We lost one of our old girls a few weeks back, Fonn. She was a really sweet character in the herd and got to the grand age of 17, only one month off her 18th birthday. Considering anything over 10 years old is doing well this meant she did really well! Although the last few years she was starting to look her age she continued to stay in good condition, giving us no cause for concern. This was helped by us letting her get her head in the bag of feed of course!
As a youngster she had her fair share of calves of which her son Rubiks and daughter Merida are still going strong. Her oldest daughter Joni we lost in 2020 to old age, however Joni also had a few calves over the years so it’s a good sized family. She has 5 grandchildren currently in the herd – Bourbon, Jenga, Jute, Dr Seuss and Ärta. She also has one great grandson, Jelly. I wont get into cousins and second cousins cos I’ll be here all day.
In the past 7 years Fonn hasn’t had a calf and as a result lived to a grand age. She was always super reliable when bringing the herd in for feeding time and if we ever needed to catch a reindeer out to walk on a halter as a lure for the others to follow then Fonn was a good one to do this. Last year she re-formed a very sweet bond with her 9 year old son, Rubiks. The two of them remained side by side for 7 months through winter, spring and summer 2020 which considering they’d spent no time together in the years previous to that was quite amazing they remembered each other. Dr Seuss, her 4 year old grandson has turned into one of the most recognisable characters in the herd not only through looks with his big antlers, white face and dark body but he also featured as one of the main reindeer in last year’s TV show ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’.
Many reindeer come and go throughout the years and although they are all great characters some leave a slightly bigger hole in your heart than others and Fonn was certainly one of them. Of course it is sad, however the sadness is outweighed by knowing she had such a fantastic life up here in the Cairngorm Mountains. She has succession through her wonderful family which is a mix of Christmas reindeer, females and young bulls so the line will go on and she can be proud of what’s to come.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about a “Memorable Reindeer” and I thought we were overdue a bit of reminiscing. And who better to talk about than Bumble?
Bumble was born in May 2010, to mum Tjakko. Jack had just started volunteering with the herd, and managed to film the whole birth. By the time the other herders arrived, they found the new mum and calf, along with Jack, all curled up asleep in the heather. It set the scene for how tame Bumble would be for the rest of her life, completely at home in the company of people. Indeed, most of her family are similarly friendly and greedy – including older sisters Dixie and Ibex.
That autumn, as the cows and calves began returning from the high tops of the mountain free-range, one unknown little calf came in without her mum. Alone though she was, she didn’t seem scared of us, and was straight into the food. A process of elimination quickly identified her as Tjakko’s calf, orphaned over the summer. We named her Bumble – fitting in the “Bugs and Beasties” theme – and following on from Tjakko’s 2009 calf Crumble. With her silvery legs and confident character, she quickly won us round and stole my heart.
Bumble was a marmite reindeer – her confidence and persistence in trying to break into every bag of food either frustrated or amused herders. I found her hilarious. She never grew a “good” set of antlers – they were always simple with basic points pointing in every direction like radio antennae. It just added to her air of goofiness. In general, reindeer aren’t keen on being touched, but Bumble had no sense of personal space and was quite happy being scratched and petted. She even had a starring roll in a commercial we did for Tuffphone, pawing at a food bag and standing squarely on the phone to prove how sturdy it was as if on cue.
Like her mum, Bumble had a real stubborn streak, and leading her on a headcollar could be… interesting. Indeed I remember several times being told, “She’s your favourite, you have to lead her”. Thankfully as she got older she became better behaved, but it was definitely unwise to starting a tugging war with her, as she would just dig in her heels!
Bumble had several calves in her life, the first being Biscay, in 2014. While most cows head away from the herd to calve in private, Bumble didn’t think it was worth risking missing a feed, and tended to give birth within sight of the enclosure gate. Her carefree attitude about human company meant she was utterly unphased by us being nearby during and immediately after the birth, and I was lucky enough to watch her give birth to her second calf, using binoculars from a discreet distance.
It’s always fun catching up with the females on the free-range in summer, and one year I found a group including Bumble, who was at the “extreme moulting” stage of the year, and whilst she occupied herself with the bag of food I’d brought, I proceeded to groom off virtually all of the loose fur, leaving her rather lighter and cooler for the hot summer days! If any walkers came across the pile of discarded fur, goodness knows what they’d have thought!
Bumble was last seen on the free-range in late 2018, in great condition and her usual cheeky self. The next time that group was seen she wasn’t with them, and whilst I held out hope that she was just off doing her thing and would turn up, it wasn’t to be and, despite searching, she was never seen by us again. It was one of those frustrating occasions where we will never know exactly what happened – she was a big strong lass in the prime of her life and not a reindeer we would expect to lose – but there are risks on the mountains, and it is the payoff for the wonderful natural life our herd lead that occasionally one is unlucky.
For me, Bumble was one in a million and there is a little less joy in the herd without her – when I decided to get a new tattoo it was her crazy antlers that I chose to have tattooed on my side. But her line continues through her son Spartan, who ran as a breeding bull in 2019 and fathered a lovely batch of calves. Among them are several unexpectedly tame calves (from shyer mums) who I see a little bit of Bumble in. Life in the herd goes on.
Bagheera was born in 1994 when we named the reindeer calves that year after story book characters, Bagheera being the black panther in the Jungle Book which, hands down is one of my favourites! His mother, Sami, was a very sweet and very dark reindeer. She only ever grew one antler so stood out from the crowd and like most reindeer in our herd, loved her food! She was my first memory of having a favourite reindeer in the herd. His brother Dubh was actually hand reared by ourselves as poor old Sami passed away as an old lady. He was a real character in but very different to Bagheera and also much paler in colour so he must have got that from his fathers side.
Bagheera was your classic ‘bomb proof’ Christmas reindeer. He toured the country in November and December joining a team of other reindeer and herders spreading the Christmas joy. He was always a great role model to the other younger Christmas reindeer and he grew the most impressive antlers with so many points. His super dark colouring was really quite striking and in the summer months when their coat is much finer and darker he was almost jet black.
Bagheera grew old gracefully and lived to the grand age of 17 which considering they live 12-14 years he was doing really well and just passed away of old age. Some reindeer don’t live as long as we would like and trust me some reindeer live longer than we would like 😉 Nah kidding, they are all characters and make up this wonderful herd in their own way whether it be the nicest most docile Christmas reindeer or the wildest most timid one who gives us the run around when we are herding on the Cairngorms… there is always one. I guess it keeps us fit!
Congo was one of those reindeer who all of us (older herders) here at the Centre remember so well and wish we had more time with him. However the time we did have with him was definitely quality as he was such a lovely reindeer. One of his claims to fame was, after being trained as a three year old to wear harness and pull the sleigh he was so good that one year later he was the trainer. So the new Christmas reindeer that year would be trained alongside Congo as he was such a pro.
Born in 2005, Congo’s mum was a lovely female called Lady. She was named after the Disney cartoon ‘Lady and the Tramp’ and lived to a great age. His father was a really dark male we brought over from Sweden in 2004 called Sarek. Like Lady he also had a lovely nature so Congo had everything going for him really. Congo was a really beautiful reindeer, dark features, lovely shapely antlers and the perfect character to go with it. I had him in my team during one of the earlier years I took part in the Christmas tour. In fact it was the first Christmas I did having just passed my HGV driving test so I hope I drove him around the country comfortably!
I wasn’t actually around during Congo’s younger years as I was working away and travelling the world and considering he died at only 6 years old he made a big impact on me so it just shows how special he was. Unfortunately there are no close relations through his mothers line and it’s much harder to tell through his father’s line as back in the day our record keeping wasn’t quite as up-to-scratch as it is now. That would be thanks to Hen and her methodical office work and not my blasé nature!
Unfortunately at the age of 6 years Congo picked up a disease transmitted by ticks (the bane of our reindeer lives!) called Louping-ill. It was something we hadn’t seen before in our reindeer so it was a real worry at the time and how to deal with it and more importantly how to fix it. Unfortunately Congo wasn’t the only one in autumn 2011 we lost to this particular disease so there must have been a vicious strain of it going around at the time.
So here’s to Congo. A true gent in the reindeer world and a favourite amongst us herders. It’s always nice to remember such characters who have come and gone through the herd, even if it was short lived.
Following from a previous blog about Haze’s dynasty, I thought Fly was another good candidate to look at. Like Haze, she is also a big, striking reindeer, not necessarily the friendliest – she likes her own space – but a dependable leader of the herd and a fantastic mother.
Fly was born in our “green theme” year in 2007, and is probably the largest female in the herd today – she’s a clear inch taller than any of the others. She also grows beautiful large antlers, whilst rearing a calf most years – a sign of a strong healthy reindeer as it takes a huge amount of energy for both of these activities and most reindeer will focus on one or the other rather than both.
Fly reared her first calf, Custard, when she was two – whilst reindeer are perfectly capable of rearing calves at this age, we try to make them wait until they’re a bit more mature at three years old. Fly evidently thought differently, and reliably reared a big strong calf in 2009 (Custard), 2010 (Dragonfly), 2011 (Domino), 2012 (Balmoral), 2013 (Anster), 2014 (Hudson) and 2015 (Aonach). At that point we decided she should definitely have a bit of time off!
In 2015 and 2016, we decided to run Balmoral, Fly’s son, as one of our breeding bulls, and he fathered a lovely selection of youngsters, including Inca, Christie, Burns, Shakespeare and Dante. We are hoping that Inca may have a calf of her own this May.
Fly’s only daughter, Custard, reared several calves of her own – Coe, Cream, Ceram and Tang – and Cream has also been a mum, though unfortunately her calf didn’t survive. Hopefully she may have better luck this year.
Fly has, so far, been a mother seven times, a grandmother eighteen times, and a great-grandmother once, and she’s still in full fitness and looking like she’s got many years ahead of her!
When I think back over the reindeer that have been part of the herd over the years, one which sticks in my mind is Scout. This is probably in part because he was on my “team” the first time I went off on Christmas tour. It was back in 2010, and as I headed off for my first two-week festive reindeer experience with Fiona, those six reindeer made a bit of an impact: experienced old boys Shekel and Shock (or Shockel and Sheck as we sometimes called them if we hadn’t had enough coffee!); Scout and Hughie, our younger Christmas reindeer; and calves Lace and Gnat. When you’re working, living and travelling with the same team for a fortnight you get to know their quirks rather well!
Born in our “Green theme” year, Scout was a big reindeer (so big in fact that we castrated him at 2 years old instead of at 3), one of the tallest in the herd, and a fine looking fellow. He grew some beautiful sets of antlers, with lots of “fingers” coming off them. He was generally also holding almost too much condition, with a generous sized belly, and with this excess of energy he often had bobbles of extra velvet on his antlers, something we only tend to see in our larger (wider!) males.
My main memory of Scout from that Christmas tour is when we arrived at an event in London, set out the feed bowls ready for their breakfast, and Fiona hopped in to the truck through the (human-sized) side door, assuming I would latch it behind her. I meanwhile assumed she was going to latch it herself from the inside (the hazards of having been on tour long enough to stop communicating about everything and make presumptions). Alas, the door didn’t get secured at all and the next thing we knew Scout had squeezed his antlers and ample belly through, bounded down and of course made a beeline for his breakfast! At least he was easy to catch!
I also have a vivid memory from a more recent Christmas of taking part in an incredibly busy parade in England, and looking back from where I was leading the front two reindeer – Scout was one of the reindeer following on at the back and he was utterly at ease, chewing the cud as we pottered along, not batting an eyelid at the noise, lights, marching band, fake snow and bubble machines that we were passing. Reindeer really are incredible animals.
Scout was a dependable fellow out on tour, whether at the back or front of the sleigh, and was a friendly face at home on the hill, though he did have a grumpy streak at times, doubtless inherited from his father Sirkas, who certainly could have an attitude problem! Most of the time though he was lovely to be around, a bit cheeky and playful, and steady as a rock. His brothers included dark coloured Rummy, squinty-nosed Boris and the infamous Fergus. Scout’s grandmother, Fionn, lived to the ripe old age of 16, and her sister was Lilac, the reindeer who holds our record for longevity at 19. Unfortunately Scout didn’t live to quite such an age, but there are still many of his family alive, including two of our other biggest reindeer, Fly and Paintpot, who share the same father.
We recently watched the BBC series Dynasties, narrated by David Attenborough, which looked at matriarchs in different species of animal. There are occasional females in our herd who are extremely successful mothers, and I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of these family lines, starting with a gorgeous big female who was named Haze.
Haze was born in 2002 and grew to be a big, solid female who had distinctive large bold antlers – not fancy but quite thick for a female. Over the course of her life she reared six calves: Santana, Gazelle, Caddis, Wiggins, Camembert and Fyrish – four females and two males. She was a relaxed mum and was quite happy to let us humans come up when she’d just calved, give her some food and check the calf over. One of first reindeer calvings I attended on my own as a new herder was when she gave birth to Camembert, and I remember her being completely at ease, putting up with my inexperienced fumblings as I handled the calf briefly to spray its navel and check it had the requisite number of legs.
Haze passed on her large solid build to her offspring, most notably to Gazelle, Caddis and Fyrish, who are all quite chunky. Caddis is the stand out mother from the next generation, consistently rearing one of the largest calves each year: Mozzarella, Lairig, Viking, Christie and Sherlock. Her latest calf, Sherlock, is a real beast of a reindeer, already acting like a bull by 5 months old… Caddis also manages to pull off a huge set of antlers each year, despite the energy put into her new calf – what an incredible reindeer!
Gazelle has reared some lovely male calves, including Aztec and Burns, and whilst Camembert is younger and has only had one calf so far, Celt, he is one of the largest of his year group. He was a special one for me, as I found him as a newborn – the first calf I had found whose mother I had also been the first to find when they themselves were born – I felt like a proud granny…!
Haze died in 2016 at the ripe old age of nearly 14, but her family line is continued – to date she has been grandmother to 10 youngsters, and last autumn we chose her son Fyrish as one of our main breeding bulls, so come May there is the potential for the family to become even larger.
Blondie is different to the vast majority of the herd because not only is she pure white but she is also stone deaf. When she was born in May 2006 she was the first pure white reindeer calf for nearly 40 years, indeed since her great-great-great-grandmother Snowflake, who was born in 1968. We had no first-hand experience of a reindeer as white as the driven snow and for a while as a calf we thought she was just an incredibly lazy, ‘laid back’ reindeer. While the rest of the herd would eagerly run down the hill when we called them, Blondie would be sleeping! But it didn’t take us long to realise that actually she was deaf. Clapping our hands and shouting into her ear while she was fast asleep did nothing to rouse her; she was quite literally ‘in a world of her own.’
We worried over how she would cope out on the free range as she couldn’t hear her mother Glacier grunting to her, nor would she be able to hear the clicking of the reindeer’s tendons as they walk – a constant noise that encourages the herd to stay together. Equally she would not hear a dog barking or people talking and so be unaware of potential danger. Well, our worries were unfounded; she is now 12 years old, has successfully raised a number of calves and is very much alive and kicking. One advantage is she is really easy to spot on the hill, standing out like a sore thumb against the dark hillside, although admittedly in the winter, the white camouflage in deep snow helps to disguise her.
In 2010, Blondie had a male calf Lego who, like his mum, is pure white and also deaf. Not wanting to have too many deaf reindeer in the herd we decided not to breed from Lego, but at two years old Lego had other plans and managed to be sneaky and mate with Lulu, a seven year old, light coloured female. Lo and behold the next spring Lulu had a pure white male calf Blue, who, yes I am sure you can guess, is deaf too!
Interestingly when we have been out in Swedish Lapland we have often heard the Sámi describe white reindeer as lazy and easily predated on by wolves. I think we can safely give them the answer why!
For the calves born in 2012 the theme was just ‘2012’ because so much happened that year. It was he Queen’s Jubilee year our 60th anniversary and also the London Olympics. So we had great fun coming up with diverse names to suit the theme and as one of the biggest calves of the year Balmoral was aptly named.
He was, however, a mistake! During the rut of 2011, when Balmoral was conceived, we attempted to restrict the number of cows breeding by leaving them out on the free-range without a bull. That all seemed fine until a young bull, Strudel, went missing in the hill enclosure and turned up a few weeks later on the free range having found ‘heaven’, i.e. lots of reindeer females – even more than your average breeding bull would manage in a season.
Fly was one of those cows left out but ended up in calf to Strudel. But we’re not complaining because there are now some great reindeer in the herd now as a result from that rutting season in 2011.
During the 35 plus years I have been with the reindeer there have been some iconic bull reindeer who have stood out amongst the rest of the herd. In the early 1980s it had been Troll: great name (from the children’s story Billy Goat’s Gruff – and yes there was a Trip and a Trap too) and an equally great reindeer. His son Gustav, a real gentleman among reindeer, took over from him in the late 80s and early 90s. Then we brought in a young bull from Whipsnade Zoo for new blood and that was Crackle, who featured in many photos, leaflets and articles about the herd. Indeed he was the reindeer on the front cover of the first book I wrote about reindeer, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’.
In 2003, a bull calf named Crann was born and by two years old he showed all the signs of being something special. As a mature breeding bull he grew huge antlers year after year, probably the biggest antlers that have ever been seen in the Cairngorm herd and right up until his last year he continued to grow amazing antlers for his age.
By 2015, Balmoral was the most promising young bull in the herd, growing huge antlers as a three year old. As a result, we decided to give him a shot as a breeding bull, allowing him to father some calves, rather than being castrated as most of the other three year old males are. In 2016 he looked incredible with even bigger antlers, and ended up being the main breeding bull that autumn, with many of the calves born last spring fathered by him. He’s well and truly spread his genes about! His son Burns, born May 2017, who is big, bold and boisterous may well follow in his footsteps and become a breeding bull in his own right in a couple of years.