still did great!

Haricot in trace around Glenmore – no problem with an empty sleigh in training!
Adzuki at the front in training and Hemp at the back.

So now we get to the third weekend in November and it was time for them to head out with a team of experienced Christmas reindeer and herders to go and do a proper Christmas event. Haricot headed to Tain, a town in the north of Scotland, with Joe, Aurelien and Colin. Hemp and Cicero went to the west coast taking part in two parades that day in Fort William and Oban with Lotti, Lisette and Colin (a different Colin) and Lupin and Adzuki both came to Elgin with Ruth and I where we had further assistance from two of our long-term volunteers.

Time to parade in Tain and Haricot steps up alongside super-duper Christmas reindeer Poirot. In their set-up area Joe puts their harness on. Great, Haricot didn’t bat an eye lid. Now time to pop him in sleigh with Poirot, again he wasn’t fazed. Pipe band get set-up ready to start the parade. Joe is at the front leading and ‘alright boys, walk on’… nothing. ‘Alright boys, walk on’… again, nothing. Haricot decided that an empty sleigh in training was much easier to pull than a sleigh with a heavy Santa on it. After a bit of encouragement Haricot was having none of it so they made the sensible decision to swap him for Aztec (another of our trained Christmas reindeer) and therefore Haricot just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, not pull it. The event went really well but maybe back to the drawing board on this one.

The team chilled out and enjoying their lunch before the parade in Tain. Haricot is the pale reindeer right at the back, Aztec is closest to camera who ended up being promoted to sleigh puller!

Now to the team on the west coast. Hemp actually went out on Christmas tour as a two year old, not pulling the sleigh but as a reindeer walking at the back so he has had a fair bit of exposure to these types of events. He pulled the sleigh alongside Frost and acted as though he’d done it his whole life. What a star! This was Cicero’s first time on an event so the team decided that he would be at the back of the sleigh to let him take it in and then aim to get him pulling the sleigh in Oban. The parade sets off following the pipe band with Frost and Hemp pulling and Cicero and Dr Seuss with the calves following behind the sleigh. Cicero thought by being at the back he was being left behind so was keen to go forward therefore Colin took his lead rope and walked him up front with the two reindeer pulling… Cicero thought this was much better and although it wasn’t how our usual parades looked with three reindeer at the front I don’t think anyone really noticed and Cicero was happy plodding along there.

A lovely photo in the Lochaber Times with Cicero looking very relaxed next to the sleigh while Hemp and Frost pull. Copyright Iain Ferguson, alba photos.
The team very chilled after the Fort William parade outside the Nevis Centre. Hemp closest to the camera with one antler.

Now to Oban which is an evening event so pretty dark. For this one the team popped Cicero in the front alongside Dr Seuss (an old hand when it comes to pulling the sleigh). Contrary to Haricot, I don’t think Dr Seuss did any of the pulling during this parade as Cicero did it all. Give him his due he wasn’t fazed by a weighty Santa. To make sure he didn’t pull too hard two handlers walked with him at the front easing him into the ways of pulling the sleigh. I think he could do with a bit more practice, mainly to learn that there are two reindeer and both should be pulling the sleigh equally…. cough cough, Dr Seuss!!!

Now onto Elgin where I was with Ruth and a couple of volunteers as well as newbies Lupin and Adzuki. We decide that Lupin could pull the sleigh and Adzuki would learn the ropes at the back. We set off, again following a pipe band. Lupin was a total star! Didn’t put a hoof wrong and pulled equally alongside pro Druid. Adzuki, however, like Cicero wasn’t for being left behind at the back of the sleigh and was keen to go forward. Each team makes there own decisions with how to manage their reindeer in the best way they think and it was correct for Cicero to be led forward but in my case I made a different decision as I wanted Adzuki to learn that actually being at the back of the sleigh was absolutely fine and there was no need for him to want to go forward. In my quick thinking I asked one of the volunteers to pass me a sneaky bag of lichen hidden Santa’s bag. With a tasty handful of lichen in my hand suddenly Adzuki was pretty delighted to be walking at the back of the sleigh. This got us through the parade wonderfully but I knew this wasn’t a solution long term. I mean we would have a very happy Adzuki but ultimately he had to learn that lichen wasn’t always going to be available.

The teams return to the hills after their events. Here’s a snowy Haricot after his day in Tain.

The teams came home after that weekend all with their own stories of their ‘COVID calves come adults’ and how it wasn’t quite as smooth sailing as other years. However, they were by no means put off, we just had to be canny with how we handled them and which events they went on. Every weekend they would join a team. Haricot pulled the sleigh at Aberfeldy the following weekend and this time we gave him some help by pushing the sleigh therefore all he had to do was walk at the front. ‘He was a total star’ as reported back by Ruth! Lupin was also in that team but as he pulled like a pro last time he went at the back this time and absolutely nailed it! Cicero the following weekend had a reindeer only event so no parade for him. This type of exposure is still really great though and goes towards his training. Adzuki came to a local event with myself and Mel. It was a short parade but already he was better than before… again the more exposure the better.

Haricot pulling the sleigh in Aberfeldy where he was a total star! Lupin at the back also doing a super job.
Adzuki pulling the sleigh like a pro in Lairg.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can be two of the busiest days of the year. There are three parades locally on Christmas Eve and they can be dark, busy and fast pace whereas Christmas day there are four parades and they are a bit more laid back and all in the light of day which is easier. With Haricot and Lupin taking to it better than Cicero and Adzuki we decided they would do Christmas Eve and that would leave Christmas Day to Cicero and Adzuki. All alongside some of our other trained Christmas reindeer of course. I cannot sing their praises more, all four boys were absolute superstars! With full sets of antlers they all looked beautiful in the front of the sleigh. They make us feel so proud!

The biggest reward is of course heading to winter free range which happens after Christmas. So to finish off the photos here is Adzuki, still with his enormous set of antlers in February while free ranging with the rest of the herd.

Adzuki enjoying roaming freely in the hills after his Christmas work.

Fiona

Why can’t I touch the reindeer?!

Reindeer have a hugely thick coat as they are designed to survive Arctic and sub-Arctic winters, and they are one of the only mammals to have hair covering every part of their body, even including their noses. So they look incredibly cuddly and visitors are usually desperate to stroke them. If you’ve been on one of our Hill Trips pre March 2020, you might remember being allowed to stroke them too, but now we have stopped this direct contact between visitor and reindeer. But why?

Reindeer and visitors mingling

First, some background information about reindeer’s behaviour to each other without influence of human presence. Reindeer are not a ‘tactile’ animal, despite their strong herding instinct. Because of their thick coat they have no need to huddle together for warmth at any point, so the only time you see direct contact between them – such as resting their heads on each other – is affection between mother and calf. Calves stay with their mums for a year only (usually), but after this that close bond is broken and direct contact stops.

Contact like this is only between mother and offspring in general. Although I’m not sure Sitini wanted her face cleaned by mum Hippo in this picture!

Living in an incredibly harsh environment also means it’s critical to establish a hierarchy, as reindeer need to be able to compete for food when winter is at it’s hardest – hence the presence of antlers on both males and females. Males are bigger in body size so they lose their antlers first, leaving the smaller females at the top of the pecking order through the winter months when food is at it’s scarcest, and when they are likely to be pregnant too. This means that the herds constantly establish dominance between each other, pushing each other around and chasing less dominant reindeer away from good grazing spots.

Come on a Hill Trip and look around you, and you’re unlikely to see any reindeer nuzzling each other, but it’s almost guaranteed you’ll see reindeer pushing each other around. So a reindeer touching another is generally an agressive action, with antlers – or front feet – used as weapons. The way I like to phrase it to visitors is that we are entering the reindeer’s natural territory, so we therefore play by their rules – touch is a negative thing so we aren’t going to do so.

The main way a reindeer ‘touches’ another – antlers first! Oatcake demonstrating a reindeer’s way of getting another to move on.
Another example of contact between two of the young reindeer, Darling and Elbe – it’s not friendly!

However, pre-covid, we didn’t have a hard-and-fast rule about not touching the reindeer. It was never something we encouraged, but not something we outright banned. As our reindeer are incredibly tame, many did actually tolerate a gentle stroke or pat, and the ones that didn’t had space to move away from visitors. However, some reindeer were well known for standing there looking beautiful and luring visitors in close, only to try and clobber them. This led to us having to have eyes in the back of our heads as guides, and I found myself frequently – often mid-sentence – having to suddenly holler across the hillside: ‘just stand back from that one!’ / ‘don’t try and touch him!’ / ‘oops, sorry about that… are you ok?’. I found this happening more and more too, as our visitor number increased considerably over recent years. Coupled with that, was people’s inability to read reindeer body language – which is perfectly understandable for those not used to being around animals. Generally a grumpy reindeer will warn visitors to keep their distance before going a step further and insisting that they do, but this is often lost in translation from reindeer to humans. Clear as day to those of us who are well-versed in reindeer, but not to all.

Lace. Looks like a supermodel with her glam dark coat and elegant tall antlers – but acts like a thug. To both other reindeer, and visitors, at times.

But covid brought about a change that, in hindsight, needed to happen anyway. For months no-one was allowed to touch anything – reindeer included – and we realised just how much more relaxed the herd were with the new ‘hands-off’ rule. The ‘background’ reindeer of the herd – shyer members who would normally keep themselves a good distance away – started wandering in amongst everyone, sometimes within arms reach, but safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be patted unexpectedly. Everyone was more relaxed and this included us as guides – since our rules changed I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to rescue an unsuspecting visitor from a reindeer who got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. I’m not going to lie – it does still happen sometimes as animals are always unpredictable, but with far less frequency.

Turtle’s reputation precedes her amongst herders – she’s not earned the nickname ‘Snapping Turtle’ for nothing!

So ‘hands-off’ was here to stay. Once covid guidelines relaxed enough we started allowing visitors to hand-feed the reindeer once again, albeit in a more controlled fashion and allowing one turn per person only. This generally keeps manners better amongst the greediest members of the herd, meaning they only barge around for a short time period before settling down, but it does allow one small bit of contact that visitors crave.

Okapi and Hippo – always enthusiastic hand-feeders!

As far as we know, folks who have visited both before and after seem happy with the changes, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the reindeer are more relaxed and that their welfare is utmost. And of course, reindeer don’t read the rulebooks so they sometimes choose to touch visitors themselves, which is fine – it’s on their terms. A visitor finding a furry nose suddenly sniffing them, whiskers tickling their skin, is a happy visitor indeed.

Wee visitor Oakley getting special attention from Aztec! Photo: Candice Bell

It’s perhaps important to add that whilst we don’t – and have never – patted or stroked reindeer unnecessarily, we do have to handle them ourselves, but we do so without ‘fussing’ them. We we need to be able to handle them for veterinary care, worming and vaccinations etc., and this needs to be as unstressful for the animals as possible so we do put work into each individual to make sure they are comfortable being handled in this way. We also need to be able to move reindeer from place to place, so every single animal in the herd is trained to walk on a halter at around 5-6 months old, and a lot of effort goes into getting them easy to catch and halter. If we can’t catch a reindeer we run the risk of not being able to catch them at a critical point, i.e. if ill. Nowadays pretty much all of our reindeer aged 7 or less are catchable with ease as we have put more work into this aspect of training in latter years; but there are admittedly still some wily old reindeer who have to be brought into a shed to get hold of them! Looking at you, Sika…

Still one of the wildest reindeer in the herd, even at 16! Click the link above to read another of Hen’s blog’s, this time about Sika herself.

More work goes into our male reindeer overall, as they help to keep our business afloat by taking part in Christmas parades and events, earning income that helps to pay for their grazing leases etc. But again this is all done in a sensitive way and we work as a partnership with them, and touch is – as ever – kept to the minimum; the reindeer know their job and we know ours, and any reindeer that isn’t comfortable with the situation just stays at home.

Topi demonstrating how totally relaxed he is, even when harnessed up to the sleigh in the centre of Edinburgh – taking his opportunity for a quick nap on my shoulder before a parade many years ago. Note he’s the one choosing to rest his head on my shoulder, I’m just holding on to the lead-ropes!

So hopefully that gives an overview of why we have stuck to the change we made to Hill Trips in 2020. Initially I was worried we’d have a huge negative backlash from visitors, but there never has been really, and whilst we do know how tempting it is to stroke them, we hugely appreciate everyone’s efforts in not doing so. As we say, if struggling to resist the urge, stick your hands in your pockets!

Hen

Characters

Visitors often ask how on earth we tell apart the 150-strong herd of reindeer. Whilst there is variation in colour, markings and antler shape, one of the biggest distinguishing features is actually character. Just like people, reindeer come in every shade of cheeky, shy, friendly, stand-offish, bolshy, greedy, intelligent, daft… I thought I might mention a few stand out character types, past and present!

Overexcited Labrador

Aztec leading the herd – look at that expectant face

Step up, Aztec! Always the first to be involved, always wanting to “help”, very friendly, lovable, and not a manner to be seen if there is a mere sniff of food… Fun, but a bit of a liability.

Also falling into this category: Kipling, Bumble, Eco

The Thinker

Olmec paying careful consideration to all potential outcomes

Reserved and steady, not always the easiest to catch but utterly dependable when out on tour. Olmec, I’m looking at you.

Also applies to: Dragonfly

TV Diva

HM with her adoring fan Lotti

Introducing the one and only Holy Moley… who knows full well that she basically had her own TV documentary and hence feels that every visitor is there to see her and her alone.

Also: Dr Seuss appears to feel that his minor starring role in the same show entitles him to extra food portions every single day too.

Sweet as Pie, Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

Sweet Diamond, with Hopper in the background

Beautiful light-coloured Diamond has to be one of the gentlest souls in the herd. She walks with a slight limp after an injury back in her younger days, which of course means we all (needlessly) slip her extra bits of feed. 

Also: Amber, Esme, Sunflower

Loyal and True

Okapi in her usual position – right in the footsteps of the herder

Certain reindeer can always be relied upon when we’re moving the free-range herd – they’ll be near the front, they willingly have a headcollar put on, they trustingly plod behind you whilst the rest of the herd debate whether your bribe is worth coming for. Okapi, you’re the star here.

Also: Olympic

The Boy Band Pin-Up

Sherlock, admired by all!

Sherlock has to be one of the most impressive looking reindeer in the herd today, and he also knows how to work it. Some reindeer naturally prick their ears for a photo, and seem to offer their best side!

Also: Elvis, of whom there was never a bad photo taken!

Grumpy Old Men (and Women)

That look in Pony’s eye which was the precursor to antlers being aimed at you! We were always grateful when she cast her antlers each year, though she would then resort to using her front feet!

Bond may only be 5 years old, but he definitely ticks every box for “grouchy” – you only need to look at him and he rolls his eyes at the thought that you might try to interact with him. Likewise, walking too near Lace or Turtle is likely to extract a swing of the antlers and a snap of the mouth as a warning.  Turtle is Pony’s daughter, who was perhaps the grumpiest reindeer we’ve ever had in the herd, so it’s definitely inherited!

Also: Addja once implanted his antlers into my leg when in a bad mood, only to cast one, which definitely didn’t make him any more cheery (though it did make me chuckle at the instant karma).

Big Friendly Giant

Scrabble, our very own BFG!

One of the tallest, heftiest reindeer in the herd, Scrabble was a bit of a liability in his youth as he was just so keen to meet everyone, and somewhat unaware of his sheer size. It almost seemed that his bum was so far away from his brain that he couldn’t keep track of the children he was wiping out as he turned around… Now he’s an old fella so a bit steadier, but just as friendly and enormous!

Also: Comet

Don’t Mess With…

Brie acting like butter wouldn’t melt… until she disagrees with the program

Brie may look little and cute, but her first instinct if she doesn’t like something is to beat it/them with her antlers, and whilst she both she and her antlers may be small, she is ANGRY. As Mel once found out when leading Brie, and Brie decided she did NOT want to be there…

Also: Spy. If Spy has calved, it usually takes about four herders, all hiding behind gates/fences to move her where we want her to be.

Andi

Photo Blog: December 2023

On the last Friday of each month throughout 2023 I have shared photos that I’ve taken on my phone to hopefully give everyone an idea of the goings on at the Reindeer Centre. What a complete mix bag of photos this is to finish the year off! December has seen me up and down the A9 and dotting around locally with beautiful teams of reindeer for lots of Christmas events. I’ve done the odd day at the Centre too catching up with the goings on here, with just enough office time to put together this blog. My wonderful colleagues have also been ridiculously busy on events and at the Centre keeping everything going. Getting through gazillions of adoptions packs, leading fully booked Hill Trips and of course Christmas Fun in the Paddocks. This selection of photos doesn’t really do December justice, but it’s a snap shot of what I’ve been up to at least.

30th of November: Couldn’t resist including this one from November. Moving our free ranging herd in the snow!
1st of December: Cassie feeding the calves out of the bag.
2nd of December: Very chilled out reindeer in Aberfeldy after a short parade. In the team we have Dr Seuss, Frost, Haricot, Lupin, Colorado and Limpopo.
4th of December: After two nights away here’s the same team as above returning to the snowy hills.
10th of December: Stenoa and Olympic posing at the front posing with Santa and a pantomime crew.
11th of December: Seven month old calves Colorado and Ob sharing the same puddle.
12th of December: Amazon needing a chin rest.
12th of December: Bordeaux’s beard blowing beautifully in a cold Cairngorm breeze!
15th of December: Walking a team of reindeer out of the enclosure for a local event at the Aviemore Ice Rink.
16th of December: Herder Melanie and I attend a wedding with reindeer at Raemoir House near Banchory. Here they are eating lunch before meeting the bride and groom.
17th of December: A day at Reindeer House for me and spending as much time on the hill as possible! This is the gorgeous Marple and her daughter Mekong with matching billowing beards on the afternoon Hill Trip.
17th of December: The lovely Chickpea has had an excellent year and is in fab condition.
18th of December: Olympic showing off his lack of top teeth at a visit to a primary school in Aberdeen.
22nd of December: Our team very settled at Gleneagles Hotel. From left to right we’ve got Mississippi, Aztec, LX and Olympic.
23rd of December: Mississippi being especially cute!
25th of December: Before spending a few hours in the display pen each day, we take the the the boys for a good walk each morning so they can stretch their legs. For reindeer this means stopping at every tree to have a nibble at the lichen! Here’s Aztec getting some tasty Christmas Day snacks.
28th of December: Turtle and her calf Amur on the hill.
28th of December: Isla’s last day of work (although I’m sure she’ll be back at some point!) so here she is spoiling Alba, one of our hand-reared calves.

Ruth

Photos through the seasons…

These are a selection of my favourite photos taken over the last couple of years showing reindeer throughout all the seasons…

3rd February 2021: Lots of snow. It’s hard work treading a path, in fact Pony almost looks like she’s doing a spot of breaststroke. My beard, and Pony’s face, become covered in falling snow in the blizzard like conditions.
12th March 2022: “Make sure you photograph my good side”.
1st April 2021: Breakfast with a splendid view of the Northern Corries as the clouds seamlessly blend into the snow-kissed mountains.
14th May 2021: I treat Cowboy (who is just a couple of hours old) with anti-bacterial spray on his exposed umbilical cord and some insecticide to reduce the risk of being bitten by a tick at a vulnerable time in his life.
20th May 2021: Wee Beanie, less than an hour old.
30th June 2022: Sherlock is trying to investigate my pockets for any extra food. “I’m a growing boy” he pleads. At this stage of the year, he has been growing his antlers for roughly 3 and a half months, with another two months of growth still to go. His coat is malting in preparation for the hotter summer months.
25th October 2021: Frost appears to be producing a rainbow by means of flatulence. Gazelle can’t quite believe it either.
14th November 2021: Four castrate reindeer (Left to right: Frost, Aztec, Dr. Seuss, and Clouseau) pull Santa’s Sleigh, supervised by Colin and Olly.
20th December 2021: Beanie (exactly 7 months on from her earlier photo) looks a bit surprised that I’d consider taking a photo in this frosty weather.

Ben

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

The Greediest Reindeer of 2022

It’s the post-Christmas crash. The time of year where most people have completely de-railed from their usual eating habits and are feeling overwhelmed by how much food has been consumed in such a short space of time. Bodies are working at their very best to digest food as quickly as it has been eaten and to be honest with ourselves, not too much will change before the New Year. For some of our reindeer in the herd this food coma state happens all too often and not just around the festive season. We as herders have come together to create an official Top 5 list announcing the greediest reindeer in our herd for 2022. For those of you who know our reindeer well this may not come as a surprise. We created a short list of 10 reindeer before putting it to a vote to get our finalists. Without further ado starting from 5th place, we have…  

Joint 5th – Pagan

Just squeezing her way into the top 5, Pagan isn’t a reindeer who is particularly pushy when it comes to food, but she will seize any opportunity that comes her way and is usually always the first reindeer to come down the hill and meet us in the morning. This year we decided to cut off Pagan’s antlers because she is very good at using them on visitors, herders, and other reindeer. With no antlers on her head, she is the master of stealthily getting into the food bags, blending in when we allow the younger calves to eat first. On Hill Trips Pagan loves handfeeding from visitors inhaling the food as quickly as possible. This has been passed on to her 2-year-old daughter Pumpkin who is also very greedy when it comes handfeeding and certainly deserves a mention.

Pagan in October 2022. The stare all herders are familiar with (and slightly scared off)!
Pagan’s bulging eyes whenever food is nearby!
Pumpkin, Pagan’s daughter, has definitely inherited her mum’s greedy streak and loves her handfeed. October 2022.

Joint 5th – Magnum

Magnum is probably our largest calf this year and already has a ferocious appetite. He spent the first 3-4 months of his life free ranging before coming into out hill enclosure for the rest of the year and instantly became obsessed with food. When we feed the calves, he will bully his way into a bag and keep his head in there for as long as possible. He’s also devised a way of making holes in the bags so he can steal food when they are closed. We do like him as herders, but he is a real handful and a pest when we are trying to feed the reindeer. At only 7 months old, I worry just how greedy this cheeky chappy will become!

Butter wouldn’t melt in this cute pic of Magnum with his mum Torch in September 2022. It’s a different story a few months later…
Magnum the food monster and destroyer of feed bags! November 2022.

4th – Scully

The apple didn’t fall far when it comes to Scully. Taking after her mother Screel, she has a real appetite for food and has spent almost the whole year free ranging. It’s testament to how good the grazing is for our reindeer on the open hillside as Scully is now officially the fattest reindeer in our herd after a recent condition score on all the reindeer. Even at 4 years old Scully still feels she has the right to put her head into a bag of feed like our calves and I don’t see that habit changing anytime soon. She’s a nice reindeer with the body of a sumo wrestler!

Scully, looking round and moody, as she attempts to stare us down for more food! April 2022.

3rd – Kipling

Kipling is a one in a million, this is very biased because she is my favourite reindeer. For the last 3 – 4 years she has been exceptionally greedy and will always be the first reindeer waiting to handfeed from visitors, where she will try her very best to feed from every single person. When Kipling had her first calf Pip, Kipling would happily leave her for the chance of a quick feed even if her calf got lost in the process, we would constantly have to remind her that she was a mother a food wasn’t everything in the world. I’ve seen her so full of food in recent months that she acts and looks ill. Unfortunately, some other herders have become a little less patient with her is recent times, trying to get the attention of other reindeer is now an almost impossible job when Kipling is around as she won’t leave you alone if there is a bag of food in your hand.

Kipling on the hunt for a feed bag!
Kipling coming up for air very briefly as she inhales her food! Next to her is Kipling’s younger sister Juniper.

2nd – Dr Seuss

Anyone who knows the reindeer herd particularly well might be surprised that Dr Seuss is not first in our 2022 list of greed. If he was a human you would probably class him as morbidly obese however fat reserves are very important for a reindeer to see them through the harsh winter months, even if he does have some to spare. Dr Seuss has been a greedy lad from birth and absolutely loves his food. He can be a bit of a bully when it comes to food sometimes, but he never tends to be that bad. Like Kipling, he tries his very best to consume as much hand feed as physically possible when meeting visitors and will happily plough his way through a group of people when he see’s food from a far. The problem is that because he is so big and determined, if he ever manages to get his head in a bag of feed it extremely difficult to get him out again. With Dr Seuss in second place its time to announce the winner….

Dr Seuss in a food coma after a Hill Trip,
A slightly unflattering angle of Dr Seuss’ rotund belly.

1st – Aztec

Coming in first place for nearly every reindeer herder, Aztec is officially the greediest reindeer of 2022. He’s a fun and energetic reindeer who acts like food is the only thing on his mind. You may not see him on Hill Trips very much because he is sometimes banned for his bad behaviour and greed when it comes to handfeeding, he’s exceptionally pushy and forceful you could be lead in to thinking that he never gets enough food. Aztec is also very athletic and uses this to his advantage when it come to greed, he will happily jump over a fence or display pen if he sees a bag of lichen and at the front of sleigh once dragged all remaining reindeer and herders into a pen when he saw the food bowls. I suspect Aztec’s greed comes from his mother Gazelle who is also known to be very vigorous at times when it comes to food. For this year he is the winner, but I can’t decide what to give him a prize, surely not more food?

Aztec looking all cute and innocent – May 2022.
Aztec on a Christmas event in Gleneagles (and the fence he effortlessly popped over in pursuit of more food!) – December 2022.

Joe

Then and now…

With all these photos of calves over the last few weeks on our social media pages, I thought I’d dig out some photos of adult reindeer in our herd when they were just a week or two old, as a way of demonstrating their colouration and it’s changes with time. Reindeer are born in an extremely warm winter coat to protect them from the elements, but this calf coat isn’t necessarily the same colour as they will end up.

There’s a very short window from when they are born in May, to when they first moult in July, when they have this lovely calf coat. By July they have a short, darker summer coat, although their legs often retain their calf coat for a few extra weeks, and then their adult winter coat grows in for the first time in early September. At this point onwards they look like mini adults, and have lost the ‘cute’ factor.

We’ll start with Aztec. He was the most common colour for a calf, a gingery brown that we just call ‘normal coloured’. As an adult he’s still ‘normal’ – as common as muck! (But only in colour, not character!).

Roman was also a ‘normal coloured’ calf, although a much richer red colour (NB. it’s not so noticeable in this photo as it was taken on a different camera to the other pics) than the gingery colour of many calves. The rich red look is one of my favourites amongst the calf coats!

Still ticking the ‘normal coloured’ box is Hamish, although you’ll notice the blacker back he had. This photo popped up on my Facebook ‘memories’ for 10 years ago recently – where has the time gone?! Hamish had to be pulled out by Fiona after getting stuck being born – hence the rather weak looking little calf knuckled over and two herders in attendance (trying to assess whether there’s any milk in that udder…).

‘Chocolate brown’ is the next category, darker all over than the others so far. Olympic has grown in to a dark coloured adult, but by no means as dark as they get….

….unlike Lace! Jet black as a calf, she’s always been one of the very darkest reindeer in the herd. Note how dark her bum is compared to Olympic above!

And at the other end of the scale is Mozzarella. If a calf is pure white, whether they are actually leucistic or literally just very white, they will stay that way their whole lives, regardless of the changing of the seasons. Their summer and winter coats are both pretty much the same. Mozzarella has a couple of dark markings on her, and these will change in darkness depending on the season, but not her white hairs.

Olmec and his mum Emmental are both ‘white’ reindeer too, or at least what we would refer to as a white or light coloured reindeer. In August, on the right, (and 3 years later!) they are much greyer, about halfway from summer to winter coats, but reindeer’s coats bleach in the light throughout the winter months, turning them much whiter by spring.

Many light coloured reindeer also have white face markings, as Svalbard demonstrates here. The darker markings on calf coats tend to be much less obvious as adults though – you have to peer closely to see Svalbard’s dark leg nowadays! While he’s not a light coloured reindeer as such now, he’s still on the pale side.

Not all light coloured adults start out light though, as LX and Diamond demonstrate here. White foreheads on a brown calf generally signify a calf will turn white in adulthood though! It’s not a particularly common colouration though – I think these are the only two I remember in my time here (or at least the only two who survived to adulthood – there may have been others).

Finally, there’s always one or two odd ones each year. Above is Brie, a sort of slate-grey colour as a calf with a little white nose, but generally she’s pretty much normal coloured now as an adult, albeit still rather greyish. She was a very pretty calf!

And finally Spartan, again slate grey as a calf but on the darker side as an adult. His pale eyes are a giveaway for his slightly odd colouration though, and as a breeding bull he’s thrown some equally unusual looking calves this spring!

There’s nothing more exciting than walking towards a cow who just calved, having eventually tracked them down – knowing you’re the very first human to lay eyes on that calf. At 8am when reporting from the hill down to Reindeer House, having been on the early shift and out for two or three hours already, I’ve squeaked “You’ll never guess what colour so-and-so’s calf is!” down a phone excitedly many times in the past. Freezing toes, soaked clothes and rumbling belly temporarily forgotten.

Hen

The Proposal

On a wild Hill Trip in February we were fortunate to witness a special moment. Andrew passed his phone to Manouk during a brief break in the weather and asked her to to take some pictures. She was able to capture the moment his partner Jasmine, became his fiancé.

The big question for Jasmine

She said yes!

Olympic kindly lent his nice thick winter coat as a nice background. Aztec was keen to watch on too in case it meant handfeed!

 

Thanks to Jasmine and Andrew for sharing their photos with us. Congratulations from everyone at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. Let us know if you want Olympic and Aztec at the wedding….

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