We reopened to the public on the 10th of February. With no Paddocks and Exhibition available (the site is currently a very big hole) it feels rather strange! But the Hill Trips are running as usual, in fact for the February half term we brought some of our free ranging cows and nine month old calves in to our hill enclosure allowing us to do two Hill Trips a day. So, we’ve been busy looking after our the herd in the enclosure and checking in with the free rangers once every few days. February has so far been rather mild so far with not very much snow so we’ve been having a relatively easy time, and the reindeer are finding easy grazing. We’ll be back to free range visits very soon (Monday 26th Feb) so if anyone is visiting us between now and the end of April be prepared for potentially much longer walks out to find the herd.
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.
Visitors often ask how on earth we tell apart the 150-strong herd of reindeer. Whilst there is variation in colour, markings and antler shape, one of the biggest distinguishing features is actually character. Just like people, reindeer come in every shade of cheeky, shy, friendly, stand-offish, bolshy, greedy, intelligent, daft… I thought I might mention a few stand out character types, past and present!
Step up, Aztec! Always the first to be involved, always wanting to “help”, very friendly, lovable, and not a manner to be seen if there is a mere sniff of food… Fun, but a bit of a liability.
Also falling into this category: Kipling, Bumble, Eco
Reserved and steady, not always the easiest to catch but utterly dependable when out on tour. Olmec, I’m looking at you.
Also applies to: Dragonfly
Introducing the one and only Holy Moley… who knows full well that she basically had her own TV documentary and hence feels that every visitor is there to see her and her alone.
Also: Dr Seuss appears to feel that his minor starring role in the same show entitles him to extra food portions every single day too.
Sweet as Pie, Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly
Beautiful light-coloured Diamond has to be one of the gentlest souls in the herd. She walks with a slight limp after an injury back in her younger days, which of course means we all (needlessly) slip her extra bits of feed.
Also: Amber, Esme, Sunflower
Loyal and True
Certain reindeer can always be relied upon when we’re moving the free-range herd – they’ll be near the front, they willingly have a headcollar put on, they trustingly plod behind you whilst the rest of the herd debate whether your bribe is worth coming for. Okapi, you’re the star here.
The Boy Band Pin-Up
Sherlock has to be one of the most impressive looking reindeer in the herd today, and he also knows how to work it. Some reindeer naturally prick their ears for a photo, and seem to offer their best side!
Also: Elvis, of whom there was never a bad photo taken!
Grumpy Old Men (and Women)
Bond may only be 5 years old, but he definitely ticks every box for “grouchy” – you only need to look at him and he rolls his eyes at the thought that you might try to interact with him. Likewise, walking too near Lace or Turtle is likely to extract a swing of the antlers and a snap of the mouth as a warning. Turtle is Pony’s daughter, who was perhaps the grumpiest reindeer we’ve ever had in the herd, so it’s definitely inherited!
Also: Addja once implanted his antlers into my leg when in a bad mood, only to cast one, which definitely didn’t make him any more cheery (though it did make me chuckle at the instant karma).
Big Friendly Giant
One of the tallest, heftiest reindeer in the herd, Scrabble was a bit of a liability in his youth as he was just so keen to meet everyone, and somewhat unaware of his sheer size. It almost seemed that his bum was so far away from his brain that he couldn’t keep track of the children he was wiping out as he turned around… Now he’s an old fella so a bit steadier, but just as friendly and enormous!
Don’t Mess With…
Brie may look little and cute, but her first instinct if she doesn’t like something is to beat it/them with her antlers, and whilst she both she and her antlers may be small, she is ANGRY. As Mel once found out when leading Brie, and Brie decided she did NOT want to be there…
Also: Spy. If Spy has calved, it usually takes about four herders, all hiding behind gates/fences to move her where we want her to be.
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.
It’s the last blog of the month and so time for another photo dump! March has been a relatively quiet month, with the Paddocks shut and fewer visitors around, but it’s still felt very busy for us herders! Generally only four members of staff work each day throughout March. The mornings are taken up by two herders heading out to find and move the free ranging herd, and the other two herders lead the Hill Trip at 11am. So, by the time we’ve all had lunch the afternoons seem to totally fly by. We also had some very snowy and wintery weather in the middle of the month, making our lives a little more interesting and keeping us on our toes! Hopefully, we’ve managed to tick off all the important jobs in time for the Easter Holidays which kick off on the 1st of April.
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!
With all these photos of calves over the last few weeks on our social media pages, I thought I’d dig out some photos of adult reindeer in our herd when they were just a week or two old, as a way of demonstrating their colouration and it’s changes with time. Reindeer are born in an extremely warm winter coat to protect them from the elements, but this calf coat isn’t necessarily the same colour as they will end up.
There’s a very short window from when they are born in May, to when they first moult in July, when they have this lovely calf coat. By July they have a short, darker summer coat, although their legs often retain their calf coat for a few extra weeks, and then their adult winter coat grows in for the first time in early September. At this point onwards they look like mini adults, and have lost the ‘cute’ factor.
We’ll start with Aztec. He was the most common colour for a calf, a gingery brown that we just call ‘normal coloured’. As an adult he’s still ‘normal’ – as common as muck! (But only in colour, not character!).
Roman was also a ‘normal coloured’ calf, although a much richer red colour (NB. it’s not so noticeable in this photo as it was taken on a different camera to the other pics) than the gingery colour of many calves. The rich red look is one of my favourites amongst the calf coats!
Still ticking the ‘normal coloured’ box is Hamish, although you’ll notice the blacker back he had. This photo popped up on my Facebook ‘memories’ for 10 years ago recently – where has the time gone?! Hamish had to be pulled out by Fiona after getting stuck being born – hence the rather weak looking little calf knuckled over and two herders in attendance (trying to assess whether there’s any milk in that udder…).
‘Chocolate brown’ is the next category, darker all over than the others so far. Olympic has grown in to a dark coloured adult, but by no means as dark as they get….
….unlike Lace! Jet black as a calf, she’s always been one of the very darkest reindeer in the herd. Note how dark her bum is compared to Olympic above!
And at the other end of the scale is Mozzarella. If a calf is pure white, whether they are actually leucistic or literally just very white, they will stay that way their whole lives, regardless of the changing of the seasons. Their summer and winter coats are both pretty much the same. Mozzarella has a couple of dark markings on her, and these will change in darkness depending on the season, but not her white hairs.
Olmec and his mum Emmental are both ‘white’ reindeer too, or at least what we would refer to as a white or light coloured reindeer. In August, on the right, (and 3 years later!) they are much greyer, about halfway from summer to winter coats, but reindeer’s coats bleach in the light throughout the winter months, turning them much whiter by spring.
Many light coloured reindeer also have white face markings, as Svalbard demonstrates here. The darker markings on calf coats tend to be much less obvious as adults though – you have to peer closely to see Svalbard’s dark leg nowadays! While he’s not a light coloured reindeer as such now, he’s still on the pale side.
Not all light coloured adults start out light though, as LX and Diamond demonstrate here. White foreheads on a brown calf generally signify a calf will turn white in adulthood though! It’s not a particularly common colouration though – I think these are the only two I remember in my time here (or at least the only two who survived to adulthood – there may have been others).
Finally, there’s always one or two odd ones each year. Above is Brie, a sort of slate-grey colour as a calf with a little white nose, but generally she’s pretty much normal coloured now as an adult, albeit still rather greyish. She was a very pretty calf!
And finally Spartan, again slate grey as a calf but on the darker side as an adult. His pale eyes are a giveaway for his slightly odd colouration though, and as a breeding bull he’s thrown some equally unusual looking calves this spring!
There’s nothing more exciting than walking towards a cow who just calved, having eventually tracked them down – knowing you’re the very first human to lay eyes on that calf. At 8am when reporting from the hill down to Reindeer House, having been on the early shift and out for two or three hours already, I’ve squeaked “You’ll never guess what colour so-and-so’s calf is!” down a phone excitedly many times in the past. Freezing toes, soaked clothes and rumbling belly temporarily forgotten.