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.
A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.
Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.
Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.
The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.
This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.
By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.
It’s just a couple of weeks after the shortest day of the year as I write this (6hrs and 35 minutes of daylight up here) and the weather has certainly been wild and wintry, with deep snow and thick ice across the lochs. With short days and extreme weather come additional seasonal immigrants, such as snow bunting from Scandinavia, and some of the animals in new disguises, with ptarmigan and mountain hares changing their colours to suit the elements. The wind turns harshly abrasive, carrying tiny pieces of ice, freezing rain, or thick blizzards, and the nights open up to all the phases of the moon or the open milky way. It’s like the mountains find themselves in a whole new dimension.
Recently I’ve discovered that poetry can be a great way of condensing a particular feeling, season, or place, and it’s truly delightful when a poem seems so relevant to a Hill Trip, day out with the free-range reindeer, or view of the Cairngorms and the Strathnethy from up on the hill. Here I have gathered some of my favourites which I hope can bring those of our supporters who haven’t been able to visit (I’ve said it a lot, but what a strange year…) back into the feeling of a day on the hill with the reindeer. Some of my photos from this winter are included too!
The first poem which comes to mind is the Ryvoan Bothy poem, one which anyone who has visited Ryvoan Bothy, a couple of miles away from us, has probably seen pinned inside the door. Many of our visitors in the summer also take the gorgeous walk up to the “Green Lochan” or An Lochan Uaine so I imagine a lot of the places mentioned in this will be familiar to many.
Ryvoan Bothy Poem: I shall leave tonight from Euston by the seven-thirty train, And from Perth in the early morning I shall see the hills again. From the top of Ben Macdhui I shall watch the gathering storm, And see the crisp snow lying at the back of Cairngorm. I shall feel the mist from Bhrotain and the pass by Lairig Ghru To look on dark Loch Einich from the heights of Sgoran Dubh. From the broken Barns of Bynack I shall see the sunrise gleam On the forehead of Ben Rinnes and Strathspey awake from dream. And again in the dusk of evening I shall find once more alone The dark water of the Green Loch, and the pass beyond Ryvoan. For tonight I leave from Euston and leave the world behind; Who has the hills as a lover, will find them wondrous kind.
The poet and writer whose work is most famously connected to the Cairngorms is Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981). The first woman to feature on a Scottish banknote, she was a student and then lecturer at Aberdeen University in English Literature, the part of her life which she enjoyed alongside hill walking, through which she extensively explored the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain, her last published book is an awesome and personal, although at no point self-absorbed, memoir to her days on the Cairngorm plateau. Although a lot of her work is in plain English, I think her work is pretty unique for preserving Doric (the strong dialect in the North East of Scotland) so well, and so beautifully.
Loch Avon – Nan Shepherd Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie! Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I. Bricht though yer deepmaist pit may be, Ye’ll haunt me till the day I dee. Bricht, an’ bricht, an’ bricht as air, Ye’ll haunt me noo for evermair.
Writing with equal admiration about their homeland are the Eveny, the reindeer herders of Siberia. Considering reindeer are so intrinsic to their culture that they both feature in their creation story and provide a livelihood, it’s not surprising that many of their songs and poems mention reindeer. Very little of this has been recorded though, however, in Reindeer People; Living With Animals And Spirits in Siberia (Piers Vitebsky) this song is translated and shows the deep connection which the Eveny have with their animals and the land.
I have come from afar, I have not beheld you for so long, With all my heart I love you, My Homeland!
The Autumn leaves fall, My voice echoes far, My song is about you, my homeland, Birthplace of my ancestors
If the reindeer do not come, If the herd turns away, If the reindeer do not come, There will be no more Eveny!
It is difficult to source the lyrics or lines of poems and songs by minority cultures and people (which are the reindeer herders of the north) such as the Eveny or Sami, due to the suppression which these groups have faced, and also the fact that many of the poems are part of an oral tradition, passed on over time but not recorded. An exploration of Sami poetry, a lot of it related to the reindeer can be found here.
Over on the North American continent, the caribou (which are genetically the same species as reindeer: Rangifer tarandus) have a different relationship with people because they’re not herded or domestic, instead living wildly and sometimes being hunted. Richard Kelly Kemick captures the full seasonality of their lives in his book, Caribou Run which follows the year as the animal. I find this one intriguing:
The Love Poem as Caribou – Richard Kelly Kemick It’s hard to imagine. As doves, yes, or even vultures. But there’s nothing of a ballad in the hard weight of antlers. You can’t cut into an ode, stripping its skin to bones cabled with muscle, or search its creased face for something you can almost explain. And a sonnet has never made me see myself inadequate beneath the bright light of evolution’s long apprenticeship, acutely aware of the many failings of my own form. But maybe it’s in how a love poem will cross a body of water without being about to see the other side. Or maybe it’s in the deep prints left in the drifts, that speak of how hard it must have been to move on from here.
On the same continent, Mary Oliver is a poet who has spent a lot of time observing nature, and in her writing brings the reader on a quiet walk with her.
The Poet Dreams of the Mountain – Mary Oliver Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts. I want to climb some old gray mountain, slowly, taking the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks. I want to see how many stars are still in the sky that we have smothered for years now, a century at least. I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all, and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know. All that urgency! Not what the earth is about! How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only. I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts. In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.
And lastly, heading back home to Scotland and the Scots words and phrases, our rewilding landscapes, and great, airy glens we will finish with a poem which couldn’t possibly be more relevant. This one is in the first few pages of the book Hoofprints, a book which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Reindeer in the Cairngorms. It proclaims the “Reindeer Council of the United kingdom is proceeding with the experiment of importing reindeer to Scotland” – Punch magazine, August 1951. Look out for the hints of hunting, these refer to the plan that once the reindeer would be established in Scotland, they would contribute meat to the post-war rationing. Thankfully, after giving the animals names and getting to know them, our herd has always been kept for it’s own environmental and educational value to the Cairngorms.
Stag party O Lords of misty moor and ben! O monarchs of the mountain glen! Crowned with your proudly branching span Surveys your kingdom while you can.
Where Affrie’s corried glen divides, In Atholl’s furthest forest rides, Amid the firs that fringe Loch Shin Will feed the herds that fed the Finn.
Their splayed and hairy hooves will pound, Your ancient Highland stamping ground And Stalkers (snug in hats with flaps) WIll hunt the quarry of the Lapps.
Will later landseers art portray Proud Scandinavian stags at bay, And (taxidermic’ly prepared) Will foreign heads delight the laird?
Will other antlers grace the walls As hatstands in suburban halls- Sad pointers to the fact that you Have yielded to the Caribou?
Shall reindeer, blue of flesh and blood, Reign where the ruling red deer stood, Or will one more invasion fail And wiser councils yet prevail?
This week I’d like to talk about Tambourine and her extensive family. Tambourine was born in 2000, in our musical instruments theme. She was a distinctive looking reindeer, slightly on the petite side, with particularly pointy ears. I didn’t know her in her youth, but my memory of her in her latter years was as a rather suspicious lass with plenty of wiles and a furious expression! As a bit of a shier reindeer, she was perhaps not very well known amongst visitors, though she did have an adopter who branded their car with reindeer logos!
Tambourine was a prolific breeder, producing 12 calves over the course of her life, many of which have gone on to be good breeding reindeer themselves. Her wild streak has been passed on to her offspring, and we’ve always known that reindeer from her family will need lots of extra bribery and calm gentle handling to win their trust as calves. That said, her sons Allt, Gnu and Ost all went on to be solid, steady Christmas reindeer, not batting an eyelid at crowds and bright lights. Though they never wanted to be stroked!
Tambourine’s daughters Hobnob, Spy, Rain and Tap have all gone on to become mothers themselves. Hobnob has had three daughters (Swiss, Ocean, and this year’s as-yet-unnamed calf) and a son (Carnethy); and Spy has the same count of three daughters (Morven, Dante, and this year’s calf) and a son (Nok). Rain has reared a son (Koro) and is rearing a daughter this year. And Tap did a great job with her first calf last year, daughter Angua.
Whilst we ran both Gnu and Ost for one season as breeding bulls, we can’t say for definite that either fathered a calf. They then joined our Christmas team instead – a much more peaceful way of life!
Tambourine’s sisters Lorn and Tuppence were also successful mothers, with many descendants between them, and sister Flake attempted motherhood rather less prolifically, but I think I’ll talk about them another time – otherwise I should have titled this blog ‘Dynasties: Talisker’ and focused on their mum!
Tambourine lived to a ripe old age, finally passing away out on the mountains at 17 years old. She surpassed the average lifespan of a reindeer by several years, and leaves behind a strong family line which will hopefully continue for many years to come.