Volunteer Blog: From the rutting season to the calving season

Sherlock during the rut in 2023.

I first visited the Cairngorm reindeer herd in August 2000 and since then have visited on many occasions with my husband and our three daughters.

Over the years we have made badges and paper antlers, hunted for elves, taken countless photos of our daughters sitting on the sleigh outside the shop, handfed the reindeer, and have never tired of the beautiful walk up to the hill enclosure.

Our last family trip was on Valentine’s Day in 2022 when we headed out in the pouring rain on the 11am Hill Trip to visit the free ranging herd high up on the mountain. It was following that trip that I heard about the chance to apply to become a volunteer and spend a week helping out at Reindeer House and decided to apply.

Jayne’s husband and daughter smiling despite the rain thanks to Gloriana. Hard to believe this soggy experience made Jayne wish to volunteer with us!

In October 2023 I packed my tent and drove up from Lancashire to spend the week at Glenmore. I was rather apprehensive turning up at 8am on Monday morning with a rucksack full of waterproofs and sandwiches but I needn’t have worried. I was immediately greeted by a room full of very friendly reindeer herders, several dogs and a handful of puppies!

My volunteer week was action packed. In the morning I helped with handling the reindeer down at the Visitor Centre, feeding them, cleaning up and getting everything ready for visitors to come in at 10am.

During October there is just one Hill Trip a day. I would go up onto the hill, carrying a bag of food and talking to visitors about what I was doing. Each day I would heat up some milk and carry it up the hill in a flask to feed two calves named Winnie and Alba who had been successfully hand reared and were now on the hill with the rest of the herd. Whilst I keep insisting that I don’t have a favourite reindeer I do have a soft spot for Alba!

Winnie and Alba, hard not to develop soft spots for these two girls!

October is the rutting season which was quite eventful! The hill enclosure was being used to manage the annual breeding as well as for daily Hill Trips so there was plenty to do. Two male reindeer had been selected for breeding. Sherlock was out on Silver Mount with some of the females whilst Jelly Bean was in another part of the enclosure with some of the other females. Daily checks were made of all the reindeer and extra food provided. It was quite an experience to see these normally very docile males displaying anything but docile behaviour and to see their interactions with the females as they came into season. I was certainly happy to stay behind the fence!

Sherlock out on Silver Mount with Bordeaux, one of his selected cows.

Volunteering in October also meant that I got the opportunity to be involved in the first week of the Christmas sleigh training. I’ll never forget being pulled up the hill from Glenmore Visitor Centre in a Sleigh!

Jayne at the front of the sleigh in hi-vis, on crowd control duty.

I learnt so much that week and thoroughly enjoyed it so it was no surprise to my family when I asked if they would mind if I abandoned them once again this year to spend another week volunteering.

My return to Glenmore was sooner than I imagined and I was back again at the start of May 2024 – approximately 220 days since my last visit – which quite coincidentally happened to be about the same period of time as the average gestation period for a reindeer!

How lucky was I – having experienced the madness of the rutting season I was now in the thick of the calving season.

One of our gorgeous calves.

Three calves had already been born when I arrived on a wet bank holiday weekend and over the course of the week that I was there another 12 were born on the hill.

During my second stint as a volunteer there was no Paddocks and Exhibition to attend to as it has been knocked down over the winter and is in the process of being rebuilt. There was plenty to do though with two Hill Trips a day, plus an early morning walk to find reindeer, check on them, locate newly born reindeer and help with a whole host of other daily jobs to be done.

New mum and calf.

Watching how quickly the calves developed and became so sure footed in such a short space of time was amazing and as the new mums relaxed into motherhood it was a joy to just sit and watch them interact. It’s hard to imagine that in just a few weeks the mums and calves will be out free ranging across the Cairngorm mountains.

During the time I have spent with everyone who works with the Cairngorm Reindeer I have learned so much about these beautiful animals. I have thoroughly enjoyed helping to take visitors up onto the hill, telling them about the reindeer and talking to them about all sorts of things!

Sherlock looking a bit different from Jayne’s last visit.
Zambezi and Shannon now yearlings in May 2024, in the previous October these were some of the calves that were being trained to walk behind the sleigh.

I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity and am rather hoping that I will be allowed back again next year ….

Jayne

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

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

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

2020 calves heading out to free-range.

Holy Moley

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

New-born Holy Moley.

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

Lotti and Holy Moley.

Sunflower

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

Insert food here.

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

Sunflower in the snow.
Sunflower out free ranging.

Pumpkin

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

Lotti and Pumpkin.

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

Flax

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

Fiona, Flax and Ibex.
Ibex cleaning Flax.

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

Flax with a snowy nose.

Pip

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

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

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

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

Chickpea

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

Andi and Chickpea having a cuddle.

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

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

Peanut

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

Peanut.

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

Peanut in the snow.

Lotti

Photo Blog: May 2023

May! What a month! Calving began on Sunday the 29th of April and was done by Sunday the 14th of May. A two week, action-packed blur. After the first few calves were born we were expecting a bit of a lull, but nope, they just kept on coming. As well as many experienced cows we’ve had eight first-time-mums and all are doing a super job and have taken to motherhood very well. On the whole everything went well, however, calving season sadly does tend to bring some sad moments as well as lots of highs. In addition to looking after the new-borns, we’ve also been running two Hill Trips a day and the Paddocks and Exhibition have been popular with holiday-makers so looking back this month has been a bit of a whirlwind!

This month’s photo selection is biased towards the cute calves but I’m sure that’s what we all want to see anyway. 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… !

1st of May – Ben walking some lovely females in from Silver Mount in the cloud, Black Loch behind.
3rd of May – The oldest calf of 2023, already very bold at 4 days old (born on the 29th April).
4th of May – Druid waiting for hand feed, please!
7th of May – Another gorgeous new addition to the herd!
8th of May – Choosing which picture to select has never been so hard! But this is today’s cutie which won!
9th of May – On searching for a cow and calf in the enclosure I found these lazy boys, late in for their breakfast! Dr Seuss was clearly having a lie-in on his 6th birthday!! Happy birthday Dr Seuss.
9th of May – Trilby, Fab, Borlotti and Viennetta. Now Viennetta and Fab are not the youngest cohort in the herd we have to get used to calling them ‘yearlings’…. no longer the calves!
11th of May – The first pale calf of the season! Hiding behind mum’s legs!
12th of May – I was lucky to find this new mother and calf. It’s always a total privilege to be the first person to see a new addition to the herd!
15th of May – Motherhood is clearly very tiring for this mum. But she’s doing a super job!
17th of May – Some of the oldest and boldest calves are now mingling with our visitors on Hill Trips. Meanwhile, Aztec in the background is enjoying his absolute favourite time of the day – hand feeding!!
18th of May – It was great to catch up with this old girl whilst out on a free range mission with Sally! This is Diamond who is 11-years-old and very sweet-natured.
19th of May – We did routine temperature checks on all the cows and calves. We have only two black calves but they still managed to get us completely confused at one point. Who do you belong to?!
22nd of May – Druid again! He’s been busy growing his antlers since the previous pic of him (4th of May).
23rd of May – Turtle on “World Turtle Day”. She’s actually named after the variety of bean, rather than the sea creature, but it’s a good opportunity to put her in the limelight.
24th of May – Beanie trying to break in to a food bag. What do you mean this isn’t stashed here for me?!

Ruth

Volunteer Blog: Falling in love with reindeer

How it all started

I have been a reindeer adopter for 10 years and it all started because my brother adopted the lovely Topi as a Xmas present for my sister-in-law. On reading the wonderful welcome pack, I decided I needed to visit the herd. So, the following summer found me up in the Cairngorms on a fantastic trek leading the great Grunter. I was hooked!

The lovely Topi in 2012. When Helen first adopted him.
Grunter looking very handsome in 2013.

Over the years I’ve visited 2 or 3 times a year- thoroughly enjoyable each time. Not only were the reindeer and the setting up in the Cairngorms superb but so were the dedicated group of people who ensure the safety and care of these wonderful creatures. I had promised myself that the first thing I would do when I retired was volunteer at the Reindeer Centre to see behind the scenes and play all be it a small part in this venture.

My first volunteer week

So being accepted September 2019 saw my promise fulfilled – a whole week with the reindeer and of course these wonderful herders. As well as being so very excited, I was a bit apprehensive – not doing the right thing, being more of a hindrance than help. However, I was made so welcome and my help much appreciated no matter what that I soon relaxed. I knew from my own work that supporting volunteers is quite a commitment so all praise to the great team of herders one and all.

Spending twice a day up in the hills was just all I had hoped it would be – don’t think I have the words to do it justice. Getting to share my enthusiasm for the herd and the work done to support them was a privilege. Over the week I learned so much from each of the herders that I grew in confidence in talking to the visitors.

By the end of the week I had developed a whole range of skills – cleaning wellies and scooping poo high on the list! I was also fitter though that may seem ridiculous as I stumbled, fell and broke my wrist (yes, I am THAT volunteer!!) I have high praise for the health services in Aviemore and the care and concern of the herders. Not daunted although I couldn’t sadly go up the hills for the rest of my week, I was able to chat to people who visited the paddocks, make lots of cups of tea and help out in the office (at least I hope it was viewed as help!) I also mastered the art of washing wellies with one hand!

The pandemic put a hold on another opportunity to volunteer – yes, I was going to be welcomed back!

May 2022 – the return

May 2022 was my next chance for a week for all things reindeer. I deliberately wanted to be part of the calving season as my September 2019 stint saw the start of the rut. The May week was a wet one – I don’t think I got out of the wet weather gear and grew to bless wellies. No matter the weather it is always worthwhile going up the hills. The scenery is stunning and atmospheric and of course the welcome from the reindeer makes it all complete.

Marple and Vienna’s calves on a soggy day!

As there had been over a 2-year gap to my volunteering, although I had been a visitor when I could, I was a bit concerned that I would have forgotten everything. No worries, it came rushing back with updates and new things filling the gaps. It was like meeting a new herd as a whole new group of reindeer had been born and grown up as well as saying goodbye to some favourites.

It was a wonderful experience to see the new born. The mothers were very protective initially keeping their distance from us with their calves. When the time was right they joined us with the wee calf at their heels. I think the oldest calves were about 3 or 4 weeks old and to see them also grow in confidence over the week to where they tentatively came up to check you out was quite a privilege. At one point I was “helping” with temperature checks and watching the protective behaviour of the mothers whether new hands or experienced was quite something – and very noisy in a small space! Honking like geese was my comment!

Soon after Helen’s help checking temperatures and making sure the calves and their mothers were healthy, they were put out into the mountains to free range.

My skill set also grew. No welly washing is required anymore but I added making up the feed – good cardiovascular workout. If it was possible to make this week even more special I was lucky enough to be at the Centre on the actual day of the 70th anniversary of reindeer arriving at Cairngorm. Cake was very welcome coming down off the hills. I think visitors also enjoyed the extra surprise of treats at the Centre as well!

Fiona and Lotti food mixing – now one of Helen’s skills too!
70th Anniversary Hill Trip – Helen can be seen clutching the white handfeed bag!

As in 2019 it was sad to say goodbye when the week ended. For a long time afterwards looking at the clock I would be thinking “they’ll be going up on the hill visit” On a lovely day weatherwise I just wanted to be there. The place and experiences get under your skin.

Adopters Weekend

So it was with great pleasure I visited again in October for the Adopters Weekend. The 5-month gap had brought much change to the calves I had seen in May and it was like starting again getting to know them. It was great to see the adults again – hello Beanie always reliable to arrive to greet us particularly when food was involved! It was great day (it didn’t rain!) talking all things reindeer and Tilly’s evening talk humorous and informative was a great way to end the day. Sad again to say goodbye, however there are the Xmas events to look forward to.

The calves in October- a big change since Helen last saw them in May.
Beanie, being Beanie! The face lots of people witness as the handfeed bags appear!

I can’t believe 10 years have passed since I read that welcome pack – thank you, big brother! Here’s to the next 10 and beyond.

Helen Adair

Finding Dante’s calf

Being the most recent person to start working at the Reindeer Centre I am experiencing the day-to-day workings of the Centre throughout the seasons for the first time. I thought I would write about one of my favourite “firsts” to date, which is finding the first calf to be born for the 2022 season. It was a beautiful day at the tail end of April, which happened to be my first day back at work after my usual two days off and Andi’s first day back at work after a holiday. We started our usual morning routine and set off from the house to head up to the enclosure to check on our pregnant cows and feed them, upon feeding the cows we realised that one reindeer was missing, so we grabbed our calving bag which includes: feed for the mother, spot on and antibiotic blue spray for the calf’s naval and made a start on searching the enclosure. For anyone that hasn’t been to our enclosure it is a vast amount of space to search, the perimeter line is 8km in length alone! The missing reindeer was the lovely, four year old, Dante.

We headed along the top ridge of the enclosure to check a well-known calving area up there, but the missing reindeer was nowhere to be seen so we continued climbing to the summit of Silver Mount in search of Dante. Keeping with the theme of many “first” experiences, this was also my first time being on and seeing the summit of Silver Mount, which has glorious views of the Northern Corries, Loch Morlich and down onto Glenmore. Luckily for us, Dante was also at the summit of Silver Mount.

Looking down the top ridge towards Black Loch and Coire Cas in the distance.
The view from Silver Mount looking across our enclosure towards the Pass of Ryvoan.

With the easy part over we had to try and see whether Dante had calved or not and for the untrained eye this was a lot harder than it sounds. We could see that the reindeer was focusing on a specific ginger looking spot, but was this a new-born calf or a rock? A question that all herders ask themselves on a regular basis when looking for full grown reindeer, never mind a tiny calf! We were lucky though and the ginger mound began to move which confirmed that we had officially found the first calf of the season! Andi headed over to feed the mother, treat the naval of the calf and give spot on to give it protection from those dreaded ticks. Once we had checked that all was ok we headed back down to reindeer house to share the amazing news that our calving season had begun!

Dante and calf looking epic with the snowy Northen Corries behind.
Close up of Dante’s calf – the blue colour on her navel is the antibiotic spray.

At the end of May Dante and her one month old calf headed out to the hills for the summer, along with around half of our other mums and calves. We caught up with them a few times whist they roamed freely in the hills, both mum and daughter seemed to have a great summer as they were always in excellent condition. The pair are now back in our hill enclosure for the autumn where we’ll begin to train Dante’s calf to wear a halter and get to know her personality. Hopefully she’ll grow up to be a big strong girl like her mum, and big sister Mangetout.

A big moment when the first batch of cows and calves are let out of the enclosure to free range for the summer.
Dante’s calf enjoying the tasty lichen whilst out free ranging at the end of August – 4 months old to the day!

Amy

Oatcake

I’ll start with our first meeting as this was also the first time I’d ever seen a reindeer!

On a wee holiday with my boyfriend, enjoying the hills in the Cairngorms, a funny looking deer walked up to us. It was clear it wasn’t a red deer, but we totally didn’t expect a reindeer to join us on the walk! Soon she realised we didn’t have any food (or at least not the kind of food she would like to eat) with us and she left, but I was able to make a few lovely ‘close up’ pictures.

Bumping into the lone reindeer whilst on my holiday.

Later that evening I emailed the Reindeer Centre to let them know there was a reindeer on her own. Not knowing anything about reindeer, but working with sheep, seeing one on its own is usually not a good sign as they like to stay together as a flock (or herd in this case). Showing the picture, they recognised her as, three guesses… yes, it was Oatcake! I learnt that unfortunately, she lost her calf out on the free range and she was likely looking for her little one around that time.

The close-up image I emailed to the Reindeer Centre.

Oatcake made me interested about wanting to know more about reindeer. So really it’s thanks to her I’ve got a job here!

We don’t have any reindeer in the Netherlands where I was born, it’s all way too flat for these beautiful animals who have their habitat above the tree line and out on the hills. I now live in Fort William, with the highest mountain in the UK right at our doorstep, but you’ll not see any reindeer here either. The hills on the west coast are too pointy and rocky rather than the plateaus full of lichen found in the Cairngorms. So I commute to the Cairngorms once a week, returning home the following evening.

Oatcake as a calf in 2009 with her mum Autumn. She was named in the “cakes and biscuits” theme.

This year during calving season I was delighted to go out and try to find Oatcake and her new-born in the hill enclosure. Reindeer being reindeer, often calve on the most exposed and windy spot in our enclosure – at the top of Silver Mount. This is where we found Oatcake. We like to get a hold of the new-born calves to give them a small dose of spot-on (a tick treatment) and spray their navel with antiseptic… and of course, to see if mum and calf are happy and okay!

I was hoping Oatcake would let us come close to her wee one no problem, all we had to do is show her some food, but I was wrong. Oatcake is such a good mum and very protective of her calf, so as soon as she saw us, she started playing hide and seek! Thankfully I wasn’t alone, so my colleague Ben and myself split up, trying to slowly push her towards the part of the enclosure where all the other mums and calves were, so we could get a better look at her calf.

It’s a healthy light grey-ish coloured girl, just like her mum! Well done Oatcake!

Oatcake was one of the last reindeer to cast her antlers this spring and of course we always hope to find them, which isn’t always possible in such a big area. Luckily she made it very very easy for us, she just left her antler hanging on the fence!

The very helpful Oatcake leaving her antler on the fence for us, right by the gate.

Oatcake and calf, together with the rest of our females, are now out on the free range for the summer months enjoying their freedom and finding the best of food to eat. Hopefully very soon we’ll see her back in the enclosure for the autumn months.

Oatcake (with calf behind) free-ranging on the plateau, looking VERY scruffy during the moult – July 2022.
Oatcake September 2021 looking beautiful – her left antler is the one we found in the fence!

Lisette

The ‘June lull’

The spring here is extremely busy, as life at the Reindeer Centre revolves around the female reindeer and the calving season, and no day passes particularly peacefully – both for good and bad reasons. Herders scurry up and down the hill all day long, visitors arrive hopeful of seeing newborn calves, and there is almost always some sort of drama going on behind the scenes… Is that calf sucking properly? Was that reindeer looking a bit peaky this morning? Help – so-and-so has just calved and promptly turned feral… Why does that cow appear to have no calf – it was with her 5 minutes ago! There is never a day where I get to 5pm, and think ‘well, that was a boring one’.  

Early June and the cows and calves head off to free-range for the summer, leaving behind a rather calmer state of affairs in our hill enclosure!

In contrast, June is a time to draw a few breaths and take stock. In the first week of the month the cows and their calves are led out on to the mountains and they head off to free-range themselves, and then calmness finally returns to our lives. While admittedly June does sometimes feel a bit lacking in excitement after the chaos of the previous few weeks, it also brings with it a welcome lull – generally all is quiet on the reindeer front, and all is calm at the Centre itself too.

June is scruffy reindeer month too – here’s Cicero, Morse, Kiruna and Fava looking… frankly, rather moth-eaten!

The spring tends to be a time when reindeer pick up more illnesses as ticks are more prevalent, but by the time we reach June this settles down a bit, and we have less occurrences of high temperatures and out-of-sorts reindeer. Us herders can therefore relax slightly – less worried that someone is about to expire unexpectedly. We do, of course, keep our vigilance levels as high all through the summer as through the spring, but June, July and August are undoubtedly a little calmer on the veterinary front. September brings with it a spike in ticks – and therefore illnesses – once again, but for now all is relatively quiet.

Regular temperature checks are done throughout the summer, to look for a tell-tale raised temp of a reindeer with a tick-borne fever.

As well as the reindeer influencing our level of busy-ness very variable throughout the year, the other major factor is our visitors. Being a tourism-based business, the number of people through our doors goes up and down like a yo-yo throughout the season, with spikes coinciding with school holidays. As the saying goes we ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’, soldiering on though hectic spells with millions of people around, but it is countered by the quieter periods. Our reindeer apparently consulted a calendar in organising their yearly cycle – as spells when we are busiest with the reindeer themselves (calving in May, the rut in September/early October, Christmas tour in November) tend to coincide with school term times. How considerate of them! Until… the Christmas holidays, when everything goes out of the window and reindeer chaos and visitor chaos collide. This is one of the reasons the Reindeer Centre closes for a few weeks each January – us herders are so frazzled that we need to recuperate.

But I digress. Back to June. All kids, in the UK at least, are still at school in June so it is one of the quieter months to visit – the afternoon Hill Trips in particular this year tended to be quite small. It felt a bit like ‘old times’ back before the area – and Scotland in general – became much, much busier with tourists. I started working here in 2007 and at that point Hill Trips with a dozen or less people were completely normal but in more recent years much bigger groups have become the norm – by 2019 we were occasionally taking tours of 70 or even 80 people. In 2020 however, we put a cap on the maximum number of people to 50 in an attempt to go for quality over quantity (as in a quality tour, as opposed to quality visitors!), so now it never gets quite that crowded. But – speaking as a guide, at least – this June was wonderful. Busy morning tours but then smaller ones in the afternoon; I even did a tour with just 5 lovely visitors on one occasion. So peaceful! Plus it gave me time to catch up on all the office work that had been cast aside throughout May…

Hen

Calving Bets

Each year, as calving season looms, we reindeer herders have a sweep stake. We place our bets on which reindeer will calve first. Or rather more importantly, try to bet upon which reindeer won’t calve last.

I say ‘bet’…what I really mean is we try to combine luck and science to each predict a reindeer. The herder whose reindeer gives birth last then has to do a punishment. The punishment was historically swim in Loch Morlich. However, this task became obsolete as a punishment a few years ago when it became apparent that most herders regularly braved the cold waters as a leisure activity.

Andi, Lotti, Ruth, Fiona and dogs after a post-work dip in Loch Morlich.

So, the current ‘punishment’ is to bake a cake for the calf naming evening in September. It is on this evening in September that we pick a theme and subsequent names for the recently born reindeer. It’s hungry work, so cake is always greatly appreciated. In fact, in 2009 the cakes were so appreciated that we had a whole naming theme dedicated to ‘cakes, puddings and biscuits’.

Olly lost the calving bet last year (alongside Andi so he was in excellent company) so produced this cake in the shape of a newborn calf!

We’re in the last week of April as I write this blog and it’s a stage in the year where some of the pregnant females are MASSIVE. We’ll be expecting the first calf in the coming days and each of us will keep a keen eye on who calves throughout the month. I mentioned science as a prediction method in my first paragraph. Some herders like to research when a reindeer stripped the velvet on their antlers in the previous year, some herders like to look at if the reindeer are already growing their new antlers, and some herders like to inspect how big a reindeer’s udder is, all as a sign of their readiness to calve. If a reindeer strips their velvet early it can be an indicator that they come into season earlier. If a reindeer is already growing their new antlers it can be a sign that they are using more of their nutrients for themselves and not sharing them with a foetus.

Christie stripping the velvet on the 15th of September 2021 – what does that mean for her calving date?!
Don’t think Brie is very impressed by the udder check!
Being the “sheepdog” at the back of the reindeer herd in April can be the perfect time to compare how wide bellies are growing!

This makes it all sound very technical actually. I think most of us just tend to pick one of our favourite reindeer. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to take a risk as well. Add to the drama. However, herders have been known in the past to make a risky prediction and the reindeer to not be pregnant at all. Just fat!

In May 2021, Andi picked Camembert, but sadly for Andi (great for us – the cake was delicious!) she was just fat, not pregnant! This is Camembert being put out to free-range for the summer on June 21st after no calf appeared, still trying to get more food from Lisette!
Lotti picked one of her favourite reindeer Gloriana (R) for the past two years, she didn’t let her down in 2021 when Beanie (L) was born. But what will she do this year?!

Some reindeer are so dependable to calve first that they’re off-bounds. Christie was first last year. And it was Pagan the year before that who always seems to be there or thereabouts. This year Tilly has chosen Ladybird who looks rotund. Ladybird, that is. I’ve chosen first time calver (I hope), Texel. My baking skills aren’t up to much so let’s hope Texel pulls through to reduce the risk of a salmonella outbreak up here.

Texel giving nothing away – 19th of April ’22.

Ben B

Spy – the reindeer we’re all a bit scared of

A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.

Spy, whose reputation precedes her!

Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.

The way it normally works: Myself gently pushing Cheese and newborn Kiruna in the right direction across the hill enclosure a couple of years back.

Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.

The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.

With Nok, the calf who I’d failed entirely to get close to.

This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.

Not one of Spy’s calves (this is Angua’s calf Chickpea), but a quick cuddle is usually needed once all calf duties are done and everyone’s in the right place!

By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.

Spy in the nursery part of the enclosure a day after trying to kill us all this year, antler having fallen off in the meantime. Suddenly she doesn’t look quite so intimidating when not waving a large, spiky antler around!

Hen

The difficulties of reindeer location at calving time

Most of the time our reindeer give birth in our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, not requiring any assistance or shelter whatsoever. Calves are born with a thick, waterproof calf coat, so anything the Scottish weather throws at them is not an issue. Our enclosure can be segmented into several different areas, so what we do is to have the herd of pregnant females in the main, largest, bit, and create a ‘nursery’ in a smaller area, known as the ‘Bottom Corridor’ (as opposed to the ‘Top Corridor’, unsurprisingly further up the hill). Pre-natal and ante-natal, if you will.

Cows and their calves in the Bottom Corridor ‘nursery’

When a cow is ready to calve she will generally head away from the herd, wanting her own space and peace and quiet. This may be a few hours before calving or it may be a couple of days, depending on the individual. We always count the reindeer each time we feed them, so can work out if a cow has suddenly gone AWOL; and will then head out round the enclosure to track them down (usually the following morning). However, 1200 acres is the size of 1200 football pitches, part of it heavily wooded, and finding a lone reindeer can be a real mission. If they are out in the open somewhere then generally it’s not too hard to track them down, but if they disappear into the depths of the woods then it’s much harder.

A photo to give you an idea of the rough size of the enclosure – the boundary fence goes right around behind the mountain in the centre of the picture, Silver Mount, and right down into the forest at the right.
A closer view of Silver Mount in the enclosure, and Black Loch which is hidden from view from most of the enclosure.

This calving season in particular felt like the reindeer were running rings around us, with hardly any of the cows being easy to find. In fact the very first cow who headed away from the herd to calve wasn’t found until two days later, and most of the following few reindeer calved down in the woods too, necessitating long searches, sometimes fruitless and sometimes fruitful.

Let me make this clear too, we’re not talking a pleasant stroll along nice easy footpaths. The forest in the enclosure is proper Caledonian pine forest, complete with a dense understory of juniper, blaeberry and heather, and VERY boggy. Oh, and some of it is extremely steep. And there’s no proper paths, only narrow, muddy deer tracks (made by the reindeer, but also wild red and roe deer). Several hours of trawling through the forest is utterly exhausting, and if emerging eventually empty handed with boots squelching, also utterly demoralising.

A tiny proportion of the enclosure woods…
The enclosure encompasses a large area of Caledonian pine forest, complete with dense understory of juniper and blaeberry – ideal for concealing reindeer!
Dense birch woodland in the enclosure too – a reindeer’s eye view!

In 2020, thankfully the reindeer were kind to us during the calving season, as it fell right in the middle of the first lockdown and most staff were furloughed. Reindeer calved mostly out in the open, were found quickly and easily, and brought through to the bottom corridor ‘nursery’ with little hassle. This year however… Sika was the first reindeer to head away from the herd to calve, but it was two days later by the time we found her. And in fact that’s not even really true, we didn’t actually find her at all – she joined up with another cow who had calved by that point and we found both together, Sika’s calf at least 48 hours old by that point.

Pagan was the hardest of the lot – it wasn’t until the fourth day of searching before she was eventually located – tucked into the forest in a hidden spot. I was on my day off and very glad to receive a message to say she’d been found – it had been long enough that I had started to think she must have died giving birth. Normally reindeer won’t stay in the spot where they calved for longer than a couple of days, re-joining the herd of their own volition and making finding them eventually more straight-forward. Heading out to the woods with the prospect of several hours of searching ahead, after several days when you think you may actually be looking for a body rather than a newborn calf, is no-one’s idea of fun. But in this case, Pagan was completely fine, and probably rather smug that she’d managed to waste many, many hours of our time over four days!

A rubbish photo as it’s really zoomed in – but my moment of triumph this calving season was seeing Feta’s head pop up out the deep heather, after a couple of hours of plodding back and forth through the forest…
…who promptly tried to lead her calf away from me, but the wee one didn’t make it up this bank, being only a few hours old and not yet wobble-free!

At least it was a small calving this year, so the continual trudging around the enclosure only went on for so long. And the reindeer appeared to finally take pity on us as a couple of the later ones to calve did so in a much more open, agreeable area where they were plainly visible. In fact first time mum Blyton calved right beside the Bottom Corridor fence, right beside the cows and calves, and did so right before we did a Facebook Live video (https://www.facebook.com/182577928433967/videos/517342392958642), meaning she could be seen in the background throughout, and making Andi’s life nice and easy as all she had to do was pop over the fence once the camera stopped rolling to check out the new arrival!

Hen

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