Filming and photography

We are always getting asked to take part in various filming and photography projects so nothing really surprises us anymore when someone sends an email or gives us a call with a slightly quirky request.

A more standard filming request with Euan McIlwraith.

A lot of you will have seen ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’ starring Holy Moley. This is by far the longest stint of filming we have ever done in one go taking three months. Most of the time a crew will just come up for one day, or even half a day to get a quick piece to fit into their program. Sometimes we are asked to go on location somewhere else with the reindeer. Andi and I worked for a while down south at a private zoo which as well as caring for the animals it involved taking them onto film sets so we are quite used to it. There can be a lot of sitting around so now that I make the rules I am pretty ‘on it’ with our timings as the last thing I want is for the reindeer to have to sit around all day waiting for the actors to be ready so they get a set time frame now to work with us.

Holy Moley – the star of the channel 4 documentary!

Some of our sets have included an Ann Summers photoshoot with models in the Christmas wear. Luckily the reindeer just had to stand nearby and look pretty, which they did beautifully may I add! Last year we were asked to an American short film where the reindeer were portrayed as ‘wild’ so we were in some lovely woodland on the west of Scotland. We did mention to the producers that reindeer aren’t natural to this area but I think the film was just a Christmassy crowd pleaser so they weren’t picky when it came to native species. We’ve worked with fashion models both up on the mountain and also out on location. If I’m totally honest I can’t remember what they were advertising but I can tell you the clothes they were wearing weren’t exactly in keeping with reindeer and their natural habitat… in fact the models must have been freezing!

The Ann Summers photo shoot.
Another snap from the Ann Summers photo shoot.

For a kids TV drama I drew the short straw and had to dress up as a Viking, or at least I think it was a Viking. The show was about a Viking Princess and my colleagues took great delight in having a good laugh at me with some fairly random clothes on! Our reindeer have been part of photoshoots advertising cars. Audi, Landrover and Jaguar have had our reindeer pose next to their fancy pants vehicles.

A “fashion” shoot – nothing fazes Origami!
No midge net allowed for the model (unlike the photographer!)
Yet another photo shoot.

On the whole, however, we tend to do a one-on-one chat with a presenter who is visiting the area. In the past we’ve worked with Ben Fogle, Ray Mears, Bill Oddy, Susan Calman, Matt Baker, Katy Hill, Michaela Strachan, Gordon Buchanan, Elain Smith, James Martin, Bear Grylls and many more. We try to get Tilly to do these chats as she’s so great on TV but inevitably either myself or one of my colleagues will be roped in. We don’t tend to have to chat about anything out of the ordinary, just aren’t they lovely and tame, we mention some adaptations, their names and in general just enjoy spending time with the reindeer on the hill.

Fiona with Susan Calman and the lovely Baffin.
Tilly and Matt Baker.

So, there is a bit of insight to another part of our work with the reindeer. I love working closely with the reindeer like this as you get to know them really well individually and we already know what great characters they are so it’s easy to show them off and be proud of them!

Fiona

Reindeer Myth Buster

Reindeer don’t eat carrots, and other myths to ruin your new year… 😉

Myth 1 – Reindeer are made up

It seems silly when you work with them every day, but it is easy to forget that for a lot of people the only reindeer they know of fly around the world in a single night, so perhaps its not that surprising that they assume they aren’t real.

I’m glad to be able to confirm that reindeer are in fact real and are great fun to work with.

Harry surrounded by real-life reindeer.

Myth 2 – Reindeer eat carrots

Recent surveys have suggested that British people leave out around 3,000 tonnes of carrots for Rudolph to eat every Christmas Eve. But we aren’t sure where this tradition stems from as they do not grow in sub-Arctic habitats, and reindeer physically can’t eat carrots. Their lack of top teeth prevents them from chewing them down into a digestible size.

The food of choice for most reindeer is lichen, a fungi-algi symbiote, that grows here in the Cairngorm mountains and keeps the herd healthy. We also use it to help entice our reindeer during handling, or sometimes just give it out as a treat!

Nom nom nom – a reindeer’s favourite food is lichen. Origami is desperate to get his nose in that bucket!

Myth 3 – Reindeer can fly

This one really goes hand in hand with Myth 1, but I am still yet to see one fly.

I do hear things are different on Christmas Eve though…?

Holy Moley – jealous of the flying ability of ducks?

Myth 4 – Antler points correlate with age

Antlers do tend to increase in size (and therefore often the number of points) with age, however this doesn’t necessarily align with exact ages in years. Also, over the course of their lives, the antlers are susceptible to change. For example, a cow’s antlers tend to be smaller any year she has a calf, a more senior reindeer tends to grow a smaller set, and damage or breaks in antlers can change the growth pattern permanently.

Christie in September 2017 – just 4 months old but she’s grown a whopping set of antlers!
Christie in September 2019 with a lovely big set of antlers for a 2 year old cow.

Myth 5 – Who pulls the sleigh at Christmas

This is an interesting one because the fact that some reindeer keep their antlers through winter leads to confusion about who might be pulling the sleigh. Many people’s first assumption is that it is all boys, due to the antlers. However, the fact that bulls will drop their heavier antlers before winter sets in has led many people to believe that sleigh teams are led by female reindeer (who tend to keep their antlers until the end of winter). While we may take female yearlings and calves out with the sleigh, the reindeer we have pulling the sleigh are castrated males. This is due to their laid-back nature, but also, they tend to hold their antlers longer than entire bulls. Additionally, mature female reindeer could be pregnant at Christmas time.

Castrates have long played an important role in reindeer herding culture. They tend to be more docile and better for training than bulls or cows, and in herds of thousands of reindeer a well-trained castrate male can be used as a ‘decoy’ to influence the movement of the herd in a desired direction.

Two of our lovely gelded males Celt and Frost pulling the sleigh in Stockeld Park last November with herders Fiona and Lotti.

Myth 6 – Antlers are made of wood

While the various textures and colours of antlers throughout their life cycle can often make them look wooden, fully grown antlers are formed of bone. They grow throughout the summer months, while covered in a thin layer of skin and a fur called velvet, and then in autumn the skin will be shed, and the bone shows through. At this point there is no more feeling in the antler, as the blood supply has fully stopped – which is the reason the skin sheds. The reindeer often look quite dramatic at this point, as residual blood can make for a scary looking reindeer! But after a rainy day or two the antlers will look lovely and clean.

Sherlock stripping his velvet and revealing his antlers are indeed made of bone, not wood!

Harry

A day at the farm

Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…

7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!

Nice way to start the day…

7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!

8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!

9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!

Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…

10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.

Roman decides I’m being too slow to put the feed out…

Trough of feed = happy reindeer

The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.

Dr Seuss showing off his new antler growth

Spartan has a good set coming along

Strudel

Stenoa looking… handsome?!

Young Sherlock

Beastie, Jonas and Matto

Houdini, Origami and Bovril enjoying lunch

Atlantic

Atlantic’s older brother, Hamish

Bingo

Old lad Bourbon

Another of our old boys, Moose

Olympic

Young bull Pratchett

Svalbard

11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.

Mixing feed

1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).

1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!

The Belties are delighted to go anywhere for food.

Look at them go!

Dolly the Highland cow, and a beltie calf

3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!

5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!

Andi

Winter free range days

From January to May, our whole herd are out roaming free on the mountains, enjoying the wintry weather that they’re so well-equipped for. Whilst it can be ridiculously wild at times, on other days it is completely still, with glorious sunshine. I thought it would be nice to put up a selection of photos from the last month or two to give you a taste of our winter days…

Oslo leading the herd over for breakfast.

Glorious views out over Aviemore on a beautiful day.

Camus, Sika, Brie and Bordeaux. Sika’s not sure about what she just ate!

Origami and the herd on an icy morning.

Ochil wondering if the food is ready yet

Okapi has cast the main uprights of her antlers, leaving her looking a bit like a unicorn!

Spider has found a nice pool for an after dinner drink.

Santana sporting one of her antlers.

Handsome Rubiks posing!

Pavlova is easily recognised with her white tuft of hair on her forehead.

Parmesan with her white face marking, and old lass Fonn in the background.

Olympic is always one of the first to see us.

LX on a grey day…

… and again on a blue sky day!

Fonn is the oldest reindeer in the herd, at nearly 17 years old.

Ryvita and her calf Berlin.

Beautiful Dixie.

Dixie, Fly and Lulu, stalwarts of the herd.

Young Dante.

Camembert, what a star!

Brie, Inca and Meadow.

We always give the calves some preferential feeding out of the bags – it keeps their condition up and keeps them tame – here’s Bordeaux, Florence, Athens and Texel enjoying a snack.

Blyton and Camembert.

Baffin.

Angua and mum Tap. Both are quite shy reindeer but we’ve put lots of effort into feeding them extra feed each day and their confidence has come on in leaps and bounds.

Hen, Lotti and Dave – feeding mission completed!

Happy reindeer eating their feed.

Celt on a windy day.

Little Kiruna.

Andi

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

 

Differences and Similarities

One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.

Bovril
Bovril in his shaggy old winter coat in June, and looking smart in September

First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.

Olympic
Olympic’s varied coat throughout the same year (2014) – in February, July and September

Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!

Beastie
Young Beastie throughout the same year (2011) – in full winter coat in January, darker summer coat in July, and new winter coat in September

Strudel
Young Strudel throughout the same year (2010) – in old winter coat in May, dark sleek summer coat in August and with new winter coat growing through in September

Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.

Diamond
Diamond as a brown calf with a white forehead, turning silvery later that year, and even lighter as a yearling

Origami
Origami as a calf with a white forehead, and as a silvery white adult

The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.

Caterpillar
Caterpillar with very similar antlers over three consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016.

Puddock
Puddock with his familiar crazy branching antlers over three consecutive years.

There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.

Lulu
Lulu with impressive antlers in 2013, and a rather less impressive set the following year, due to rearing a calf.

Sequin
Beautiful Sequin in her prime with a large set of antlers, and with a simpler set in her old age.

It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!

Andi

Landrovers and lovely locations

Here at the Reindeer Centre, unsurprisingly, requests for some modelling reindeer are not uncommon, particularly around the Christmas season. Of course a change of scenery is always exciting for both reindeer and herders, most of the photo shoots and filming sets can be of a similar ilk. However, when we got a call from Land Rover, asking if a few members of our herd could star in a photo shoot up in the hills on the banks of Loch Ordie, we felt that this was something neither us, nor the reindeer, should miss out on.

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Loch Ordie

And so on a beautiful, frosty and cold morning, off we set with four Christmas boys, two herders and two dogs, with a very optimistic, yet slightly unrealistic hope of coming away with a brand spanking new Land Rover.

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Fiona and Origami admiring the view

Two hours south on the A9 and 6 miles of forest track later in Land Rover convoy, we arrived on set to find a wee flat-pack log cabin (much like a tent, yet wooden making it slightly more cumbersome, and a little more painful if you sat up quickly whilst in bed), two small children in reindeer onesies, an incredibly tall elf and a very sparkly (and reflective) Land Rover sport.

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Jonas getting into the festive spirit with Christmas lights

After the reindeer experienced several hours of tempting handfuls of lichen, reflection admiring/ suspicious glances, manoeuvring and a lot of snapping, darkness began to set in and it was time to head from one hill and back to another.

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Tiree waiting patiently to get home

We were careful to make sure we loaded the actual reindeer as opposed to the imposters.

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Which reindeer are we supposed to be loading again?

Our hairy team shone out as being the most patient of all the models there, captivating everyone on set, especially the two antler-less ones, who were over the moon when they got to charge down some of the forest track.

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Tiree and Sookie after their run

So at the end of the day, alas no new Land Rover, but two very proud reindeer herders!

Eve

Life on Tour

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

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

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

Spider looking incredibly relaxed at an event

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

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

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

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

Run1
Hamish, Origami, Aonach, Duke and Fyrish (plus Tanner) burst out from the barn, down the field…

Run2
… and away up the next one!

Run3
It’s always reassuring when they come back! We pop their head collars on whilst out exercising in case anyone decides to adventure a little too far, but for the rest of the time at base we take them off.

Run4
After a few minutes thundering around letting off steam, they like to settle down to graze and potter.

Run5
Stalking whichever one of us has the bucket of lichen is their favourite pastime

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

AdoptLetters
Lotti, Hen and Abby on letter writing duty!

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

FergusWindsor
Fergus… never a dull moment…

Hen

Truckin’

For just six weeks a year, the normal job description of a reindeer herder changes a little, and many of us start driving massive trucks around the country. Well, 7.5 tonne trucks anyway, which are pretty big in comparison to our wee 3 tonne truck (affectionately named Brenda) who we use for day-to-day transport for the rest of the year.

Kuh
My truck for both this season and last, nicknamed the “Coo” as her number plate ends in KUH

On a busy Christmas weekend we can have up to 8 teams of reindeer and herders out and about across the country, so we hire 5 flatbed trucks and put our own specially designed and built boxes on the back, each with ample space for sleigh, kit, feed and of course most importantly, the reindeer themselves. There’s even internal lights! Each of the 5 boxes is a slightly different design, and over the years everyone has gotten attached to a particular box. Alex’s box is the most unique in design, with the space for the feed and equipment running down the side of the reindeer compartment. Great for Alex, who is tall, but not ideal for someone short like Hen, who can’t reach far enough over the barrier to grab the bags at the bottom! Fiona’s box has a rather heavy ramp, again difficult if you’re shorter, though Fi has the strength to heave it up herself. The “Post Box” did indeed start out its life as a Royal Mail box, and still has a few bits of red paint! It has a roller door into the sleigh compartment which takes a fair bit of practice and agility to get open and shut! The Metal box is a little smaller than some of the others so tends to be used for more local events – fitting enough feed in it for 2 weeks away can leave you short of room to move.

And then there is the newest box, nicknamed the Royal box as it seemed so posh and shiny when first made, and the name stuck. This is my favourite box, and having taken it out on tour for the last few years I’m now very familiar with its quirks. Our ramp has been tensioned beautifully (i.e. quite a lot) so it’s easy for us shorties to put up, but also meaning that you can unintentionally “ramp-surf” as you’re opening up the back gates, finding yourself hovering several feet in the air and having to gingerly edge your weight down the ramp until it touches down.

Xmas Compartments
The compartments of the Royal box

Like most of the boxes, the Royal box has a “corridor” with access to storage for all of the reindeer feed, lichen, straw, buckets, odds and ends, shovel, broom, etc; the sleigh compartment for the sleigh itself, all the decorations and harness; and then of course the biggest area is for the reindeer. Our reindeer travel loose, and whenever we check on them (if we stop for fuel, for example) they’re usually lying down catching some shut-eye! It’s reassuring for us that they seem to like the box, and virtually load themselves, always happy to walk up the ramp.

Reindeer Box
Sleepy reindeer as seen from above!

Origami Morven
Origami and Morven having a restful journey, I sometimes wish I could join them back there!

The boxes are bedded thickly with straw, poo-picked after each journey (let’s just say we’ve discovered another use for the “diesel gloves” you can pick up at garages…) and completely mucked out & pressure washed each time we return home. Keeps us and the reindeer smelling fresher and helps prevent that embarrassing moment when you emerge from the box with “something” stuck to your shoe!

Poo picking
The less glamorous side of the job – poo picking!

Getting kit in and out of the corridor can be fairly entertaining, and over the years the pastime of “lorry yoga” has evolved, providing gentle muscle stretches for the herder on tour as you manoeuvre and contort into weird positions to get (sometimes heavy or awkward) things in and out. The straw bales are the worst, as they frequently try to take you with them as you eject them from the shelf! Getting them back in is even harder, especially when they weigh half as much as you do…

Lorry Yoga2
Just a bit of morning lorry yoga to warm up the muscles…

Lorry Yoga1
… and reach!

Driving the trucks is something I half dread and half look forward to each year. As I’m not old enough to drive them on “grandfather rights”, I did a training course a few years ago and passed the dreaded test to get my license. The problem is we go for over 10 months of the year without driving anything so big, so there’s always a bit of apprehension when the trucks are picked up for the season and you first get behind the wheel… It’s funny though, as everything is bigger, the mirrors are bigger, and they just feel totally different to a car, and your brain automatically seems to click into “slow careful truck-driving” mode. Everything has to be done slower as the trucks are so big, and it’s essential to give the reindeer a smooth ride, so it instantly stops you hurrying and gives you a new sense of patience. Our top speed, even on a motorway, is restricted to 56mph, but it’s quite delightful to pop on cruise control and just potter along to your destination.

DrivingTruck2
Onward!

There are a several things I didn’t know about before starting to drive the trucks. Firstly, the ruts on motorways, created by the endless trucks using the slow lane – whilst I never tend to notice them in a car as the wheels are closer together, when you’re in a truck you can get “sucked in” which is rather disconcerting. Secondly, the frustration of being limited to 56mph when trying to overtake on a motorway. All trucks theoretically have the same limit, but speedos can have a bit of variation, meaning that you’ll sometimes get stuck trying to overtake a bigger truck that’s going just fractionally slower than you. When going uphill, their extra weight slows them down and we gain on them, but once we reach the top of the hill and start heading down again, their weight speeds them up and off they shoot again! This may explain why you sometimes see trucks “duelling” for miles along a motorway… The other time your limiter is frustrating is when you come up behind a car doing 50mph on the motorway, you pull out to overtake, at which point they instantly speed up, just enough to pull ahead, so you tuck in behind them again, at which point they slow back down again!

TyCap Max
That’s what the gap’s for! Max the cat using our truck as a surveillance point

Most of the time though it’s great fun driving a truck, and I still love arriving at an event, the organiser pointing out a tricky bit of manoeuvring that you’ll need to pull off (archways being a major culprit, sometimes with mirrors folded in and a couple of inches to spare each side) and looking hugely impressed when a girl manages to pull it off!

Andi

 

 

A summer with the reindeer

Being a reindeer herder for the summer has been a series of firsts for me: my first job, my first time living away from home and, of course, my first time herding reindeer! It’s been an amazing summer (bar the weather) and for this blog I will be writing about going straight from leaving school, to full time work, and my experiences being the newest and youngest reindeer herder. I have also included a lot of the photos I have managed to take of the reindeer on the hill.

I can remember my first day clearly. I had just arrived and was immediately given my first job: poo-picking in the paddocks. Having been handed a bucket and trowel, I was sent out to tackle the task. Although it may seem ridiculous now, this posed a serious problem: I had no idea what reindeer poo looked like! Being too embarrassed to go back and ask, I continued with the job hoping I was picking up the right stuff. I remember having doubts about being a herder at this point which were soon forgotten when I spent the rest of the day herding reindeer and running around the hills. It was on my first day that I also discovered a certain reindeer we now called Fergus (see our previous blog). Another herder and I were moving the reindeer up the enclosure when I noticed Fergus’ mother Foil wasn’t moving with the herd. I went over to investigate and discovered she had given birth to a tiny, fluffy calf! Sadly she died ten days later but I have been privileged to see Fergus grow up into the confident and slightly naughty reindeer he is today!

Fergus
Fergus peering through the gate

Carrying Fergus
The best way to move Fergus when he won’t behave! Unfortunatly he is getting too big to pick up now.

Being a naturally shy person, my first time taking a tour was quite nerve racking. I had spent the days before attempting to learn all the facts and information I could about reindeer, as on previous visits I had been unable to answer many questions I was asked. It went quite well I think, and since I have taken many more tours, been on several treks and even managed to learn all the names of the reindeer in the hill enclosure! I have grown to love many of the reindeer such as Duke and Bovril who both are sweet and very beautiful. However, some reindeer I am not so keen on… Macaroon (possibly the greediest reindeer ever), delights in kicking my legs whenever he sees me with the hand feed bag which has resulted in me getting many bruises! Minus this personality defect he is still a very sweet reindeer and I can honestly say I don’t dislike any of the herd.

Duke and Bovril
The lovely Duke, and Bovril investigating my phone

Macaroon
Don’t be fooled by the picture, Macaroon is the greediest reindeer in the herd!

Laptev
Trekking with Laptev

Outside of work I have been living at Reindeer House. I am moving to Edinburgh for University in the next few days so the experience of living away from home will really help me with this. My spare time has been taken up by manically painting reindeer on rocks to sell in the shop. As I am going on to do a degree in geology, I feel I am justified by this ‘obsession’ with rocks which has proved to be quite a good wee business.

Reindeer rocks
One of my reindeer rocks

Origami
Origami plotting an escape

Free-range
Moving free-ranging females and calves into the enclosure… which involved walking up a very steep hill!

Lilac
Lilac. At 16 she is now the oldest reindeer in the herd, but is still looking fantastic!

Champagne
Champagne running for her food! I love her antlers that make her look more like an antelope than other reindeer.

Sargasso
Yearling male Sargasso enjoying a feed

Boxer
I wanted to photograph Boxer’s new bone antlers, but instead captured Fergus and Origami posing in the background!

Lego
Lego, a completely deaf but lovely reindeer, who’s always first for hand feeding.

Views
The incredible view from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille – the Reindeer Centre is nestled at the bottom.

Julia
Being followed by reindeer!

I have been extremely lucky to have worked with the reindeer and I would like to thank Tilly and Fiona Smith for giving me this incredible opportunity. I would also like to thank all the staff at the centre (in no particular order) Imogen, Abbey, Hen, Andi, Mel, Catriona and all the volunteers, you are all amazing! And lastly I would like to thank anyone who has been on my tours or is reading this blog.

Julia

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