November has been a busy month. We’ve had the first decent snow higher up on the hills, the free ranging reindeer have been showing their beautiful faces at the hill enclosure every few days, adoptions are coming in thick and fast so lots of letters are streaming out of the office, sleigh training has continued in Glenmore and the first Christmas teams have been on the road! The ‘Christmas reindeer’ have all been totally super and have made us very proud. So this truly is a mixed bag of pics that I’ve taken over the past few weeks! Enjoy…
Every morning, as most of you know, two herders head out to gather the reindeer in and bring them closer for our Hill Trip at 11am. This requires dropping our bags of feed off on route somewhere closer to where we plan to end up with the herd then anything from a 10 minute walk to a 1.5 hour walk out, depending on where the herd are. Most often we have a section of uphill just to really make us work hard and get a sweat on. Most of it is pathless so winter time can be a time of year where reindeer herders can get quite fit! Or that’s what we tell ourselves…
Once we’ve located the herd, usually far in the distance, first of all we will call them in the hope they will come running. However, this isn’t always the case so off we trot and we walk all the way out to them. When we reach them they are usually all lying down looking very relaxed. It almost feels a bit rude asking them to go to the effort to move location. However many people have bought their ticket and want to visit them. Plus they never really complain when they get a big bag of tasty food after their walk in. At this point there are two herders and two different jobs. One herder leads at the front and the other keep them moving from the back. So here is the role of each herder:
You set of with a small bag of feed slung over your shoulder and a halter, just in case you need extra bribery by putting one of the reindeer on a halter to lead as encouragement for the rest of the herd to follow. We don’t often have to put one on the halter, but we’ve got it just in case!
Some of the herd are always first to follow. Okapi, Lace and Sika are three older girls who accompany the front herder. On occasions while letting the rest of the herd catch up these front girls would get an extra handful of feed, much to their delight! Hopscotch and family (Kipling, Juniper, Tub and Fab) are also front runners… ruled by their stomachs.
While leading the herd down inevitably you try to take the easiest route. Not too steep, not too rough but it doesn’t matter how much you think you’ve picked the best line, the reindeer always prove you wrong by taking a slightly different one. Lets face it, they do know the hills better than us. It’s always fairly amusing being the front person when it’s a foggy day. You have to pick the best line trying not to lose your herd or your colleague at the same time. There is lots of calling, or reindeer chat/encouragement which translates to ‘follow me girls’. Shaking the bag of feed, offering handfuls, zig zagging our way down the hill in front of the herd. You do get a good opportunity for photos but it’s a fine line to keep the herd moving and getting a good photo so we cant hang around too much.
On the whole reindeer prefer to follow uphill as opposed to downhill so we are quite canny with our route choices but there are certain points of bringing them in which we know are pinch points so once we’ve got them past that we know they’ll come no bother. Then, once you’ve reached your destination there is a big bag of feed waiting for you which was left prior by us prior to walking out.
So that’s the front herder job, now for the herder following at the back.
Once you’ve reach the herd and font herder starts with the encouragement and trying to get the herd to follow its now the job for the back herder to keep up the momentum from behind. To begin with the reindeer are feeling pretty relaxed and a bit lazy so a bit of clapping, woosh woosh noises and generally pushing those back few reindeer usually gets them going. We don’t need to push them hard, just keep them going so often you act like a sheepdog zig zagging left to right. Like the trend at the front, there are also reindeer who are always at the back of the herd. Gloriana with her 2022 calf Rocket as well as her 2021 calf Beanie are usually ones at the back for us to keep moving.
Once you’re 10-15 minutes into starting the reindeer tend to follow quite nicely then the back herder can just enjoy hanging out with them, pootling (technical term) in slowly behind. This is also a nice time to get photos but you are more likely to get photos of reindeer bottoms at this point, which isn’t all bad, they do have very beautiful bottoms!
I think on the whole herders prefer being at the back. There is less pressure on route choice and you’re not spending your whole time trying to encourage the reindeer, instead you just get to walk alongside them as they follow. Inevitably some herders end up at the front more than others and this is usually down to experience and knowing the lie of the land, route choice the way the reindeer like to walk and the fine line between going too slowly so the reindeer just graze more and getting far enough ahead to keep up momentum. As a front herder you spend less time with the reindeer themselves so obviously we all like being at the back.
At the beginning of winter and bringing reindeer in for hill trips I’m happy to do the front as we’re all a bit rusty having not done it for a year and I’m pretty confident with route choices having done it for so long. Equally I’m happy for others to learn from me. But come March onwards we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to know which way to go and I like to take my turn at the back.
It’s the last blog of the month and so time for another photo dump! March has been a relatively quiet month, with the Paddocks shut and fewer visitors around, but it’s still felt very busy for us herders! Generally only four members of staff work each day throughout March. The mornings are taken up by two herders heading out to find and move the free ranging herd, and the other two herders lead the Hill Trip at 11am. So, by the time we’ve all had lunch the afternoons seem to totally fly by. We also had some very snowy and wintery weather in the middle of the month, making our lives a little more interesting and keeping us on our toes! Hopefully, we’ve managed to tick off all the important jobs in time for the Easter Holidays which kick off on the 1st of April.
The eagle-eyed amongst you, or those who have followed us on social media for a long time, might have noticed a reindeer named Sika popping up on our pages once or twice in the last few months, having never heard of her before. So where has she come from? Is she ‘new’?!
In fact, she’s not remotely new – actually she’s rather old. Sika was born in 2008 and has been here her whole life, but this winter there’s been a bit of a turnaround in her character, which has taken all of us rather by surprise. Let me explain…
In 2008 we named our calves after ‘horned and antlered animal species’, and the name we picked for Malawi’s wee female calf was Impala. But time passed and Malawi and Impala weren’t seen for ages, and whilst winter crept on and all the other calves came into the hill enclosure and got used to being handled and were halter-trained, there was still no sign of the two. Eventually, Malawi showed up but she was alone, with no sign on Impala. Frustrated, we wrote off Impala as one of the losses that year – not every calf makes it to adulthood sadly.
And then in January 2009, a report reached us of a reindeer calf alone at the far end of the Kincardine hills, at the edge of the Cairngorms but not in a spot that reindeer normally stray to. Off we went to investigate, and there was a wee calf – alone and very shy. Eventually she was captured with the aid of some makeshift fencing and a small group of tame adult reindeer acting as decoys – but who was she? Process of elimination led us to realise she must be Impala, separated from Malawi accidentally at some point and then lost by herself in an area she didn’t know. But as we had had to ‘seek her’ (geddit?), and the name Sika hadn’t been used in that year’s naming theme, ‘Impala’ fell by the wayside and ‘Sika’ joined the herd instead.
Christmas is the time that our calves receive most of their formative handling, transforming from effectively wild animals to tame ones well used to being around people. But Sika had missed this window, and while we did initially halter-train her, she remained very wild still in character compared to others, and quickly became a reindeer that we didn’t even consider trying to put a halter on in adult life. She lived her life up on the Cairngorms, never being brought down to our Paddocks or moved across to our alternative winter grazing range as moving her just wasn’t an option. A ‘background’ reindeer – never noticed by visitors (and often barely by us!), just there in the herd but never really featuring much or making any great impact on any of our lives. She has never even had an adopter – one of the very few reindeer in the herd with this dubious accolade.
Over the years Sika produced a couple of calves, but in general we avoiding breeding her to some extent as breeding a wild streak into our herd is not ideal. Her calves, few and far between, also turned out rather shy too, although not as bad as Sika herself. The one anomaly was Bordeaux, her only female calf, who was born in 2019 and is an absolute sweetie! We have no idea really why she has turned out the way she has – she certainly didn’t get her trust in humans from her mum!
In the last 3 or 4 years we have put a lot more effort in to training our reindeer to come and put their heads into a feed bag and allowing us to touch them, in order to make it easier to catch and halter them when necessary. All winter when we’ve walked out to the herd first thing in the morning, before putting feed down on the ground for them we have wandered around the shyer reindeer, offering a bit of bribery in return for any positive behaviour towards us. For most reindeer this has worked wonders, and some characters that we could never have considered catching in the past (or at least whilst out in a large open space) are now easily won over – Inca, Suidhe and Roule have been our particular success stories! But as for Sika… she was a reindeer that would never really make eye contact but just turn away whenever a herder optimistically proffered a bag.
Fast forward to January 2022, and I snorted ‘Hmphh. Good luck!’ at Andi as she tried to catch Sika’s attention with the feed bag once again. But something was different. Just for a second she looked, before turning away again. Andi is like a dog with a bone in these situations, and I know I can push her to keep at something by telling her it isn’t worth bothering about (god bless you, reverse psychology) and sure enough she kept persisting. I almost fell over in surprise when, 5 minutes later, Sika had got to the point where she was stretching her neck out towards the feed bag, although not yet bold enough to put her nose right in it. This behaviour persisted from day to day until finally she snatched a mouthful… and a light-bulb went on somewhere in her little brain!
Now, Sika is one of the first reindeer over to us each morning, actively hunting down the feed bag and keeping a close eye on it until she’s offered a wee extra nibble. I love to look around at the herd, patiently hanging around waiting for us, catch her eye and rustle the bag a tiny bit… and see that head lift a bit, her eyes widen and a lick of the lips in anticipation! All her attention is on us the whole time – so different from the years of ignoring, or even actively avoiding – us.
She is still quite jumpy around us however, and is definitely not a reindeer we’re about to try and actually catch and put a halter on, but at 14 years old there’s no need to. We are just enjoying finally getting to know her after a lifetime of obscurity! I can’t express enough how surprised we all are to find out that Sika is actually a lovely character, after all these years…
Our blog this week comes from Freya, a long-time supporter of the herd for, well, as long as she can remember! Freya now lives in Canada so visiting us isn’t quite as easy as it once was unfortunately, but she and her family adopt several reindeer and keep in touch with the herd via social media. Isn’t technology useful these days?!
When I say I’ve been visiting the Cairngorm Reindeer herd since before I can remember I am quite sure people think I’m exaggerating. Truth is, I have been visiting since before I can remember. It became a well-established tradition for my family (and often my extended family) to visit Scotland at least once a year from when I was about 5 years old. I couldn’t tell you when our first visit to see the reindeer themselves was, but I do recall seeing photos of a tiny little me wrapped up so much that you could barely make out arms and legs!
The year I will always remember was 2005, the year of the ‘countries’ theme. We had come up to Aviemore for the first time in the Spring and were delighted to be able to see the calves like never before. As luck would have it we finished the climb of the Hill Trip just in time to see a very fresh calf popping into the world! I’ll always remember watching the little calf, later named India (I believe), making all the effort to stand up on those very wobbly legs!
It took a single visit for the reindeer to become an essential part of every trip to the Highlands and we would make the trek at least once, sometimes twice, every time we visited – rain, shine, hail or snow! By the age of 8 I was obsessed with the reindeer and we had fallen in love with a family line – specifically Bell (born in 2000), her mother Shell and grandmother Tortoiseshell (Editor’s note: Bell, Shell and Tortoiseshell were descended from a lovely reindeer named Edelweiss, who was a prolific breeding female in the ’90s and early ’00s. While this line of her descendants has now died out, another branch of her family tree stretches down to Scrabble and Strudel, still present in the herd today). To this day we all (parents and grandparents included) remember the Edelweiss line well!
Up until that point we had been admirers of the herd but never adopters. The special memories of 2005 changed that and my birthday present a year later in 2006 was to choose a reindeer to adopt. Sadly, by this point India wasn’t an option so instead I adopted Fiji, Bell’s cousin through Shell’s sister Coral. As nature has it, a couple of years later we received the heartbreaking letter that Fiji had passed (I am thankful that I met Fiji several times in the meantime). It was at this juncture that I discovered the Russia family line and Russia became my next adoptee from the ‘countries’ year. I adopted Russia for a few more years and visited lots more times over the coming year until moving away to Canada.
Life happens and I confess that we lost track of the reindeer herd a little in the chaos of emigrating. We liked the page of course, watched any clips we could get hold of, but visiting became much less of an option. The global pandemic brought us many things, most of them bad, but I think it also gave us the opportunity to stop and take the time to appreciate the little things we often forget in the chaos of daily life. In these hard times I made it a resolution to consciously spend less money on large organizations and more supporting smaller, family-oriented organizations. The first one that came to my mind (conveniently right around my birthday) was the Cairngorm reindeer herd and an adoption was the birthday treat of 2020. I got in touch with the lovely team who willingly helped me find a reindeer with a connection to one of my past favourites. I became the proud adopter of Scrabble who is a cousin of Shell and grandchild of Edelweiss.
During lockdown I completed my Master’s degree, leaving my housemates and I stuck at home with lots a plethora of spare time. My household loves a challenge so to keep ourselves busy we decided to try and work out the past themes and family links of the current reindeer. I can now officially say I’ve read every blog post available online! I may not be an official ‘groupie’ yet – but I think it’s safe to say I’m a groupie-in-training! Another sign – my family and I have adopted two more reindeer (Jonne and Svalbard) and are thinking about a fourth (Holy Moley being a strong contender!) Suffice to say that I am just as excited about supporting the herd now as I was when I was eight and I look forward to visiting again in the future!
As usual we’re always delighted to include your stories of meeting the reindeer in future blogs. Just get in touch with Hen via our main email address if you’d like to get involved 😀