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

Identifying reindeer: A summer guide

Every reindeer has their own name, based on a different theme every year. Last year the theme was ancient civilisations but we have also had more ridiculous themes such as pop stars (Elvis, Marley, Blondie) and cheeses (Feta, Mozzarella, Brie). However, with almost 160 reindeer in the herd, there is a lot of reindeer to identify and name! I work as a herder during the summer which is a bit easier for identifying the reindeer, so this blog will describe how I go about naming them.

In the summer the reindeer’s antlers are nearly fully grown and most have distinctive shapes which grow back the same every year. The big breeding bulls usually have huge antlers that stand out amongst the crowd, for example Bovril, who has large dark antlers with two big blades at the front (the blade is the part of the antler witch grows downwards over their face to protect it). The Christmas reindeer (those who have been castrated to control the breeding) usually grow smaller but more ‘messy’ antlers that go off in all directions. This year Nutkins, a very friendly five year old, has small antlers that have parts growing in around seven directions!

 

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Bovril has huge dark antlers when covered in velvet. He is also one of the biggest and darkest reindeer in the herd.

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Nutkins searching over my shoulder for some food.

Another main difference for the reindeer at this time is they have moulted their thick winter coats to reveal their much thinner and darker summer coats. There is a lot more variety in colours between these, some being very dark, such as Orkney, or much lighter like Origami. A few also have interesting facial markings such as Laptev who has a pink nose. These reindeer are all so distinctive that they can be identified from a distance.

 

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Orkney can be easily identified by his dark coat and greedy personality!

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Origami

Origami saving some energy walking on the board walk. He has completely moulted his winter coat in this picture, which is almost pure white in places, unusual for a summer coat on a reindeer.

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Laptev with his very distinct pink nose.

All the reindeer have different personalities. On hill trips it is usually the same group of four or five reindeer that come up for hand feeding and don’t leave until all the food is gone! This means that all us herders can easily identify the greediest reindeer in the herd (such as Orkney as mentioned before).

If the reindeer is normal coloured with ordinary antlers and a shy personality, identifying them can be harder. In this case we can get a bit closer to the reindeer and look at their left ear which will have a coloured ear tag. Every year has a different colour of tag and a different theme for naming (eg. 2013 was a yellow tag and the theme was cheeses). There is usually only three or four reindeer from each year so it is easier to narrow it down and work out the differences between them in each year.

If all else fails, we can cheat! Every ear tag has a different number and each herder has a herds list so we can easily look up who it is we are struggling to identify.

Most of the reindeer mentioned in this blog are currently up in our hill enclosure so if you’re planning a visit soon why not try and identify one for yourself!

Julia

 

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