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.
Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!
In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!
So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.
Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.
Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!
In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.
Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!
Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.
Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.
He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!
Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!
He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!
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.
Autumn is definitely here now, even if we have tried to ignore the fact the leaves are turning and days getting shorter… however it’s not all bad cos it’s the time of year that reindeer are looking at their absolute best. The past 5 months have been full on for the bulls growing these enormous antlers. Bovril, Balmoral, Bandy (not all bulls begin with ‘B’), Ost, Houdini, Pera and Kota (there we go) are a few of our main breeding bulls this year and they have all got a fantastic pair of antlers to complement their voluptuous curves (fatties!).
So we get to the end of August and wait with baited breath to who will be first to strip their velvet. Ost was number one. He is a 3 year old bull, just a youngster, so this will be his first year of being the main man. The others took a few days but then we were well underway with velvet hanging off left, right and centre. Balmoral stripped his velvet in the paddocks so with visitors going around we had to pre warn them of his gory state as it can look quite bloody, even though there is no feeling in the antlers at this point. He is now back on the hill with the others. It was fairly amusing walking this huge, quite terrifying looking bull out of our livestock truck, across the Sugarbowl trail to our mountain enclosure and he walked like a true gent. Makes us so proud of them!
The first to strip velvet are the main breeding bulls, then young bulls and females are next in line. The gelded males don’t always strip their velvet clean and end up with velvety antlers over the Christmas period which is fine and means they don’t look so terrifying with big bony antlers, even though we all know they are far from terrifying.
Antler is an amazing thing and there hasn’t been much study on it. For so much bone to grow over such a short period of time, it is incredible! Another cool antler fact is if a reindeer damages or breaks an antler one year, the antler that grows the next year (keeping in mind it’s a whole new antler) will remember the break/damage and it will have a scar in that same spot. At that point it will always be slightly weaker… Hmm, that’s pretty weird you have to admit.
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.
For me the summer solstice always fell on June 21st and I never knew otherwise however apparently this year it was on the 20th… Something to do with being a leap year?!? Anyway to mark the occasion it’s always quite nice to do something, whether we get a group of folk together and have a game of rounders or go for a nice ‘summery’ walk. This year we decided to take a wander up into the Northern Coire’s – Coire an Lochain in particular! Looking up from Glenmore and Loch Morlich this is the furthest right Coire with a large patch of snow on the right hand side of it. Mid-summer here always seems to be fairly awful weather, I even recall wearing my waterproof ski trousers for this about 4-5 years ago and in true Scottish Highlands style this year was no different. However, it wasn’t raining so we were already up on other years!
So we set off up the path into the Coire and it took us about an hour of which we chit chatted the whole way, of course putting the world to rights! Right in the back of Coire An Lochain there is, as stated in its name, a wee loch. We arrived with bags filled with tea and cake (very important for us reindeer herders), my bagpipes and four fairly hyper dogs (3 of them being under the age of two). As we arrived into the Coire something caught my eye… 4 reindeer behind the loch. Straight away dogs were called in and put on a leads, just in case, and I scooted over towards them to see if I could see who it was. Malawi, one of our older females in the herd at the age of 11 now was leading them away from us and she was followed by Okapi and two younger females (who I didn’t get close enough to, to ID). A three year old and a two year old, I got that much! They obviously weren’t too keen on coming up to us as we had the dogs but they did stop in their tracks when I started calling them, it was just unfortunate I didn’t any food as a bit of bribery to come a bit closer, then I would have definitely worked out the other two. Malawi is easy to identify because she has never grown any antlers which is pretty unusual.
Like I said the reindeer didn’t hang around as they don’t like dogs so we got onto what was also very important after our walk in – tea, cake and a quick blast on the bagpipes. I’m not really in practice at the moment so any wee slip up with notes I blamed on the cold weather and my fingers weren’t working properly but they sounded pretty awesome in the Coire getting good acoustics bouncing off the head wall. At this time of year it is light until about midnight and light again in the morning round 3.30am. Such a lovely time of year which is why we try to make the most of it by being outside. It’s a bit different in the winter months when it isn’t light until 9am and dark by 3.30pm but it’s also nice to have that comparison throughout the year too. Of course in the far north and Scandinavia they have the midnight sun… I shall have to go and see that one year for sure!
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!