Old lady Okapi

I’m lacking in inspiration, motivation and time to think of a new and so-far unused blog topic, so this week I’m going for the old tried-and-tested method – pick a reindeer and write about him/her.

This week’s subject is Okapi. I’ve known Okapi her entire life, and at 15 and a half years old, it’s a long life indeed. Whilst not right up there in my very, very top favourite reindeer, she’s always been in the upper echelons of the reindeer herd, and I reckon most other herders would agree – collectively amongst us, she’s held in extremely high affection.

Okapi was born in 2008, her mum Esme’s third calf. Esme was a lovely reindeer, and was actually the subject of our very first blog, back in 2015! I first met Okapi at a few months old, at which point she was easily distinguishable from the other 2008 calves by the silver hairs on her face, giving her the appearance of wearing war-paint.

Those silver hairs eventually spread across the rest of Okapi’s body, and although she is still want we would call ‘normal-coloured’, she’s a much greyer colour than many of the other reindeer in the same colour category. Coat colour runs in family lines – Esme was on the silvery side too, as were many other members of the family, most notably Okapi’s big brother Elvis. Elvis became a legendary reindeer in our herd, living to 17 and only passing away a few months ago.

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

Okapi has always been a ‘leader’ in the herd, a relatively dominant female and generally one of the first to start moving in the right direction when we call the herd from a distance, leading them towards us. Reindeer like this are worth their weight in gold to us as a lot of the winter season is spent bellowing towards specks on a distant hill, and wondering whether they are going to come to us or we are going to have to go to them… It needs a dominant reindeer to sigh, stand up and start moving to get the rest of the herd underway too.

As a youngster, out free-ranging up on the mountains.

We usually like to breed from our loveliest female reindeer multiple times, but Okapi had a bit of a hitch in this respect. She had two lovely calves, in 2012 and 2013, Murray and Oka. Murray had the best set of antlers that we’ve seen on a calf in our herd, and we were very excited for what he would grow into in the future. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he passed away at about a year old. Win some and lose some with animals, but this felt like a particularly hard loss.

Okapi with 8 month old Murray – look at those calf antlers!

Okapi’s second calf, Oka, was also lovely, but again didn’t survive long term – dying at about 2 years old. A huge shame, as a female she should have gone on to continue Okapi’s genetic line, but hey ho. Again these things happen, but it feels unfair for Okapi to have lost both her calves.

Oka

And that was that for Okapi’s motherhood career, as a few months after Oka’s birth she suffered a prolapse. This came completely out of the blue and we never knew what – if anything – triggered it, but the end result was that everything had to be pushed back into place more than once, and eventually permanent stitches were inserted by the vet to keep poor old Okapi’s bits where they should be. This meant no more calves for her – a real shame for a lovely 5 year old female in her prime.

Okapi’s classic pose – she’s a reindeer who almost always has her ears pricked. This is how I will remember her when she’s no longer with us.

But life as a permanently ‘single lady’ has meant Okapi has since been a lady of leisure, all her energy going into her own body each year, and quite possibly has contributed to her longevity. Almost every year she’s grown pretty big antlers, and it’s only really in the last couple of years she’s started to look ‘old’.

Never having calves at foot means that Okapi also spends a higher ratio of her time free-ranging out on the mountains, as there’s never really a reason for her to spend any length of time in our hill enclosure. She will come in now and then for a few days as all our reindeer need vaccinating a couple of times of year, or sometimes we’ll hold particularly friendly reindeer back in the enclosure so they can be part of a the group for filming, for example. But on average, I’d say Okapi spends 11.5 months a year out living a completely free lifestyle – pretty nice!

A life of luxury!

And finally, Okapi had one particular starring role – on the cover of our Naked Reindeer Herders charity calendar in 2023. But I don’t think too many people were looking at the reindeer, if I’m honest…

Okapi on the right,with Ochil, Ruth, Fiona, Marple and Lotti, left to right. What a line up!

Hen

Characters

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!

Overexcited Labrador

Aztec leading the herd – look at that expectant face

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

The Thinker

Olmec paying careful consideration to all potential outcomes

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

TV Diva

HM with her adoring fan Lotti

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

Sweet Diamond, with Hopper in the background

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

Okapi in her usual position – right in the footsteps of the herder

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.

Also: Olympic

The Boy Band Pin-Up

Sherlock, admired by all!

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)

That look in Pony’s eye which was the precursor to antlers being aimed at you! We were always grateful when she cast her antlers each year, though she would then resort to using her front feet!

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

Scrabble, our very own BFG!

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!

Also: Comet

Don’t Mess With…

Brie acting like butter wouldn’t melt… until she disagrees with the program

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.

Andi

Okapi’s nose

Okapi is one of my favourite reindeer, and I think one of the prettiest reindeer in the herd. So, I often find my self taking a photo of her. Sometimes I manage to get a very lovely photo of her looking beautiful. More often though, before I have managed to take the photo she’s come so close that the photo ends up just of her nose! I’m not sure if she thinks my phone is food or if she just really wants a nostril shot. I thought in this week’s blog I would share various Okapi noses over the seasons, plus the occasional successful photo to show how bonnie the rest of her face is. Enjoy!  

The whole of beautiful Okapi as she leads in the herd.
A more typical photo of Okapi.
A snowy nose.
Another snowy nose.
At it again….
One-antlered Okapi still loving a nostril shot.
Yet another snowy snozzle.
Here is the bonnie lass leading the herd, with Inca following behind.
Okapi and Beanie posing on a lovely winter’s day.

Lotti

Photo blog: March 2023

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.

1st of March: Sunny has spent the majority of January and February free ranging in the hills with the big boys. He and a few other youngsters were brought off the hill on the last day of February and spent a few days in the Paddocks. So of course it was only right Sunny got an invite to dinner!!
2nd of March: Sheena and Lotti take some routine temperatures. Whilst we don’t expect any at this time of year, it’s good handling practice for the reindeer to make sure we can still catch them whilst they’re out free ranging. In this photo it’s Beret’s turn, but Holy Moley is patiently waiting for her go, anything to be allowed into the white bag!
3rd of March: Can you spot Fiona leading the herd at the front? Meanwhile I’m being “sheep dog” at the back, making sure everybody follows. Vienna and her calf Kulfi are the last two reindeer… as usual!
6th of March: Snow again! This time I’m at the front of the herd leading them in to the visit location, whilst Andi is gently encouraging them at the back. Here we have the beautiful Lace and if you look VERY closely you might be able to spot a golden eagle in the sky above the herd!
7th of March: After demolishing lots of hand feed, Pumpkin is in need of a wee rest!
7th of March: 99 and Tub, two ten-month-old calves having a play fight!
8th of March: What a day!! Popsicle and her mum Caterpillar looking gorgeous in the snow.
9th of March: Another cracking blue bird day! Here’s Merida and Beret saying hello,
12th of March: Solero chilling out after a Hill Trip whilst people enjoy milling around the herd in the background.
13th of March: A very wintery Hill Trip for me and Cameron! This is why we tell people they need full waterproofs and walking boots/wellies at this time of year.
14th of March: Moving the herd in a snow storm.
14th of March: The morning ritual of allowing the calves to feed out of the bags first, whilst we prevent older reindeer from sneaking in (yes you, Holy Moley).
15th of March: Can’t resist including this picture of Lolly (Oatcake’s calf). What a cutie.
18th of March: Leading the herd in to position for the Hill Trip, the fab trio at the front leading the way as always- Lace, Fly and Sika!
19th of March: Sorbet, Cornetto and his mum Helsinki posing in the sun!
20th of March: What a glorious morning to go retrieve and deposit the herd ready for the Hill Trip!
23rd of March: Sisters Suebi and Turtle hanging out together, strong family resemblance between these two!
24th of March: Moving the herd with Hen on a very atmospheric morning. The reindeer were particularly lazy today, they did not come to our call, so we got a great morning work out walking up to them!
27th of March: There are a few cows on the hill who are now beginning to grow their antlers for 2023. This is Ryvita who is showing off her wee velvet buds.
28th of March: Morven (currently looking a bit lopsided) and her calf Mochi waiting for the food to be put out.

Ruth

Winter Reindeer Herding

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!

Lace is often at the front – a natural leader.
Emmental, leading the way, with Lace not too far behind.
Hopscotch, Tub and Kipling – unsurprisingly impatiently waiting next to the feed bags.
Despite casting her antlers earlier in the winter, and aged almost 16 years old, Fly remains a dominant leader in the herd. Such a good lass!!

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.

Hiking out to the reindeer on the skyline.

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.

Fiona leading the herd down on her skis ready for a Hill Trip.
It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it!
Lotti, having a totally miserable time at work!

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…

Old girl Okapi is a hand feed enthusiast!
Ryvita, another lover of hand feed, eagerly waiting for our visitors to arrive!

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.

Fiona

A Christmas Interrogation (part 2)

A while back I interviewed a few of my colleagues with some questions relating to the Christmas season. The first half of this blog can be read here. But onward…

THE SMELL YOU MOST ASSOCIATE WITH CHRISTMAS? With this question, I just wanted to check that everyone else had the same – as far as I’m concerned – very obvious answer. Turns out they do. Every. Single. One. ‘I think we all know the smell associated with Christmas…’.  Reindeer pee, obviously!

Maybe I should elaborate though, for the uninitiated. Whilst we do our best to keep our leadropes clean, they invariably end up on the ground at times. Whilst the reindeer don’t actually actively pee on them (unless you’re really unlucky), they tend to stand on the ends regularly (lay a rope over a reindeer’s back, whilst catching another, and they often shake it off). We keep the straw beds in our sheds, at our temporary bases we stay at, and in our lorries as clean as possible at all times, but it is as certain as death and taxes that the ropes always end up smelling of pee from the reindeer’s feet and the straw. Lotti: ‘Reindeer pee on the leadropes. Particularly when drying out in the caravan…’

Ferreting out all the ‘smart’ red leadropes and halters from storage at the start of November, ready for distribution between the team kits. Mostly smelling of washing powder at this stage, but probably best not to sniff them too closely.

Tilly adds ‘Once Christmas is over I wash all the halters and ropes and even if everyone has been really careful not to let the ropes fall on the ground, they still have a very distinct smell of urea’. There were some additional contributions too – both Andi and I cite Tilly’s washing powder as the second smell that instantly brings Christmas to mind, from our red jumpers that we wear at events. Fiona added damp lorry cabs and Joe included mince pies. Along with ropes smelling of reindeer pee. None of this ‘winter spices’ Christmas nonsense.

FAVOURITE FOOD ON CHRISTMAS DAY: I was just being nosy, to be honest. Fiona: ‘The soup and sandwiches from Nethy Hotel – we feel like we’ve earned them [Nethy Hotel provide lunch for us during our last events of the year on Christmas Day]! Who doesn’t like free food! Plus a variety of meat from our farm.’ Generally somewhat carnivorous, Tilly surprised me with ‘sprouts’ (but roasted in the oven). For Lotti and Ruth it was the roast tatties, and the same for me too (as long as gravy and redcurrant jelly are liberally applied). For Andi it was pigs in blankets, and Joe, anything involving smoked salmon.

This was our Christmas party last year, rather than Christmas Day itself, but look at all that yummy food! On the left are Joe, Lotti, myself and Andi, and on the right are Fiona and Tilly. Ruth is in the stripey t-shirt 5th from the right. The only photo I could find with all my interviewees in it!

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT OF CHRISTMAS (PAST OR PRESENT):  This was a bit of an unfair question really, but I couldn’t think of a different way to phrase it. Most memorable moments of our Christmas seasons tend to be those when everything goes tits-up, most of which aren’t necessarily things we’re going to brag about! So this is the slightly sanitized version of ‘most memorable – and publishable – moment of Christmas’ Fiona: ‘Oh god. There’s so many – probably, to go back a few years, the Harrods event in London. All the other attractions would disappear at the end and we were always left to make our own way back to the lorry with 6 reindeer, past all the people going about their day to day business. Waiting for the green man at zebra crossing s!’

One of the Harrods parades, a good few years ago now. Photo by Kim Alston

For Andi the memory wasn’t necessarily a specific one, rather one that happens from time to time at events: ‘The best experience from parades is walking with the reindeer following a pipe band, with them all walking in time. It gives me chills every time.’ I know this feeling well too.

Pen escapes featured highly for Ruth and Joe… ‘Aztec effortlessly leaping the pen fence at Gleneagles in pursuit of food…’. All the reindeer jumping out the pen once! They were very easy to catch and return though – with a big bag of lichen!’. And continuing with the theme of errant reindeer, Lotti came up with a classic from a few years back: ‘Probably when me and Mel tried to let four calves follow the adults up the hill to the enclosure in the dark to re-join the herd, and promptly lost them into the darkness…’.

Memory I wish I’d seen the most belonged to Tilly: ‘When we didn’t have a Santa for the parade on Christmas Eve at Newtonmore and I was the substitute…’. For myself, I have so many, many memories. Some good, some bad. But an affecting one which will stay with me forever is one I’ve written about in the past in a previous blog, so won’t repeat again here.

And finally, REINDEER YOU’D CHOOSE IF SANTA NEEDED A RUDOLPH REPLACEMENT?I guess this could be rather similar to favourite reindeer to work with at Christmas, but not necessarily. Sometimes favourites are those with naughty streaks, and presumably Santa would need a pretty reliable reindeer on loan if Rudolph is side-lined? Lotti agreed: ‘I would say that Frost would be a good Rudolph replacement, as he’s an excellent sleigh-puller, and in summer he does sometimes get a slightly sunburnt nose, giving it a red tinge!’. I agree with the reliability being very important – Origami would be my choice. He is pretty professional for Christmas events – he knows his job and gets on with it.

Likewise Tilly: Well it would need to be a reindeer who is confident and happy to be at the front leading the way, so I think Aztec, with a ‘carrot’/lichen dangling in front of his nose!’. Another vote for Aztec came from Ruth: ‘I would send Aztec as he’s the most nimble – see my answer for the previous question! Or maybe Dr Seuss? Although I wouldn’t want Santa to steal Dr Seuss, so maybe not…’. Segueing neatly on to Andi: ‘Dr Seuss – he’s distinctive, charismatic, can hold his own in a new group of reindeer, and has a pink nose – perhaps it would glow with a little help from Santa…’.

Aztec might be nimble at times, but a lot of the time he’s rather lazy! Seen here busy cleaning his hoof in a care home garden on a visit in November.

Fiona reckoned Santa might prefer a certain type of reindeer, like a ‘hand-reared one, like Grunter or Sunny. They are happy with human company and happier being by themselves if need be.’. Joe hummed and harred a bit. ‘…umm. Kind of before my time, but Topi was amazing. Olympic is far too lazy… Scolty! He’d do a solid job.’

So there we go. My overall impression from writing these two blogs is that it’s impossible to give straightforward answers to any questions involving Christmas, even though everyone valiantly tried. I still only wrote down a very small section of what was said though, as many answers were nonpunishable!

Hen

Photo blog: February 2023

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.

6th of February -Mushy and her mum Hobnob looking alike. This pair are never too far apart.
6th of February – Feta posing beautifully!
7th of February – Andi doing a absolutely superb job of introducing our lovely reindeer to our followers on a Facebook live video.
8th of February – almost 16-year-old Fly leading the herd.
8th of February – Lotti and the white bag being followed by three old girls – Okapi, Lace and Sika.
11th of February – Open day!! These are our beautiful reindeer selected to be in the Paddocks for a short spell over February half-term. From left to right we have Pip, Camembert, Fern, and Florence.
12th of February – being “sheep dog” at the back of the herd whilst Hen leads them from the front. Moving the herd in place for the 11am Hill Trip.
12th of February – Beret posing beautifully, hard to believe she’ll be two in the spring!
13th of February – what a lovely day for a Hill Trip! Walking along at the back of our excited visitors.
13th of February – Beanie, being Beanie!
15th of February – acting sheep dog again. A windy and wet morning to retrieve the herd and deposit them in the right place for our visitors.
20th of February – Gelato, Christie’s calf, being cute.
20th of February – leading the herd to the correct location just in time! We made it to the visit location at bang on 11am, giving us 10 mins to spare before the Hill Trip arrived. I had the trusty white bag over my shoulder for bribery at the front of the herd and Lisette is “sheep dog” at the back in the red jacket.
20th of February – Paddock swap day! Pip, Camembert, Fern, and Florence went back in the hill, and were replaced with (from left to right) Kipling and her calf Tub, Feta and Hopscotch. They’ll spend the next 7 days in the Paddocks before heading back up the hill after the holidays are over.
21st of February – my favourite part of a Hill Trip – watching our visitors peacefully mingling with the herd after the hectic hand feeding session if over!
21st of February – a close up of Fly’s head. She cast her antlers earlier in the winter and has already developed velvety pads. Spring is coming!
21st of February – Suidhe just checking in with her calf Solero.
22nd of February – snow again! Rocket and his mum Gloriana.
22nd of February – Morven on the left with her two daughters Pinto and calf Mochi!

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.

Ruth

The curious case of Lolly and the blue jacket

At the end of each summer, we bring the cows and calves, who have spent all summer free-ranging in the mountains, back to the enclosure. For most of the reindeer this involves spotting a small herd of reindeer somewhere relatively near the enclosure and using a bit of bribery to lure them into the enclosure. That means the calves, who aren’t used to people, will just follow their mums through the gate and we can then spend the next couple of months training them and getting them used to us.

Zap was one of the first calves to come into the enclosure, ten days later he was very relaxed around people!

Every year though, there are a couple of cows and calves who like to keep us on our toes and wander to the wrong side of the hills which means we have to drive around in our wee truck, find and catch the reindeer, and then drive them back again. This just leaves the one small task of catching the calf, who has never worn a halter and has spent all summer avoiding people. Usually the easiest way is to catch their mum, then spend a little time walking with the mum on a halter and getting the calf used to your presence. Once they are settled and are coming back close to their mum then you can use their mum as a shield to hide your body as you get close enough to the calf to catch them. Once you have caught them, the second herder will very speedily put a halter on and lead them down off the hill.

Hen and Andi midway through a calf catching mission.

At the end of September last year there were still a couple of reindeer who hadn’t come in yet after free-ranging for the summer. September always ends up being a very busy month but on one, very rainy, day we found ourselves with enough staff on for two of us to head out searching for the last few reindeer. So, Ruth and I rummaged around for the most waterproof of all our jackets before heading off. The jackets that we decided on were both Rohan jackets given to us after Fiona was featured in their magazine, Ruth’s jacket was navy blue and mine was bright turquoise. The colour of our jackets might seem trivial but it is relevant to the story.

If you look very closely you can just spot Lotti camouflaged against Fiona’s van…

We set off walking and fairly quickly spotted three reindeer, two cows and a calf. During our walk up the rain had stopped, and I had taken my jacket off. Once we got closer we realised it was Wapiti, Oatcake and Oatcake’s calf who had recently been named Lolly. We caught both the cows fairly quickly and Lolly seemed unusually tame, she was very happy to be close by to us at which point I thought we were going to have a very easy job!

Lolly following closely behind Ruth, Oatcake and Wapiti.
Oatcake and Lolly – now just to catch Lolly!

We walked down the hill and into the trees and at this point it had started to rain again so I put my raincoat on again and we tied Wapiti onto one of the trees to give us an extra set of hands for catching. At which point Lolly ran at high speed up the hill away from us. This isn’t that unusual for a calf who has spent all summer avoiding people so we waited for her to settle and come back to her mum, but she didn’t…. We waited a while and then decided that she clearly had become nervous after we stopped so we would keep walking and hopefully she would come back over. So, we continued walking with Oatcake and Wapiti but Lolly wouldn’t come anywhere near us. I was getting more and more worried that we wouldn’t be able to catch her and our mission wouldn’t be successful at which point I realised that the moment she ran off was when we stopped which was also when I had put the blue jacket on.

It sounded totally ridiculous that a reindeer might be scared of a jacket but I thought it was worth a try, so I took off the jacket, at which point she came charging back down to us. I am very glad Ruth was there too otherwise the story would have seemed quite improbable!! From that moment on, she was a total star and we managed to catch her and walk her off the hill. It rained the entire way back I think but I had to walk back in my t-shirt as we didn’t want to upset Lolly again!

Mission accomplished – Lolly on a halter and walking back to our truck!
Within minuets Lolly is halter trained and walking beautifully next to her mum.

I spent the walk down the hill wondering if the fact that reindeer can see in the UV spectrum (for more information on this read Ruth’s blog here) meant that the blue part of the colour spectrum was accentuated so the jacket looked extra bright. More likely as none of the objects that Lolly had seen on the plateau all summer were blue seeing a walking bright blue jacket was a bit of a surprise. One thing is for sure, that jacket will be used for dog walking and not reindeer herding in the future.

Lolly and Oatcake back in the enclosure a couple of days later.
Lolly in the enclosure getting much braver!
Lolly at a local Christmas event at Landmark, Carrbridge – so used to handling and people she’s totally unfazed about the huge T-rex looming over the display pen!
Lolly back out free ranging in the hills for winter after all her Christmas duties and training are complete!
Lolly and Oatcake free ranging.

Lotti

A Christmas Interrogation (part 1)

Whilst we’re all still recovering from another busy Christmas season, I took it upon myself to accost some of my colleagues with some Christmas themed questions: There’s a limit to how fast I can type, so I didn’t manage to get down everything – some of the answers were very long, with lots of umming and ahhing! But you’ll get the gist. My chosen interviewees were Tilly (herd owner), her daughter Fiona (manager), and long-term employees Andi, Lotti, Ruth and Joe.

First up – FAVOURITE REINDEER TO WORK WITH AT CHRISTMAS(PAST OR PRESENT): I thought I was starting with an easy question, but apparently not, as lots of people had to come back to it later on once they’d had a think.

Andi’s response came after a short pause ‘At Christmas?… Nutkins. He wasn’t easy and you had to think carefully about which reindeer you paired him with, and which events would suit him, but he was such a fun reindeer.’ I’d like to add in here that Nutkins was, a lot of the time, a nutcase. A lovely reindeer, but undeniably a nutcase. He was one of those unpredictable characters – you never knew whether he was going to behave like a kid on a sugar high, or be utterly chilled. He played Russian roulette with us at every event.

Nutkins (left) contemplating whether to behave or not. Laptev looking resigned to be harnessed up next to one of life’s plonkers. Andi has a noticeably tighter grip on Nutkins’ rope. Just in case…

No pause for thought for Tilly though, her answer was quick! ‘Mystery, who was so loyal that he didn’t even need to be led, he just wandered along at the back at his own pace’.

Mystery, back in 2001

Scolty’s, somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), name came up several times, amongst other deliberations. Lotti: ‘Scolty. He’s very good at both the back and the front of the sleigh, and is an excellent role model for the calves’. Fiona: Scolty. Because he’s not too tame and he’s not too wild! He’s a thinker… like Dragonfly. Or maybe Dragonfly?’. Joe: ‘Probably Olympic. Or Baffin was good. Or Scolty. Well technically Kipling would be in there too, even though she’s a female. She has done some events as an adult though!’

Scolty. The ultimate ‘Christmas reindeer’?

Ruth’s answer, when caught off guard, appeared to not be what she thought she would say… ‘The first reindeer to pop into my head, which was a surprise to me, was Poirot! He was just phenomenal this Christmas, and didn’t put a hoof wrong.’ And for myself, the answer would be Topi I think. He was a total professional at events and parades, bombproof, and would always fall asleep on our shoulders when waiting for the off at the start of a parade. I’m sad he’s no longer with us, he was one of the special ones.

Lots of us have photos of Topi like this, but this one of him asleep on Fiona’s shoulder at an event is ultimately the best I think!

FAVOURITE EVENT? For those of us that have been around for years, this is a hard question as we’ve literally been to hundreds. Tilly has over 30 years of events under her belt! Some stand out whilst others – it must be said – all merge into one another after a while. On that note… Lotti: ‘I can’t remember which I’ve done! It’s all a blur!’

Andi: ‘Cowbridge in Wales [Editor’s note: we only go as far south as Manchester area these days, but Cowbridge (in South Wales) was a long-running event before that change]. An enormous but brilliantly organised event with all the police dressed as elves really took the biscuit!’ I also liked some of the biggest events like Cowbridge the best, where we were just a small cog in a large wheel. One of my other favourites was Wells [again, not one we do these days], where we followed a choir singing carols, which is far more festive than loud Christmas music blaring out. I also like Banff, as we usually got a full Christmas dinner at the end before leaving.

Cowbridge parade, complete with 6′ elves.

For Joe, it’s the smaller events nearer the day itself: ‘I really like the Christmas Eve events [Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore]. Everyone is festive and happy, in good spirits!’.

Fiona and Tilly had – completely independently – identical answers. ‘The  Duke of Gordon Hotel – it’s the last one.’  Predictable – by the end of the season they are knackered and ready to put away the harness till the following year! Tilly did add ‘Yee haa, back home for yummy dinner and lots of alcohol afterwards’ too! And as for Ruth’s favourite event? Got a least favourite one… that count?’. I’ll not elaborate.

Fiona and Tilly on Christmas Day, a good few years back. The end of tour for the season firmly in sight! The reindeer are Veikka, Kermit, Bee, Eco and Go.

FAVOURITE CALF BORN IN 2022? This was met with squeals of horror at the prospect of having to choose! I refused to let anyone cop out with ‘all of them’ though. Nuii was a front-runner, ‘The cutest, pint-sized perfection of a calf!’ (Andi) and Lotti had a particular reason for choosing her: ‘Since I thought she was still-born at first, but then she was fine. But oh goodness! SO difficult! They are all very lovely!’

Lovely Nuii!

Ruth was horrified at such a question. ‘Oh Hen, this is mean! [loooong silence] I’ll go with Lolly, since Lotti and I were the ones to bring her in from the free-range… although… Zoom’. Another vote for Zoom came from Tilly ‘A great wee success story and the best friend of Sunny’. Sunny is the calf we hand-reared in 2022, and living at Reindeer House, Fiona was responsible for him a fair bit of the time. I had no need to ask her who her favourite calf was (but I did anyway). ‘Ummm… Wafer. Only joking!’. Another predictable answer came from Joe: ‘Tub. Did you guess that?!’ (Tub’s mum is Joe’s favourite reindeer, Kipling).

This proved a hard question for myself though. As I’ve managed to effectively retire from attending Christmas events these days, instead remaining at Reindeer House, it means I didn’t work quite as closely with some of the calves as others did. It was Choc-ice to start with, as I was so delighted that Cheer had actually had a calf and that he was tame in comparison to her (Cheer is a very shy reindeer) – but he’s turned into a real brute and his little pointy antlers have been responsible for bruises on my backside over the last few months, so I’ve gone off him…

More to follow in a future blog!

Hen

Ben and Lotti’s old phrases challenge

Since Lotti and I have been working at the Reindeer Centre there has been two and a half pages of old English phrases hanging up in the office. It seems to have been there since time immemorial and no one is quite sure how or why it’s up there. We saw this as an opportunity!! Could we enhance our ‘olde’ vocabulary? Well, we were keen to give it a go…we challenged each other to fit in a single word from the list below on each Hill Trip that we did together. Here are some of the words, their definition (followed by their origin), followed by how Lotti and I used them in our tour.

Callipygian – having beautifully shaped buttocks (1640’s).

“Ben and I know all the males in here by name, so we can tell you their name if you have a favourite. Some of the Bulls are so big by now that we can almost identify them by their callipygian bottoms”

Groaking – to silently watch someone whilst they are eating, in the hopes of being invited to join them (unknown origin).

“You might see the Reindeer groaking each other when we put the line of feed on the ground”

Editor’s Note – Groaking is probably the only word in this list that has become part of normal, everyday speech over the years at Reindeer House. Mainly because Hen is regularly accused of it.

Sluberdegullion – a slovenly, slobbering person (1650’s).

“A lot of reindeer adaptations are centred around energy conservation. As you’ve seen, they like to walk on the boardwalk with you and this is all part of the energy conservation instinct: it’s easier than walking along uneven grassland. And here is a good example, none like to conserve energy more than our very own sluberdegullion, Svalbard.”

Svalbard leading his buddies Druid, Jonas and Stuc across the moorland, through deep vegetation and over rough, uneven ground. Energy-sapping and hard going… oh wait, the sluberdegullions are all walking on a boardwalk!

 

Curmering – a low rumbling sound produced by the bowels (1880’s).

“Reindeer tend not to make too much noise. However, they do make a noise when moving. In fact, listen out for a noise whilst we walk through the enclosure alongside them, and Lotti will tell you more about that sound soon. I’ll give you a clue, it’s not a curmering.”

Snoutfair – a good-looking person (1500s).

“We run an adoption scheme so you can actually adopt the handsome Dr. Seuss or the fiery Scully here. Alternatively, you could try to adopt Ben here if you think he’s looking particularly snoutfair”

Scully – what a snoutfair!

Resistentialism – the seemingly malevolent behaviour displayed by inanimate objects (1940s).

“You might wonder what’s in these green bags at mine and Lotti’s feet. It’s essentially reindeer bribery! Reindeer love their food which is fortunate for us as reindeer herders. The reindeer certainly don’t think the bags have any resistentialism.”

Jargogles – to confuse, bamboozle (1690’s).

“It absolutely jargogles me how quickly the antlers grow on some of our big boys”

Look how quickly your antlers have grown, Domino! Jargogling.

Quockerwodger – a wooden puppet, controlled by strings (1850’s).

“We don’t want to treat you as if you were quouckerwodgers, so you can leave when you want, just give Lotti or me a wave and be sure to shut the gates.”

Lunt – walking whilst smoking a pipe (1820’s).

“We will feed the reindeer soon, after which they’re likely to graze the grass or lounge about. Perhaps they’ll even siesta. I’m sure if they were human, they’d love to have a post-work lunt.”

Twattle – to gossip, or talk idly (1600’s).

“So, without further ado, we will head into the enclosure to meet the reindeer. We will gather around one last time when we’re in there to listen to some interesting ways that reindeer have adapted to their environment. Then you’ll have as much time as you’d like to be with the reindeer. So that we remain as one big group, if we could avoid any dawdling or twattling until we’ve gathered around one final time, then that would be great.”

Hugger mugger – to act in a secretive manner (1530’s).

“Cars that are this high up don’t expect to see a big handsome group like us crossing the road, so don’t act all hugger mugger about it, be sure to pick your right moment to cross”.

Cockalorum – a little man with a high opinion of himself (1710’s).

“All of our reindeer do have a name. They are actually named after a different theme every year. This reindeer here is called Bond. He’s a got a history of being a bit of a cockalorum, although he has been behaving better so far this year”

Bond – one of life’s cockalorums.

Crapulous – to feel ill because of excessive eating/drinking (1530’s).

“We’re on the last Hill Trip of the day so the Reindeer here are getting quite a lot of food this afternoon, but they’ll make light work of that. Hopefully they don’t feel too crapulous afterwards. But they are ruminants, so they often have a bit of grass or sedge for dessert once the mix has finished.”

Lethophobia – the fear of oblivion (1700’s).

“The reindeer here live in some of the harshest environment that the U.K. offers. In winter, the temperatures can reach as low as -20 degrees Celsius and the wind speed can exceed 100mph. However, this doesn’t trouble the reindeer too much, it hasn’t led to them developing any lethophobia. They are hardy animals who love the cold.”

Elflocks – tangled hair as if matted by elves (1590’s).

“The reindeer’s coats help keep them warm in the winter – reindeer have been known to survive down to very low temperatures when they have to. They do this by having thousands of hairs per square inch, all of which are hollow, making them great at trapping a base layer of heat next to their skin. As you can see the hair is currently lovely and sleek; it stays like this throughout winter and sheds in the summer. If you saw them in July it would look like they’ve got Elflocks.”

Fine elflocks…

Curglaff – the shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water (Scots, 1800’s).

“Reindeer aren’t particularly tactile and some of them here today can be quite shy at times, so don’t be surprised if a reindeer looks curglaffed if you approached too far into their personal space.”

The A-team of guides, should you want an education on words from hundreds of years ago!

Ben and Lotti

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