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

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