Photo Blog: February 2024

We reopened to the public on the 10th of February. With no Paddocks and Exhibition available (the site is currently a very big hole) it feels rather strange! But the Hill Trips are running as usual, in fact for the February half term we brought some of our free ranging cows and nine month old calves in to our hill enclosure allowing us to do two Hill Trips a day. So, we’ve been busy looking after our the herd in the enclosure and checking in with the free rangers once every few days. February has so far been rather mild so far with not very much snow so we’ve been having a relatively easy time, and the reindeer are finding easy grazing. We’ll be back to free range visits very soon (Monday 26th Feb) so if anyone is visiting us between now and the end of April be prepared for potentially much longer walks out to find the herd.

1st of February: Andi surrounded by some of our wonderful reindeer calves.
1st of February: Colorado the cutie!
7th of February: Repairing a fence at the top of our hill enclosure that got ripped up by a recent storm. Cameron is stood by the hole where the strainer post in the foreground should have been!
8th of February (a): Lotti and I head out to bring in the free ranging herd to our hill enclosure ready for the half term school holidays. Here’s Morven leading the way.
8th of February (b): Trying my best to woo the herd across the burn. I can confirm the burn was higher than the height of my wellies.
8th of February (c): Lace was the first to cross the burn with her calf Limpopo at her side. Thank you Lace for being a great leader! The herd were quick to follow her and then marched up this hill that we affectionately call Killer Hill.
11th of February: Holy Moley showing off her lovely incisors!
14th of February: After a day in the enclosure these reindeer are off back out free roaming. From L to R we’ve got Sorbet, Feta, Pip, Danube, Colorado (and his mum Christie just poking her head out behind) and Elbe.
15th of February: Sundae being cute as ever on a very dreich Hill Trip.
16th of February: Amazon saying hello.
16th of February: The state of the Paddocks just now.
20th of February: A recent storm blew down (another) fence within the enclosure. Here’s the delivery of new posts ready for for work to commence.
22nd of February: We did a enclosure swap. These are the girls who’ve been in the hill enclosure for a wee while now heading back out to free roam with Fiona leading the way.
22nd of February: Our wonderful volunteer Emm is back and has brought the sun with her. All the herders are delighted to see her, and so is Feta!

Ruth

A broken ankle and a helicopter ride.

Anyone who has come to visit us will know that we have very strict clothing and footwear requirements. On a fair-weather day, this may sometimes seem slight overkill but when the conditions change, or something goes wrong requiring us to stay on the hill longer than usual, the extra layers are absolutely necessary.

A wild day feeding the reindeer (Getty images).

One such occasion happened in December. We had almost come to the end of a hill trip when one of our visitors approached me to ask if I could help her support her wife who had slipped and possibly sprained her ankle. At first they had hoped that between the three of us, we would be able to walk off the hill. When I reached her, it became quickly apparent that the pain was too great for her to walk of the hill even with us taking her weight, making it a very easy decision that we would call mountain rescue. The week before I had done my first aid training and our casualty’s wife was a doctor so hopefully, she was in good hands. While Ben got on the phone, I fetched our group shelter and Isla brought some layers to keep everybody warm. The reindeer, having not seen a group shelter before were very interested in the sudden appearance of a giant orange ‘bag of food’ and Ben and I had to chase them away to avoid any further injury.

Druid, Dr Seuss and Jelly were very interested in the group shelter.

We were very lucky, and the mountain rescue team were with us within an hour and a half. As they arrived there were fits of laughter from inside the group shelter as Ben was telling both the women not to worry, that we had pre-paid for the rescue by getting our kit off for a naked calendar the previous year, raising over four and a half grand for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Mountain Rescue teams are made up of volunteers, when a call comes in, they are all alerted and have to leave their jobs/ whatever else they may have been up to come out. Once the team has assembled, they then have to drive from the base and then walk out to find the casualty, all of this can take a good few hours. On this occasion they had already been alerted for another rescue so the first people to respond had gone to the other casualty and then the next people had come straight to us. The mountain rescue team were absolutely fantastic, they splinted her ankle, with some much-appreciated pain relief, and then lifted her onto a stretcher, ready to walk off the hill.

The whole time this was happening, we could hear a helicopter flying a little way south of where we were. It became apparent that the helicopter was meant for the original casualty who had been climbing in the Northern Corries but they were unable to land due to the weather. So as not to waste the flight, and to get our lovely visitor off the hill and to hospital as soon as possible, the helicopter came to us instead.

The herd walking down past us to the afternoon Hill Trip.
Helicopter landing in the hill enclosure.

By this point we’d been on the hill so long that the afternoon Hill Trip had arrived and was gathered a bit further down the hill. The reindeer have regularly seen helicopters in the distance, but we were unsure if one landing this close to the reindeer would spook them causing a rather abrupt end to the Hill Trip. On the contrary, the reindeer barely batted an eyelid, the visitors were all pretty interested though!

Helicopter with our next hill trip visitors and reindeer behind.

The woman with the broken ankle was lifted into the helicopter and as they flew off her wife told us ‘Once she’s out of hospital and her ankle is fixed, she’s going to absolutely love this, she loves helicopters’. The rest of us walked back down off the hill.

Helicopter flying away.

Accidents such as these are very rare, in fact at my first aid course the previous week I had smugly told the instructor that I hadn’t had to use any first aid since the previous course 3 years earlier. I clearly spoke too soon. In this case, our visitor slipped despite having the correct footwear, she was just very unlucky. All four of us ended up staying on the hill for a total of 4 hours, for the last 2 we weren’t moving. For me it was a very good reminder of why we have to be so strict with the footwear and clothing that our visitors wear, had our casualty not had enough layers, the situation could have become more serious very quickly.

Ruth and Andi all dressed up for a winter reindeer feed.

Lotti

A Christmas Interrogation (part 2)

A while back I interviewed a few of my colleagues with some questions relating to the Christmas season. The first half of this blog can be read here. But onward…

THE SMELL YOU MOST ASSOCIATE WITH CHRISTMAS? With this question, I just wanted to check that everyone else had the same – as far as I’m concerned – very obvious answer. Turns out they do. Every. Single. One. ‘I think we all know the smell associated with Christmas…’.  Reindeer pee, obviously!

Maybe I should elaborate though, for the uninitiated. Whilst we do our best to keep our leadropes clean, they invariably end up on the ground at times. Whilst the reindeer don’t actually actively pee on them (unless you’re really unlucky), they tend to stand on the ends regularly (lay a rope over a reindeer’s back, whilst catching another, and they often shake it off). We keep the straw beds in our sheds, at our temporary bases we stay at, and in our lorries as clean as possible at all times, but it is as certain as death and taxes that the ropes always end up smelling of pee from the reindeer’s feet and the straw. Lotti: ‘Reindeer pee on the leadropes. Particularly when drying out in the caravan…’

Ferreting out all the ‘smart’ red leadropes and halters from storage at the start of November, ready for distribution between the team kits. Mostly smelling of washing powder at this stage, but probably best not to sniff them too closely.

Tilly adds ‘Once Christmas is over I wash all the halters and ropes and even if everyone has been really careful not to let the ropes fall on the ground, they still have a very distinct smell of urea’. There were some additional contributions too – both Andi and I cite Tilly’s washing powder as the second smell that instantly brings Christmas to mind, from our red jumpers that we wear at events. Fiona added damp lorry cabs and Joe included mince pies. Along with ropes smelling of reindeer pee. None of this ‘winter spices’ Christmas nonsense.

FAVOURITE FOOD ON CHRISTMAS DAY: I was just being nosy, to be honest. Fiona: ‘The soup and sandwiches from Nethy Hotel – we feel like we’ve earned them [Nethy Hotel provide lunch for us during our last events of the year on Christmas Day]! Who doesn’t like free food! Plus a variety of meat from our farm.’ Generally somewhat carnivorous, Tilly surprised me with ‘sprouts’ (but roasted in the oven). For Lotti and Ruth it was the roast tatties, and the same for me too (as long as gravy and redcurrant jelly are liberally applied). For Andi it was pigs in blankets, and Joe, anything involving smoked salmon.

This was our Christmas party last year, rather than Christmas Day itself, but look at all that yummy food! On the left are Joe, Lotti, myself and Andi, and on the right are Fiona and Tilly. Ruth is in the stripey t-shirt 5th from the right. The only photo I could find with all my interviewees in it!

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT OF CHRISTMAS (PAST OR PRESENT):  This was a bit of an unfair question really, but I couldn’t think of a different way to phrase it. Most memorable moments of our Christmas seasons tend to be those when everything goes tits-up, most of which aren’t necessarily things we’re going to brag about! So this is the slightly sanitized version of ‘most memorable – and publishable – moment of Christmas’ Fiona: ‘Oh god. There’s so many – probably, to go back a few years, the Harrods event in London. All the other attractions would disappear at the end and we were always left to make our own way back to the lorry with 6 reindeer, past all the people going about their day to day business. Waiting for the green man at zebra crossing s!’

One of the Harrods parades, a good few years ago now. Photo by Kim Alston

For Andi the memory wasn’t necessarily a specific one, rather one that happens from time to time at events: ‘The best experience from parades is walking with the reindeer following a pipe band, with them all walking in time. It gives me chills every time.’ I know this feeling well too.

Pen escapes featured highly for Ruth and Joe… ‘Aztec effortlessly leaping the pen fence at Gleneagles in pursuit of food…’. All the reindeer jumping out the pen once! They were very easy to catch and return though – with a big bag of lichen!’. And continuing with the theme of errant reindeer, Lotti came up with a classic from a few years back: ‘Probably when me and Mel tried to let four calves follow the adults up the hill to the enclosure in the dark to re-join the herd, and promptly lost them into the darkness…’.

Memory I wish I’d seen the most belonged to Tilly: ‘When we didn’t have a Santa for the parade on Christmas Eve at Newtonmore and I was the substitute…’. For myself, I have so many, many memories. Some good, some bad. But an affecting one which will stay with me forever is one I’ve written about in the past in a previous blog, so won’t repeat again here.

And finally, REINDEER YOU’D CHOOSE IF SANTA NEEDED A RUDOLPH REPLACEMENT?I guess this could be rather similar to favourite reindeer to work with at Christmas, but not necessarily. Sometimes favourites are those with naughty streaks, and presumably Santa would need a pretty reliable reindeer on loan if Rudolph is side-lined? Lotti agreed: ‘I would say that Frost would be a good Rudolph replacement, as he’s an excellent sleigh-puller, and in summer he does sometimes get a slightly sunburnt nose, giving it a red tinge!’. I agree with the reliability being very important – Origami would be my choice. He is pretty professional for Christmas events – he knows his job and gets on with it.

Likewise Tilly: Well it would need to be a reindeer who is confident and happy to be at the front leading the way, so I think Aztec, with a ‘carrot’/lichen dangling in front of his nose!’. Another vote for Aztec came from Ruth: ‘I would send Aztec as he’s the most nimble – see my answer for the previous question! Or maybe Dr Seuss? Although I wouldn’t want Santa to steal Dr Seuss, so maybe not…’. Segueing neatly on to Andi: ‘Dr Seuss – he’s distinctive, charismatic, can hold his own in a new group of reindeer, and has a pink nose – perhaps it would glow with a little help from Santa…’.

Aztec might be nimble at times, but a lot of the time he’s rather lazy! Seen here busy cleaning his hoof in a care home garden on a visit in November.

Fiona reckoned Santa might prefer a certain type of reindeer, like a ‘hand-reared one, like Grunter or Sunny. They are happy with human company and happier being by themselves if need be.’. Joe hummed and harred a bit. ‘…umm. Kind of before my time, but Topi was amazing. Olympic is far too lazy… Scolty! He’d do a solid job.’

So there we go. My overall impression from writing these two blogs is that it’s impossible to give straightforward answers to any questions involving Christmas, even though everyone valiantly tried. I still only wrote down a very small section of what was said though, as many answers were nonpunishable!

Hen

The curious case of Lolly and the blue jacket

At the end of each summer, we bring the cows and calves, who have spent all summer free-ranging in the mountains, back to the enclosure. For most of the reindeer this involves spotting a small herd of reindeer somewhere relatively near the enclosure and using a bit of bribery to lure them into the enclosure. That means the calves, who aren’t used to people, will just follow their mums through the gate and we can then spend the next couple of months training them and getting them used to us.

Zap was one of the first calves to come into the enclosure, ten days later he was very relaxed around people!

Every year though, there are a couple of cows and calves who like to keep us on our toes and wander to the wrong side of the hills which means we have to drive around in our wee truck, find and catch the reindeer, and then drive them back again. This just leaves the one small task of catching the calf, who has never worn a halter and has spent all summer avoiding people. Usually the easiest way is to catch their mum, then spend a little time walking with the mum on a halter and getting the calf used to your presence. Once they are settled and are coming back close to their mum then you can use their mum as a shield to hide your body as you get close enough to the calf to catch them. Once you have caught them, the second herder will very speedily put a halter on and lead them down off the hill.

Hen and Andi midway through a calf catching mission.

At the end of September last year there were still a couple of reindeer who hadn’t come in yet after free-ranging for the summer. September always ends up being a very busy month but on one, very rainy, day we found ourselves with enough staff on for two of us to head out searching for the last few reindeer. So, Ruth and I rummaged around for the most waterproof of all our jackets before heading off. The jackets that we decided on were both Rohan jackets given to us after Fiona was featured in their magazine, Ruth’s jacket was navy blue and mine was bright turquoise. The colour of our jackets might seem trivial but it is relevant to the story.

If you look very closely you can just spot Lotti camouflaged against Fiona’s van…

We set off walking and fairly quickly spotted three reindeer, two cows and a calf. During our walk up the rain had stopped, and I had taken my jacket off. Once we got closer we realised it was Wapiti, Oatcake and Oatcake’s calf who had recently been named Lolly. We caught both the cows fairly quickly and Lolly seemed unusually tame, she was very happy to be close by to us at which point I thought we were going to have a very easy job!

Lolly following closely behind Ruth, Oatcake and Wapiti.
Oatcake and Lolly – now just to catch Lolly!

We walked down the hill and into the trees and at this point it had started to rain again so I put my raincoat on again and we tied Wapiti onto one of the trees to give us an extra set of hands for catching. At which point Lolly ran at high speed up the hill away from us. This isn’t that unusual for a calf who has spent all summer avoiding people so we waited for her to settle and come back to her mum, but she didn’t…. We waited a while and then decided that she clearly had become nervous after we stopped so we would keep walking and hopefully she would come back over. So, we continued walking with Oatcake and Wapiti but Lolly wouldn’t come anywhere near us. I was getting more and more worried that we wouldn’t be able to catch her and our mission wouldn’t be successful at which point I realised that the moment she ran off was when we stopped which was also when I had put the blue jacket on.

It sounded totally ridiculous that a reindeer might be scared of a jacket but I thought it was worth a try, so I took off the jacket, at which point she came charging back down to us. I am very glad Ruth was there too otherwise the story would have seemed quite improbable!! From that moment on, she was a total star and we managed to catch her and walk her off the hill. It rained the entire way back I think but I had to walk back in my t-shirt as we didn’t want to upset Lolly again!

Mission accomplished – Lolly on a halter and walking back to our truck!
Within minuets Lolly is halter trained and walking beautifully next to her mum.

I spent the walk down the hill wondering if the fact that reindeer can see in the UV spectrum (for more information on this read Ruth’s blog here) meant that the blue part of the colour spectrum was accentuated so the jacket looked extra bright. More likely as none of the objects that Lolly had seen on the plateau all summer were blue seeing a walking bright blue jacket was a bit of a surprise. One thing is for sure, that jacket will be used for dog walking and not reindeer herding in the future.

Lolly and Oatcake back in the enclosure a couple of days later.
Lolly in the enclosure getting much braver!
Lolly at a local Christmas event at Landmark, Carrbridge – so used to handling and people she’s totally unfazed about the huge T-rex looming over the display pen!
Lolly back out free ranging in the hills for winter after all her Christmas duties and training are complete!
Lolly and Oatcake free ranging.

Lotti

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

The Legend of the Pink Badge

Many years ago, a reindeer herder made a Badge. This Badge was pink, and he wore it with pride. In time he decided to pass it on to another herder, who had done a Worthy Thing that day (what the Worthy Thing actually was has since been lost in the mists of time). However, that herder then took it upon themselves to pass it on once again, to another Worthy Person, and so it is that the Pink Badge of Worthiness came into being.

Or something along those lines anyway. The badge maker at Reindeer House was a very good investment of ours, many years back, and has churned out thousands of the things over the years for kids visiting the Paddocks and having a go at a quiz (we use different quizzes through the year and not all have a badge to make on them, before you get your knickers in a knot about why your family didn’t get the option of badges on a visit…). We have, of course, made plenty of badges for ourselves too, and this is how the pink badge started off – it was made from a bright pink post-it note upon which one of us had drawn a smiley face.

Managing to identify every single one of a big group of free-ranging female reindeer can be a badge-worthy affair – when they have all changed hugely in appearance since last seen, are moving at a constant jog to avoid the flies, and some won’t come near you at all!

I can’t quite remember the full details of exactly how the tradition of passing on the badge came about, but the essence of it is exactly as I’ve written at the start of this blog. The owner of the badge can hold on to it (usually pinning it on their t-shirt/jumper) for as long as they want, and when they feel someone else has gone above and beyond the call of duty, they award them the badge. And then the next person continues, and so on. There are no real rules, no limit on how long you can have it, or how many times; the badge is an item of supreme simplicity.

The Pink Badge on my t-shirt 😀

As I write this the current holder is Ruth, awarded it for managing to get our ancient and decrepit Landrover into 4WD mode on a early morning reindeer retrieval mission! The badge itself is currently in it’s second incarnation, after one too many accidental trips through the washing machine; but I’m not even too sure where Pink Badge 2 came from, as it’s not the size our own badge-maker produces. We’re also not colour blind – we’re well aware that this model is not pink! But in the best tradition the name endures regardless.

Morse and Jimmy admiring the badge pinned proudly on Ruth’s t-shirt!

At times the badge has been lost, or forgotten about, or unearthed months later on an old jumper in the back of a cupboard. Sometimes it’s just been found on the office pinboard, and no-one has appeared to know how it got there, or who was responsible. Our boss Tilly got it once, but was banned from taking it home with her as we were worried that once it disappeared into the depths of her farmhouse it would never, ever be seen again!

Very few photos of the original pink badge actually exist – this is the only one we could find (thanks Manouk!). It looks like it may have been through the washing machine a few times already by this point…

Fiona wishes me to point out that for the first five years she was only ever awarded it once a year, at the end of December, after organising (and surviving) the Christmas tour season, traditionally the busiest time of the year. I myself have been given it for a range of activities, most of which I can’t remember now, but the most memorable was the time I was given it for managing to not throw a printer through the office window. You may laugh, but deep down everyone reading this knows the deep-rooted and boiling fury a malfunctioning printer can incite – what does ‘general error’ even mean?! – so really I feel it was justified. I have had a hate-hate relationship with every single printer that has ever lived in the Reindeer House office.

Later that same day, however, Andi managed to extract a section of old fencing wire that had somehow become entangled around the antlers of one of our biggest breeding bulls, Kota, and this was right in the middle of the rutting season when he had morphed from a gentle giant to a raging testosterone-fueled beast. To this day I am therefore still the record-holder for the shortest ownership of the badge.

Kota – not an inviting prospect to have to get close to with a pair of wire cutters…

A lot of the other reasons for receival have been forgotten over the years, but have often included epic catches of ‘wilder’ reindeer, or memorable displays of herding. Olly received it last year for a stupendous and skillful effort of getting Rain and her newborn calf Jimmy into the right area of the hill enclosure after she had led Nell and myself on a merry (and ultimately unsuccessful) dance the previous day until a good two hours after we should have finished work. Then there was an interesting episode last Christmas when Sherlock got his antlers caught in the fairy lights of our Paddock shelter, and Joe spent about 45 minutes de-tangling him – again no mean feat with an enormous bull. One antler had come off already, but much to Joe’s annoyance when finally freed, Sherlock wandered out the shed, shook his head and the other promptly fell off! It’s completely normal for a bull to cast his antlers at this time of year, but 45 minutes earlier would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.

What a tangle! Eventually Sherlock, antlers and cable were all separated!

So if you visit us and notice a herder with the Pink Badge pinned to their shirt, then note that this is a Worthy Person, and should therefore be due the utmost respect. Or maybe it’s just me, and I’ve refrained from throwing another misbehaving electronic item through a window.

Hen

How does Svalbard get his name?

Each year all the calves are named in September after spending the first four months of their lives free-ranging in the Cairngorms. Every year we select a theme to name the calves by. In 2011 the theme was “Games and Past Times”; as a result we have Scrabble, Rubiks, Rummy, Origami, Monopoly, Puzzle and Jenga amongst others.

However, as with any rule there is always an exception and Svalbard, also born in 2011, is the odd one out for that year!

Svalbard is currently in our Hill Enclosure here in the Cairngorms and, because of his large white nose (not to mention his fondness for food), he often stands out leading visitors on our Hill Trips to ask what his name is. This has prompted me to answer the question, why is Svalbard, called Svalbard?!

 To fully answer I’m going to first take us to the Arctic Ocean and the archipelago of Svalbard itself…

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You talkin’ about me?!

The Svalbard archipelago of Norway is found in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Svalbard is an incredibly wild place with a land area of 61,022 km2 and a human population of only around 2700 (for comparison Scotland’s land area is 77,933 km2). Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers! The islands are home to only a few species of mammal which include polar bear, Arctic fox and its own subspecies of reindeer, called the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus).

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Svalbard is located in the Arctic Ocean. Map from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer has inhabited this harsh wilderness, and has been geographically isolated from other reindeer for over 5000 years. As a result they have become very well adapted to the particular landscape and roam on nearly all non-glaciated areas of the archipelago. The Svalbard reindeer wins the award for being the most northerly living herbivore mammal in the world!

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A wild Svalbard landscape. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer is the smallest subspecies of all reindeer and caribou. Bulls average 65-90kg in weight, and cows between 53-70kg compared with our Cairngorm reindeer where bulls can weigh 150kg. Svalbard reindeer are very distinctive for having short faces and short legs, making them appear ‘dumpy’. They also have a very think, long winter coat. The long coat also contributes to their short-legged appearance and even starved individuals can appear fat in the winter!

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A Svalbard bull with tiny legs! Photo from Wikipedia.

Svalbard reindeer may make short altitudinal movements, or slightly longer inter-island journeys across the sea ice but they are mostly sedentary and therefore have low energy demands. The lack of migration could be a reason why they have evolved short legs, also helping them have conserve heat with a smaller surface area.

However, don’t let their short legs deceive you! They can reach speeds of up to 60 km an hour on a good running surface, giving them the ability to out run a polar bear, the only predator they face on Svalbard (apart from man).

Unlike the majority of Reindeer on the Norwegian mainland the Svalbard Reindeer have not been domesticated, and also do not live in large herds but tend to be solitary or stay in small groups.

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Svalbard reindeer, with proportionally shorter legs. Photo from Wikipedia.

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Not sure what our Scottish lassies would make of these fellas! Photo from Wikipedia.

I’m digressing, so back to our Scottish Svalbard…

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Back to me… finally!

Svalbard was born on the free-range in May 2011 to Arnish, as a result his exact birthday is unknown. Arnish and young Svalbard were not seen between July and October that year, until Svalbard turned up by himself  in October at the Hill Enclosure, without his mother, who was sadly not seen again.

When this orphaned calf turned up, he was given a name according to the theme for that year. But the herders at the time kept commenting on how dumpy and short-legged he was; as a result he was quickly nick-named “the Svalbard reindeer”. Before too long, the name stuck and he’s been Svalbard ever since! Thankfully for him, he lost his stocky proportions and we now have a handsome reindeer with a big personally!

This whole blog was basically an excuse to show some cute photographs of a young Svalbard (and to research a future holiday destination!) so here come the pictures…

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Svalbard with his mother, Arnish (who never grew antlers). Looks like he’s got pretty long legs here!

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Svalbard – perhaps I can see the short legs here?

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Svalbard in his gangly teenage phase?

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Svalbard as a young bull in 2013 with his obvious white nose.

 

Ruth

 

How does a reindeer see the world?

We always encourage questions on our Hill Trips; some are simple to answer whilst others get us thinking more and this particular question even inspired me to write a blog!

“Are reindeer colour blind?”

The simple answer is… no. Reindeer, like other species of deer, are not colour blind, although they do see the world in a different way to us humans.

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How does Baffin see the world?

If you take a look at the visible spectrum below, reindeer can only see the colours at one end of it. They only see the short (blue) and middle (green) wavelength colours. This means they can distinguish blue from red, but not green from red, or orange from red. Therefore, their vision is thought to be similar to a human with red-green colour blindness.

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The visible spectrum – the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Image taken from Wikimedia.

So, when us Reindeer Herders go out for a Hill Trip wearing our bright red waterproof jackets, the reindeer would think we were camouflaged with the green hillside behind us. And there was I thinking we stand out!

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Lotti the Reindeer Herder taking a rest! To a reindeer our red jackets would not be distinguishable from the green grass.

To get a little bit more scientific this is because humans have three different kinds of cone cells in the retina which can detect the entire visible light spectrum. However, deer only have two sets of cones meaning that they cannot distinguish the longer wavelengths.

However, as I discovered this is not the end of the story of how a reindeer sees the world…. fascinatingly, they are one of only a tiny number of mammals which can also see ultraviolet!

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On the electromagnetic spectrum, ultraviolet fits in right between visible light and X-rays. Image from NOAA.

Humans can’t see UV light but it is in sunlight so we are exposed to it every day; suntans (or in my case freckling and sunburn!) are familiar effects of our exposure to it!

So this led me to ponder the question “why have reindeer evolved to have UV vision?”

Researchers think that reindeer have adapted to see in UV as they live in a very UV-rich world. It’s thought that snow reflects around 90% of the UV light that hits it, compared to snow-free land which usually only reflects a few per cent.

Therefore, reindeer have adapted to their white world and have taken full advantage of it! Their special ability to see in UV allows them to spot things that other mammals would miss and helps them to find food and stay safe.

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A reindeer in a white, UV-rich world.

In the frozen white Arctic where the vast majority of the landscape would reflect the UV light, there are a few things which would absorb it. Predators, such as wolves, who to us would appear camouflaged actually stand out to a reindeer as their fur (and also their urine – a sign of a potential predator!) absorbs the UV light making them appear dark grey/black against the white, snowy background. Clever!

Similarly lichen, a major food source for reindeer in the winter months, also absorbs UV light. So if there was a tuft of lichen sticking up above the snow it would also appears very dark allowing the reindeer to see it clearly, in stark contrast to the UV-reflecting snow.

Therefore, they can avoid animals which might want to eat them and instead find lots of delicious lichen to devour for themselves!

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Winter coats, huge feet and the ability to see in UV… perfectly adapted animals for their snowy, cold world.

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A close up of Bovril’s beautiful eyes… Just because!

We’re always getting lots of interesting questions and I look forward to the next one which gets me hitting the books… and maybe even writing another blog!

Ruth

 

Who’s who at Reindeer House (Part 1)

Times are a-changing and we thought we’d keep all you lovely readers informed with who is working here at Reindeer House. People have left, people have arrived, but the reindeer herding goes on…

So here goes:

Imogen and Abby (aka The Fierce and The Fluff) who both worked here for a few years have left in the last couple of months, moving on to new places and new adventures. We miss them both greatly (and their banter!), and for all of you out there who knew them as herders, we know you’ll miss their characters too..

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Abby on a beautiful day with Lace.

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A sunny winter’s day surrounded by reindeer is enough to make anyone, Imogen included, smile!

Ruth is our newest member of staff, who joined us during May. As a redhead she has gone through so much sun-cream since arriving that we’ve decided there should be a redhead grant from the government to cover the cost of this, so you can wish us luck on this venture. Ruth has a fantastic knowledge of the plants and animals of Scotland, and makes tours out to see the reindeer a whole new learning experience for both visitors and others herders!

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Ruth with one of our calves from this year.

Olly is back! Olly has worked at the reindeer centre on and off seasonally over the last few years, but is finally here to stay (we just can’t keep him away). Known for his flamboyant shirts and braces and excellent (and probably early-morning-sleep-related) comments, Olly is just great. Full of enthusiasm, knowledge, practical skills and creativity, Olly keeps us amused and is an excellent man to have about.

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Olly amongst a hungry herd of reindeer.

After having been here only four months Morna has proved she can handle the most difficult of situations. She wears many hats – equally skilled with hammer or pen, paint brush or calculator. Her calmness is appreciated by the reindeer who are at ease in her presence and us herders appreciate her love for life. Growing up on the Orkney Isles she is at home in wild places (but whatever you do don’t start a snow ball fight with her as she is likely to hurt herself).

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Morna enjoying her first calving season.

Dave has been here now for just over a year, so is a well-known bearded face at Reindeer House. Our only resident New-Zealander, Dave has worked on his Scottish reindeer call to make sure the reindeer can understand him, which makes us all chuckle here at the Centre. Dave never seems to get fazed or frazzled, and is one of those genuinely lovely people who calms the rest of us down simply by being around, and visitors seem to come away from the hill trip in a much more relaxed mood than they began in. And although he has been here for over a year, the secret finally slipped out that Dave has never mixed a bag of hand feed…

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Dave finds time for a moment of quiet contemplation on the hill.

Hen and Andi have both been here for a good number of years, and make sure everything runs smoothly here at the Centre. They are in charge of everything from our whole reindeer adoption database, to creating new road signs, to making sure the reindeer get the right amount of food, and to keeping us newbies in line. As Hen has been confined to crutches for the next few months, she is currently being our office-extraordinaire and we are all on orders to take photos of the reindeer down so she can keep up with how they are doing. Andi has taken up the slack of the missing Hen’s ID knowledge on the hill, and is providing a fountain of knowledge and tips for who is who. Andi is the herder to go to for all our stupid questions, and keeps us in line with her patience and loveliness.

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Hen on Christmas tour, with a sleepy Topi on her shoulder.

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Andi leading the herd of calves and other females out onto the hill.

Catriona is the oracle: our accountant, organiser, keeper of records, and all other hosts of jobs that need an experienced hand. She has been keeping the reindeer centre in line for longer than a few of us have been alive, and I’m not sure how the centre would work without her.

Sheena is a friend of the Reindeer Centre and has been around for over 25 years. She works on and off, filling in days here and there. She is the master of badge-making and incredibly full of energy at all times.

Stella and Ann are our long-term regular volunteers. They have helped out in many a sticky situation, have known the Reindeer Centre and all the staff over the years, and never fail to cheer us up with an odd packet of jaffa-cakes or biscuits turning up on the table.

And last, but of course by no means least, come the rest of the Smith family. Tilly and Alan, the owners of the company, are kept busy both here at the Reindeer Centre and over on their farm, working with not only reindeer but a whole host of animals, including Soay sheep, Wild Boar and Belted Galloway Cows. Over on the farm there is also Derek and Colin (brothers of Alan), and Alex (son of Tilly and Alan). Emily is Alex’s wife and, showing the reindeer centre to be a true family business, also works here for the odd day here and there.

Fiona, as many of you will know, is the backbone of the Reindeer Centre. Along with her brother Alex, they make the first native Scottish reindeer herders and her knowledge of the reindeer and how to work with them is long-ingrained. Fiona ensures that the whole of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre organisation runs smoothly and the reindeer are happy and healthy all year round. Fiona also takes on much of the behind-the-scenes work, along with the hectic job of organising the whole of the Christmas period…

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An inquisitive girl!

We have too many volunteers and occasional staff to mention by name who turn up and massively help us out on a weekly basis, but who without, many jobs would go undone. So a big shout out to them all, for their fantastic help over the years. And of course, there are a whole host of others, family and friends of the Reindeer Centre, who work on and off or just help out, and are there to cheer us up if the occasion arises!

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