I love September! The reindeer look super, we’re busy with free ranging reindeer, we name the calves and we start learning their individual personalities, plus the rut kicks off. Having said that, I planned a two week holiday in one of my favourite months – must remember not to do that again! So there is a big gap in the photos for this month’s blog, but I’ve made up for it by just sharing more from the same day.
Just a reminder – we don’t reveal the names of the calves online until our adopters receive their newsletter next month.
Spring is all around! The days are longer and warmer, buds are beginning to burst into leaf and very soon there will be lots of wobbly new-born reindeer calves taking their first steps in our hill enclosure. As well as the reindeer which increase in number on the hill, so will the bird life as migratory birds arrive from warmer places such as Africa, Southern Europe or even coastal Britain to breed and rear young. All the herders enjoy and appreciate the different birds we get in the enclosure during different times of the year and spring announces the return of some of our favourites.
Ring Ouzel – It may be a fair assumption that this species is the favourite of migratory birds amongst herders. Known as the mountain blackbird, they are a little longer and more upright than their more common cousins and get their name because of the male’s obvious white bib under the neck. They typically nest in gullies or steep scree slopes on the hill side and like many migrants, arrive in April and leave by September. Along with a beautiful song and obvious alarm call it is always a joy to see these birds in and around the enclosure looking for invertebrates to feed on.
Wheatear – Also summer migrants, these little birds can be common across the more upland environment of the Cairngorms. The males are quite colourful with a blue/grey head and back, black wings and an orange like breast. Wheatears like rocky open land but can be seen on moorlands, and coastal grassland, nesting on the ground in holes, scree slopes or stone walls. They can be seen hopping about in the enclosure for insects and more so on the footpath towards the Chalamain Gap. Sometimes found in Greenland or Canada and wintering in Africa, Wheatear are among the world’s long distance migratory birds, estimated to fly nonstop for up to 2400km in 30 hours! The first one this season was seen early on the 24th of March.
Golden Plover – During the winter Golden Plover can be found in the UK near the coast or lower farmlands and are often seen in flocks with Lapwing. For the spring and summer they move to the higher moorlands and hillsides to breed and nest on the ground, they can be be seen in our enclosure but their spotted black and golden camouflage plumage keeps them well hidden, it’s not until you hear their high pitched and rather sad sounding alarm call that you realise they are around. These shy but charming waders can also be seen up on many of the higher hills of Scotland and are a great addition to any hill day.
Snipe – Another wader to be found regularly in the enclosure is the Snipe. Like Golden Plover, Snipe are in the UK all year round but many of the wintering birds migrate elsewhere to breed, leaving a much smaller population of residents during the spring and summer. They typically enjoy a damp environment in habitat such as marshes, bogs or wet meadows, all of which is abundant in the reindeer enclosure. Snipe have a long straight bill, short legs and rather dumpy shape. You’re more likely to hear their amazing drumming call during the spring season than ever see them, the only time I ever see Snipe is by accidently getting too close and watch as they fire off the ground and whizz away in a fast zig- zagging motion.
Skylark – Another British resident that also moves up onto the mountain side during the breeding season is the Skylark. With a very good population throughout the whole of the UK, these birds are by no means uncommon but it’s always a delight to hear their long and beautiful song high in the sky during the Spring and Summer months. Skylark’s are a rather bland looking bird with a grey and brown speckled plumage that looks very similar to that of a meadow pipit. Get close enough though and you’ll also notice a crested head that helps differentiate them. It’s the sound of a Skylark that makes them unmistakable though, flying well over 100 meters high in the sky and singing for up to 15 minutes long, they make a great additional to a hill trip in the enclosure with the reindeer.
Black Grouse – The final bird to mention is the Black Grouse. Black Grouse are a rather large bird, the females are a grey/ brown colour while the males are predominantly black with red eyebrows and white under tail and wings feathers. They live in Glenmore and the Cairngorms throughout the year in secret until the Spring and breeding season when the male birds start to Lek. The Lek is a site usually in a clearing close to woodland where the males compete for the most central positions within it. Flashing their tail feathers, the males can be highly active with plenty of showboating while making bubbling and shrieking calls and sometimes fighting to gain position, the Grouse most central in the Lek will attract the most females who watch the drama from a short distance. We are lucky to have a Lek within the enclosure where the birds are undisturbed within the safety of our private space.
Houdini is 11 years old now. He joined our herd when we brought reindeer over here from Sweden in 2011 as a way to boost the genetics in our own herd. At the time he was a calf and the way he got his name was during his time in Sweden while my brother Alex was there training them ready for their journey over to Scotland. On a number of occasions when Alex would head to the corral in the morning all the reindeer were securely inside the fencing… except for one. After a good bit of persuasion with food he’d coax that calf back in to join the herd in the corral. The weird thing was he couldn’t work out where he was getting out… and that is how he got his name, Houdini! He must have eventually watched him and worked it out because Houdini did come over to Scotland and didn’t remain in Sweden.
For his first few years with us he was too young to breed but with a quiet and greedy nature we soon realised that he’d be a good one to use as a main breeding bull in the future. His antlers were always a good size but never had much shapeliness to them. As a bull he was an interesting character. Sometimes when bulls are quite tame when they rut they can see us as part of their herd and in the rutting season this meant fending us off from trying to steal his females! Not that we actually wanted his females but he wasn’t to know that. So feeding him and his hareem had to be done with caution. Other bulls such as Kota, and Spartan never gave us a second look… nature of the beast I guess, they are all very different. Houdini over the years fathered many calves, including Olmec, Texel, Holy Moley, Jelly etc… Like their dad, as well as mums influence too, they all have a very sweet nature.
In 2020 Houdini was 9 years old and we’d used him as a main breeding bull for a few years so we decided to give him a break now. This meant he had a visit from the vet to be gelded so Houdini will live out his life in our herd as a Christmas reindeer. We couldn’t possibly have a herd full of bulls or going into the rutting season would be complete chaos and very difficult to manage. We would risk relatives breeding with one another so we must geld reindeer that we don’t want to breed from. This would happen at the youngest of 3 years old, or like Houdini at the age of 9. It is our Christmas reindeer that would take part in events and are trained to harness and pull the sleigh.
As Houdini was already a good age we did train him to wear harness and pull the sleigh but the reality of him actually doing many events are pretty slim. As a big reindeer who has had a lot of stress on his body over the years with rutting he also needs to take it easy. We trained him at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore and he did really well. For a big, old boy who hasn’t done anything like that before he was great. With our normal Christmas tour not happening in 2020 due to COVID we did a few local events. Houdini joined the team that did a local hotel on Christmas day but he just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, nothing too tasking. In 2021 he went through the training again and he joined my team and for the first time since he came into Scotland, he came south of the border to the north of England.
We were doing an event at Stockeld Park in Yorkshire. It was a two day event so both days we turned up for 11am into a huge grassy pen and did a parade around their enchanted forest at 3pm. The parade loop went around their cross country ski route and passed lit-up animals, ogres, Little Red Riding Hood’s house, a wicked witch riding on her sleigh as well as a lake with fountains and a few enormous lit-up unicorns with fairies dancing on top… I know I couldn’t quite take it all in either! We set off on our first out of four loops in total we were going to be doing that weekend, two each day. I thought it was a bit much to ask Houdini to pull the sleigh on the first day as it was his first event and discovering unicorns on his first ever event should be done while walking at the back of the sleigh and not having to concentrate on the sleigh as well. So he joined myself at the back of the sleigh with Anster, Beret and Beanie. Frost and Celt were pulling it with Lotti leading. As we enter the enchanted forest it was great seeing Houdini take it in but not reacting. Each lit-up animal we passed he’d stare at, but by the fourth round on day two he barely even gave each display the time of day, even the huge unicorns.
After the weekend we headed north again and before he knew it he was back on the hill with the herd. I wonder if he spread his knowledge of unicorns in Yorkshire onto the other reindeer? Houdini was an absolute star! He took everything in his stride and over the years has brought so much to our herd, we are very proud of him. He might do the odd local event now but leave the ones further afield to the younger reindeer. Stockeld was perfect for him as a big comfortable grassy pen was good on his older joints. It’s a bit like me, when we stay at farm bases across the country now I need a comfy bed at night or I wake up a bit stiff!
It’s an exciting time of year here at the Reindeer Centre as we are now well into the rut. Our main breeding bulls are looking fantastic with their bony antlers, thick necks and chubby bellies. The girls are also looking brilliant after a summer out on the free-range getting lots of tasty morsels and running around on the hills.
We’ve now got a few bulls in our enclosure with their selected cows and are hoping that they do their one and only job well and we will have lots of babies next year. As most of you know, our herd numbers around 150 and we like to keep it that way. We use the enclosure during the rut to manage our bulls and cows to make sure we get enough calves, but not too many. The single cows we are not breeding from, such as Lilac, Tuppence, Fonn and co., are put out onto the free-range and politely told to go and fend for themselves. Females with calves are kept separate from the bulls, but still in the enclosure. As well as the rut, we are currently halter training the calves so we need them on the hill, but we give most of the mums a year off between calves.
There are roughly 4 large parts in total to the enclosure. The cows and calves have one, and the other three each contain one main bull, his cows and sometimes a couple of castrates and young bulls. The three main bulls in the enclosure this year are Balmoral, Bandy and Ost. We have a couple of castrates and young bulls in with the main bull to keep him fit and on his toes. Whilst the castrates and young bulls will never challenge the main bull for dominance, he will chase them away from his ladies if he feels they are getting a little too close for comfort. It keeps our younger boys in check and means our bulls work off that belly they have been building over the summer.
We also have a bull, Bovril, out on the Cromdales with some younger girls. He’s a very lovely boy and his antlers have been cut off (like getting a hair cut when the antlers have hardened!) so he is not too much of a worry if you come across him. Recently Tilly had a very long walk when Bovril’s 8 cows turned up on the road between Bridge of Brown and Tomintoul! I think Bovril was too fat to follow the girls so hopefully they have been reunited up on the hills and he is keeping them in check now.
Hopefully the boys will perform and next year we will have lots of cute little babies again!