The first time I met the reindeer here at Cairngorm, I was just four years old and a bridesmaid at my mum’s wedding. Mum, being as extravagant as she is, decided she wanted the reindeer to pull the sleigh for us from the service to the party venue. Once we were on the sleigh I was quickly alarmed about the health and safety, as there were no seatbelts on board. Four-year-old me obviously thinking the reindeer would be flying us there! As we were just setting off, I whispered to my cousin “hold on tight, we are about to take off” but was quickly relived and slightly disappointed when I realised the reindeer would just be walking us there.
After the wedding it then became a tradition to come and visit the reindeer before Christmas. Even adopting Elvis as a two-year-old boy and always loving getting my certificate through the post before Christmas. Elvis lived to be one of the oldest males in the herd, before sadly passing away this August at the impressive age of 17!
During the spring this year, just as I was leaving school. I went round to visit my ‘Fairy God Mother’ Sheena, one of the herders here at the Reindeer Center. After explaining to her that I wasn’t sure what to do after school and fancied a change she suggested I got in touch to see if I could work the summer here with the reindeer.
So, after a few back and forth emails (me not being the best at replying during my exams), we eventually arranged a trial day for me to come and meet some of the herders and the reindeer of course. I was pretty nervous but was instantly put at ease when greeted by Ruth and Lisette with big smiles on their faces. I was thrown right in at the deep end as my first task was going up the hill to help give one of the reindeer an injection as she had a sore foot. I quickly realised that having dogs and occasionally helping my granny muck out her horse maybe didn’t quite qualify as having experience working with animals! But I like to think I’m a quick learner. And was super eager to get stuck as I loved the idea of walking up the hills everyday to look after the herd.
After a successful trial day, I was then offered to come work the summer here at the Centre which I was super excited for! I started at the end of May, and the weather was amazing! Blue skies everyday for about a month, eventually this bubble did bust. And I then had the proper Scottish herder experience. But even in the rain I still couldn’t believe that it was my job to walk up hills and find reindeer. I even didn’t mind taking a reindeer’s temperature (let’s just say it doesn’t go in their mouths) if it meant I could spend the morning up the hill with the herd! Over the summer I learnt so many new skills and everyone was so patient with me helping me to learn about these beautiful animals.
When chatting in the office I let it slip about the reindeer being at mum’s wedding, Our resident Blog Queen Ruth was insistent that it would make the perfect Christmassy blog!
We also realised that Hen, another one of the herders here, was at the wedding as well leading the sleigh! Which is hilarious, looking back on the wedding photos we actually found one of her at the front of the sleigh! (Note from Hen: also a way to make her feel really, really old…)
I have had the best 7 months here at the Centre and have loved getting to know all the reindeer and the herders of course! I’m off for a new adventure in the New Year but I’m sure I’ll be back soon!! If they’ll have me 😉
Here’s a selection of pics taken throughout the month, hopefully giving a snap shot of what we’ve been getting up to. It’s been full on with the rut taking place in the enclosure, our breeding bulls do now seem a bit less enthusiastic after a busy six weeks for them! We’ve also been bringing two calves at a time down to the Paddocks to halter train them. They usually spend around four days here in which we take them out on morning walks to get them used to seeing traffic, bikes, their own reflections in shiny windows and whatever else Glenmore can throw at us at 8am! Christmas sleigh training for our three year old Christmas Reindeer begins too. So far Adzuki, Haricot and Hemp have been trained and they’ve all been total pros. During the October holidays when our 11am Hill Trip sells out we’ve been putting on an afternoon Hill Trip too. Funnily enough, during the rain and wind of Storm Babet we did not require this attentional visit. But after the storm we’ve been treated to some gorgeous autumnal weather and the first decent snow on the hills of the season.
Amongst all of this we’ve also managed to get the October newsletter written, printed and sent out to our lovely adopters! Until it’s safely in the hands of our adopters I’ve left all calf names out of the blog.
During the summer months it’s a good time of year to work on our reindeer handling for both reindeer and herders. With a fair few new faces this summer with seasonal staff picking up a few weeks here and there it’s not just good practice for the reindeer but really important that us herders know the best way to approach, put on halters, putting on harness and generally knowing how to act and move around the reindeer in close proximity.
First of all we pick which reindeer will go through the ropes that morning then we split them off into a separate enclosure at their morning feed and bring them up to our shed on the hill. This is where we do all our handling, whether it’s taking temperatures, tending to unwell reindeer or doing a bit training where the reindeer have a halter on and wear a bit of harness. From our shed we can walk out into a quiet enclosure so they get a feel for wearing the harness while walking. Within the group of chosen reindeer there is always an ‘old boy’ who has done lots of training before so already knows the drill and therefore gives off the right vibes. We stand any newbies next to him so they have a calming influence. As well as being the role model to younger reindeer our older trained reindeer are good ones for new staff to learn how to put harness on as they don’t fuss or move around making it a lot easier to explain and learn. Some of our older boys who are trained are: Aztec, Dr Seuss, Poirot, Sherlock, Frost, Clouseau and Athens. We then train anything who is 1, 2 or 3 years old next to them. The 2 and 3 year old have of course done this for the past few years so it tends to be the yearlings who are a bit more twitchy doing it for their first summer. Of course as 5-6 month old calves they went out and about at Christmas so its not completely new to them.
Once we put some harness on we walk them out into another enclosure to get used to it. Our two hand reared calves Winnie and Alba sometime join us for this little excursion each morning so they can get a bit of extra hill grazing. Being the size of a medium dog sometimes the young trainee reindeer forget that the calves are actually reindeer and decide to unnecessarily have a brief panic, before realising how silly they are worrying about a little reindeer calf… or two. It’s quite funny watching them work it out. The old boys are pretty savvy to the calves and just ignore them.
Working closely and being able to handle our reindeer is really important for them and us. As many of you know we run a Christmas tour through November and December so any extra handling prepares our reindeer for some of that work they do. We also handle our reindeer should they need any treatment, vaccines or antibiotics and the more used to this they are the less stressful the situation for both animal and human. Some take to it quicker than others, like us they all have their individual personalities and characters. We change our handling sometimes depending which reindeer it is you’re working with. It’s really important we know our reindeer so if there is one ‘off colour’ then it’s picked up quickly and dealt with.
Here are some photos of us training our reindeer in the summer and also in the autumn time when we are getting ready for our Christmas tour.
I remember when we found Gazelle and Adzuki just after he was born how relaxed they both were. At the time Gazelle was twelve years old and had had many calves before so she was completely comfortable for us to hang out with her and her new-born calf. (Provided that we had brought her some food, which of course we had)!
Adzuki is now one of the biggest of his age group. Adzuki was always fairly shy so we have spent quite a lot of time, and bribery, getting him used to us. It helps that he is from a greedy family! Adzuki grew a wonderful set of antlers as a two year old and after a winter free ranging he’s currently back in our enclosure and has grown a whole new set once again – even bigger!
Haricot was Ryvita’s last calf, and when he was born he was really wee. In fact as we waved the cows and calves off onto the free-range for the summer, I wasn’t totally convinced that we’d see him again. But we did, in fact by the end of the summer he looked totally great and was just as fat as any of the other calves. Ryvita however was looking a wee bit underweight, potentially due to having done such a fantastic job of raising Haricot, so we gave her some extra food all autumn. And of course, if Ryvita got extra food, so did Haricot! As a result, by Christmas, he was like a little barrel!!
Haricot’s extra food that first autumn certainly stood him in good stead and he’s now a very handsome young reindeer. Here he is below with half brother Adzuki, you can certainly see the family resemblance!
Now Butter came as a bit of surprise. His mum, Gloriana, had never calved (despite running with a bull each year) until the age of 8 when Butter was born! We found Butter on a super soggy day and he had big floppy ears. Butter spent all summer free-ranging and we didn’t see him much and then one day at the end of the summer Gloriana came running into the enclosure with no calf. She was grunting away and still had an udder full of milk suggesting that she’d only recently lost Butter, so we sent her back out to search for him. We didn’t see either of them for quite a while and then one morning, Gloriana showed up with Butter in tow. He was looking fairly skinny so we decided to name him Butter, after a butter bean, in the hope that he would grow to be ‘fat as butter’!!
Sure enough, fast forward almost three years and Butter is doing very well. He also got lots of preferential feeding that first autumn and as a result has done just as well as the rest of his age group! He is incredibly tame and can be pretty cheeky sometimes but it’s hard not to be fond of that white nose!
Lupin was Marple’s first calf and when he was born he was really small; we wondered if maybe he was a little bit premature. But Marple did a great job, she took motherhood all into her stride and after the first few wobbly days he was charging around the enclosure after her! When they were free-ranging that summer and we headed up to find them Lupin would always come marching over to see us! He was one of the tamest and boldest free-ranging calves that I have seen!
Lupin is now a very handsome young reindeer. He’s not as tall as some of the others but he’s in great condition and grew a fantastic set of antlers both last year and this year. He’s not lost his confidence either, he’s very bold with both humans and reindeer, in fact I think last autumn he got fairly full of himself and was strutting around as if he was one of the big breeding bulls! Lupin had a wee sister born last year who we named Viennetta, and another (as yet unnamed) sister this year. Viennetta could not be more different from him as a calf. She’s very pale with a white nose and was one of the largest calves of last year!
I had the great delight of finding Cicero’s mum, Brie, when she was mid-way through calving. I found a spot far enough away to not bother her and watched the whole process through binoculars. When I found her the calf’s front legs were already out and it didn’t take long for her to calve completely. It was totally amazing then to watch the first 20 minutes or so of Cicero’s life. First he was licked dry, then he had his first milk and then fairly soon afterward he took his first steps!
As Cicero has grown up he has certainly taken more after his dad (Houdini) then his mum (Brie). Brie is the smallest of all our fully grown reindeer and Cicero is the tallest of all the reindeer his age, I think he over took her in height by about a year old.
When Jelly was a couple of days old we noticed that he wasn’t suckling properly, after closer examination of Jenga, his mum, we realised that she had passed all of her afterbirth. Both the passing of her placenta and the production of milk are associated with the hormone oxytocin which is released as the reindeer is calving. After chatting to our vet we ended up giving Jenga a dose of oxytocin and kept a close eye on them for a couple of days to make sure he was suckling properly. After a couple of days they were happy and he was getting plenty of milk from mum, by the end of the summer he was in great form, one of the biggest calves.
Not much as changed since then, Jelly is still one of the biggest of the 2020 bulls, definitely with the biggest neck of all of them – what a chunk! Jelly can be a little dopey at times and this reminds me of that tiny wee calf wobbling about to get milk.
When Hemp was wee he was a beautiful slate grey colour with a white nose, much like his dad, Spartan. Whilst Spartan’s characteristics were showing up in many of the calves that year, note the white noses of Adzuki, Haricot, Borlotti and Chickpea, the family resemblance is strongest in Hemp.
Hemp has grown up into a lovely friendly young reindeer which is no surprise as he comes from a very tame family, on both his mum and his dad’s side. He’s incredibly greedy (which comes from his mother) and can be a little stubborn at times (which comes from his father).
July has been a good month with not a great deal of unusual things going on within the herd really – which is actually rather nice! The boys in the hill enclosure are generally eating lots and putting all their energy into growing lovely antlers and big bellies! Towards the middle of July the reindeer finally start to look themselves and some in particular look very smart in their short summer coats.
School holiday season is definitely upon us! We’ve got very busy with visitors, running three Hill Trips a day during weekdays and two on weekends. The Paddocks and Exhibition have also been popular and the reindeer here at the Centre have done a good job of ‘babysitting’ our two hand-reared calves (Winnie and Alba) overnight. They are now big enough to spend the daytime with the herd on the hill. This allows them to get some good exercise every day and lots of great grazing but they return each evening so they don’t miss out on their night time bottles of milk!
I’ve been lucky to see some of the free ranging females out on the hills too – all looked great and some stonking big calves out there. Well done mums, keep it up!
Hopefully the following photos will give more of an insight into what’s been going on this month.
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’.
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.
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.
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…
Don’t you ever wish you could just lie down and take a snooze if things are taking too long?? With their thick coats, that’s exactly what reindeer do – everywhere can be a bed! Here’s some shots of them having a snooze in the snow a few weeks ago…
This year I was lucky enough to spend May looking after all the cows and calves during calving season, whilst most of the country was in lock-down. This was my first calving season and I found it really fascinating to watch how the behaviour of the reindeer changed once they had calved. Especially for the first-time mums who were acting purely on instinct, which amazed me how strong that is! There were a couple of things that I noticed a few of the mum’s doing in the hours and days after they had calved which I thought might be interesting to read about.
Licking their calf dry
The very first job of a reindeer once she has calved is to lick her calf dry. This year some of our calves were born in the snow so they want to get dry as quick as possible so that their fluffy calf coat can keep them warm. I was incredibly lucky to be able to watch Brie calve this year, I watched through binoculars as she carefully licked all the placenta off the calf, Cicero, until he looked like all the other calves I had seen at a couple of hours old – fluffy rather than slimy.
Eating the placenta
Being an arctic animal, every bit of nutrition reindeer can get is very important – placenta included. We found Ibex and her calf Flax when she was a couple of hours old, by which point Ibex was obviously feeling peckish. I can’t say that it looked particularly appetising to me but then I’m not a mother, nor a reindeer!
Licking their calf’s bum
To stimulate the calf suckling the mother must lick her calf’s bum. This all works in a cycle because the cow licking the calves’ bum stimulates the calf suckling and the more that the calf suckles the more milk that the cow will produce! All resulting in a good strong calf. It’s also very important to help keep the calf clean, their very first poo can be very sticky and a couple of the mums – mostly the ones who had had many calves before – didn’t do a very good job of licking their calves bottoms meaning we had to do it instead (cleaning it, not licking it….)! I can’t really believe how something so smelly can come out of something so sweet, so I guess I can’t really blame the cows. When the calf is really young the mum will also lift her leg so that the calf can suckle whilst lying down, here is Pagan demonstrating both very well with her calf Pumpkin!
Teaching the calves to walk
The last thing that I found really interesting was the way that the mums get their newborn calves to start walking. As a prey animal it is very important that the reindeer are up on their feet as soon as possible. But how do they go from an incredibly wobbly newborn calf to the agile calves who can easily outrun me? The answer is lots of careful training from their mums. From when Cicero was about 20 minutes old, Brie started to stand up and walk a few metres away and wait for her calf to take a few wobbly steps over. The calf would then lie down exhausted for a while before she did the same again. Eventually the steps become less and less wobbly as the calves grow stronger.