November has been a busy month. We’ve had the first decent snow higher up on the hills, the free ranging reindeer have been showing their beautiful faces at the hill enclosure every few days, adoptions are coming in thick and fast so lots of letters are streaming out of the office, sleigh training has continued in Glenmore and the first Christmas teams have been on the road! The ‘Christmas reindeer’ have all been totally super and have made us very proud. So this truly is a mixed bag of pics that I’ve taken over the past few weeks! Enjoy…
My first big trip out was when I went with Fiona and we took Sunny, Frost and Druid to a local nursery school in a big lorry. When we got there we took them for a walk in the woods by the car park and found some lichen lollipops which are broken off twigs covered in lichen which the reindeer love. We then took the reindeer outside the nursery and held them on lead ropes so the children were able to come out in small groups to see them. It was so lovely to see their faces when they saw the reindeer. My job was to look after Sunny and we were wearing our Herders’ Christmas jumpers.
On Christmas Eve we went to the Ski car park to find the free-rangers and found them on the mountain so we went over to feed them. We had to jump over a few burns to get to them. I was given the job of doing the reindeer call and they all came over. It was particularly special as my adopted reindeer Scully was there and she came running over. It all felt very special as it was Christmas Eve and I was with the reindeer in their natural surroundings.
Later that day there was a big evening parade in Aviemore starting up at the top of the town. We had to load our Christmas reindeer for the event, Olmec, Scolty, Berlin, Poirot, Sunny and Popsicle into the big lorry outside the Reindeer Centre and take them to start of the parade. They were kept there with a tether line and given food. There were many people who came to say hello to them on the way to the parade. When Santa arrived he got into the sleigh along with the children who were travelling with him. Then we connected up the reindeer to the harness with two adults at the front and two at the back with the two calves. The pipe band started the music which was very loud and made poor Popsicle jump! We paraded down the high street all the way to the Cairngorm Hotel and my job for that night was to walk by the side and make sure no-one let their dog get near and scare the reindeer.
When we had finished we loaded all the reindeer and Santa’s sleigh back onto the lorry and headed for the next parade at Kingussie. On the way we stopped for some fish and chips and I had sausage. It was raining very hard at Kingussie but we still managed to get them all out of the lorry and connected up again to the sleigh for the parade. Everyone was very interested and excited to see and learn about the reindeer and Father Christmas. I stayed at the back of the sleigh to keep all the reindeer in line and not get tangled up.
When this was finished we loaded them all up again and travelled to Newtonmore for the last parade of the night. We went down the whole length of the high street and half way down Fiona surprised me by calling me forward to the front to lead the parade with Olmec and Scolty. This was an absolutely fantastic experience and I felt so honoured to be leading the whole parade with the reindeer. It was such as surprise. We finished the parade at one of the hotels and we all had a warming drink and soup while everyone could meet the reindeer and Santa. One funny time was when my dad was asked to hold all the reindeer whilst still drinking his mulled wine so he had six reindeer leads in one hand with a sleigh and his cup of mulled wine in the other!!! We finally reloaded them back into the lorry. Each time we did this we had to lead them up the ramp and take their head collars off and then load the sleigh into the lorry as well. It was very tiring but brilliant experience. We headed home for a well-earned sleep.
On Christmas Day there were four visits to do to local hotels where the guests could meet Santa with his Elves and the reindeer and have photos taken and Fiona had invited us along to help again. The first one was Coylumbridge Hotel and when I arrived I had a big surprise as Fiona had tied Scully’s antler, which she had shed earlier, to Sunny, and she walked him up to me with it and gave it to me as a present. That was very special to be presented with my adopted reindeer’s antler. We then did McDonald’s Resort Hotel, Nethy Bridge hotel and then one in Kingussie. It was the same team as Christmas Eve as well as Rocket. At each event we had to unload the reindeer and sleigh, harness them up then parade with Santa. The herders were Tilly, Fiona, Joe and Carol as well as me my mum and dad. We were able to have a break in Nethy Bridge and Tilly had arranged for soup and sandwiches for our lunch. It took most of the day but it was such a magical experience taking the reindeer to see lots of people celebrating Christmas and we were all exhausted at the end but very happy. We had a drink back at Reindeer House to celebrate with everyone. They were having their Christmas Dinner with about 20 people afterwards and everything was cooking and smelling very nice
Boxing day was again very snowy and the ski road was again shut due to snow drifts and the herders couldn’t get through till after 10am. It was snowing heavily when we went up the mountain and I couldn’t believe how quickly the snow settled and became very deep. It was great again to see the reindeer in proper snow. We had to do more digging and gritting to clear the paths. The car parks at the top were very very slippy with the ice and we had to be careful not to slip over. The reindeer made it look easy. The free-rangers were on the road so Cameron led them away out of sight and fed them. Sunny the hand-reared reindeer had his final bottle of milk as he moved completely on to normal food.
The following day our trip was over and we headed home through snow blizzards. It was really really kind of Fiona and all the herders to let us spend this special time with them and the reindeer and I loved every minute of it. We must also say a big thank you to Katie, Scott, Alan and all the team at the Pine Marten Bar for putting up with us over the week, kept us fed and watered well and who made our stay in The Treehouse so special as usual. It was such a fantastic and magical time which I will never forget.
I was very lucky to be volunteering with the herd for 8 days in December last year over Christmas. Fiona had said I could help with the Christmas parades that they were due to do. It was my first Christmas working with the reindeer and it was really magical and special experience.
A Fantastic Surprise at the start.
Once we got to Scotland, I had a few days off before I started work with the reindeer. There was so much snow so I was very excited. One of the days we went to Landmark in Carrbridge and my Mum and Dad said it was one of my early Christmas Presents and that there was going to be a surprise.
The surprise was that the reindeer were there!! I was so excited when we found the reindeer pen with Ruth and Mel the herders and the reindeer were Druid, Olmec, Poirot, Berlin and the 2 calves were Sorbet and Lolly. I think we also surprised Ruth and Mel with us turning up. Lol. It was funny to see the pen was next to dinosaur land and there was a gigantic T-Rex looking over the top but thankfully Fiona had made sure the noises were turned off otherwise the reindeer could have been very scared. We took all six reindeer for a walk around Landmark with Santa. I was allowed to help and led Druid whilst Santa led Poirot. It was amazing to see Poirot so calm as it was the first year Poirot was one of the Christmas Reindeer having been a breeding bull in October 2021. He used to charge at the fence protecting his girls and was very aggressive then. He was castrated in August 2022 and he became much calmer and became a Christmas Reindeer. I helped load the reindeer into the back of the lorry at the end and it was such a brilliant day and a fantastic surprise.
Snow, Ice and Tamer Calves
It was very snowy, cold and icy in the first few days once I started and on my first morning, we took reindeer who had come back from Christmas events up onto the hill from the paddocks. There were adult reindeer and calves. I led Poirot, my first time leading a reindeer in snowy and icy conditions. Andi had to dig a massive snow drift away from one of the gates in the hill enclosure as we couldn’t get through. When you walked on the snow, you didn’t know how deep it was so you had to be careful that you didn’t suddenly sink in! It was so icy Andi gritted some of the path for the Hill Trip visitors then I helped Andi worm the reindeer which was giving medicine to keep them healthy and clear of worm infection. I held onto the lead rope and put a few head collars on to the calves who were much tamer than when I was up last in October. They had grown lots too. Zoom the calf (the one who had been found on it’s own on the free-range) was so tame and would follow me and Andi around with the hand feed bribery bag whilst we were trying to catch the calves and put them on head collars. Zoom is best buddies with Sunny the hand reared reindeer calf.
In the few days before the big Christmas parades I did lots of duties in the paddocks and Reindeer House, made up the first-year adoption packs, helped file adoption leaflets away and packed adoption gifts and made feed mix with Lisette. Poo picking in the ice and snow was a new experience (you had to make sure you didn’t slip over and fall in the poo!). One morning Tilly was on Zoe Ball breakfast show on Radio 2 and we all listened to it on the radio. She was talking about the reindeer and Zoe Ball was very interested. Tilly was very good giving lots of information. Another day Joe had an interview for a BBC radio show in the paddocks before we opened. It seemed everyone wanted to know about the reindeer this time of year and our Cairngorm Reindeer Herd were very famous. There were still Christmas events happening and I helped Cameron mix the food then bagged it up for one event that Ruth was doing in Gleneagles.
There were also things happening at Reindeer House with Christmas fun in the paddocks. I talked to people in the paddocks telling them all about the reindeer and also did meet and greet at times explaining what was happening during the Christmas fun. There was a Christmas quiz for people to do and all the herders wore their Christmas jumpers. Santa was in the BBQ hut where he could meet and talk to the children. There were herder talks and people could see the reindeer. The paddocks were decorated for Christmas and children were able to write letters to Santa and post them. Joe was making Christmas jokes all the time and advertising the Naked Herder’s Charity Calendar as well which went on to make a lot of money for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. When I restocked shop there was Christmas music playing in the office.
The hill trips were also really magical. On one trip Gloriana was cleaning her calf by licking it when lying on a snow patch which was really lovely to see. I was able to do the hand feed talk on a few occasions and it was so special that the herders trusted me to tell everyone the important information. Some hill enclosure gates had massive snow drifts so we had to use other gates and walking on snow drifts was difficult as you would sink in suddenly knee deep in snow. One day the snow gates were closed on the main road but we were allowed up to the Sugarbowl car park. This was the first time I had seen them closed. The snow gates opened an hour later. When we got up to the enclosure we moved the ice and snow cleared the path of ice and snow with shovels and our feet.
The reindeer on the free-range could come and go as they wanted. We left the gate to the top corridor open so most of the free-rangers could come in to feed and we could count and I.D them. I did this one day with Cameron and Lisette. We wrote their ear tag numbers down and checked herd list in the shed. It was lovely to see that the mum’s and calves stay together a lot of the time eating the same pile of food and lying down together. The mothers looking after their calves like Christie licking Gelato. Another day the free-rangers had moved to the top ski car park and I went with Sheena and Cameron to find them. One day Hen and Andi had to go to the top of Silvermount to get the reindeer as they were not coming down to the usual calls.
The other thing we had to do was split off the reindeer for the paddocks and Christmas events from the herd when they were needed and move them down from the hill enclosure and then bring them back up when they had finished so we were very busy. On one of the days I took Frost, Dr Seuss and Nuii up the hill with Andi. I was leading at the front with Dr Seuss and my job was to look out for dogs as the reindeer are very scared of dogs as they think they are wolves. I had to make sure the others stayed close behind me as they like to stick together in a group. When we were at the hill enclosure we let Nuii, the calf, off the head collar first before the adults so that they didn’t panic.
Reindeer identification is definitely one of the most challenging aspects of the work here at the Reindeer Centre. Of course there are a few individual reindeer that are very distinctive and easy to spot like Sherlock with those enormous antlers and Dr Suess with his with white nose. I’m also pretty confident telling apart the two white yearling males (99 and Mr Whippy) as long as they’re not too far away!
I’ve been taking as many opportunities as I can to try to get to know who’s who for the less obvious members of the herd. During the summer months while I’m here, the hill enclosure is home to a lovely smaller herd made up of some of the bulls. It’s a good time to try to learn a few reindeer while they’re part of a smaller group and I can see them most days.
The ear tags on the reindeer are colour coded depending on the year they are born, for example last years calves all have red ear tags (I was lucky enough to be volunteering the day they were tagged!). As a rule, I tend to look for any distinguishing features first like coat colour, markings, antler shape and size, and body size. After that, I’ll try to spot what colour the ear tag is. Some of the older reindeer are easier because there are fewer to choose from with that year’s colour ear tag.
As well as the more obvious physical features, its been really helpful to speak to the other herders to get hints and tips on how they remember who’s who. For example, Sheena pointed out that Poirot’s antlers come out straight from his forehead like two fingers or the number “11” and his number is “211”. Isla told me how she remembers Arta’s name because the pattern on his nose looks like artwork and Mollie told me that Cicero has the biggest of the silvery coloured antlers.
This week I learned that Merida, Dr. Suess’ mum, also has a lovely white face and I was able to spot my personal favourite, Beanie, thanks to her lovely speckly nose and the fact that she was with a group of two cows with their calves.
However, often, just when I get the hang of this ID game, things start to change. The boys summer coats don’t really last more that a few weeks it seems so no sooner was I was feeling very confident identifying Lupin and Kernel with their beautiful dark summer coats they’re both already growing their winter coats! We’re also bringing some of the girls into the enclosure which is adding ever more complexity to the task. My ID skills are definitely a work in progress and I’m loving taking every opportunity to watch the herd and learn who everybody is.
August has been a fun month. The first half of the month was super busy with holiday makers but as Scottish schools went back the second half of the month got slightly quieter with visitors and we’ve been having lots of free range action which I love. Generally we start to see the free ranging females more as they come down in altitude as the weather gets cooler. Towards the end of the month we also start bringing in the mums and their calves back into the enclosure. They spend June through to August/early September out roaming the hills learning how to be little wild reindeer and enjoying all the best grazing, but when the autumn rolls around it’s time for them to learn what a feed bag is and in time, how to walk on a halter etc. The following photos are a small snapshot of what’s been occurring…
During the summer months it’s a good time of year to work on our reindeer handling for both reindeer and herders. With a fair few new faces this summer with seasonal staff picking up a few weeks here and there it’s not just good practice for the reindeer but really important that us herders know the best way to approach, put on halters, putting on harness and generally knowing how to act and move around the reindeer in close proximity.
First of all we pick which reindeer will go through the ropes that morning then we split them off into a separate enclosure at their morning feed and bring them up to our shed on the hill. This is where we do all our handling, whether it’s taking temperatures, tending to unwell reindeer or doing a bit training where the reindeer have a halter on and wear a bit of harness. From our shed we can walk out into a quiet enclosure so they get a feel for wearing the harness while walking. Within the group of chosen reindeer there is always an ‘old boy’ who has done lots of training before so already knows the drill and therefore gives off the right vibes. We stand any newbies next to him so they have a calming influence. As well as being the role model to younger reindeer our older trained reindeer are good ones for new staff to learn how to put harness on as they don’t fuss or move around making it a lot easier to explain and learn. Some of our older boys who are trained are: Aztec, Dr Seuss, Poirot, Sherlock, Frost, Clouseau and Athens. We then train anything who is 1, 2 or 3 years old next to them. The 2 and 3 year old have of course done this for the past few years so it tends to be the yearlings who are a bit more twitchy doing it for their first summer. Of course as 5-6 month old calves they went out and about at Christmas so its not completely new to them.
Once we put some harness on we walk them out into another enclosure to get used to it. Our two hand reared calves Winnie and Alba sometime join us for this little excursion each morning so they can get a bit of extra hill grazing. Being the size of a medium dog sometimes the young trainee reindeer forget that the calves are actually reindeer and decide to unnecessarily have a brief panic, before realising how silly they are worrying about a little reindeer calf… or two. It’s quite funny watching them work it out. The old boys are pretty savvy to the calves and just ignore them.
Working closely and being able to handle our reindeer is really important for them and us. As many of you know we run a Christmas tour through November and December so any extra handling prepares our reindeer for some of that work they do. We also handle our reindeer should they need any treatment, vaccines or antibiotics and the more used to this they are the less stressful the situation for both animal and human. Some take to it quicker than others, like us they all have their individual personalities and characters. We change our handling sometimes depending which reindeer it is you’re working with. It’s really important we know our reindeer so if there is one ‘off colour’ then it’s picked up quickly and dealt with.
Here are some photos of us training our reindeer in the summer and also in the autumn time when we are getting ready for our Christmas tour.
Like any new reindeer herder, when I first started in May 2017 I quickly had to learn lots of reindeer names. A daunting task when we have around 150 in the herd! But it is very important as knowing their names means we can look after their welfare better by spotting when somebody is acting unusually and learning how best to handle each and every reindeer. Each reindeer is an individual with their own personality quirks, just like us humans!
I would frequently ask for help from Fiona, Hen and Andi in particular. “Who’s this one again?!”… most of the time they would give me very helpful clues and tips, so I slowly began to learn subtle markings or personality traits. For example, Oatcake has a white ‘O’ above her right eye, Feta has a short face, Wapiti is missing the very tops of her ears, and if you just see a reindeer bottom walking away from you it could well be Enya!
But sometimes they would say “oh they just look so like their mother/father/granny/sibling”. I used to find this very unhelpful! I don’t know their mum!! But, a few years down the line, I am finding I’m doing this myself. So, here’s a blog with a very small selection of some of our lovely reindeer who I think look very similar to a relative.
There’s plenty more but perhaps I’ll save that for another blog in the future.
For this week’s blog, I’ve uploaded a heap of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what goes on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
June and July are the months when our reindeer have to complete a full moult from their incredibly thick winter coats to their short, sleek summer coats. They don’t quite look at their most glam at this stage (though obviously they’re always beautiful!) but there can be some entertaining looks going on, which we thought you might all appreciate!
People who see our photos on social media without knowing much about us must wonder why some of our reindeer have such strange names. Where’s Dasher and Dancer? Prancer and Vixen? And Rudolph??? Where on earth have ‘Pavlova’, ‘Caterpillar’ and ‘Clouseau’ come from?!
We’ve been naming the reindeer on a theme each year since the early 70s. As well as making life a bit easier for us coming up with 15 – 30 brand new names each year (where would you start otherwise?!), it has a very practical application in that it helps us remember the individual age of each reindeer, based on their moniker. For farmers naming animals is often done using words starting with a certain letter of the alphabet each year, but different themes is our chosen method.
Up until the early 70s Mr Utsi named his reindeer mainly just with human names, both English and Swedish in origin. However, in 1971, the calves were instead given names of different trees, such as Spruce, Larch and Alder. In 1972 it was birds: Raven, Wren and Hawk. And Tit (teehee).
Themes need to be chosen to have enough ‘good’ names; those not too long, not too complicated, not double-barrelled and either unisex or enough names suitable for a rough 50:50 split of male and female names within the theme. This rules out some ideas pretty quickly.
Over the years however, all the ‘obvious’ themes have now been done. Rivers; Butterflies; Countries; Sweeties – we’ve been there and done that. We do our best to never reuse a name as each reindeer is their own character and we feel they deserve an individual name, but also because it can cause confusion on the database if there’s more than one of the same. We do accidentally slip up however – I’m well aware that both Juniper and Frost in the herd are not the first of their kind. I think Lady holds the record – the Lady that I knew when I first started here turned out to be Lady the Third when I looked closely at the database…
So now we have to think outside the box, hence our slightly off-the-wall themes of later years. This year the calves are named after ‘Seeds, Peas and Beans’. We did ‘Police and Detectives’ recently. And before that ‘Ancient Civilisations’.
To an extent we try not to use themes that are too commercial, hence ‘car makes’ or ‘football clubs’ aren’t options. Something else we don’t do, or not nowadays at least, is to allow other people to name reindeer in our herd. This is quite a popular request, and most often comes from people wishing to name a reindeer in memory of someone in their family who really loved visiting the reindeer, or had some special connection with the herd for one reason or another. While this would seem a lovely tribute, sadly reindeer don’t live forever and we don’t want people to be too invested in a certain reindeer, only for it to pass away unexpectedly. Sod’s law is a big factor here – allow someone to name a reindeer in this manner and you can almost guarantee it will be the one to pop it’s clogs a week later… However, we like to accommodate people if possible, so we have in the past, in exceptional circumstances, allowed someone else to choose the theme (from a shortlist). We did it this year in fact – ‘Seeds, Peas and Beans’ was chosen in memory of a gentleman to whom gardening had been a very important part of his life.
While all the staff here are involved in naming the calves each year, the Smith family, who own the reindeer herd, have the final say in all names. And themes they don’t like won’t make the grade. Hence don’t bother asking us if ‘Game of Thrones’ will ever be the theme – I can tell you right now that it won’t. I did make a bid for ‘Sean’ for this years’ theme (think about it) but sadly it was out-ruled.
Of course there end up being lots of exceptions to the rules and reindeer often end up with really random names, but I think some details of these can wait till a future blog (which I’ve now written!).