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

My top 5 calving memories!

This year was the very first time I had work during calving season, as until now, calving season had always been exactly the same time as exam season. I can very easily say that calving season this year was the happiest month of my life so far, so it has been very difficult to think of just 5 highlights. But here we go, these are my five favourite memories from calving season this year.

Finding the first calf of the year

On Saturday the 25th of April, me and Fiona headed off around the enclosure to look for Galilee who was the first reindeer who had headed away from the herd to calve. It was much earlier in the year than the previous year, so I didn’t get my hopes up too much in case she was just ill or being a loner – Galilee can definitely be known to wander from the group. As me and Fi rounded the top of Silver Mount we caught a glimpse of Galilee, licking the ground. Fiona told me that this was a sure sign of her having calved, and as we got closer I could see the tiny calf on the ground. A new-born calf is barely recognisable compared to the calves I had seen previously in the summer and I can honestly say that Galilee’s calf is the most perfect thing I have ever seen. Galilee let us catch the calf and Fi show me how to treat the calf with an insecticide and some antibiotic spray on her navel. Galilee was very good but she clearly want us to leave her to bond with her calf uninterrupted. So we then fed Galilee and left them too it. The weather was even warm enough to cool off (and calm down from the excitement) with a quick dip in our own ‘private’ loch in the reindeer enclosure.

A quick dip in Black Loch!

Watching Brie calving

My second favourite calving memory has got to be watching Brie calve. One morning Brie was missing from the herd, from spying through binoculars we  saw her but couldn’t tell if she had calved yet or not so I headed out to go and check. Once I got closer I realised that she had legs actually coming out of her back end – she was midway through calving. I sat down a little way away from her and watched the whole thing through binoculars. I watched the calf take his very first, incredibly wobbly steps and have his first milk.

First time up on his feet!

Finding Gloriana’s calf

Another favourite calving moment for me was finding Gloriana’s calf. Gloriana is an 8-year-old female who had previously never had a calf. I really fell in love with her during the 2015 rut. She was amongst a group of reindeer on Silver Mount however she was a bit of a loner from the group and used to sometimes follow me away from the herd once I had finished feeding them. Having never had a calf, we thought that she was infertile so imagine my delight when she started to develop an udder, the first sure sign that a reindeer is almost ready to calve. On one very wet and rainy day, Gloriana was missing from the herd. Andi and I headed out around the enclosure and found her on Silver Mount with a beautiful big male calf. Gloriana was a wee bit nervous but let us treat the calf with no problems. The next day however when we tried to bring Gloriana and her calf to a closer section of the enclosure, I couldn’t get anywhere near her. I think having a calf for the first time at 8 years old made her a bit of an overbearing mum, so it took us a couple of days to get near her again. She did eventually settle down and both her and her calf became more and more confident during the time they were in the enclosure.

Gloriana’s calf with the white nose, with his cousin, Fly’s calf.

Hanging out with an experienced mum

Okay so this calving favourite is not just one moment. A couple of times during calving I got to go out and find a cow and calf from a very tame and experienced mum. Usually once we find the calf we will catch it and treat it and then leave the cow and calf as soon as possible to make sure that we don’t upset the mum. However, some of the cows have had so many calves and are so used to people that they are perfectly happy to lie down with you and their new-born calf. The new-born calves are incredibly inquisitive and totally unafraid of humans. It is a really wonderful experience just hanging out with the new-born calves and their very relaxed mums.

A wee chin rub for Ryvita’s calf (not a strangling!!!)

Ibex and calf!

Kipling and calf with Joe

Sending the calves onto the free-range for the summer.

My final favourite calving memory was letting the calves onto the free-range for the summer. We walked out of the enclosure with some of the cows on halters and the rest following towards the hills. Having spent every day of the last 6 weeks or so with the cows and then the calves, letting them go onto the free-range for the summer where we would likely see them every couple of weeks at the most was both sad and wonderful. Definitely sad to not be seeing them every day but also very wonderful to know that they would spend the next few months of their lives in the very best place for them, the mountains.

 

Leading the herd out of the enclosure

Off they go…

Lotti, Joe, Fiona and a socially distanced Andi after a busy morning!

Lotti

Lockdown for those who are still herding reindeer!

We are now into week 5 of lockdown and life for the reindeer herder who is still working has taken a dramatic change in some ways and yet it all feels completely normal in others. Myself (Fiona), Andi and Lotti are still employed while all the other staff here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre are on furlough leave… a term I’m sure everyone is familiar with now. Hen is tending to her ever growing garden, which in this weather is the best place to be; and Dave has got plenty of work on his croft to keep him amused, especially now his sheep are    lambing! The other herders have got plenty to keep them busy, though I suspect are missing their ‘reindeer’ time, especially as we go into a crucial time of year… the calving season. Unfortunately they cannot be involved with calving this year but we will be sure to keep them updated with all the new arrivals.

Bringing the cows into the hill enclosure ready for calving

Where the reindeer management has remained the same over the past month (luckily coronavirus doesn’t affect the reindeer themselves), being closed means our work is chopping and changing between a lot of hill time, feeding the herd and a lot of office time. We have had lots of new adoptions come in, as well as donations. Folks who used to adopt reindeer but maybe it has lapsed over the years have renewed as a way of supporting us while we are closed. We are so very grateful to you all so a massive THANK YOU. We will keep our social media well updated so where we can’t have the Centre open and taking all you lovely people on the hill to visit the reindeer, hopefully we can keep you in the loop with the goings on in other ways.

Kipling WILL get to the bag of feed, one way or another!

The past week in particular has been pretty hectic so it was all hands on deck! There was a group of six female reindeer who had decided they wanted to venture away for calving into the depths of the mountains so we headed out to bring them home. With four of them haltered up the other two followed nicely and we brought them back to our mountain enclosure. The next day the rest of the herd were brought in too and Lotti and I did the big split of who is pregnant and who isn’t. The ones pregnant have been kept back to calve in our mountain enclosure and the ones who aren’t will head back onto the free-range. That isn’t the last we will see of them though, as we will hopefully still catch up with them daily. The ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrate males) and bulls who have spent the winter either here on Cairngorm or on the Cromdale hills are now all back at our hill farm on the Glenlivet Estate. Although we aren’t doing guided public trips onto the hill daily the management of the herd will remain the same so we may well get a few of the male reindeer back over here to Cairngorm once calving is over.

Fetching the remaining group of male reindeer down off the Cairngorm free-range.

One thing we have been publicising a lot is our Wild Farm meat which is our sister company based at our hill farm at Glenlivet with our other animals (NOT reindeer!). Reindeer herder Nicky has been fantastic in drumming up local business from her friends and neighbours, so meat sales have gone through the roof. Got to make the most of what business we can still do. I’m having to get involved with setting up adoption packs again. My role in the company over the past few years means I haven’t been so involved with this, but luckily I haven’t forgotten what to do! When Lotti and Andi need a hand to get a load done I swoop in to help out. As long as they don’t expect me to do this when everything is back to normal (wink wink!).

Such glorious April weather!

All in all we are getting quite used to the not-so-normal life of a reindeer herder and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rather enjoying it… Our local area of Glenmore is quiet so we have the surrounding hills and Loch Morlich beach to ourselves. With four of us living here at the Centre – Lotti, Olly, Joe and I along with the two dogs Sookie and Tiree we get out running, swimming, cycling, early mornings to watch wildlife at its best, watching movies and TV dramas and lots of lovely cooking. We have even had a pub crawl. This involved each of us turning our bedrooms into a pub… Maybe that is another blog for another time, watch this space! The one enjoying lockdown the most is my dog Tiree. For those of you who know her she isn’t the most sociable dog to strangers, however if she knows you, she loves you. So when going out on walks and pottering around the house with no strangers coming to visit, she is in her absolute element. She is currently fast asleep below my feet in the office after her 7 mile run with Joe at 6am this morning and the morning feed up the hill with us… It’s a dog’s life for sure!

Fiona

When the cats are away…

For those of you who have been up on our hill trips you will know that we carry hessian sacks of reindeer food up with us each day. We do this partially to ensure we don’t over graze our hill enclosure and partially as a bribe so we know the reindeer will show up on our visits (it wouldn’t be quite the same without them). Over the past few weeks I have noticed less and less reindeer food in my sack and more and more down the back of my t shirt. After repeatedly tying up holes in the bag we decided to get to the route of the problem! Mice!

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The bottom of our food holding bin, with the mices’ snacks.

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The two thieves!

We found these two lovely mice in the bottom of the bins where we keep the food in the hill enclosure. They must have been living in absolute heaven, more food than they could eat in a life time. Unless I wanted my job title to change from reindeer herder to full time sack darner we needed to get those mice out. At this point Olly gave me a choice, either we could catch the Mice and move them far enough away that they wouldn’t find their way home or we could more permanently remove them from the bin (in the quickest, kindest and most humane way possible). Have spent my whole life a vegetarian I of course opted for the first option.

At the end of our hill trip Julia and I (assisted by Chris and Geri) attempted to catch the mice. After first making sure to punch breathing holes in the top of a shortbread tin we attempted to get both mice inside. This was more difficult than anticipated but eventually we succeeded.

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Our first-class mice transporter.

We thought that if we put a fair bit of mountain and a river in between the mice and the feed bin they would be unlikely to return so we decided to drive them to the Ciste car park (slightly further up the ski road than our hill enclosure).

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The two mice, at the end of the trip, before their release into the big bad world.

Upon opening the tin we found they were both alive and well. They stayed in the tin for just long enough for us to take a photo before scampering off through the undergrowth. I think that will be the last time we see those mice but secretly I hope it’s not, they were so sweet!

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Bye for now!

Lotti

How does a reindeer see the world?

We always encourage questions on our Hill Trips; some are simple to answer whilst others get us thinking more and this particular question even inspired me to write a blog!

“Are reindeer colour blind?”

The simple answer is… no. Reindeer, like other species of deer, are not colour blind, although they do see the world in a different way to us humans.

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How does Baffin see the world?

If you take a look at the visible spectrum below, reindeer can only see the colours at one end of it. They only see the short (blue) and middle (green) wavelength colours. This means they can distinguish blue from red, but not green from red, or orange from red. Therefore, their vision is thought to be similar to a human with red-green colour blindness.

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The visible spectrum – the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Image taken from Wikimedia.

So, when us Reindeer Herders go out for a Hill Trip wearing our bright red waterproof jackets, the reindeer would think we were camouflaged with the green hillside behind us. And there was I thinking we stand out!

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Lotti the Reindeer Herder taking a rest! To a reindeer our red jackets would not be distinguishable from the green grass.

To get a little bit more scientific this is because humans have three different kinds of cone cells in the retina which can detect the entire visible light spectrum. However, deer only have two sets of cones meaning that they cannot distinguish the longer wavelengths.

However, as I discovered this is not the end of the story of how a reindeer sees the world…. fascinatingly, they are one of only a tiny number of mammals which can also see ultraviolet!

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On the electromagnetic spectrum, ultraviolet fits in right between visible light and X-rays. Image from NOAA.

Humans can’t see UV light but it is in sunlight so we are exposed to it every day; suntans (or in my case freckling and sunburn!) are familiar effects of our exposure to it!

So this led me to ponder the question “why have reindeer evolved to have UV vision?”

Researchers think that reindeer have adapted to see in UV as they live in a very UV-rich world. It’s thought that snow reflects around 90% of the UV light that hits it, compared to snow-free land which usually only reflects a few per cent.

Therefore, reindeer have adapted to their white world and have taken full advantage of it! Their special ability to see in UV allows them to spot things that other mammals would miss and helps them to find food and stay safe.

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A reindeer in a white, UV-rich world.

In the frozen white Arctic where the vast majority of the landscape would reflect the UV light, there are a few things which would absorb it. Predators, such as wolves, who to us would appear camouflaged actually stand out to a reindeer as their fur (and also their urine – a sign of a potential predator!) absorbs the UV light making them appear dark grey/black against the white, snowy background. Clever!

Similarly lichen, a major food source for reindeer in the winter months, also absorbs UV light. So if there was a tuft of lichen sticking up above the snow it would also appears very dark allowing the reindeer to see it clearly, in stark contrast to the UV-reflecting snow.

Therefore, they can avoid animals which might want to eat them and instead find lots of delicious lichen to devour for themselves!

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Winter coats, huge feet and the ability to see in UV… perfectly adapted animals for their snowy, cold world.

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A close up of Bovril’s beautiful eyes… Just because!

We’re always getting lots of interesting questions and I look forward to the next one which gets me hitting the books… and maybe even writing another blog!

Ruth

 

Life on Tour

‘Christmas’ for us reindeer herders, doesn’t just mean Dec 25th, but rather the entire period of November and December. After 7-8 weeks of (organised) chaos, hectic days and usually less than desirable weather, Christmas Day itself always seems a rather incidental event at the end of it all! While tour is frequently great fun, it is also extremely tiring and by the end we’re all ready to heave a huge sigh of relief and pack away everything for another 10 months. Come January, should one more person jokingly ask a herder which one Rudolph is, then so help them God…

Topi has a quick nap on my shoulder whilst waiting for the parade to start
Topi has a quick nap on my shoulder whilst waiting for the parade to start

While up to eight teams of reindeer are away on the weekends in November and December, the weekdays are quieter, and most teams return home. We have around 45 big male castrate reindeer who are trained to harness, four of which will travel to each event along with two 6 to 7 month old calves, making teams of six. So even on the busiest weekends there are still reindeer at home taking their turn to ‘hold the fort’, and no single reindeer will go out to events week upon week. Many teams go out only for a night or two at the weekend, returning home straight away afterwards, while a few head away for longer but 2.5 weeks at a time is always the longest stint we ever do with the same six reindeer.

Spider looking incredibly relaxed at an event

Obviously, being based in the Cairngorms means that most trips away on tour for a ‘long stint’ start with the long haul down the A9 and onward, so a network of ‘bases’ across the UK to keep our travelling time down is a necessity. Our two main big bases are in the Lake District and South Wales, but we also have three in the central and southern Scotland, plus another five or so in England. Most are farms, so the reindeer are housed in a large, airy barn or undercover yard while we herders have accommodation on site too, usually in the form of a self-catering cottage. This then enables us to travel much shorter distances to our events, and (like us!) reindeer require days off while on tour, so the bases provide safe and secure locations for them then.

Origami, Duke, Hamish, Tanner, Aonach and Fyrish chilling out at our Welsh base
Origami, Duke, Hamish, Tanner, Aonach and Fyrish chilling out at our Welsh base

We’ve been visiting some of our bases for years now, so our hosts are well used to their unusual winter guests!
We’ve been visiting some of our bases for years now, so our hosts are well used to their unusual winter guests!

Grass is far too rich for a reindeer’s diet, so while we let them get some grazing each day while exercising them, we don’t leave them on grass for too long at any one time. Our usual routine is to get up and to take the reindeer out for a stretch of the legs first thing. At some bases this involves a run on halters, but at most we can let them loose in a field and they will hurtle around ‘dancing’ (reindeer don’t buck like excited horses, but will leap in the air, spin around and bounce about!). Then it’s back to the barn for their breakfast, while we poo-pick, refill water bowls and sort the lorry ready for the next event. Then it’s breakfast time for us!

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Hamish, Origami, Aonach, Duke and Fyrish (plus Tanner) burst out from the barn, down the field…

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… and away up the next one!

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It’s always reassuring when they come back! We pop their head collars on whilst out exercising in case anyone decides to adventure a little too far, but for the rest of the time at base we take them off.

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After a few minutes thundering around letting off steam, they like to settle down to graze and potter.

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Stalking whichever one of us has the bucket of lichen is their favourite pastime

Aside from looking after the reindeer, base days can go one of two ways, depending on your team partner is. Should it be Mel or Sally (among others) then it might become what has become known as ‘boot-camp’ – an energetic day of walking or cycling. For the lazier or less fit amongst us (primarily pointing the finger at myself here), a day of pottering around local towns, drinking coffee and sight-seeing seems more appealing! We do however, have to help out Reindeer House on occasion, who will sometimes send us lists of letters to write to go into adoption packs – Christmas is a hectic time for those left behind at base.

AdoptLetters
Lotti, Hen and Abby on letter writing duty!

And then there are the events. They range from shopping centres to light switch-ons, town centre parades to private functions, and are a way of raising the money needed for the reindeer to continue their free-ranging lifestyle on the Cairngorms. Reindeer are a herd animal, hence why we never take less than four out together (usually six), and as they all go out to events as calves then they are very relaxed when we take them out and about again as full-grown adults, as they’ve seen it all before. They are great fun on tour and we always return home with endless stories from each event: how each reindeer behaved when pulling the sleigh, who fell asleep into their feed bowl, who kept trying to eat the tinsel on the sleigh, and who tried to eat nick a box of Celebrations from the Queen’s head groom at Windsor (stand up and take a bow, Fergus…).

FergusWindsor
Fergus… never a dull moment…

Hen

Snow!

To any southerner just an inch of snow means great excitement, school closed for a week and the front page story on every newspaper! Having spent the first 18 years of my life living in Bristol, where the yearly day of snow is celebrated (before everything grinds to a halt) you can imagine my excitement to wake up to snow one morning in early November!

Morning commute
The morning commute

Seeing as my room (fondly known as the Cave) in Reindeer House has no external windows, it was not till I opened the curtains in the kitchen, I saw the snow covered wonderland that was Glenmore. I proceeded to eat my porridge in the garden and then spend the last ten minutes before work throwing snowballs for the dogs, before realising I had no gloves on and could no longer feel my hands.

Caddis
Caddis looking beautiful on the snow covered mountain side!

Initially my excitement was laughed at as the dusting that we woke up to barely counts as snow if you’re Scottish. By mid-morning however I was told by Fiona that we now had ‘real snow’ which looked a lot like a blizzard to me!

Arrochar
Arrochar looking a wee bit shocked by the whole thing (I think that may just be her resting face)

I was away on Christmas events the first three weekends that it snowed here, but I just about managed to fit in a few rounds of torch-lit sledging before work (dogs in tow of course) and a snow angel or two. This weekend was the first weekend to be at home for the snow (enough for the snow plough to be out) and I took up a lovely snowy visit.

Feeding the herd
Feeding the herd on a lovely snowy morning

The reindeer are absolutely in their element at this time of year; they couldn’t be happier in the snow. If you’re coming up to visit us make sure you’re well wrapped up (as many layers are you can wear and still move and a full set of waterproofs) so you can feed the reindeer in the snow and love it as much as I do!

Brimick, Spy and Cioch
Brimick looking incredibly cute, Spy posing for the camera and Cioch pulling a silly face

Lotti

A Reindeer Wedding

Wedding
Greg and Karen (the happy couple) with Svalbard (left) and Duke (right).

A few weekends ago a selection of our beautiful reindeer were invited to a wedding, with a special request for the lovely Fergus (the wee calf we are currently hand rearing). Along with Fergus we took four of our Christmas reindeer; Moose (an old hand at pulling the sleigh and wearing bells and harness), Svalbard (a rather small and stocky but very handsome reindeer aptly named after the reindeer from the island of Svalbard who are much smaller than their Scottish cousins), Monty and Duke (two of our three year olds who have recently become Christmas reindeer this year and will be trained to pull the sleigh and go out on tour with Father Christmas this winter, both are very handsome reindeer with lovely big antlers).

Wedding
Svalbard, Fiona, Moose, Fergus, Duke, Lotti and Monty eagerly waiting in their bells and harness for the music to finish and the wedding party to arrive.

First we took the boys out of the Brenda (our fondly named livestock lorry) and gave them a good bit of lichen. This bribe allowed us to slip the harness and bells onto the boys, who barely batted an eye lid. Having worn harness for many years Moose was the perfect role model for Svalbard who has only done one Christmas season and Duke and Monty who have never worn bells before but behaved themselves fantastically. Fergus has always followed us like a little lamb and jumped in the back of our van, so I think his nose was a put a bit out of joint when he had to wear a halter and travel in the reindeer lorry with the other reindeer (instead of in with the herders and dogs).

Wedding
Duke, Svalbard, Fergus, Moose and Monty with Greg, Karen and their friends and family.

Once the ceremony was finished the wedding party and guests came out to meet the reindeer, all of them posed fantastically for photos and Fergus charmed everybody with his cheeky personality.

Wedding
Svalbard (left) and Duke (right) posing with ex reindeer herder Zac and his partner Emily.

Wedding
The blushing bride leading Duke for a walk in the woods, with both Greg and Svalbard checking the path behind for any oncoming dogs (other than Fergus the reindeer are not keen on dogs).

 

Wedding
The boys showing off their slightly less photogenic end!

All in all a fantastic afternoon was had by everybody. The boys behaved themselves wonderfully and had a little practice for the madness that is Christmas. I think after a bit of sleigh training for Duke and Monty, they will all be ready in time to pull Santa’s sleigh all over the country. The real question is will we be?

Lotti

Calf Training 101

October is a fun time of year as it’s when we train this year’s calves as well as harness training our young Christmas reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh. Halter training and handling the calves makes them much tamer and easier to handle for the rest of their lives so even if they don’t end up pulling Santa’s sleigh at least we can catch them if we ever need to when they are out in the hills…well, most of the time anyway, some are always wild…it’s in the genetics!

Luckily reindeer are very food orientated, aren’t we all! So stage one is to get their heads in a bucket full of tasty lichen, chocolate for reindeer!

Calf training
Lotti luring the calf into the bucket of delights!

Once the head is ‘inserted’ a sneaky manoeuvre gets the halter on with them barely noticing what’s happened!

Calf training
Mel putting on the calf’s halter while Lotti holds the bucket

Once the wee ones are caught we get ourselves a couple of steady old boys to come alongside and ‘teach’ the calves…this day it was Puddock and Parfa’s turn to be the companions. We have found that they are better behaved without their mums, like some children! So mum’s go back up the hill once they have accompanied the calves down to the ‘training centre’ and the big boys take over.

Calf training
All haltered up, we are ready for a wee walk around Glenmore to see the new sights and sounds…….

Calf training
To try and make the walks a ‘fun’ thing we go off into the woods in search of yummy snacks!

Calf training
Enjoying some freshly picked tree lichen from Lotti.

Calf training
The boys enjoy the smorgasbord walks just as much as the calves! Puddock nibbling lichen from the trees.

Calf training
Fresh birch leaves are another favourite, Grunter snacking on leaves while Lotti feeds the wee calf, Ochil.

Calf training
Moose ready to grab a big mouthful of leaves, it’s interesting to watch the technique. They grab the twig some way toward to base and then pull it throw their teeth and hard pad to strip off all the leaves but leave the twig and tip intact so they don’t actually damage it, clever!

Calf training
The training/buffet walk finishes with a wee graze of the grass.

Lastly with heads snuggly back in buckets of lichen, halters are carefully removed! After 2 or 3 outings like this they will be pretty much halter trained. The key to winning them round is lots of tasty snacks and pockets full of lichen as you will have seen and a couple of old boys who can be a good influence!

Mel

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