Well, we’ve had our annual month of closure to the public and are now open again for hill trips! The weather hasn’t been too horrendous this winter and most of us here are really missing the snow; we are all considering going off to the Alps for our skiing and snow fix!
Of course, it is now the February half term so we are back with a bang and having busy hill trips, even reaching our limit of numbers on some days. Most of us have had a slight panic at the beginning of our first visit: “What do I say again?” “Where do I go again?” “What is a reindeer?(!)” Luckily, once you are faced with a whole load of expectant tourists most of your talk comes flooding back to you and you manage to muddle through, getting the important safety and history information in.
Although it is not that snowy at the moment, it is relatively cold and we have had some quite windy days too. Most folks have been well enough dressed that they’ve managed to keep the cold out and have enjoyed the trips. If you would like to come visit us in the near future, please remember to dress up warmly, and give us a call in the morning to make sure we definitely are going ahead with the trip. The reindeer are completely free-ranging at the moment, so both they and the weather mean that we can’t always run the trip!
Reindeer are the past masters at keeping warm. When you evolve to live in temperatures below minus 30 Celsius then you need all your wits about you to keep warm.
To begin with they have an extremely dense winter coat, 2,000 hairs to the square centimetre although I have to confess to not having confirmed that by counting them myself! Secondly, each individual hair is hollow for the same reason that we have holofil in our duvets. Air is a very good insulator so the combination of air in each hair and around each hair increases the insulation factor. In fact, reindeer are like a mobile thermos flask, neither allowing the cold in or indeed the warmth out. A bed of snow is a comfortable spot for a reindeer, and they can lie on it without even melting it.
You may have noticed that cows or horses out in fields in windy weather tend to put their backs to the prevailing winds (as well as look pretty miserable). That is actually not a very clever thing to do, as the wind lifts the hairs and takes away more of their body heat. They need to copy reindeer who face a blizzard. By doing this they keep the hair across their body flat and so do not lose heat. The only disadvantage to this is you end up with a ice pack on your face. Lucky that reindeer have hairy foreheads.
Actually if you study a reindeer closely from nose to tail you will find no bare skin anywhere and that even applies to the bottom of their feet. Yet another fine adaption to the cold, and with the added bonus of improving their grip on the ice and snow.
Finally, if you measure the temperature of the blood of a reindeer at its extremities you will find it is cooler. Once again this is to prevent heat loss. To do this a counter current system has evolved whereby the warm blood exiting from the main part of the body passes close to the colder blood coming back from the extremities. The net effect is the cold blood is warmed and the warm blood is cooled and the heat remains in the body.
There are other heat saving aspects to reindeer but I think that’s enough for now. Food for thought however it does mean that they can get awfully hot in the warmer weather. I reckon reindeer would be the first to sign up to a programme to slow down global warming!
Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.
Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.
Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!
The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.
Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.
They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.
A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.
The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.
In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!
When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.
The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.
We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.
Exploring the meanings of unusual words and the Reindeer hoose Office wall…
To explain this rather dubious title, in our humble office here at reindeer house there is a list of rather obscure words stuck to our wall: things like Jargogles, Apricity and twattle. the latter meaning to gossip or talk idly – a lot of that goes on in our office to be sure!
Quite a few of these words we feel are quite apt for a few of our fluffy friends up on the hill so I’m going to introduce you to a few choice selections!
Snoutfair – A good looking person.
I feel this would obviously be quite apt for all the reindeer as they are such gorgeous beasts but Cheese obviously thinks very highly of themselves here!
Cockalorum – A little man with a high opinion of himself.
If there was ever a reindeer that fit this description it would be Mo, Mo is a cheeky little fella and at four years old he’s definitely one of the smallest males in the herd and he more than makes up for it in attitude!
Lethophobia – The fear of oblivion
So this is a tad dramatic but definitely applies to one of my favourite reindeer Shinty. Shinty is originally Swedish and was imported back in 2011. He’s a super sweetie (I think) but painfully shy and often looks apologetic for just turning up in the morning. If any reindeer were to fear oblivion it would be him!
Hugger mugger – To act in a secretive manner
To be honest this applies very well to the female reindeer during the winter months – at this time of year we have to find the reindeer every day and we do all of our visits out on the open hillside. The amount of times we’ve walked out for miles to then turn around and have an entire herd of reindeer smugly behind you is definite hugger muggery if you ask me!
Jollux – Slang for being a wee bit on the chubby side.
Without a doubt the Jollux of the herd is Magnus, the lovely magnus loves nothing more than chowing down – unfortunately it’s rather hard to put a reindeer on a diet as the hillsides are covered in lovely grazing. This also brings me onto another great word – Callipygian: to have beautifully shaped buttocks. Magnus most definitely gives Beyonce a run for her money!
The final word, one used almost daily here at Reindeer House is Groaking – To silently watch someone eating, hoping to be invited to join them. Every time lunch hour hits there’s some person with a fantastic looking lunch….
Recently via Twitter we were moved at the news of an anthrax outbreak in Western Siberia, the Yamalo-Nenets region, which has hospitalised over 90 reindeer herders and caused the deaths of almost 2,500 reindeer. The nomadic families herding reindeer across the area were evacuated or vaccinated – authorities are aiming to vaccinate over 40,000 reindeer. In the last few days, a 12-year old boy and his granny have both died.
It is thought that melting permafrost exposed the carcass of a long-dead reindeer, and dormant anthrax contained within it was exposed and became active. In cold temperatures the spores contained within the ground are capable of surviving up to 150 years; in warmer temperatures they morph into a more infectious state.
The melting of the permafrost is unusual, both in its location and its extent. Warming of the tundra this year has been unusually high, with temperatures of 35 degrees. Climate change is something you hear of more and more in reindeer literature and research around the world.
The habitats are changing – flora and fauna increase or decrease as ecosystems fluctuate due to climate, disease or human influence – for example, millions of hectares of birch forest are defoliated by outbreaks of moth now confined to northern latitudes due to climate; wildfires are more common as habitats’ defences weaken; lichens are reduced due to increased pressure on remaining areas and competition; more oil is piped out, disrupting migratory patterns; politics confine reindeer to particular boundaries; and as a way of life reindeer herding becomes more economically challenging.
In Yakutia, to the east of Yamalo-Nenets, there are around 200 burial grounds of cattle which died from anthrax. Perhaps hoping that they won’t be affected isn’t enough.
As a small Scottish reindeer ‘family,’ it is sobering to wonder about the slowly unfolding systemic impact on reindeer and herders around the world – but of course this is just a small part of a very large story, and we mustn’t lose sight of this larger picture that affects us all.
I remember the day Grunter was born. Dixie, his mum, was only two years old at the time and rather than taking herself away from the herd to find a nice wee spot to calve she stuck with them and joined in with our daily guided tour. Things all happened very fast for her and before she knew it, mid hand feeding time for our visitors, Dixie popped out a tiny wee bundle which was Grunter! Much to her surprise she really didn’t know what to do next, instinct didn’t kick in and she legged it off up the hill in panic. Sally and Kathleen were on the visit that day so they reported down for a contingent of herders to come onto the hill to help out.
Alex and Emily first came up to help out getting Dixie back and taking herself and Grunter (who obviously wasn’t named at this point) back to our shed and penned area on the hill. I then joined them to help get Grunter to suckle as it is very important for them to get their first milk which is the colostrum. This plays an vital part in their immune system at the very beginning but also for the rest of their life! Dixie was extremely unsettled and actively using her feet to shoo Grunter away from her so we had to use a bit of brute force as Grunter needed to get the milk. We also supplemented with some formula from the vet, just in case he didn’t get a full quota.
For the next few days we didn’t want to keep them separate in case there was a small chance Dixie would take to having a calf. We left the two of them up in the shed area for a few days but also went up early mornings and late nights to give Grunter a bottle of milk. It was at this point he got his name as Sally and I were walking up towards their pen one morning and the demanding sound of ‘grunt… grunt… grunt’ was echoing. It was a nickname which of course stuck, as most nicknames do with the reindeer. It became very apparent over the next few days and weeks that Dixie was not going take on Grunter so we decided it was best for her to head for the summer free range with the other cows and calves and we would hand rear the wee man ourselves.
Another few days passed and then we sadly lost a female, called Maisie, who had a female calf of 10 days old so now we had two! Its unusual enough having one, let alone two to hand rear in one year – we were left well and truly holding the babies… We named her Hippo as she was as hungry as a hippo when it came to giving them their bottle of milk. The two of them were thick as thieves however it was definitely Hippo leading Grunter astray, he would follow along like a lost little brother. Everyday they would go up and down the hill with us spending the day up there and then back down to our paddocks here at the Centre at night. Not only did we have two reindeer to hand rear but we also ended up with two red deer (from our Glenlivet farm) to bottle feed so it was a right wee crèche out there.
As always they grow up far too fast but it was such a great summer with them. They were full of fun and mischief. Usually reindeer wean off the bottle of milk round October time but Grunter (not Hippo) was very much still enjoying his bottles of milk right into December and even had them while out and about on Christmas events. As a teenager Grunter was a bit of a handful as he loved jumping on people. He has managed to include most of us reindeer herders in that too. Reindeer herder Anna will remember Grunter’s hooves reaching her shoulders in the paddocks and I remember once I was calling the reindeer down and Grunter decided that was his time to pounce (literally) therefore during those younger years Grunter was sent to the farm for the summer months where he couldn’t pick on the general public… or reindeer herders! However he did mellow when he got to about 3-4 years old and he turned into the most amazing reindeer – he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.
When out on Christmas tour I have taken him into old peoples homes and children’s hospitals where patients have been bed bound. The delighted looks on their faces to meet Grunter was priceless. We went to visit my Grandpa when he was fairly frail at his home on the south east coast and we got Grunter right in his conservatory to meet and greet, needless to say my grandpa was delighted! I have had very young children lead him around as he is totally trust worthy. Candice and Pandra (long term supporters of the herd) will have fond memories of Grunter on tour, I think he was a bit of a guardian in the pen when little Pandra would walk round, the other reindeer wouldn’t give her a hard time if Grunter was by her side. That was the only slightly naughty thing about Grunter was that he was so tame and used to humans that he didn’t think twice about giving the other reindeer a bit of a hard time… or was it keeping them in check within the herd, not sure. When we stopped at service stations to fill with fuel Grunter would make himself known by grunting to seek a bit of attention, which let’s face it if he was in my team he always got… I did spoil him rotten!
When back at home he was always used as a role model, whether it be training new reindeer to pull the sleigh, to lead the herd in or moving them round on the hill side. When loading into the livestock truck Grunter wouldn’t even break his stride to go up the ramp which showed how comfortable he was and gave the younger inexperienced reindeer comfort in travelling. He definitely had a cheeky side though and sometimes when pushing the herd in Grunter would leap around dancing and refusing to go through gate ways… he was playing like a naughty child and avoiding doing what we wanted him to do because he knew us so well.
Grunter died almost exactly eight years to the day after he was born. He was over at our hill farm having spent the winter free ranging on the Cromdale Hills. Over the past year he hasn’t seemed to put on weight quite as much as we liked however his spirits were always high. On his last night with us Tilly shut him in so he could get a good pile of lichen to himself and as she left she just pushed the gate to, not quite latching it shut. In true Grunter style he finished up the yummy stuff and then pushed his way out the pen. He headed to the top of the hill beside a birch woodland and that’s where he died. Tilly found him in the morning so we buried him up there in the woodland with a good view of the Cromdale Hills. We suspect his shortened life may have been from not getting the best start to life in the first place and maybe not having as strong an immune system, but this is just speculation, maybe he had something underlying that we didn’t find. The main thing was he was never in pain or horrifically ill, he was the same old Grunter from beginning to end.
Reindeer like Grunter are rare and he has no doubt crossed paths with many of you whether it be here at home in the Highlands of Scotland, out and about on Christmas tour, or both! Feel free to write your story / memory of Grunter and let’s share the antics of this amazing reindeer!
Grunter in 2008, the year he was born, followed by him in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!
The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!
As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)
Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.
Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.
NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.
The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!
Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!
Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!
Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.
First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.
It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!
One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.
We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!
The second installment of Sonya’s blog about volunteering is here! The weather isn’t so great in this blog but Sonya’s enthusiasm shines through. If you missed the first installment, here’s a link to days 1 and 2 of Sonya’s week with us.
The weather is dreadful today, I have become obsessed with the weather forecast so I am aware the rain is due to last at least two days or more, this calls for waterproofs and a certain strength of spirit to face heading outside and up the hill. Fiona and Abby take me to help separate six reindeer from the rest of the herd. There is a pre-booked trek the next day so we are getting the trekking reindeer in a separate enclosure, we must be sure to include Bingo in the smaller group as his adoptee is one of the trekkers. As the reindeer head through two gates, my task is to count them to ensure they all come in for breakfast. A simple task you’d think. Well it would have helped if they stood still, or even if they moved at a steady pace in an orderly manner. A few times they stop, then rush through two or three at a time, or occasionally shove their way through the wrong gate and have to come back and be encouraged through the correct gate. I’m aiming to reach a total of thirty five. By the time I’m up to seventeen or was it fifteen….., I’m hoping Abby or Fiona are double checking me and counting too. By the time we get to the last reindeer, I’m only up to thirty two but not feeling too confident about my total.
After settling the smaller group of six, we set about feeding the larger group which means we can more easily recount them. I’m not sure what to wish for at this point because if there are twenty-six it means my count was accurate, but if there are twenty-nine it means all the reindeer are here and we don’t have to walk the 1200 acre enclosure in this downpour, looking for them. There are twenty-six. Three are missing and one of them is my Gandi. Fiona thinks they’re likely to turn up for the 11:00 feed to we don’t rush into looking for them, we will have to do that if they’re not hanging around by then. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to miss the odd feeding session at this time of year as there are such tasty nibbles available elsewhere in the form of a variety of new green shoots all across the hillside.
With all this counting of reindeer and trying to identify which ones are missing, I’ve learnt another name today. I had noticed Puddock’s antlers before, without knowing his name. They are many branching but he is castrated so they don’t grow so tall. They end up in a tangled mass going every which way. He was born in 2007 when calves were named after green things like Fern and Meadow. I didn’t know what a Puddock was but I’m reliably informed it’s an old Scottish term for a frog. My education continues.
I spent quite a lot of time in the shop today as a rainy day is a good opportunity to wipe everything down and have a general tidy up and restock. Some hardy individuals are still out and about in this awful weather and there is a steady stream of bookings for the 11:00 hill trip so the waterproofs are back on and up we go again. Despite the weather I’m eager to see if Gandi has turned up since this morning and sure enough, when we get up to the hill, he’s there at the gate with two companions, all indignant at missing breakfast. We have an adopter on this hill trip who is eager to see Dragonfly but he is not on the hillside at the moment. Dragonfly is due to arrive later in the afternoon as he is currently on the farm and coming over to take his turn in the paddocks. So his adopter can have a leisurely lunch and pop back to see him later on.
Fiona’s brother Alex arrives at lunch time with the reindeer from the farm. He has Ross with him who I haven’t met before. I remembered Imogen’s suggestion about how to look like a local and wear less clothing, so I guess Ross is a true Scot as it is the coolest and wettest of days and Ross is wearing the flimsiest of shorts! I began to share the joke with him and merrily tell the tale of Imogen’s advice…. At the end of my story, Ross looks at me in a confused way and simply says “Sorry?”.
He hasn’t understood a word of what I said, in what must sound to him, like a broad southern accent. My joke is wasted and he thinks I’m crazy! Oh well, you can’t win them all, so we get back to the reindeer.
The plan is to put them in the paddocks and take the current paddock reindeer up to the hill enclosure. I’m not sure how we managed to achieve this swap over but it seemed a well-practised opening and closing of multiple gates and trailers until eventually the right reindeer were in the paddock and the others were stowed in the trailer to go up the hill. We all squeezed in ‘Brenda the truck’ for the short journey but there aren’t quite enough seats so Fiona bravely gets in the back with the reindeer. It’s a big novelty for me to lead them along the public footpath, over Utsi’s bridge and up to the enclosure, I find myself hoping a walker will come along the path as I’d love to see the look on their faces as five reindeer on halters are lead past them, but nobody comes by to witness the incongruous sight of reindeer using a footbridge and they are reunited with the herd without further incident.
Today is the day of the trek for a pre-booked party and I am heading up in the rain again, with Andi. It’s lovely to meet Andi as she was the herder I made contact with to seek this volunteering placement and it’s good for both of us to put a face to the name. Our fellow trekkers are Bessie and Joyce from Glasgow, Bessie has adopted Bingo for a few years and is keen to see him again. Our other companions are Susan and her granddaughter Mira from Whistler in Canada. They are on an extended trip to Scotland in an attempt to track down some family graves as they know their ancestors were from Scotland many generations ago. Susan has a deep love of all hooved animals, she has goats and sheep as pets at home in Canada, and Sooty the reindeer is her best friend within minutes. It’s a cold damp morning but at least it keeps the midges at bay and we ascend through low cloud to the peak of Silver Mount.
I am walking Camus, as a non-paying trekker it’s only fair that I take a reindeer that needs the practise and training, rather than the nice quiet obliging ones that the tourists get. Camus was a jittery boy for the ascent, jumping and prancing around until at one point it took all my strength to hang on to him. Until that point I had been trying to bring up the rear of the group so we didn’t leave anyone behind but Andi quite rightly suggested I bring him into the middle of the group. Reindeer are herd animals and nothing is more comforting to them than a bit of company and by this time I was keen to try anything to calm him down, I just hoped we didn’t end up losing any of the group in the mist on the mountain. When we reached the peak of Silver Mount we stopped for photos and a soggy snack before descending. When the rest of the herd were in sight we removed the reindeer halters and let them re-join their companions. Some other reindeer came to meet us, tempted by Andi’s stash of lichen. More photos were taken and sweet nothings were murmured to all our favourites and as we headed out of the enclosure the reindeer proved themselves to be in a friendly mood and followed us all along the boardwalk as far as the gate. I know they were just hopeful of more food but it looked for all the world like they were waving us off.
Sonya, author of this blog, came up to us in June to volunteer with our beautiful reindeer. She has very kindly written us a blog about her experience, and we will be sharing it over the next few weeks. Thanks so much to Sonya for coming along and being so helpful, and we really hope to see you again in the not too distant future!
In June 2016 I arrived for my volunteer placement at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore with no previous experience of working with animals but lots of enthusiasm and affection for the reindeer I had visited as a tourist many times before. I had recently taken the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my 20 year career and had a whole summer to fill before starting university in September. I had no idea what to expect but was seeking solace and comfort in the remoteness of the fabulous Cairngorms and the company of the placid reindeer. I was blessed with a rare dry day on the first Monday and arrived promptly at 8am alongside fellow herders Imogen who has a zoology degree and big-bearded Dave who I later found out to be exceedingly well travelled and originally from New Zealand. By the way, it’s the beard that’s big, not Dave himself.
So after meeting a confusing muddle of strangely named dogs, I was introduced to Fiona who runs the Centre, and tasks were allocated for the morning. Can you guess what my first job was? That’s right …… reindeer poop scooping. Keen to carry out all necessary tasks enthusiastically, I wielded the bespoke pooper scooper and collected a remarkable bucketful of the stuff from the paddocks. A few of the herd are kept in the paddocks for two weeks at a time so they are more accessible to very young, old or less-able visitors who can’t manage the hill trip to see the whole herd. After scooping all the poop I could find, transferring the contents of the bucket to a sack was a trickier and less appealing task but the trusty Dave was on hand to show how it’s done without spilling too much. I confess from that moment on I found myself a pair of gloves for this task and many others, much to Dave’s derision, I suspect. But hey, you can take the girl out of Essex………
I had a full and detailed explanation from Dave on how to open up the exhibition ready for visitors and spent some time replenishing the children’s craft materials, I wish I was 5 years old again so that I could make paper chains or make an antler headband, and draw colourful pictures of my reindeer friends. However, with pencils sharpened, loan wellies sorted into sizes and the shop vacuumed, it was time to set off on the first hill trip. The tourists were very impressed with Dave’s authentic appearance of bushy beard and battered green hat and took several photos of him and the van before we even set off. I’m convinced I need to change my image, which currently consists of generic walking attire, so as to appeal to the tourists but I am stuck for inspiration, more of this later.
On the first hill trip the cheeky Svalbard is overly friendly and pushes and prods me repeatedly with his antlers and nose. The tourists mistake his behaviour for affection and there are many oohs and aahs and clicks of cameras, however it’s far more likely that he recognised the smell of food on the jacket I was borrowing from the Reindeer Centre.
I also learnt that my adoptee ‘Gandi’ is there somewhere, in amongst the swirling sea of moulting coats and velvet antlers that greeted us. Correction, they are greeting the sack of food, not us, and I have learnt they couldn’t care less about us or how the food gets there. Despite this pragmatic realisation, I am still deluding myself that Gandi recognised me, if he could talk he’d even remember my name, of course!
I am delighted and relieved to see him in such good health with a remarkably majestic pair of antlers. I feel inordinately proud that I chose such a worthy recipient of my sponsorship, for he is also a recent TV star in the BBC Scotland programme about the Highlands due to be shown across other BBC regions in Autumn 2016.
After lunch Dave teaches me how to mix the reindeer food, I was keen to get started as I love a piece of machinery and rather ingeniously, I thought, a cement mixer is used to mix the food. And when you realise the quantity of food they get through, you realise why it’s necessary to mechanise the process. There is little demand for a commercially available reindeer food, as this is the only large free-ranging herd in the UK, so I was shown the recipe and the shed full of ingredients. We started with sheep food containing corn and grains, then added extra barley, some starchy sugar beet, some fibrous malt pellets which are a waste product from the numerous nearby distilleries, added a sprinkle of a secret mineral supplement and four big handfuls of hay enriched with garlic and molasses. Well this was all fascinating for me and I was enjoying making this tasty treat until we ran out of grain. Dave despatched me to the shed to fetch more barley, all good so far. I located the barley and saw with some dismay how huge the new sack was. I should mention at this point that I only manage to measure five feet with my shoes on, and the heaviest thing I’d lifted in my previous job was a bottle of Chanel No 5! Battle with the barley sack commenced but I should have been grateful for small mercies as some of the other ingredients are much heavier.
By the time we had mixed about half a cubic metre of food, it was a relief to leave behind the previously fascinating cement mixer, and head up to the hill again on the 2:30pm trip. Dave encouraged me to carry the sack of food but I chickened out and took the lighter and smaller sack of hand feed. Poor Dave gets the bigger, heavier sack yet again, but gallantry isn’t completely dead in my world!
Near the end of the trip Dave gets a phone call, we’re a 20 min walk from the nearest road and goodness knows how far from the nearest dwelling but amazingly there’s a mobile signal in the reindeer enclosure. I can’t always get one of those in flat, overpopulated Essex. Anyway the phone call is to invite me to the reindeer shed to see some vaccinations taking place where I met the famous Tilly, Fiona’s mum and owner of the herd. The injection is to help prevent the potentially fatal red water fever that can kill a reindeer if not caught early enough. Imogen had previously told me that Tilly always comes to administer these injections as there is a tiny chance the reindeer will go into anaphylactic shock and she has the most experience to deal with that possibility. Despite their huge antlers and sharp hooves, I had never felt even remotely intimidated by reindeer before. But closed in a tiny shed with six of them circling round and round in an effort to escape the needle, it felt a bit like being caught up in a whirling dervish of hoof and hair and taught me a greater respect for the fact they are still wild animals even though they generously humour us with their presence and grace.
Tuesday starts with much excitement and anticipation when Fiona tells me I can join her and Hen on a harness training session. Hen is the longest serving herder based at Reindeer House other than Fiona and I found out she can recognise and name every single reindeer, as can most of the herders. However, if a pair of antlers are cast in the autumn, Hen knows which reindeer they belonged to as she recognises the distinct and unique form of each and every reindeer’s antlers even when they’re no longer on the animal. The Cairngorm reindeer participate in many Christmas events across the country and it’s important they keep practising with the halter and harness throughout the year so that Christmas is a relaxed affair with no anxiety. Another treat for me is that my adoptee Gandi is one of the reindeer coming along on the practice session because he and Elvis are experienced trekkers and will set a good example to Camus, Balmoral and Shinty. I hadn’t met the last three reindeer before and I’m pleased to say they all did very well with their training. Shinty was the most reluctant to get going and he gave Hen a thorough workout by making her tug him up the hill, but with Gandi encouraging him from behind, we were soon underway on our circuit.
So this is Hen on the left and me on the right with reindeer (from left to right) Elvis, Shinty, Gandi, Camus and Balmoral. It was to be the last glimpse of the sun for several days so I’m glad I took up Fiona’s offer to take a photo of me with the reindeer and I sent it to my ex-colleagues to illustrate the dramatic difference to my working day.
The rest of the day was spent on hill trips with tourists, becoming more familiar with the information we impart to the eager visitors. Many people meet a favourite reindeer on their visit, as I did with Gandi, and decide to adopt them. In between the trips we all work on the biannual newsletter as it’s time to send it out to all the reindeer adopters. This edition of the newsletter features many tales of the reindeer and activities and events at the centre. There are some hilarious stories about Fergus, a hand-reared calf who has turned out to be a very cheeky boy indeed, and sadly, there’s a moving obituary to Grunter, a much loved reindeer who was also hand-reared when he was a calf.
I’ve learnt the name of another member of the herd today, the endearing Blue, who was named in the year of cheeses 2013. He was born with a condition which means he is very pale, almost completely white and he’s also deaf. Many visitors think he is albino but Imogen explained to me that albinism means a complete lack of pigment, whereas Blue just has a reduced level of pigment which means he is Leucistic. His skin is very pink and prone to sunburn and any broken skin could lead to infection so he has bright yellow ‘summer cream’ on his face which is a mix of sunscreen and insecticide to keep the midges away. Blue has been a bit slow to come for food today and hasn’t hand fed from the tourists as much as normal so on one of my hill trips with Imogen, it’s necessary to take his temperature once the visitors are gone. I’ve seen this before and it involves luring them close with an irresistible bucket of lichen to get a halter on them, one person holds the head while the other person takes the temperature from the ‘other end’. Whilst Imogen does the ‘business’ she regales me with detailed advice about insertion of the thermometer, which angle is best, how long to leave it in, etc. I decide it’s time to manage her expectations and make it clear, I’m happy to learn the theory, but as far as practise goes, I think I’ll remain at the head end, thank you very much!
Today I also discussed with Imogen how I could possibly look less like a tourist when we take the visitors out. Her insightful but wildly impractical suggestion is that I should dress for conditions at least ten degrees warmer, so go up the hill in just a t-shirt when everyone else is in hats and jackets, and claim it’s a warm day. I fear this soft southerner might catch her death if she attempted that, so I bear it in mind but keep my multiple layers firmly in place.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!