Visitors often ask how on earth we tell apart the 150-strong herd of reindeer. Whilst there is variation in colour, markings and antler shape, one of the biggest distinguishing features is actually character. Just like people, reindeer come in every shade of cheeky, shy, friendly, stand-offish, bolshy, greedy, intelligent, daft… I thought I might mention a few stand out character types, past and present!
Step up, Aztec! Always the first to be involved, always wanting to “help”, very friendly, lovable, and not a manner to be seen if there is a mere sniff of food… Fun, but a bit of a liability.
Also falling into this category: Kipling, Bumble, Eco
Reserved and steady, not always the easiest to catch but utterly dependable when out on tour. Olmec, I’m looking at you.
Also applies to: Dragonfly
Introducing the one and only Holy Moley… who knows full well that she basically had her own TV documentary and hence feels that every visitor is there to see her and her alone.
Also: Dr Seuss appears to feel that his minor starring role in the same show entitles him to extra food portions every single day too.
Sweet as Pie, Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly
Beautiful light-coloured Diamond has to be one of the gentlest souls in the herd. She walks with a slight limp after an injury back in her younger days, which of course means we all (needlessly) slip her extra bits of feed.
Also: Amber, Esme, Sunflower
Loyal and True
Certain reindeer can always be relied upon when we’re moving the free-range herd – they’ll be near the front, they willingly have a headcollar put on, they trustingly plod behind you whilst the rest of the herd debate whether your bribe is worth coming for. Okapi, you’re the star here.
The Boy Band Pin-Up
Sherlock has to be one of the most impressive looking reindeer in the herd today, and he also knows how to work it. Some reindeer naturally prick their ears for a photo, and seem to offer their best side!
Also: Elvis, of whom there was never a bad photo taken!
Grumpy Old Men (and Women)
Bond may only be 5 years old, but he definitely ticks every box for “grouchy” – you only need to look at him and he rolls his eyes at the thought that you might try to interact with him. Likewise, walking too near Lace or Turtle is likely to extract a swing of the antlers and a snap of the mouth as a warning. Turtle is Pony’s daughter, who was perhaps the grumpiest reindeer we’ve ever had in the herd, so it’s definitely inherited!
Also: Addja once implanted his antlers into my leg when in a bad mood, only to cast one, which definitely didn’t make him any more cheery (though it did make me chuckle at the instant karma).
Big Friendly Giant
One of the tallest, heftiest reindeer in the herd, Scrabble was a bit of a liability in his youth as he was just so keen to meet everyone, and somewhat unaware of his sheer size. It almost seemed that his bum was so far away from his brain that he couldn’t keep track of the children he was wiping out as he turned around… Now he’s an old fella so a bit steadier, but just as friendly and enormous!
Don’t Mess With…
Brie may look little and cute, but her first instinct if she doesn’t like something is to beat it/them with her antlers, and whilst she both she and her antlers may be small, she is ANGRY. As Mel once found out when leading Brie, and Brie decided she did NOT want to be there…
Also: Spy. If Spy has calved, it usually takes about four herders, all hiding behind gates/fences to move her where we want her to be.
Whilst the majority of our reindeer are docile, friendly and laid back, there is always an exception, so in this week’s blog I thought I’d introduce you to Pony…
Pony was born in our “Games and Pastimes” themed calving of 2011. It might not seem an obvious game, but it was a bit of a stretch, naming her after the My Little Pony craze. The broader picture is that her older brother from the Bugs and Beasties theme was named Horse, slightly ironically, in the hope that if we gave the calf a rather rubbish name then sod’s law would mean it had a long life, as mother Mawar was renowned for losing her calves at a young age. It seemed to have had the desired effect so we stuck with the animal theme for Pony, then later for her brother Goat (in the Cheese theme).
Pony is quite easy to pick out among the other normal coloured cows of the herd as she is missing the very tips of her ears. Sometimes if a reindeer is quite poorly as a calf they don’t maintain the blood supply to the extremities and the tip of, or occasionally the entire ear, can drop off. Whilst changing their appearance somewhat, it doesn’t seem to have any other negative impact on the reindeer.
Pony’s mother Mawar was a lovely sweet natured reindeer, but perhaps Pony has a chip on her shoulder from missing her ear tips, as she has always had a bit of attitude. Or perhaps it comes from further back in her family tree as her auntie Lulu isn’t averse to snorting and waving her antlers at people! Unfortunately I also found out that Pony can hold a grudge, and I inadvertently got myself on the wrong side of her in 2018.
It was May, and Pony was in our hill enclosure looking very pregnant and ready to calve. One day she had headed away from the herd, so myself and Kate made an early start the following morning, assuming she must have a new calf. And indeed she did, a very cute wee male, quite a distance from the main herd. We like to bring them in to a smaller “nursery” pen where we can keep an eye on the new mums and young calves, so Kate and I started following behind Pony and the calf, gently herding them in the right direction.
Reindeer calves are very capable but his wee legs got more and more tired, until eventually he lay down and didn’t want to walk any more. Normally at this point we would just carry the calf with mum following behind, but Pony already had a reputation for defending her calves, so I decided to try to pop Pony on a headcollar. She was a bit suspicious but hungry enough after giving birth to snatch a bite of feed from my bag, at which point I grabbed hold of her antler! Kate nipped in and we put on the headcollar. Pony was NOT impressed, and even less so when Kate picked up her calf, with me holding her back enough to not wallop Kate with those antlers!
We made our way in, by some miracle nobody died or got skewered on Pony’s antlers, and we released Pony and her new calf out with the rest of the new mothers. Sadly for me, Pony never forgave me for this perceived wrongdoing (though they were never more than 6 ft apart and the tired calf seemed relieved to be carried!). From that point on, I had to watch my back, as anytime I was anywhere near Pony’s calf she’d come after me, threatening me and snapping at me!
This love has persisted over the years, and when Pony had her next calf in 2020, a wee female, it fell to me to bring her in. Pony had calved much nearer this time, and shot off away from me, the wee toot scrabbling after, all going smoothly until they got to the gateway, which Pony went through, but her calf went straight into the fence. Shutting the gate behind Pony to prevent her spinning back round and beating me up, I was free to disentangle the calf. We named her Turtle, and she is a very sweet lass, though I’m waiting for the day her mother’s attitude comes through!
Pony’s hatred of me rose to another level in the autumn, when Pony managed to wedge a chunk of bone she was chewing on beneath her tongue, necessitating a visit from the vet and an operation to remove it. As I was one of the herders there (giving up my evening to wait for the vet to arrive…), Pony seems to have linked the pain and discomfort with somehow being my fault… I went to check she was ok the next morning and got chased for my efforts! What a reindeer!
For my part, I still like Pony, and this winter decided to try and win her round by offering her extra tasty treats from a bag. She cottoned on quickly and is quite willing to accept the offering, but it’s fairly daunting as she comes flying over with her ears back, and I hold the bag up partly as a shield! I think her lack of ear tips does make her look more angry than she actually is at times, but I’m still pretty cautious around her, doing my best not to tread on her toes, so to speak!
Just the other day, we were noticing that her oldest daughter, Suebi, who until this point has been a sweet natured lassie, seems to be getting more “opinionated” with age, so fingers crossed we’re not going to end up with another Pony on our hands!
This past year has been my first full year as a reindeer herder. Despite becoming a reindeer herder seven years ago in 2014 (remember then? simpler times!), I was very much a seasonal herder. I would arrive for a few months in the summer whilst either my university course was having a break, or in-between travels abroad.
Therefore, last winter was my first winter as a reindeer herder. And what a memorable winter it was! Firstly, it was lockdown, so it was very different to how things usually operate which was new and exciting whilst also being unpredictable and slightly chaotic. But also, there was the snow. So. Much. Snow. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a couple of videos and photos from the crazy weather, including this short clip of Joe and I leading the herd downstream in blizzard-like conditions at the start of February.
And it’s not just reindeer that we fed throughout the winter! Opportunistic snow buntings joined in most days too:
I am writing this at the start of May where we have had quite a bit of fresh snowfall over the past couple of weeks, so maybe we are not through all the snowy weather just yet. But I am sure it won’t be anywhere near as much as the volume of snow that fell this winter. Overall, it was a lovely first year as a reindeer herder, albeit very unusual as the whole country adapted to changing circumstances. Now I look forward to my next year and hopefully getting to see all the ‘normal’ activities such as Christmas events and parades.
Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!
Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.
In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.
In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.
The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.
The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.
I help take the Christmas decorations down.
In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.
Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.
After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.
Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.
Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.
It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.
One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.
The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.
The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.
It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.
At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.
The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.
In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.
I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.
The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.
There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.
There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!