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.
In the autumn, we move all of our entire males (apart from the 2 or 3 lucky chosen breeding bulls) over to our hill farm, away from the females and out of trouble for the duration of the breeding season. With no hint of love on the air, this keeps them calmer and easier to manage, though they still enjoy play-fighting. By December the rut is over and our breeding bulls have also joined them, so there is a slight vibe of an all-boys hangout. As Tilly is caring for these fellas every day, and she is less up on her social media, I thought I’d take the opportunity to grab some photos for you all this week when I was over at the hill farm.
I thought I’d write a bit about the family trees of our herd for this week’s blog, since they work a little differently from a ‘standard’ human family tree. Those of you who have been adopting an individual reindeer within our herd for a while will probably have received a family tree at some point, as we send them out with adoption packs in even years of sponsorship (2nd, 4th, 6th etc) normally. I say ‘will probably have received’ however, as the Swedish born reindeer in our herd obviously don’t have them, and if you’ve only ever adopted the herd as a whole then you’ll not have seen one before.
We record the lineage of the reindeer born here in the herd, stretching back to the original ones imported from Sweden in the 50s, through the maternal line only (on the trees at least – of course we record the father of each calf on our database to keep track of their genetics). More dimensions than a sheet of A4 can offer would be required for anything more than the maternal line in this form however. Let’s look at a sample of a tree (apologies, you’ll probably have to zoom in to see it properly):
This tree (above) is the one currently in use for the living descendants of female reindeer Russia (highlighted in red), born in 2005. As an example, you would receive this particular tree if you adopt Morse – you can see that he is the second of four calves for his mum Torch, herself the first of three offspring for Pavlova. Pavlova’s mum was Russia, Russia’s mum was Cherry, and so on. This goes right the way back to Vilda at the top, one of the reindeer brought over to Scotland in the 3rd consignment to join the growing herd, back in 1954. This particular family tree currently stands at 10 generations in the maternal line. In reality it’s actually more than that, as Morse himself is a breeding bull with multiple offspring, but let’s just stick to the maternal line and not confuse matters!
But again A4 paper has it’s limitations, and as Russia’s mum Cherry (highlighted green on the tree above) was such a productive breeding female then this tree has had to be split into multiple ones once all her calves started calving themselves and we ran out of space. So Cherry’s descendants are now on three separate trees, the top halves of which are all identical until Cherry and her nine calves, but then different below. So Cherry’s daughter Cello (highlighted red below) went on to lots of descendants mainly via her daughter Fonn, who are on this tree:
…whilst another daughter, Tjakko (highlighted red below), was also very productive, as seen on this version of the tree:
This explains why sometimes we chat away about a relative of your reindeer in your adoption letter – who doesn’t seem to exist on the tree you’ve also received in your pack. We haven’t made them up – they’re just on an adjacent branch of their tree that you don’t have!
At times we get a family line that effectively runs out of breeding females – a so-called ‘dead line’. Not the nicest of names perhaps, but it is what is says on the tin… Tjakko’s tree, above, is an example of this – the only living female still remaining on it is Ibex, now too old to breed, so this tree will never change. As a result in this situation we stop sending the trees out to adopters once they’ve received it in it’s final state, as there’s no point receiving it again and again with no additions. Ibex does actually have descendants but they are on yet another permutation of this tree, showing her offspring and those of Bumble.
Within the animal world, there is quite a ‘flexible’, shall we say, approach to age and generations, in comparison to humans at least. We tend to breed our female reindeer up to the age of around 12 or 13, but usually only with a bull aged 3-5. This is because we castrate our male reindeer at this age, but females are never castrated as there’s no need for us to do so. Reindeer calve first (usually) at age 3, so a 3 year old bull could be three generations younger than some of his ladies, if he has a 12 year old cow in his harem. Questionable, in the human world anyway, but no reindeer eyebrows are raised.
The shortest family tree I can find is that of Okapi, consisting of only 8 generations in total including Vilda back in 1954. But again this is a family that has calved itself into a breeding cul-de-sac, as it were, with no new additions since 2013. In contrast, the most generations in a tree is 13, with two year old Sombrero and yearling Solero the most recent of the generations.
I thought that as a final part to this blog – and a way of getting some photos of actual reindeer into it – here’s some photo evidence of the 8 generations of Okapi’s tree. Vilda we’ve seen already, and I can’t actually find a photo of Sarah. We will no doubt have one in the albums, but we’ve only digitised up to the early 60s so far so I don’t have one to hand… But then comes Eidart, who was apparently the first reindeer that herd owner Tilly ever met, when she arrived here in 1981:
Eidart’s final calf was Trout, who held the joint record for oldest ever member of the herd (aged 18) for many years, until 19 year old Lilac stole her crown.
Trout was an extremely productive female, with 11 calves to her name, the final one being Amber:
…whose first calf was Esme….
…the mother of Okapi.
And finally – the end of the line – came Oka. Sadly she died before producing any offspring herself, effectively bringing this line of reindeer to an abrupt end.
So there you have it, a bit of info about our family trees. So should you get one in your next adoption pack, you can think about all those reindeer who came before your lovely adoptee.
Here’s a selection of pics taken throughout the month, hopefully giving a snap shot of what we’ve been getting up to. It’s been full on with the rut taking place in the enclosure, our breeding bulls do now seem a bit less enthusiastic after a busy six weeks for them! We’ve also been bringing two calves at a time down to the Paddocks to halter train them. They usually spend around four days here in which we take them out on morning walks to get them used to seeing traffic, bikes, their own reflections in shiny windows and whatever else Glenmore can throw at us at 8am! Christmas sleigh training for our three year old Christmas Reindeer begins too. So far Adzuki, Haricot and Hemp have been trained and they’ve all been total pros. During the October holidays when our 11am Hill Trip sells out we’ve been putting on an afternoon Hill Trip too. Funnily enough, during the rain and wind of Storm Babet we did not require this attentional visit. But after the storm we’ve been treated to some gorgeous autumnal weather and the first decent snow on the hills of the season.
Amongst all of this we’ve also managed to get the October newsletter written, printed and sent out to our lovely adopters! Until it’s safely in the hands of our adopters I’ve left all calf names out of the blog.
I love September! The reindeer look super, we’re busy with free ranging reindeer, we name the calves and we start learning their individual personalities, plus the rut kicks off. Having said that, I planned a two week holiday in one of my favourite months – must remember not to do that again! So there is a big gap in the photos for this month’s blog, but I’ve made up for it by just sharing more from the same day.
Just a reminder – we don’t reveal the names of the calves online until our adopters receive their newsletter next month.
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…
What started off looking for volunteering opportunities for my daughter, turned out to be an unexpected adventure of a lifetime.
I have been following the Reindeer herd for some time on Instagram, when I saw they were looking for volunteers to spend a week with the herders and learning all about reindeer. So with enthusiasm I suggested this to my daughter, however on further inspection you had to be 18 and she wasn’t quite that age. I woke up the following morning and had a thought… maybe this is something I should do? After a very difficult 12 months, losing my mum only a few months earlier, this seemed like an opportunity for me to get away and press the reset button, some time alone, just for me. We have our own campervan, Glenmore Campsite, a beautiful site next to Loch Morlich, is literally just across the road from Reindeer House– all the signs were pointing North and I couldn’t find a single reason not to apply. Thankfully my application was accepted and at the end of May, I set off on my very own adventure.
I packed up my van, said goodbye to my family and off I went, travelling from my home in Fife arriving at Glenmore on Sunday afternoon. The weather was unseasonably warm and the forecast promising for the rest of the week. After setting up camp I headed out for a walk up to An Lochan Uaine (the green lochan), orientating myself to Reindeer House as I passed, sneaking a peak at exactly where I needed to report the following morning. The lochan is a beautiful place and well worth a visit.
After a fairly good sleep for the first night, I set off to work with my lunch packed and a stomach churning full of nerves. I arrived for work at 8.00am, greeted by the loveliest bunch of smiley faces, for a Monday morning this was unusual in my experience! My nerves quickly settled, I couldn’t have felt more welcomed. I was shown around Reindeer House, everything seemed pretty relaxed but extremely well organised, everyone getting about their morning duties and routine. There is an awful lot to do prior to greeting the first visitors of the day, the Centre opens at 10.00am and those first couple of hours each morning are vital to getting ready for the day ahead. My first morning was spent around the Centre, meeting my first reindeer that were in the paddock: Sunny, Spartan and Bond plus the added bonus of two very young calves, Alba and Winnie.
My heart was stolen in that moment, and as the week progressed, I just fell more and more in love with these beautiful, quiet animals. Lots to do around the paddock and the house, preparing the exhibition area for visitors, cleaning the paddock, making sure the reindeer were fed and have fresh water, and of course, the poo picking! Which believe it or not ended up being one of my favourite tasks… in the background there is a constant bustle of people going about their work. There is a lot to do here are Reindeer House and you quickly feel part of the team.
Lunchtime came and went and it was my turn to head out with the afternoon tour up the hill, I was both nervous and excited, not knowing what to expect. Parking at the Sugar Bowl car park, from there it is a very pleasant 15/20 minute walk up to the hill enclosure. The scenery is breathtaking and I imagine at any time of year, the view changing with the seasons, it is stunning. This really is a special place.
Arriving at the hill enclosure, I felt emotional seeing the reindeer in the herd for the first time. You quickly learn so much about the reindeer and their life here in Scotland. The Herders are full of knowledge and it is incredibly interesting listening to them talk about the herd. These people really care about the reindeer, they care about their wellbeing first and foremost and this came across time and time again throughout the week.
As the week progressed, I started to learn more and more and felt more confident in answering questions from visitors. It felt good to be part of the team and as the days passed, I began to fall into a routine myself. Daily trips up to the hill enclosure were a highlight, after the visitors left you were able to just have some time with the reindeer, and it was these quiet moments that will remain with me always. Sitting on the side of a hill, the sun beating down, a beautiful big reindeer with velvety antlers just a few metres away – this is surely a magical place.
Each day more and more jobs to do. The list is endless. Next to the paddock is a small wood enclosure and I spent a lot of time there. Picking out all the nettles and foxgloves, and as mentioned earlier, lots of reindeer poo! But even here you get the most incredible view of the Corries, it feels like just for a moment the world has stopped spinning and you are the only person in the world. It was a great place to find a little shade from the relentless heat, for Scotland this is rare and I don’t like to complain.
I was lucky enough to have a couple of afternoons to myself. This gave me an opportunity to explore the area. I walked up Meall a’ Bhuachaille where I was rewarded with spectacular views of the Cairngorm mountains. I was also blessed with seeing an Adder on my way through Glenmore Forest, and a quick visit to a very bustling Aviemore reminded me that I enjoy the company of reindeer way more than I do people in busy places! Returning home each evening to my campervan was also incredibly fun – cooking a nice meal for myself was a great way to wind down after a long day and the weather could not have been better. I could definitely get used to this life!
I am not going to lie, the week was tough! Some days felt harder than others, this is hard work and my body felt pretty shattered by the end of the week, but the rewards far outweigh a few aching muscles. Before I came, I didn’t think of myself as a spiritual person, but what I found in those quiet moments alone, was some kind of wonderful. I hope to return again next year, if they will have me. Volunteering itself is extremely rewarding and something I think each and every one of us should try at least once in our lifetime. Volunteering with reindeer included – what’s not to love!! It was fantastic and memories I will treasure forever! I learnt a lot about myself and I feel like I healed a lot too. I know my mum was looking down on me smiling, she loved the reindeer and since returning home, I have found photos she took of the reindeer up on the hill from when she visited many, many years before. A very special thing.
Thank you to each and every one of you guys at Reindeer House! I have mentioned the reindeer A LOT, but without you guys caring for them and doing the job you do, this place wouldn’t be as special as it is. So THANK YOU for being welcoming, for teaching me, for having me. I cannot end this blog without a special shout out to Sunny – he will forever be in my heart, a very special yearling with a tender soul.
June has whizzed by in a cloud of reindeer hair – it’s definitely scruffy reindeer month! Not their most photogenic season but a wonderful time of year nonetheless. After a couple of days off the antlers have noticeably grown – even after six years of working with the herd, I still find it amazing just how quickly it all happens.
The last batch of cows and calves left the enclosure on the 5th and we’ve brought more male reindeer over from the farm to increase our number here to keep our visitors happy on Hill Trips. It’s also the time of year we start harness training – both the reindeer and the herders! It’s a fun way to spend the morning. Another lovely way of spending a morning is walking our two hand-reared calves, Alba and Winnie. This month we have started taking them on daily walks allowing them access to good grazing meanwhile getting all-important exercise.
Lastly, I can’t write a blog post about June 2023 without mentioning the loss of our old reindeer herding collie, Sookie. A very sad time at Reindeer House, but what an amazing life she had and I feel grateful to be part of it. She’ll be missed.
This is the second installment of Emm’s fantastic blog. Read part one by clicking HERE.
The Breeding Season
Whilst I was there, there were 2 bulls with their girls in the hill enclosure separated in different areas. One group was Sherlock and his girls over on Silver Mount. He was laid back. Then the other group was Morse and his girls. Morse was a bit more aggressive and would pace the fence grunting. He was very protective of his girls.
Chilling With Reindeer
Fiona, Joe and Andi went to Sherlock and his girls over on Silver Mount, the big hill in the hill enclosure, to check temperatures and do some vaccinations. Lotti and I moved Morse and his girls to a different part of the hill enclosure. We separated him with a few of his girls into a separate pen area so we were safe. Reindeer bulls with their girls can be very aggressive and can charge at you. We had moved them so we could give them vaccinations. Mushy was being chased around by some of the reindeer but it is not good to have them running around before a vaccination so I helped Lotti separate Mushy and Pinto off together into their own area. Suddenly, a mountain hare ran out of the shed and stopped in the middle of the reindeer. It was about 2 metres away from me. It was so exciting. The mountain hare and the reindeer stared at each other for a few seconds then the reindeer charged at it and then it ran away. What a lovely experience. Lotti and I then had to wait for Andi, Fiona and Joe. Whilst we waited, we chilled with the reindeer. I got to spend some quality time with my adopted reindeer called Scully. It was so nice and special spending quality time with her. I hadn’t been able to see her much as she had been in with Morse. Some of Morse’s girls had calves with them and I hadn’t got to know these calves yet so I was able to get to know them whilst Morse was separated. When Fiona, Joe and Andi got to us, some of Morse’s girls got vaccinations. Andi and I put Morse’s and his girls’ breakfast down in their usual part of the hill enclosure and then Morse and his girls were let back out to have their breakfast.
Walking Calves and Reindeer Around Glenmore
To get the calves used to being handled and having head collars on, we take them away from their mums in the hill enclosure for a few days and keep them down in the Paddocks. We take about 2 calves at a time. In the mornings before the Reindeer Centre opens, we take some of the Paddock adult reindeer and the calves out on a walk around Glenmore. We sandwich the calves between the adult reindeer. The adult reindeer are the role models for the calves. One morning, I walked Dr Seuss, Bond and the 2 calves Popsicle and Vanilla to the Pine Martin Bar and back with Hen and Amy. I led Bond. On another morning with Mel and Lisette we walked Athens, Clouseau, Frost, Dr Seuss and the calf called Zoom. This time I led Dr Seuss and Frost.
Reindeer Centre and Office Jobs
There were always lots of jobs to do at the Reindeer Centre. On some afternoons, I poo picked the woods where the Paddock reindeer go at night. If reindeer have been changed in the Paddocks, I switched the reindeer ID cards over in the exhibition so visitors would know who was who. I checked the adopters gift packs to make sure everything was there, tidied and restocked the shop. The magnets and glass reindeer were very popular. Some afternoons, I tidied the exhibition and antler making area and wiped down the surfaces. I put strawboard in the adopters envelopes to protect the adoption gift packs. For the October Newsletter, they put a photo of the reindeer in with the newsletter with a sticky label on the back giving update of what the reindeer have been up to so I stuck the sticky labels onto the back of the photos.
I also talked to visitors in the Paddocks and answered their questions. One afternoon I was talking to a visitor and a child ran to get me as Popsicle the calf had got her antler in a wire mesh bit of the fence. I untangled Popsicle’s antler and she was ok.
Reindeer Off to the Free-range
With Lotti and Cameron we led 5 older girls from the top corridor in the hill enclosure back on to the free range. This was the time of year that the reindeer would be moved to the free-range for the winter. The reindeer were Dixie, Lulu, Fly, Wapiti and Pavlova. Lotti put spot on (protecting from ticks) on to Fly. The other 4 reindeer had already had it. Lotti took a photo of Wapiti for their adoption photo and Dixie came and ate out of the hand feed bag I was holding. When we let them go it was so lovely seeing them go out onto the free-range.
Splitting Calves from their Mums
One morning I helped to move some of the calves around between the Paddocks and hill. First, we took Frost, Clouseau , Sunny and Zoom out of the paddocks and took them up into the hill enclosure and I led Clouseau and Zoom on this occasion. The 2 calves we wanted to take back down were with their mums and the bull Morse so we had to split Morse and his girls first to get the 2 calves and their mums. The 2 calves were Popsicle and Vanilla. Popsicle’s mum is Caterpillar and Vanilla’s mum is Ochil. After we managed to get them we put Morse and the rest of his girls back into their part of the hill enclosure. We took Caterpillar and her calf Popsicle, Ochil and her calf Vanilla, as well a 2 other reindeer Bond and Olmec off the hill. When we got to Brenda we loaded Bond, Olmec and the 2 calves into Brenda whilst Andi took the calves’ mums back up the hill to Morse. We then took the reindeer to the Paddocks at the Centre. In the Paddocks, Popsicle and Vanilla grunted for their mums for a bit as it was the first time they had been away from their mums. They would see their mums in a few days time after getting used to be handled and walked on a head collar.
On the Hill Trips, I often would escort the back of the line of people whilst we walked to the hill enclosure and reindeer. I would sometimes put some food out for the reindeer and then count them to make sure all the reindeer were there. I would sometimes give Sunny his milk.
I sometimes did the hand feed talk to the group of visitors so they knew what to do in hand feeding and what to expect. I gave out the hand feed so they could hand feed the reindeer. I talked to people and answered their questions. I sometimes took photos of visitors if they wanted photos taken with the reindeer.
This all gives you an idea of the many things that I do when volunteering with the reindeer and herders. It is such a special place and I love my time no matter how busy I am. I am really looking forward to my next trip.