January has seen the last few Hill Trips of the Christmas holidays and then the start of our closed period where we can crack on with various office and maintenance jobs such as repairing holes in our waterproof kit (thanks Lotti for keeping us dry!) and oiling the Christmas harness ready to be stored for the next 10 months.
The entire reindeer herd roams freely in the hills at this time of year over two locations. Tilly looks after one group, and we look after the herd here which wander the Cairngorms. We tend to visit them every other day (when the weather allows) to check on our wonderful furry friends. Of course, they’re totally fine and are in their element over the winter months but they won’t turn down a free meal. I think it’s mostly for the herders benefit that we go up and see them else we’d all probably go a bit mad without our reindeer fix.
The HUGE thing which is also going on this January is the exhibition has been demolished so it’s been all hands on deck, taking things down, sorting and storing things to be kept, cutting trees, clearing brash, ripping up boardwalks, loading trailers etc. Here’s a selection of photos from what has turned out to be a rather action packed ‘quiet’ season! We look forward to reopening the shop and taking Hill Trips from Saturday the 10th of February.
August has been a fun month. The first half of the month was super busy with holiday makers but as Scottish schools went back the second half of the month got slightly quieter with visitors and we’ve been having lots of free range action which I love. Generally we start to see the free ranging females more as they come down in altitude as the weather gets cooler. Towards the end of the month we also start bringing in the mums and their calves back into the enclosure. They spend June through to August/early September out roaming the hills learning how to be little wild reindeer and enjoying all the best grazing, but when the autumn rolls around it’s time for them to learn what a feed bag is and in time, how to walk on a halter etc. The following photos are a small snapshot of what’s been occurring…
At the time, it really does seem like it will last forever. When you head to work and it’s dark, then the sun sets again at 3.30pm and you’re heading home in the dark. But it must be my favorite season, you experience such varying weather conditions, and it gives you such an appreciation of what the reindeer endure out on the free range. So, I thought I would do a blog of my favorite wintery pictures and tell some tales from the free range.
One trip that will forever stay in my memory was a morning in April when Ruth and I went out on to the free range to move the herd for the 11am Hill Trip. There had been snow the night before and it was so windy! Once on the hill we weren’t entirely sure whether it was still snowing, or whether the wind was whipping the snow up off the ground and into our eyes. Either way, we both were wishing that we had brought along goggles to wear. We trudged along, having a rough idea of where the reindeer were and finally stumbled across them. The amount of snow and lack of visibility meant that the reindeer were very well camouflaged, so it took me basically tripping over them to finally notice them. I wish I had noted down the wind speed for that day but to give you some insight, the day before had a mountain gust of 91mph.
On another trip to collect the herd for the 11am Hill Trip later in April that included myself and Ben Hester, we came across a stark contrast in the weather from the Ski Center car park and in the Northern Corries, where the herd were that morning. At the Ski Center we were eluded into the false belief that we wouldn’t need much in the way of layers as it was a beautiful sunny morning but due to the nature of the hills, we decided to take something waterproof just in case. As we continued up into the Corries, the weather began to take a turn. The cloud came in, the wind kicked up and we were pelted with icy rain. It was a good thing that we were only collecting the herd and moving them down to a lower spot as the weather would have made an uncomfortable Hill Trip!
But for every couple of bad weather days, we get exceptionally beautiful days to make up for the lack of daylight hours and hard going weather…
Other days we get great shows of the clouds through the mountains, I always love to see how clouds hug the landscape…
And to be honest, it’s not all doom and gloom when the sun sets early as we get to experience beautiful sunsets…
Sometimes you can head out in cloudy conditions and by the time you have found the herd the cloud has lifted, and you have the most fantastic view…
Overall, I love the winter seasons, you get to experience so many extremes when it comes to weather and even though most plants have died back, you still get such a variety of colour within the environment. More importantly, we (as herders) talk frequently about the adaptations that reindeer have to help them survive in a sub-artic environment, so it is thrilling to actually experience the elements like they do!
Every morning, as most of you know, two herders head out to gather the reindeer in and bring them closer for our Hill Trip at 11am. This requires dropping our bags of feed off on route somewhere closer to where we plan to end up with the herd then anything from a 10 minute walk to a 1.5 hour walk out, depending on where the herd are. Most often we have a section of uphill just to really make us work hard and get a sweat on. Most of it is pathless so winter time can be a time of year where reindeer herders can get quite fit! Or that’s what we tell ourselves…
Once we’ve located the herd, usually far in the distance, first of all we will call them in the hope they will come running. However, this isn’t always the case so off we trot and we walk all the way out to them. When we reach them they are usually all lying down looking very relaxed. It almost feels a bit rude asking them to go to the effort to move location. However many people have bought their ticket and want to visit them. Plus they never really complain when they get a big bag of tasty food after their walk in. At this point there are two herders and two different jobs. One herder leads at the front and the other keep them moving from the back. So here is the role of each herder:
You set of with a small bag of feed slung over your shoulder and a halter, just in case you need extra bribery by putting one of the reindeer on a halter to lead as encouragement for the rest of the herd to follow. We don’t often have to put one on the halter, but we’ve got it just in case!
Some of the herd are always first to follow. Okapi, Lace and Sika are three older girls who accompany the front herder. On occasions while letting the rest of the herd catch up these front girls would get an extra handful of feed, much to their delight! Hopscotch and family (Kipling, Juniper, Tub and Fab) are also front runners… ruled by their stomachs.
While leading the herd down inevitably you try to take the easiest route. Not too steep, not too rough but it doesn’t matter how much you think you’ve picked the best line, the reindeer always prove you wrong by taking a slightly different one. Lets face it, they do know the hills better than us. It’s always fairly amusing being the front person when it’s a foggy day. You have to pick the best line trying not to lose your herd or your colleague at the same time. There is lots of calling, or reindeer chat/encouragement which translates to ‘follow me girls’. Shaking the bag of feed, offering handfuls, zig zagging our way down the hill in front of the herd. You do get a good opportunity for photos but it’s a fine line to keep the herd moving and getting a good photo so we cant hang around too much.
On the whole reindeer prefer to follow uphill as opposed to downhill so we are quite canny with our route choices but there are certain points of bringing them in which we know are pinch points so once we’ve got them past that we know they’ll come no bother. Then, once you’ve reached your destination there is a big bag of feed waiting for you which was left prior by us prior to walking out.
So that’s the front herder job, now for the herder following at the back.
Once you’ve reach the herd and font herder starts with the encouragement and trying to get the herd to follow its now the job for the back herder to keep up the momentum from behind. To begin with the reindeer are feeling pretty relaxed and a bit lazy so a bit of clapping, woosh woosh noises and generally pushing those back few reindeer usually gets them going. We don’t need to push them hard, just keep them going so often you act like a sheepdog zig zagging left to right. Like the trend at the front, there are also reindeer who are always at the back of the herd. Gloriana with her 2022 calf Rocket as well as her 2021 calf Beanie are usually ones at the back for us to keep moving.
Once you’re 10-15 minutes into starting the reindeer tend to follow quite nicely then the back herder can just enjoy hanging out with them, pootling (technical term) in slowly behind. This is also a nice time to get photos but you are more likely to get photos of reindeer bottoms at this point, which isn’t all bad, they do have very beautiful bottoms!
I think on the whole herders prefer being at the back. There is less pressure on route choice and you’re not spending your whole time trying to encourage the reindeer, instead you just get to walk alongside them as they follow. Inevitably some herders end up at the front more than others and this is usually down to experience and knowing the lie of the land, route choice the way the reindeer like to walk and the fine line between going too slowly so the reindeer just graze more and getting far enough ahead to keep up momentum. As a front herder you spend less time with the reindeer themselves so obviously we all like being at the back.
At the beginning of winter and bringing reindeer in for hill trips I’m happy to do the front as we’re all a bit rusty having not done it for a year and I’m pretty confident with route choices having done it for so long. Equally I’m happy for others to learn from me. But come March onwards we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to know which way to go and I like to take my turn at the back.
Winter is always one of the best times of year with the reindeer. They are completely free range and we head out daily, locate and feed them so we keep a good management on the herd. It’s probably the time of year we get the most exercise too – a morning work out to find reindeer and bring them into closer proximity of our Hill Trips is a favourite amongst all the herders.
The top followers this winter have to be Okapi, Lace and Fly, usual suspects. However, with a greedy family often some of the first ones all running down together are Hopscotch with daughters Juniper and Kipling, and their calves Fab and Tub so it certainly is a family affair!
They don’t want to make our job too easy through. In January the reindeer often come to a call. We bellow our wee lungs out and the reindeer come running. But in February they like to make us walk, so most often two herders will head out and as good as get to where the reindeer are before turning round – one herder leads whilst the other walks at the back to keep them moving. Otherwise, they’d probably just lie down and we wouldn’t get very far.
On one occasion in January Lotti and I skied out to retrieve the herd. Always a treat getting out on skis and topped off with ski-ing for work… well it doesn’t get much better than that. More recently there hasn’t been so much snow, just a lot of wind so even if it doesn’t look cold outside that wind chill can get pretty brutal.
The reindeer are so good though, without fail they plod down behind us herders ready to meet and greet our many half term tourists wanting to visit them. Chief hand feeders at the moment are – Kipling, Juniper, Holy Moley, Okapi, Pumpkin, Marple, Brie, Ryvita…
Once the visitors have enjoyed spending time with the reindeer the herd wander back out into the mountains and it happens all over again the next day.
It’s the last blog of the month, so here we have a selection of photos I’ve taken during February. The early part of the month was all about crossing jobs off the to-do list ready for us to re-open to the public on the 11th of February for the busy half-term holidays. The second part of the month has been all about locating the reindeer and moving the herd into a suitable position for our Hill Trips each morning, the Hill Trips themselves, and afternoon talks in the Paddocks. Plus all the usual shop and office work. As always, the holidays are over in a blur, but here are some photos of our beautiful reindeer, giving a small taster of February for you all.
A final point – if you are wondering where all the young bulls and Christmas reindeer are in the photos, they spend the winter free ranging in a different herd that Tilly and other colleagues at the farm mostly look after. I’ve not been to visit them myself this month hence why it’s just photos of our beautiful girls and some male calves that you’ll find in this month’s blog.
This year I will endeavor to make the last blog of the month a photo blog with a collection of pictures taken over the month. So here’s some highlights from January! A month when the Centre shuts and we crack on with lots of office work and general maintenance tasks such as painting the Exhibition floor and oiling the Christmas harness. But inevitably, I don’t take any photos of that stuff, so instead it’s just lots of lovely pics of reindeer!
Following on from the blog last week, with lots of silly photos of reindeer yawning (click here to see that) I thought I’d post a blog show-casing the various sleeping postures of reindeer!
It does seem like the perfect time to post this blog as with the busy Christmas season now over, and the Reindeer Centre shutting on Monday the 9th of January until Saturday the 11th of February, most reindeer herders are generally looking in need of a decent sleep too!
So, for no other reason than hopefully to make a few folk smile, here comes lots of photos of snoozing reindeer…
People who see our photos on social media without knowing much about us must wonder why some of our reindeer have such strange names. Where’s Dasher and Dancer? Prancer and Vixen? And Rudolph??? Where on earth have ‘Pavlova’, ‘Caterpillar’ and ‘Clouseau’ come from?!
We’ve been naming the reindeer on a theme each year since the early 70s. As well as making life a bit easier for us coming up with 15 – 30 brand new names each year (where would you start otherwise?!), it has a very practical application in that it helps us remember the individual age of each reindeer, based on their moniker. For farmers naming animals is often done using words starting with a certain letter of the alphabet each year, but different themes is our chosen method.
Up until the early 70s Mr Utsi named his reindeer mainly just with human names, both English and Swedish in origin. However, in 1971, the calves were instead given names of different trees, such as Spruce, Larch and Alder. In 1972 it was birds: Raven, Wren and Hawk. And Tit (teehee).
Themes need to be chosen to have enough ‘good’ names; those not too long, not too complicated, not double-barrelled and either unisex or enough names suitable for a rough 50:50 split of male and female names within the theme. This rules out some ideas pretty quickly.
Over the years however, all the ‘obvious’ themes have now been done. Rivers; Butterflies; Countries; Sweeties – we’ve been there and done that. We do our best to never reuse a name as each reindeer is their own character and we feel they deserve an individual name, but also because it can cause confusion on the database if there’s more than one of the same. We do accidentally slip up however – I’m well aware that both Juniper and Frost in the herd are not the first of their kind. I think Lady holds the record – the Lady that I knew when I first started here turned out to be Lady the Third when I looked closely at the database…
So now we have to think outside the box, hence our slightly off-the-wall themes of later years. This year the calves are named after ‘Seeds, Peas and Beans’. We did ‘Police and Detectives’ recently. And before that ‘Ancient Civilisations’.
To an extent we try not to use themes that are too commercial, hence ‘car makes’ or ‘football clubs’ aren’t options. Something else we don’t do, or not nowadays at least, is to allow other people to name reindeer in our herd. This is quite a popular request, and most often comes from people wishing to name a reindeer in memory of someone in their family who really loved visiting the reindeer, or had some special connection with the herd for one reason or another. While this would seem a lovely tribute, sadly reindeer don’t live forever and we don’t want people to be too invested in a certain reindeer, only for it to pass away unexpectedly. Sod’s law is a big factor here – allow someone to name a reindeer in this manner and you can almost guarantee it will be the one to pop it’s clogs a week later… However, we like to accommodate people if possible, so we have in the past, in exceptional circumstances, allowed someone else to choose the theme (from a shortlist). We did it this year in fact – ‘Seeds, Peas and Beans’ was chosen in memory of a gentleman to whom gardening had been a very important part of his life.
While all the staff here are involved in naming the calves each year, the Smith family, who own the reindeer herd, have the final say in all names. And themes they don’t like won’t make the grade. Hence don’t bother asking us if ‘Game of Thrones’ will ever be the theme – I can tell you right now that it won’t. I did make a bid for ‘Sean’ for this years’ theme (think about it) but sadly it was out-ruled.
Of course there end up being lots of exceptions to the rules and reindeer often end up with really random names, but I think some details of these can wait till a future blog (which I’ve now written!).
Visitors often ask if the different coloured reindeer in our herd are different breeds, or even different species. The answer is no, they’re all reindeer just the same – they can vary in colour like horses, dogs and cats do. I thought I’d show a range of the colours found in our herd. Through the process of domestication, humans tend to select for colour variation, leading to a greater variety in domesticated species than wild ones. They stay the same colour throughout their life, though the colour is richer in their summer coat and lighter in winter.
Reindeer can also have white markings – I’ll look at this in a future blog!