The School of Tour

I added up how many years I’d been involved in Christmas tour with the reindeer the other day, and was astounded to realise that this was my eighth season. As I frequently tell visitors, “I only came for the summer!” but I seem to have fallen under the spell of the reindeer and the Cairngorms. Hen has been here even longer than me. So with several new herders this year, Fiona sent us off with Morna, with the idea that we’d show her the ropes as it were. Morna has been working with the herd all year, so knew the reindeer very well, but Christmas tour brings its own challenges which can take some adjusting to.

Over the months running up to Christmas, we’d been fairly entertained by the enthusiasm of Morna, Ruth and Olly about tour, and wondered how long it would take for the novelty to wear off! But spirits were certainly high as we got ready to set off for our week away, and we had great fun working out our team name: usually we’re just Handi, but this time we would be even MORHANDI!

I hope you enjoy the photos below – we certainly enjoyed our week, and it was really odd when we dropped Morna off to visit her family and were left with just two of us in the cab… it felt like we’d lost part of our team!

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Leading our team off the hill
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Quick pose for a team photo – unintentionally matching outfits!
Hen driving
As Morna couldn’t drive the truck, her task was to keep Hen and me entertained and hence alert, primarily through some good DJ and karaoke work!
Dinner
Reindeer happy in their overnight accommodation. Riding arenas aren’t just for horses…
Horse
We went for a look round the stables and met all the ponies and assorted menagerie that live there.
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One of the ponies, Haggis, is a legend amongst herders as he just loves to play with zips. Problem is, he’s small and brown, like most of the ponies. Our solution is to walk round offering our jacket to every pony until we find a taker!
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Hard frost the next morning.
Running boys
We exercise the reindeer loose every morning – here they are having a trot round the field. Sometimes they have more “bounce” than others!
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Why lead two reindeer each when Hen can lead the lot?!
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The drive down to Wales was all too much for Morna
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Lovely welcome from our hosts at the Welsh base
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We took the reindeer for a run in the field, but first Morna had to escape the attentions of some grown-up pet lambs!
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Ready for the parade! This was Matto’s (the white one) and Morna’s first ever parade in public, and he didn’t put a foot wrong. She did alright too!
Sleepy truck
The reindeer are always happy to load and travel brilliantly – they are loose in the back of the truck and frequently lie down and have a snooze, as seen here.
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One of the perks to tour – you sometimes have time to cook a lovely breakfast!
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Here’s Morna doing a great job (with Matto again) leading the parade at Stockeld park. Though she was trying to redeem herself after breaking the decorations and a (non-essential) part of the sleigh in the same morning!
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The team were incredibly relaxed and loving their enormous pen at the event.

Tour time begins..

A couple of weeks ago saw the start of my experience of ‘Christmas Tour’ – the fabled hectic time of Christmas at Reindeer House, working away at events all over the UK. To kick me off, I had a week with the wonderful Hen and Andi in the far-flung lands of Cardiff and Yorkshire.

Much to Hen and Andi’s continual amusement, I’d been looking forward to Christmas approaching and tours starting. For what on earth sounds more fun that a week away on a road trip with some reindeer?!

As the day to leave approached I was feeling a little bit unsure of what to expect, and very unsure of what to take. But we upped-and-awayed, with mostly everything, and a prayer that what we’d forgotten wouldn’t be needed.

Here’s a few photos of our trip. With thanks to the wonderful team: the sleepy Svalbard, bowl-tipper Duke, Matto, Byron, and our lovely calves Beatrix and Austen!

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We leave the reindeers’ beautiful snowy Cairngorms behind, and head for more southern climates.
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Truck Fun. Over 6 hours in a truck is enough to turn anyone a wee bit mad.

On arrival at our base we jump in the back of the truck to take the reindeer out to their home for the night, a lovely big bedded barn and field. But instead of 3 reindeer in the first compartment, we find only 1, the big-tummied Svalbard. After a moment of panic, and a “I’m sure we brought all the reindeer with us?!?!”, we discovered the reason…

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Svalbard, travelling in luxurious style, has a compartment all to himself.

We peer through to the next compartment and realise the small door between the two was left open. The wee calf Beatrix, small enough to slip through, had gone to join her calf-friend Austen, and Matto had somehow managed to follow, but poor Svalbard’s antlers were obviously too big, and he just couldn’t fit.

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The 5 culprits, snug as a bug in a rug, or reindeer in a truck.
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Our base for the first night, with our truck Kenny.
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A morning run, in a wonderfully frosty field.

As the days flew by, we saw Cardiff, many motorways, Oxford and Yorkshire, a few lovely bases, and had some great food.

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Andi very excited for her breakfast down near Cardiff.

Al in all, only a couple of things got broken, some wonderful breakfasts were eaten, all 6 reindeer returned home safe and sound, and I think, Hen, Andi and I are still friends.

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A stressful trip for us all, eh?

Morna

 

Snow has arrived!

Up here on the Cairngorms (as well as many other places in Scotland), the first proper snow has arrived. As much of our blogging and online posts recently have been about our Christmas tours, I thought I would share with you all some photos, to remind you all where our reindeer live for most of the year.

This wild landscape can be cold, cruel and hard, but the reindeer thrive, and love their habitat in the snow. We also love it!

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A chilly but beautiful walk through the woods up to the enclosure.
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The brave souls choosing to come on our hill trip.
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The Alt Mor in the snow.
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Sheena entertaining her visitors with tales of past days.

Its one of the most beautiful times of year to visit the herd, with their wicked antlers still on their heads, long soft winter coats,and furry noses to keep them warm. Reindeer truly love the snow, and if you’re lucky you get to see them dancing about and chasing each other round.

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As we call the reindeer, they appear in the distance, coming down off Silvermount.
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The first of the greedy bunch!
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The reindeers’ view – looking down across the Reindeer Centre, Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and the cold Loch Morlich.
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The beautiful Aral, face blending in with the snow.
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Mmmm.. brunch.
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Dixie and Kara, mother and daughter, sharing their food.
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Bovril’s big antlers carrying snow, looking ready for a snowball fight?

Our Hill Trips are still running each day, at 11am, so if this inspires you to get up and visit the herd, make sure you come properly dressed for a cold encounter and get here in plenty of time. And to sign off, I’m leaving you with a picture of our beautiful Svalbard!

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Svalbard, back on home territory.

Morna

How reindeer herding changes me

My name is Emm Cassidy and I come and volunteer at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre for a week at a time which happens normally about once or twice a year.

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I live in the county of Worcestershire in a little village called Astwood Bank with my mum and dad. I am normally a very anxious and shy person who gets mentally tired very easily. It takes me more time to process things  e.g. what is being said to me. I have a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome. It also affects how I interact with people and I find it very hard socializing. I normally work as Teaching Assistant at a local school teaching children to read or helping the children who have special education needs, but usually can only work part time as full time work is too much for me.

However, when I get into Reindeer House and become a reindeer herder, I become a totally different person. Being at Reindeer House is brilliant; the herders are like my second family. Everyone is so friendly and it is like seeing your very old friends again and I fit in perfectly.

It is a very special feeling and I feel I am understood. I feel I don’t have the same challenges as normal, and that I can be myself with the herders – even saying jokes and speaking much more than I normally do at home. The reindeer herders bring the best out of me and my mum and dad are amazed with the change in me.

I really love reindeer and everything I do as a reindeer herder has given me so much more confidence.

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The changes in me are huge. As a reindeer herder I do things that I can’t do at home.

These include:

  • Working 9 hours a day every day for 7 days
  • Being around and speaking to large groups of new people
  • Being myself at reindeer house and not masking how I am feeling
  • Trying new things, going into new situations and adapting to changes in the life of a reindeer herder
  • Answering the phone
  • Taking parts of the tour, explaining things to a group of new people
  • Being able to say if I am confused or don’t understand an instruction or don’t know what to do
  • Working in a team and feeling comfortable and confident
  • Going out for a meal with my colleagues

My time at Reindeer House this time was in my October half term for a week. The Saturday and Sunday was the 65th Adopters Weekend which was very busy and had lots of activities going on during both days (see last week’s blog). This included one day at the reindeer centre and one day at Tilly’s and Alan’s farm. It was a very special and lovely weekend meeting different adopters and hearing their stories and finding out who they adopt. I felt very honoured to help out and even had my own name badge!

Afterwards, me and the reindeer herders went out for a meal at Glenmore Lodge to celebrate which Tilly had treated us to it to say a massive thank you for working hard at the 65th Adopters Weekend!

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Our lovely meal out at Glenmore Lodge with some of the reindeer herders.

A couple of examples of reindeer herding duties, that I really improved on:

Teamwork and Achievement

After a hill visit, me and Morna went to the bottom of Silver Mount as the female reindeer Chelsea and her calf Shakespeare didn’t want to come in with the herd.  Shakespeare also looked thin and had a history of having a leg injury.

When we got to the bottom of Silver Mount, Chelsea wasn’t interested in the food Morna had. Chelsea is a very shy reindeer and has a wild side to her. So the only option was to herd Chelsea and Shakespeare to the temporary holding pen. Firstly we herded them through the gate into the bottom bit of the East Enclosure. By using our body language, speed and movement, me and Morna herded them across the East Enclosure. It was very breath-taking as one false move could startle them and they could have ran off into the wrong direction. I felt like a sheep dog and I found it amazing that we managed to herd them where we wanted them to be by just using ourselves.  Morna and me were so happy and felt we have both achieved such a massive thing, it was such a very special feeling.

After getting Chelsea and Shakespeare in to the temporary pen, we had to take Shakespeare’s temperature as he looked thin and didn’t come in with the rest of the herd. That could be a sign that a reindeer is poorly. Earlier that day I had learnt to take a reindeer’s temperature and I had taken Bovril’s temperature with Morna’s help whilst Olly held Bovril in place. But now came the real test.

Catching a calf who has a mother who has a wild side could be difficult. Both of them wasn’t interested with the food Morna had so Morna decided to put the food on the floor. Morna managed to get close to Shakespeare and then get hold of him. It was up to me to independently find Shakespeare’s bottom hole to put the thermometer in so we can find out his temperature. I managed to do it and held the thermometer in place till it beeped which meant it was ready. I felt a huge sense of achievement and was so proud of myself.

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Happy faces after a successful morning with Morna on the hill!

Having an Audience of Lots of People

I have never done a sleigh training session with the reindeer so I was excited to see how it was all done. For part of the Adoption Weekend, I helped out with 2 sleigh training sessions.

I helped to catch the reindeer in the paddocks and I led the male reindeer North out. There were lots of people waiting to watch the sleigh training session. I felt a bit nervous of the amount of people but it was ok as we had the reindeer and I was there to help and learn. It was lovely to see the people’s reactions when they saw the reindeer getting their harnesses on and then pulling the sleigh which then relaxed me.

I passed the harnesses to Fiona and Tilly who put them on the reindeer. I got to hold 2 reindeers lead ropes whilst the harnesses were being put on. I then tied North to the back of the sleigh. Bovril was being a bit stubborn pulling the sleigh so I walked behind him and Fiona had taught me to touch his tail to get him moving again if he stopped. Tilly and Fiona taught me how to detached the reindeer from the front of the sleigh and then attach them to the sleigh and also take the harnesses on and off.

I also got a turn of being behind the sleigh with 2 reindeer and also led the sleigh which was such an amazing feeling. It was so brilliant being part of the sleigh training team doing a display to show how we train the Christmas Reindeer.

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Me leading a sleigh, giving rides to 6 children!

Answering the phone

I also tried to get my confidence up with answering the phone which I find terrifying as I don’t know who is at the other end.  If I am not sure what to say, I now know I can pass the phone on to someone else. I decided to give it as go a few times.

The first time was an enquiry about the 11am hill trip. Unfortunately I had to tell them that it was fully booked and that we couldn’t take any more cars on as we had 30 cars going. I also told them that there was a paddock talk which was happing in the paddocks at 11am. Olly had heard me on the phone and said afterwards I was a superstar. He said that I said what I had to say about the hill visit being booked up.

The second time I answered the phone, it was a person asking for Fiona who wasn’t working that day. I told the person that Fiona wasn’t working and that I could take a message or a name and number.

New People and Busy Groups

I normally find meeting new people and busy crowds terrifying. The groups we take up to see the reindeer are quite busy and are full of new people.

I found it scary on my first day the first time with the amount but then I got use to it. Taking people up to see the reindeer is amazing as some people haven’t seen reindeer before. I love seeing people’s reactions when they see the reindeer or are hand feeding them and it is so lovely being part of their magical experencice being with the reindeer.

As everyone loved reindeer, I found it so much easier to relate to people. It is great as I could answer their questions and it was lovely to see people’s reactions when I had taught them some new facts about reindeer!

It was so interesting to find out where people had come from as lot was in Scotland on holiday. One trip, I found out a family lived near me and I found out that they have the same dentist as me! It is such a small world!

In the past I have taken part of the tour and given the starter talk and the herd history talk to the hill visit people. A very massive achievement for me which gave me lots of confidence.

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A large group on the tour, stopped down at Utsi bridge to listen to Dave.

Being around the reindeer and being around the brilliant company at reindeer house brings the best out of me and makes my anxiety go away and makes my thoughts more manageable. It makes me reach goals and achievements which would be harder for me to achieve at home.

I feel I can relate to life and things become less daunting for me! I become a happier person too! It is also like living my mindfulness which I do a lot of at home!

It is such a very special feeling when you have a herd of reindeer following you up the board walk whilst carrying their breakfast on your back or a herd of reindeer running down the mountain towards you responding to your call as they know that you have got their breakfast to give them!

I learn so much from everyone at reindeer house about handling reindeer, being around reindeer and dealing with people. It makes me realise the good in life and makes me realise that I can achieve things when I push myself!

Fiona said people come and people go from Reindeer House but Reindeer House is always an open door for everyone and that everyone is welcome back anytime!

On my last day I was really sad to leave and it was so hard to say goodbye to everyone, Mo (my adopted reindeer), the reindeer and dogs! Fiona said that Mo, the reindeer, the dogs and everyone will be waiting for me to come back again which will be hopefully soon!

Emm

Adopter’s 65th Anniversary Weekend: Part 2

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Adopters and reindeer relaxing in the garden (Photo by Andi Probert)

Here’s a wee round up of day two of our 65th Anniversary weekend…

After a good night’s kip we were all up bright and early (well, early at least, not sure about the bright!) for another day of fun, this time over at our Glenlivet hill farm. We have a second base there, about an hour’s drive from the Reindeer Centre, where some of our male reindeer spend the summer months, and which also gives us access to the Cromdale mountains for brilliant winter grazing.

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Hamish looking at the view (Photo by Barbara Butters)
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It’s a tough life! (Photo by Andrew Smith)

Hen and myself headed straight over to help Tilly set up at the farm, collecting some fallen branches covered with lichen for visitors to feed to our reindeer on the way. We arrived to find everything already looking quite organised, but the first big job was to move some of the reindeer from their normal daytime area – a sloping field with access to a large airy barn – down to the garden ready to meet their adopters. Hen was primed with a list of which reindeer had someone coming to see them, and we both made our way through the reindeer, who were munching away at their breakfast, popping head collars on the first 10, who we distributed between the various helpers we had, before we led them down the yard and let them loose in the fenced garden. The reindeer thought this was thoroughly exciting, and Blue in particular went leaping and bucking off down the hill! We went back for a second run, and a partial third run, before leaving the shier and older reindeer to relax in the peaceful barn for the day.

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Reindeer socialising in the garden (Photo by Yvonne Bannister)
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Aye Coffee providing caffeine and sugar to keep everyone warm! (Photo by Andi Probert)
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Happy iron age pigs delighted to have fresh ground to root around in

By now, much to my delight, Aye Coffee had arrived to provide me with my vital caffeine intake for the day and were setting up their van, Derek was prepping the meat for the BBQ (low food miles indeed!) and Alan had moved a group of the Iron Age pigs down to a pen near the garden for the day, which they were cheerfully rooting up. Alan then quickly made himself scarce, not to be seen for the rest of the day (probably busy running up a hill somewhere!). The first adopters were arriving and the drizzle was just starting to dry up. There was a roaring fire going in the BBQ hut, which was the perfect antidote to any chilly fingers.

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Lovely toasty BBQ hut(/sauna!)
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Derek (background) serving up burgers and sausages from the farm.

As adopters arrived, we tracked down reindeer for them and made introductions. October is peak rutting season, so all of our young bulls were in a separate pen, and we mostly headed in ourselves and brought adopted reindeer down to meet their adopters at the gate, to save anyone accidentally getting caught between teenage bulls who were full of hormones!

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Young bulls tussling.
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Feeding lichen lollipops to greedy reindeer! (Photo by Andi Probert)

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“I’ll have that!” says Scrabble
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Oryx meeting his adopters
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Spider delighted to meet adopters! (Photo by Linda Hoejland)

In the garden, everyone was handing out lichen lollipops, and the reindeer were very relaxed – by the afternoon most of them were lying down fast asleep between groups of visitors. Tilly had arranged tractor and trailer tours, but had underestimated their popularity, so the first tour was one tractor and trailer, but by the last tour there was a progression of tractor and trailer, landrover, and quad bike and trailer! Despite our slight lack of organisation with them, everyone seemed to have a blast and most people who wanted to go on it did (possibly with the exception of myself!).

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One of the tractor and trailer tours setting off (Photo by Carola de Raaf)
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Inquisitive red deer hinds and calves (Photo by Colin Brazier)
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Beautiful setting for our red deer herd (Photo by Andrew Smith)
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There was even cake!
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Busy making badges to show who their adopted reindeer is.
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Highland cattle wondering what on earth is going on! (Photo by Yvonne Bannister)

By 4pm, the BBQ was finished, the coffee van packing away, and the last adopters were heading home. There wasn’t too much to do except pack away the information boards, run the reindeer from the garden back up to the hill, lead the herd up onto the open hill for the night, and feed the bulls. And then, most importantly, head out for a celebratory meal ourselves! (Thanks Tilly!)

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Puddock bonding with herders Fiona and Morna (Fiona just may have been plaiting his beard…)
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Reindeer licking lichen off the walls! (Photo by Joanne Jewers)
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It’s all too much for Moose! He was mid-dream at this point!
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One of this year’s hand-reared red deer calves (Photo by Kirstin Kerr)
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Big pig! (Photo by Yvonne Bannister)

We certainly had a lovely weekend, and great to meet so many people (old friends and new). We hope you all enjoyed yourselves too. We’ll do it all again for our 70th (once we’ve forgotten how much organisation it all took…)

Andi

Why the reindeer loves its mushrooms

For those of you who forage, or for those of you who are naturalists, or even for those of you who aren’t, you’ll know that now is the time for mushrooms. The reindeer know this too, and they have long clocked into the secret of where the best places are, and at this time of year they can be found down in the woods, where all the best mushrooms grow.

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Spotted you!

Reindeer can eat mushrooms that are poisonous to us, and will even seek them out. They have a trick to this that is shared by many other ruminants – having four stomachs and a specialised form of digestion.

Reindeer digestion works as follows:

  • The reindeer eats a lot of food very quickly and stores it in its first stomach.
  • The reindeer brings the eaten food back up to its mouth and chews it (chewing the cud) then swallows it into stomach number 2. Stomach number 2 contains many microorganisms which can break down the plant material in a way in which us mammals can’t.
  • The reindeer brings the food back up into the mouth and chews it a third time. Now the food is mixed with microorganisms and the reindeer chews them all up too. Yummy. The food is then swallowed into stomach 3.
  • Stomach number 3 absorbs all the water from the food and passes it onto stomach number 4, which is similar to our stomach and contains lots of acid to break the food down further.
  • Food passes into the intestines and all the goodness from the food and the chewed microorganisms is absorbed.
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The complicated stomach of a reindeer, with four stomachs. The rumen, the largest of the four, contains the microorganisms which break down food for the reindeer. Diagram from Wikipedia.

This incredible process means that the microorganisms living in the stomach deal with all the mushroom poisons, and the reindeer gets off scot free. It also means that reindeer can live off of lichen over the winter, when no other food is available, giving them a big advantage over other animals.

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A carpet of lichen provides a tasty snack for a mother and calf, all thanks to fantastic digestion abilities.

So with the poisons all gone, the reindeer is free to enjoy the mushroom (and any of its other properties!). One of their favourites is the Fly Agaric, the traditional ‘Christmas mushroom’, with its red cap and white spots, and hallucinogenic chemicals. This we believe is sometimes the culprit for any missing reindeer that we find later on in the day, sleeping soundly beside a pile of chewed stems!

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A beautiful arrangement of Fly Agarics. Photo from Wikipedia.
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Hmmm..

Morna

A Pied Wagtail story

Up on the hill in our 1200 acre enclosure there is a shed. We use the shed to house sick reindeer, catch the wild ones, and store all our hill-working tools and materials.

For the last couple of months we have had a visitor in our shed on the hill. A little female Pied Wagtail decided that the shed made an excellent house to hold her nest, and it even came supplied with a renewing source of insulation – reindeer hair!

Tucked neatly out of the way, hidden behind some spare fencing wire, Mrs Pied Wagtail laid her second-of-the-year clutch of four teeny-tiny Pied Wagtail eggs. With the reindeer hair lining, and her body warmth for much of the day, the eggs were kept nice and toasty through the variable Scottish summer.

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Can you spot the nest?
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Mrs Pied Wagtail has used her initiative and used all the spare winter-coat reindeer hair to line her nest. Each reindeer hair is hollow, making it an excellent insulator.

On the morning of the 18th of July, we walked into the shed to the shed to find four little chicks huddled up against the nest. A couple of days later we were greeted by the sound of cheeping, and were delighted to find 4 yellow open beaks hungrily competing for food. It is of course incredibly important not to disturb the mother on her nest, or the chicks whilst they are alone, so these photos were taken quickly whilst the mother was already away.

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The newly hatched chicks, huddled up keeping warm whilst Mamma Wagtail is away.
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Four little chicks on the 24th July, hungrily asking for food.
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After 2 weeks in the nest, the chicks are noticably bigger and ready to fledge!

Pied Wagtails are a common British bird, often known by slightly unusual nicknames such as ‘Polly Washdish’, or ‘Dishwasher’. These names are thought to come from olden days when women would wash dishes in streams where Pied Wagtails were common. They are lovely, sprightly birds that appear very cheerful and eager with their wagging tails and chirping call.

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A fully gown Pied Wagtail. Photo by Albert Bridge.

By the 31st of July, the chicks had fledged, and are now off in the big bad world, where we wish them all the best. We are always happy to see birds and beasts using our shed for shelter, and hope to see our little female Pied Wagtail back next year!

Morna

Who’s who at Reindeer House (Part 1)

Times are a-changing and we thought we’d keep all you lovely readers informed with who is working here at Reindeer House. People have left, people have arrived, but the reindeer herding goes on…

So here goes:

Imogen and Abby (aka The Fierce and The Fluff) who both worked here for a few years have left in the last couple of months, moving on to new places and new adventures. We miss them both greatly (and their banter!), and for all of you out there who knew them as herders, we know you’ll miss their characters too..

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Abby on a beautiful day with Lace.
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A sunny winter’s day surrounded by reindeer is enough to make anyone, Imogen included, smile!

Ruth is our newest member of staff, who joined us during May. As a redhead she has gone through so much sun-cream since arriving that we’ve decided there should be a redhead grant from the government to cover the cost of this, so you can wish us luck on this venture. Ruth has a fantastic knowledge of the plants and animals of Scotland, and makes tours out to see the reindeer a whole new learning experience for both visitors and others herders!

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Ruth with one of our calves from this year.

Olly is back! Olly has worked at the reindeer centre on and off seasonally over the last few years, but is finally here to stay (we just can’t keep him away). Known for his flamboyant shirts and braces and excellent (and probably early-morning-sleep-related) comments, Olly is just great. Full of enthusiasm, knowledge, practical skills and creativity, Olly keeps us amused and is an excellent man to have about.

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Olly amongst a hungry herd of reindeer.

After having been here only four months Morna has proved she can handle the most difficult of situations. She wears many hats – equally skilled with hammer or pen, paint brush or calculator. Her calmness is appreciated by the reindeer who are at ease in her presence and us herders appreciate her love for life. Growing up on the Orkney Isles she is at home in wild places (but whatever you do don’t start a snow ball fight with her as she is likely to hurt herself).

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Morna enjoying her first calving season.

Dave has been here now for just over a year, so is a well-known bearded face at Reindeer House. Our only resident New-Zealander, Dave has worked on his Scottish reindeer call to make sure the reindeer can understand him, which makes us all chuckle here at the Centre. Dave never seems to get fazed or frazzled, and is one of those genuinely lovely people who calms the rest of us down simply by being around, and visitors seem to come away from the hill trip in a much more relaxed mood than they began in. And although he has been here for over a year, the secret finally slipped out that Dave has never mixed a bag of hand feed…

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Dave finds time for a moment of quiet contemplation on the hill.

Hen and Andi have both been here for a good number of years, and make sure everything runs smoothly here at the Centre. They are in charge of everything from our whole reindeer adoption database, to creating new road signs, to making sure the reindeer get the right amount of food, and to keeping us newbies in line. As Hen has been confined to crutches for the next few months, she is currently being our office-extraordinaire and we are all on orders to take photos of the reindeer down so she can keep up with how they are doing. Andi has taken up the slack of the missing Hen’s ID knowledge on the hill, and is providing a fountain of knowledge and tips for who is who. Andi is the herder to go to for all our stupid questions, and keeps us in line with her patience and loveliness.

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Hen on Christmas tour, with a sleepy Topi on her shoulder.
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Andi leading the herd of calves and other females out onto the hill.

Catriona is the oracle: our accountant, organiser, keeper of records, and all other hosts of jobs that need an experienced hand. She has been keeping the reindeer centre in line for longer than a few of us have been alive, and I’m not sure how the centre would work without her.

Sheena is a friend of the Reindeer Centre and has been around for over 25 years. She works on and off, filling in days here and there. She is the master of badge-making and incredibly full of energy at all times.

Stella and Ann are our long-term regular volunteers. They have helped out in many a sticky situation, have known the Reindeer Centre and all the staff over the years, and never fail to cheer us up with an odd packet of jaffa-cakes or biscuits turning up on the table.

And last, but of course by no means least, come the rest of the Smith family. Tilly and Alan, the owners of the company, are kept busy both here at the Reindeer Centre and over on their farm, working with not only reindeer but a whole host of animals, including Soay sheep, Wild Boar and Belted Galloway Cows. Over on the farm there is also Derek and Colin (brothers of Alan), and Alex (son of Tilly and Alan). Emily is Alex’s wife and, showing the reindeer centre to be a true family business, also works here for the odd day here and there.

Fiona, as many of you will know, is the backbone of the Reindeer Centre. Along with her brother Alex, they make the first native Scottish reindeer herders and her knowledge of the reindeer and how to work with them is long-ingrained. Fiona ensures that the whole of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre organisation runs smoothly and the reindeer are happy and healthy all year round. Fiona also takes on much of the behind-the-scenes work, along with the hectic job of organising the whole of the Christmas period…

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An inquisitive girl!

We have too many volunteers and occasional staff to mention by name who turn up and massively help us out on a weekly basis, but who without, many jobs would go undone. So a big shout out to them all, for their fantastic help over the years. And of course, there are a whole host of others, family and friends of the Reindeer Centre, who work on and off or just help out, and are there to cheer us up if the occasion arises!

The growing up of the calves

Spring is flying by – the trees are finally in leaf and the flowers are poking their heads out here on the Cairngorms – but the passing of time is never more obvious than in the growing of the calves.

When the females calve, we move them and their calves into the nursery area up on the hill. Here the mothers get to relax, have uninterrupted access to their food and lichen, and the calves mix with the others. As they find their feet, they also seem to discover the love of jumping, leaping and running, and will often be spotted playing in groups with other calves. They have a lot of energy, and will often stray away from the mothers, but a grunt from their own mother sends them scampering back to safety by her side.

The mothers and calves stay within the nursery area for a couple of weeks, growing nice and strong and getting used to keeping up with their herd. After a couple of weeks, it is time for them to test their newfound skills, by heading out to the free-range for a summer on the hill ground of the Cairngorms National Park.

So a couple of nights ago saw 5 of us herders heading up the hill to the nursery enclosure at about 9pm – everyone wanted to wave them goodbye! We choose to do the moving of the cows and calves late in the day to avoid any unwelcome escapades with hillwalkers’ dogs, and so this means a later finish to the working day than usual..

The mothers seems to know what the plan is, and are keen to get going. One of the main issues is negotiating the enclosure gate – calves don’t understand gates at this young age! Tilly leads the way, and the other 4 of us herders take the back and make sure everyone sticks together.

We lead the herd only a short way from the enclosure as they know the ground themselves well, navigating the nearby burns and steep slopes, sometimes fast but more often slow, and then we say goodbye to the group, and off they go…

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The mothers and calves heading off, with the Cairngorms in the distance and some rain-threatening clouds approaching..

We watch for a long while, and then navigate our own way back, enjoying the darkening of the sky and the thought of our beds waiting, and the possibility of a wee dram before bed to send the reindeer off in style.

See you in a few months, little ones!

Morna

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