Winter is always one of the best times of year with the reindeer. They are completely free range and we head out daily, locate and feed them so we keep a good management on the herd. It’s probably the time of year we get the most exercise too – a morning work out to find reindeer and bring them into closer proximity of our Hill Trips is a favourite amongst all the herders.
The top followers this winter have to be Okapi, Lace and Fly, usual suspects. However, with a greedy family often some of the first ones all running down together are Hopscotch with daughters Juniper and Kipling, and their calves Fab and Tub so it certainly is a family affair!
They don’t want to make our job too easy through. In January the reindeer often come to a call. We bellow our wee lungs out and the reindeer come running. But in February they like to make us walk, so most often two herders will head out and as good as get to where the reindeer are before turning round – one herder leads whilst the other walks at the back to keep them moving. Otherwise, they’d probably just lie down and we wouldn’t get very far.
On one occasion in January Lotti and I skied out to retrieve the herd. Always a treat getting out on skis and topped off with ski-ing for work… well it doesn’t get much better than that. More recently there hasn’t been so much snow, just a lot of wind so even if it doesn’t look cold outside that wind chill can get pretty brutal.
The reindeer are so good though, without fail they plod down behind us herders ready to meet and greet our many half term tourists wanting to visit them. Chief hand feeders at the moment are – Kipling, Juniper, Holy Moley, Okapi, Pumpkin, Marple, Brie, Ryvita…
Once the visitors have enjoyed spending time with the reindeer the herd wander back out into the mountains and it happens all over again the next day.
For this blog I have decided to cast my mind back to a very wonderful day at the beginning of January, in the depths of winter when the entire landscape was white with snow.
I will start off by saying that I am not a skier, unlike quite a few of the reindeer herders, I didn’t grow up in a snowy place with planks attached to my feet. Fiona had always promised me that when I worked at Reindeer House through a winter then she would teach me to ski. Sure enough in the winter of 2020 we had a couple of snowy weeks and she helped me ski up and down the pisted ski runs early in the morning or late at night when there were no people around for me to crash into. I had a wonderful time, but spent most of it in the snow plough position which was quite tiring. When the snow arrived this winter, the ski slopes were all shut so my skiing journey had to continue off-piste. I had lots of wonderful tips from all the other reindeer herders as well as Fi, from very technical advice from Dave who had worked as a ski instructor for years. And equally wonderful advice from Sheena ‘you look very tense Lotti, I think you need to sing and dance while you are skiing, it will help you relax’.
About a week into the snowy weather this year Ruth and I were tasked with the job of fetching all 70 or so of the free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure so that one of the reindeer could have a visit from the vet. The snow was so deep that the only way to get to them was on our skis. Ruth is a very wonderful skier and I think it had been a dream of hers since starting to work with the reindeer in 2017 to do some reindeer herding on skis, so this was the perfect opportunity. We headed up, with our skins on the bottom of our skis which allow you to ski up hill without sliding backwards, out of the enclosure, onto the top ridge. We called and called hoping that the reindeer would hear us and come running. But the cloud was low, and I suspect dampened the sound of our calls. We continued in the direction of where we thought the reindeer were, stopping, and calling every few minutes. Eventually after an hour or so of skiing we found the herd near the top of Castle Hill.
As soon as we found the reindeer, they were delighted to see us, or delighted to see our bags of food at least. They followed us all the way back to the enclosure, walking in the tracks left by our skis in a single file line. The reindeer always walk through the snow in a single file line as it’s more efficient to walk in the tracks of another reindeer (or in this case skier) than it is to make your own tracks. I was particularly delighted as for most of the way back I was followed so closely by two of my favourite reindeer, Gloriana and her calf Butter, that they kept stepping on my skis! That was the beginning of a winter where almost all the reindeer herding was done on skis or snowshoes as the snow was so deep, but that very first experience of moving over the snow on skis with all the reindeer behind us is something that will stick with both me and Ruth for a long time.