June has whizzed by in a cloud of reindeer hair – it’s definitely scruffy reindeer month! Not their most photogenic season but a wonderful time of year nonetheless. After a couple of days off the antlers have noticeably grown – even after six years of working with the herd, I still find it amazing just how quickly it all happens.
The last batch of cows and calves left the enclosure on the 5th and we’ve brought more male reindeer over from the farm to increase our number here to keep our visitors happy on Hill Trips. It’s also the time of year we start harness training – both the reindeer and the herders! It’s a fun way to spend the morning. Another lovely way of spending a morning is walking our two hand-reared calves, Alba and Winnie. This month we have started taking them on daily walks allowing them access to good grazing meanwhile getting all-important exercise.
Lastly, I can’t write a blog post about June 2023 without mentioning the loss of our old reindeer herding collie, Sookie. A very sad time at Reindeer House, but what an amazing life she had and I feel grateful to be part of it. She’ll be missed.
Elvis is now 15 years old and our oldest male reindeer in the herd so it’s about time he gets some recognition. As a youngster he was a real ugly duckling. In fact I remember when we had a visit from some Sami (indigenous reindeer herders of Scandinavia) people back in 2007, they pointed at Elvis and said he was ‘bad stock’. His winter coat was very scruffy/mottled and being a teenager at the time he was tall and lanky so probably didn’t look like he was in good condition.
Boy did he prove them wrong as he went on to become a big and beautiful reindeer putting on good condition and growing lovely big antlers annually. For about 7-8 years he was one of our trusty go to Christmas reindeer during our Christmas tour in November and December each year. He visited the likes of Harrods in London taking part in their Christmas parade, Windsor Castle, even just our local schools and nurseries. He was always such a good role model to the younger, less experienced reindeer so us herders loved having him in our team. With such an iconic name he was popular with our visitors and the public on Christmas parades.
His mum, Esme, was a very lovely reindeer. She lived to a grand age and was always one of the first down for an easy feed when us herders were up on the mountain. His sister, Okapi, is still with us and she is 13 years old. He’s not from a very big family and Okapi doesn’t breed anymore so they are the last two in that line.
Elvis is well and truly retired now, and quite rightly so. He spends his winters with the herd free range on the Cromdale Hills where the lichen heath is fantastic. Come spring he is at our hill farm near Glenlivet where they go out to the hill each night and have access to a food filled shed during the day… life is pretty good for a farm reindeer! Recently he came over here to the Reindeer Centre to spend time in our paddock area for a few days while an adopter was visiting but at his age I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend too long in there so we were quick to put him back to the farm. He’s been there, done that. There is no need for him to perform to the crowds anymore, he can leave that to the younger reindeer.
So we don’t know how much longer Elvis will be with us but his condition and antler growth this year is no different to the last few years. He can be a bit slower in the mornings, or a bit stiff when he gets up from lying down but that’s just like me and I’m only 34! For now though we will keep giving him extra lichen treats and keep him alongside the rest of the herd where he is happiest.
Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…
7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!
7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!
8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!
9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!
Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…
10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.
The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.
11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.
1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).
1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!
3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!
5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!
Here’s a wee round up of day two of our 65th Anniversary weekend…
After a good night’s kip we were all up bright and early (well, early at least, not sure about the bright!) for another day of fun, this time over at our Glenlivet hill farm. We have a second base there, about an hour’s drive from the Reindeer Centre, where some of our male reindeer spend the summer months, and which also gives us access to the Cromdale mountains for brilliant winter grazing.
Hen and myself headed straight over to help Tilly set up at the farm, collecting some fallen branches covered with lichen for visitors to feed to our reindeer on the way. We arrived to find everything already looking quite organised, but the first big job was to move some of the reindeer from their normal daytime area – a sloping field with access to a large airy barn – down to the garden ready to meet their adopters. Hen was primed with a list of which reindeer had someone coming to see them, and we both made our way through the reindeer, who were munching away at their breakfast, popping head collars on the first 10, who we distributed between the various helpers we had, before we led them down the yard and let them loose in the fenced garden. The reindeer thought this was thoroughly exciting, and Blue in particular went leaping and bucking off down the hill! We went back for a second run, and a partial third run, before leaving the shier and older reindeer to relax in the peaceful barn for the day.
By now, much to my delight, Aye Coffee had arrived to provide me with my vital caffeine intake for the day and were setting up their van, Derek was prepping the meat for the BBQ (low food miles indeed!) and Alan had moved a group of the Iron Age pigs down to a pen near the garden for the day, which they were cheerfully rooting up. Alan then quickly made himself scarce, not to be seen for the rest of the day (probably busy running up a hill somewhere!). The first adopters were arriving and the drizzle was just starting to dry up. There was a roaring fire going in the BBQ hut, which was the perfect antidote to any chilly fingers.
As adopters arrived, we tracked down reindeer for them and made introductions. October is peak rutting season, so all of our young bulls were in a separate pen, and we mostly headed in ourselves and brought adopted reindeer down to meet their adopters at the gate, to save anyone accidentally getting caught between teenage bulls who were full of hormones!
In the garden, everyone was handing out lichen lollipops, and the reindeer were very relaxed – by the afternoon most of them were lying down fast asleep between groups of visitors. Tilly had arranged tractor and trailer tours, but had underestimated their popularity, so the first tour was one tractor and trailer, but by the last tour there was a progression of tractor and trailer, landrover, and quad bike and trailer! Despite our slight lack of organisation with them, everyone seemed to have a blast and most people who wanted to go on it did (possibly with the exception of myself!).
By 4pm, the BBQ was finished, the coffee van packing away, and the last adopters were heading home. There wasn’t too much to do except pack away the information boards, run the reindeer from the garden back up to the hill, lead the herd up onto the open hill for the night, and feed the bulls. And then, most importantly, head out for a celebratory meal ourselves! (Thanks Tilly!)
We certainly had a lovely weekend, and great to meet so many people (old friends and new). We hope you all enjoyed yourselves too. We’ll do it all again for our 70th (once we’ve forgotten how much organisation it all took…)