Summer solstice and reindeer herding!

For me the summer solstice always fell on June 21st and I never knew otherwise however apparently this year it was on the 20th… Something to do with being a leap year?!? Anyway to mark the occasion it’s always quite nice to do something, whether we get a group of folk together and have a game of rounders or go for a nice ‘summery’ walk. This year we decided to take a wander up into the Northern Coire’s – Coire an Lochain in particular! Looking up from Glenmore and Loch Morlich this is the furthest right Coire with a large patch of snow on the right hand side of it. Mid-summer here always seems to be fairly awful weather, I even recall wearing my waterproof ski trousers for this about 4-5 years ago and in true Scottish Highlands style this year was no different. However, it wasn’t raining so we were already up on other years!

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So we set off up the path into the Coire and it took us about an hour of which we chit chatted the whole way, of course putting the world to rights! Right in the back of Coire An Lochain there is, as stated in its name, a wee loch. We arrived with bags filled with tea and cake (very important for us reindeer herders), my bagpipes and four fairly hyper dogs (3 of them being under the age of two). As we arrived into the Coire something caught my eye… 4 reindeer behind the loch. Straight away dogs were called in and put on a leads, just in case, and I scooted over towards them to see if I could see who it was. Malawi, one of our older females in the herd at the age of 11 now was leading them away from us and she was followed by Okapi and two younger females (who I didn’t get close enough to, to ID). A three year old and a two year old, I got that much! They obviously weren’t too keen on coming up to us as we had the dogs but they did stop in their tracks when I started calling them, it was just unfortunate I didn’t any food as a bit of bribery to come a bit closer, then I would have definitely worked out the other two. Malawi is easy to identify because she has never grown any antlers which is pretty unusual.

reindeer in Coire An Lochain

Like I said the reindeer didn’t hang around as they don’t like dogs so we got onto what was also very important after our walk in – tea, cake and a quick blast on the bagpipes. I’m not really in practice at the moment so any wee slip up with notes I blamed on the cold weather and my fingers weren’t working properly but they sounded pretty awesome in the Coire getting good acoustics bouncing off the head wall. At this time of year it is light until about midnight and light again in the morning round 3.30am. Such a lovely time of year which is why we try to make the most of it by being outside. It’s a bit different in the winter months when it isn’t light until 9am and dark by 3.30pm but it’s also nice to have that comparison throughout the year too. Of course in the far north and Scandinavia they have the midnight sun… I shall have to go and see that one year for sure!

Tea in Coire An Lochain

Fiona

The Springtime Recruit

Hello. I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Dave. Yes I am male. I am the first male Reindeer Herder for 100 years and it shows!

“If you fancy using your man skills and fixing something around here, we’d be pleased.”

I heard this line four times on my first day. Jokes aside, this is a marvellous place to work and I am getting to use my man skills a lot.

The Boardwalk

As most of you will know there are a few hundred metres of boardwalk in the enclosure. This needs constant maintenance. Usual maintenance tasks are simply replacing the boards and wire mesh, however large sections of the boardwalk have needed replacement in recent years. I’ll look forward to that job in the future.

The Office

The shed with the tin roof on the left side of the enclosure is affectionally referred to as the office. After the long winter the office was looking rather neglected as well as emitting a terrible stench. I have taken this project on with some muster. First of all – the stench. Sometime during the winter a mountain hare decided it would RIP behind some boxes. The stench thankfully left when I removed the remains of the hare. Next job in the office was to build a new desk. Using nice old recycled lumber the office now has a new desk.

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Early on during the office project I found a wagtail nest with four chicks in it. Over the next couple of weeks I watched these chicks grow up fast. On one morning when I arrived I found one dead chick on the floor and the other three were stood on the edge of the shelf waiting to fledge! One was in the front and clearly wanted to get off shortly. I could hear mother or father outside tweeting encouragement and sure enough the little chick took flight and slammed straight into the window. While the chick was seeing stars on the floor I picked it up and it flew out the door to join its parents. After covering up the window and leaving the door wide open, the next morning the other two were nowhere to be found. Hopefully another happy young family in the sky!

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Without the worry of disturbing the nest I could continue with the office refurb. General shifting and sorting of the equipment and medical supplies in the office have made for a much more usable space.

The Paddocks

Any and all available spare time is spent in the paddocks. There is always a lot of weeding to be done at this time of year. Mainly nettles and docks but also some bramble! The usual suspects! Yes, they can manage the sub-arctic climate as well. When it rains here, and it often does, the paddocks can become quite muddy. We are trying a new technique to support the soil and improve drainage. We have buried plastic frames into the topsoil where it is prone to becoming muddy. We are hoping we can establish grasses in the frames and that it will improve the mud problem. Now we just need to wait for it to rain. Shouldn’t have to wait too long.

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This is the end of my introduction blog. I hope you enjoyed reading about my ‘man skills’. Looking forward to meeting you all here at the Reindeer Centre.

Dave

My, how you’ve grown!

Some of you may already know this female reindeer, Ryvita. If you don’t then she is a 7 year old mature female who has a lovely nature and, like most the other reindeer in the herd, is super greedy! Over the past three years she has had her daughter Cheese by her side as she hasn’t calved since she had her in 2013, so the two of them are inseparable. Not sure what will happen if Ryvita has a calf this year… Poor Cheese! However this blog is not about the relationship between Ryvita and Cheese, it is about antler growth. Over the past month I have been taking photos of Ryvita to show you all how fast reindeer antler grows. Antler is in fact the fastest growing animal tissue in the world.

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Ryvita in 2011

I started taking my photos on the 17th April 2016 and took the last one on the 22nd of May 2016 and in that time I reckon her antlers have grown a good 8-10 inches and also a 4-5 inch front point, so it really is phenomenal. We think Ryvita is still due to calve so she’s also growing her calf inside her, and is doing a fantastic job of both. The photos speak for themselves so I hope you enjoy them. Note that we had snow, then a lovely sunny spell, then another good dump of snow again… Got to love an unpredictable Scottish spring!

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Ryvita on the 17th of April, just beginning her antler growth
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One week later, the 24th of April, in beautiful sunshine
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A few days later, the 28th of April, and we have snow!
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Bit of a damp day, May 2nd.
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Ryvita on the 8th of May, I think she’s bored of being our model!
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Sleepy Ryvita, May 17th
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And finally, Ryvita on the 22nd of May

Ryvita’s antlers will continue to grow until the onset of autumn, so hopefully she gets lots  to eat and she will hopefully grow a rather lovely set of antlers.

Here’s a quick side by side comparison of 17th April to 17th May, just one month of growth:

Fiona

Rounding up Winter

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Fiona and Feta having a one to one

So as it’s almost summer and I’m having a bit of a phone clear out of all the photos and thought who would most enjoy all my winter reindeer ones… everyone online! It was only 6 months ago I managed to upgrade my trusty old button phone to a smart one so I’ve been making the most of having a camera to hand most of the time.

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The girls walking behind each other to save energy

 

We have had a right mix of weather over the past few months but regardless what it is doing out there we have to go out and locate the herd every morning. This is one good reason I never look at a weather forecast cos I either get excited that there is going to be good weather and it disappoints or I see it’s due to be bad weather so then I don’t look forward to getting a drenching so best just to look out the window on the day and dress appropriately! At least this way there is no expectations.

 

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Mel leading the herd in for breakfast

The girls (reindeer) have been pretty well behaved and we have found them most of the time. I say most because lets face it there is going to be the odd day the hill is storm bound or just too foggy to even begin to find them. We have experienced every terrain under foot from deep snow, mud and ice but to be honest the snow is the easiest one to walk through as we create a lovely packed path that both us and the reindeer use… unless you are the first one to break that path after a fresh dumping in which case a deep thigh high walk out it is!

 

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Abby and the reindeer on a gloriously sunny winter’s morning

They always go through the same pattern every year and they come to a call from far away through January and February but then through March they seem to get quite lazy and expect us to go to them so the walks become further and a little more frustrating, however, when you do get them back to the right place there is a much bigger sense of achievement. Plus it keeps us fit and if the weather is good then there is no better office!

 

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Lace having a stretch, overlooking Loch Morlich

Anyway there is no need for me to say anything else so enjoy my photos of the reindeer this winter.

Fiona

 

 

Normal Service Resumes

We’re back! As you regular readers will know, the Reindeer Centre has been closed to the public for about 5 weeks while we spruce the place up for all you lovely people, and get all the maintenance jobs done after yet another busy year.

We opened back up last Saturday and awaited the masses with baited breath. It was a pretty minging day i.e. it was howling a gale up the hill and there was a bit of rain/sleet, but still the people came to see our beautiful beasts.

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The reindeer await their visitors

We had around 10 cars on the visit, a respectable but, thankfully, manageable number for our return to visits. Hen and I drove up to the Ciste, and braced ourselves as we opened the doors to the biting wind. We gathered in our visitors and explained what we were going to do, and to be careful on the slippy stairs, and then headed off into the wilds.

At this time of the year, the reindeer are all out free-ranging on the mountains, so our visits could be to a different place every day. The path out to the reindeer that day included lots of boggy bits, and wasn’t particularly a path, but we made it out to the reindeer in one piece, stopping to let people catch up when needed. Thankfully, we were walking with the wind on the way out, so it wasn’t too bad.

Hen called the reindeer and I spoke, very loudly, about their adaptations while the girls made their way over to us. We put the food out, the girls tucked into their lunch, and we started the handfeeding.

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A slightly nicer second-visit-of-the-year – the expectant reindeer following the excited visitors and a herder with a bag of food!

Despite the pretty rubbish weather, everyone seemed to enjoy meeting the reindeer. We were sometimes blown over by the wind, and I often had my eyes closed as I talked to the visitors because I had to face into the wind, but it was great getting back into the routine of a visit.

The next time the Centre is scheduled to close is Christmas Day, so this is one of many visits we’ll be taking throughout the year. Hopefully we won’t have to cancel too many over the winter months, and before we know it, it will be summer and we’ll be starting trekking!

Imogen

 

Winter Holidays

As the schools go back, and the Christmas decorations, sleighs and harness are packed away at the end of another busy but successful season, the Reindeer Centre closes its doors to the public for a wee break. Of course we don’t get an actual holiday, the reindeer still like to be fed, but we put every single member of the herd out to free-range on the mountains. The boys head on over to the Cromdale mountains (where their lazy habit of hanging out on car parks can be prevented!) whilst most of the cows and calves go onto the Cairngorm range. The enclosure, and paddocks down in Glenmore, stand empty.

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Lace and Okapi posing!

Every day we still drive up the mountain road early, spying for reindeer. Sometimes they make our job easy, like when the herd decide to get our attention and wait on the car park. It’s a bit of a giveaway when we see a traffic jam in an unusual place – you can guarantee there are a few females hanging out at the front of it, with excited tourists abandoning their cars to take photos!

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The herd appears up the hill, completing their transformation from dots into reindeer

Other times we spot the reindeer a long way away, and on a good day they’ll hear you calling and run a mile or more to reach you. One of my favourite moments is when you see the distant dots on a faraway mountainside suddenly start streaming down towards you, looking alarmingly similar to ants until they transform into reindeer!

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Beautiful Cailin, one of our older reindeer, waits for the rest of the herd to join us

Winter is when the reindeer are in their element and whilst they’re always delighted to see us, if the weather prevents us finding them for a few days, or they decide to not be found, it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t need us. Their metabolisms slow right down in the winter months, and with shovel-like feet they have no difficulty digging through the snow for food.

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Lilac, a bit of a legend at an incredible 16 1/2 years old, has a stretch after a nap. We often leave the top part of the hill enclosure open so the free-ranging reindeer can join us to ‘request’ food, whilst safely out of the way of hill-walkers and dogs.

Whilst it makes life fairly unpredictable (Will we find the reindeer? Will they come to call? Will I have to hike up a mountain in the snow and wind with a massive sack of feed on my back???) it’s a really fun time of the year, and great to see the reindeer loving life in their natural habitat.

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“Mum, you’re embarrassing me…” Merrick looking sheepish as mum Nepal gives him a good wash round the ears.

Andi

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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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

Lotti

Attack of the Flying Beasts

First off, I’m not talking about the reindeer in that heading. Reindeer only fly at Christmas time after Santa has given them the magic powder and our lovely reindeer don’t attack.

I am of course talking about the flying mini beasts – flies, bugs and, the worst of the worst, midges. Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland without those little terrors, and they are a sign that summer has finally arrived here in Cairngorm, but they aren’t my friends. We love this infomatic from Mackays Holidays:

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Visit Mackays Holidays for more top tips!

No one here likes the midge, including the reindeer. With the heat rising above 20°C and them still having some of their winter coat, our boys are feeling the heat. In hot weather we often give them access to the shed to hide from the heat – you’d be amazed how many come running out at feeding time.

They are also bothered by the flies and midges, but there’s not much we can do there, apart from douse them with fly repellent. As much as I’d like to eradicate midge for both my own and the reindeer’s comfort, they are an important food source for birds, toads and frogs, and bats.

Our boys cope with the midges fairly well; in the paddocks they hide under our shelter shed and up on the hill avoid stagnant pools where midge breed and shake to get rid of the biting bullies. Sometimes it’s like watching a little reindeer dance: they stomp their back foot a few times, then the other, a little shake, a few more stomps, and then if the midges are really ferocious, they’ll burst off in a sprint, jumping and kicking the air. It’s quite funny to watch!

We also spotted Oryx doing something a bit odd. It was the end of a visit, and we were heading to the gate to leave the enclosure. A few boys followed us, no doubt thinking there’d be more food. There’s a large muddy patch just at the gate, which usually the reindeer don’t bother with, but this time Oryx got into the big puddle and just stood there. He seemed pretty content, so he was left to his own devices while Fran and I did some poo picking (the glamorous lives we lead). Eventually he decided his spa treatment was finished and got out of the mud bath. He looked ridiculous with mud socks up to his ankles, but he seemed pretty happy with himself.

Oryx enjoying the mud
Oryx enjoying the mud

It’s known that red deer wallow, or bathe in mud, but the cause for this is still unknown. Some think it may be to reduce ectoparasites, while others believe it is to cool down. I’m not sure it’s ever been recorded in reindeer before (a quick Google search didn’t come up with much) but I think Oryx may have been trying to avoid the midges biting at his legs. Either that or he fancied a quick mud treatment at the ‘Spa de le Cairngorm’.

Imogen

Tales from Glenlivet: Minute and the Curlew Chick

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Minute with some of the Glenlivet herd

Here at our Glenlivet farm one of the best times of day is the evening, when the reindeer are herded back out onto the hill for the night. As they slowly walk up through the birch wood, clicking as they go, the wood is alive with songbirds singing as they flit from tree to tree.

The birch wood is rich with young leaves to browse, moist tree lichens to nibble and underfoot fresh herbs and grasses to graze on. So the reindeer take a while to wend their way up to the top of the wood.

Yesterday evening as I reached the open hill with the reindeer in front of me, a pair of curlew were circling above us, madly calling and quite upset that we had disturbed them. Their calls became agitated and one of them landed in front of the reindeer and scuttled ahead trying to lead the reindeer away. It’s at this point that I realised why there is such a commotion. Minute, our biggest three year old bull with very long velvet antlers, was looking inquisitive with his nose close to the ground. Right in front of him was a brown and creamy white fluffy ball of young feathers, a curlew chick, probably only hatched the day before. Minute looked as surprised as the chick at their encounter and turned to join the herd while the wee chick scuttled into the rushes.

Peace returned as the reindeer headed for the hills and the parents of the chick realised the danger had gone. I walked back down through the wood, the sun setting and the songbirds still calling.

A great way to finish a spring day on our farm.

Tilly

The Return of the Natives

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Willow Warbler – photo courtesy of Jack Ward of Alba Wildlife (much better photographer than me!)

While the other reindeer herders are spending the first part of the year watching the female reindeer gradually expand outwards and wondering who is going to calve first, I am often preoccupied with the return of the birds – the first fluting song of a Willow Warbler is one of my annual highlights, heralding the onset of summer. An ‘outdoor job’ in such a beautiful location as the Cairngorms means I’m in the right place at the right time to see, bit by bit, the changing of the seasons – and nothing makes me happier than to see winter finally receding! And added to that, I’m lucky enough to work in an area with outstanding birdlife, some of which is very rare elsewhere in the country.

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Christmas Day 2010 (left to right Veikka, Fiona, Kermit, Bee, Eco, Tilly and Go)

The first sign I look out for is the birds starting to sing once again and I can remember, on Christmas Day in 2010 in Coylumbridge, taking photos (above) in the snow of Fiona, Tilly and our team of reindeer just before our first parade of the day (we do four parades at local hotels on the big day itself) and hearing a Coal Tit sing – the first of the new breeding season. A new season starting before the other had even finished. Ironically that is my most vivid memory of the whole day! That might just have been a particularly enthusiastic, or at least optimistic, bird however, as this year I think it was into February before I heard anything singing.

After that excitement there’s a long lull as winter drags on, seemingly never-endingly, but the days tick by as we retrieve the reindeer for the daily 11am visits each morning, one by one their antlers falling off as we get later into the winter. The Red Grouse get more and more noisy in March, often erupting out of the heather calling as we walk past and startling me, although the reindeer don’t appear to even notice them. Into April and spring is definitely starting to make an appearance, the weather milder (sometimes!), the plants starting to show fresh growth, while curlews, meadow pipits, pied wagtails and black-headed gulls move back into the area from their coastal wintering areas. Meanwhile the reindeer get wider and wider…

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Ring ouzel on the hill enclosure fence – taken with my compact camera so not the best photo, sorry!

Then the migrants start to return, back from Africa. I usually see my first Wheatear up at one of the ski car parks on Cairngorm, the white flash of their rump unmistakeable. Then there are the Ring Ouzels, basically looking like a blackbird with a white chest, but again they’ve come all the way from Africa. At the moment there is a pair hanging around the hill enclosure, shouting at me most days when I enter to feed the reindeer. The Swallows are back too, and as usual are in and out the reindeer shed up on the hill when they nest annually. In the summer, as we harness up reindeer in the shed to go trekking, I wonder how many visitors have noticed there is a swallow on her nest just feet from them, peering down at the daily proceedings. High up on the mountain plateau the Dotterels return in May, one of only two species in Britain where the male incubates the eggs so the female is the one with the brighter plumage.

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Dotterel on the Cairngorm plateau – photo courtesy of Andi Probert

But it is the little, greenish Willow Warblers that are my absolute favourite, and I keep an ear on the grapevine in April, as news of them making their way north after their arrival at the south coast trickles in, and in mid-April they arrive on mass, the birch trees lining the Sugar Bowl path up to the enclosure suddenly dripping with them. And not long after their arrival, then the calving season kicks in and spring is well on its way, winter is behind us, and all is right with my world!

Hen