The School of Tour

I added up how many years I’d been involved in Christmas tour with the reindeer the other day, and was astounded to realise that this was my eighth season. As I frequently tell visitors, “I only came for the summer!” but I seem to have fallen under the spell of the reindeer and the Cairngorms. Hen has been here even longer than me. So with several new herders this year, Fiona sent us off with Morna, with the idea that we’d show her the ropes as it were. Morna has been working with the herd all year, so knew the reindeer very well, but Christmas tour brings its own challenges which can take some adjusting to.

Over the months running up to Christmas, we’d been fairly entertained by the enthusiasm of Morna, Ruth and Olly about tour, and wondered how long it would take for the novelty to wear off! But spirits were certainly high as we got ready to set off for our week away, and we had great fun working out our team name: usually we’re just Handi, but this time we would be even MORHANDI!

I hope you enjoy the photos below – we certainly enjoyed our week, and it was really odd when we dropped Morna off to visit her family and were left with just two of us in the cab… it felt like we’d lost part of our team!

Leaving
Leading our team off the hill
Team
Quick pose for a team photo – unintentionally matching outfits!
Hen driving
As Morna couldn’t drive the truck, her task was to keep Hen and me entertained and hence alert, primarily through some good DJ and karaoke work!
Dinner
Reindeer happy in their overnight accommodation. Riding arenas aren’t just for horses…
Horse
We went for a look round the stables and met all the ponies and assorted menagerie that live there.
Haggis
One of the ponies, Haggis, is a legend amongst herders as he just loves to play with zips. Problem is, he’s small and brown, like most of the ponies. Our solution is to walk round offering our jacket to every pony until we find a taker!
Frost
Hard frost the next morning.
Running boys
We exercise the reindeer loose every morning – here they are having a trot round the field. Sometimes they have more “bounce” than others!
6 reindeer Hen
Why lead two reindeer each when Hen can lead the lot?!
Sleeping
The drive down to Wales was all too much for Morna
ColinSue
Lovely welcome from our hosts at the Welsh base
Morna Sheep
We took the reindeer for a run in the field, but first Morna had to escape the attentions of some grown-up pet lambs!
Cardiff
Ready for the parade! This was Matto’s (the white one) and Morna’s first ever parade in public, and he didn’t put a foot wrong. She did alright too!
Sleepy truck
The reindeer are always happy to load and travel brilliantly – they are loose in the back of the truck and frequently lie down and have a snooze, as seen here.
Breakfast
One of the perks to tour – you sometimes have time to cook a lovely breakfast!
Matto
Here’s Morna doing a great job (with Matto again) leading the parade at Stockeld park. Though she was trying to redeem herself after breaking the decorations and a (non-essential) part of the sleigh in the same morning!
Sleepy at Stockeld
The team were incredibly relaxed and loving their enormous pen at the event.

Memorable reindeer of the past: Eco

Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!

Young bull Eco.jpg
Young bull Eco

Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.

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10 months old

The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.

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Hen and Eco on a Christmas event together

Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.

Always inquisitive and up to something!
Always inquisitive and up to something!
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old
Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.

A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.

Hen

Two blondes, a truck and 6 reindeer

So you’ve all heard a bit from ‘Team Handi’ (Hen and Andi) on tour at Christmas but thought I’d do a wee write up of my travels round the country during November and December 2016. For my main stint away I was with newbie truck driver, but not newbie reindeer herder, Eve. We set off with our six lovely reindeer – Elvis, Oryx, Rummy, Stenoa, Viking and Pict, sleigh, decorations, reindeer feed and bowls, yoga mat, smoothie maker (priorities), and a cab full of delicious snacks for along the way… Houmous and dark chocolate (not together) being a very important part of this!

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Reindeer relaxing on events.Stenoa (top right) fast asleep. Ascot Racecourse (bottom right).

So we had some lovely reindeer and of course being away with them for a couple of weeks you really get to know their characters. Elvis is our poser of the group. He is always super inquisitive, first over for his food and certainly doesn’t act his age which is ten (nearly 11 now). Oryx is Mr Sensible. He’s a total professional in his field (harness and sleigh pulling) and is a great role model to the new Christmas reindeer. Rummy is the grumpy (not so old) man of the group, though is very chilled out and usually first to lie down once he’s had a good feed and finally Stenoa, who tells off humans who aren’t reindeer herders which is amusing for us. He is the youngest of the four adults we had away. This was his second Christmas so having seen the bright lights before he was a good boy and took it all in his stride. Our calves were Viking, who was THE BEST! – he has a cheeky yet solid character… an ‘Oryx’ in the making I think, and the other calf was Pict who was such a little sweetie. Pict was probably one of the more timid calves of the year so we wanted to make sure he had a good time away with us. His progress was excellent and it didn’t take long for him to just be like the others… but with such great role models it’s not hard!

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Days off exercising herders and reindeer. Elvis and Viking (top left).

 

Our travels took us as far south as Chatham and Basingstoke so we spent a few days round the Cambridge area staying at a farm run by friends of ours. If we weren’t off to do an event our daily routine would be firstly to take the reindeer for some exercise. This was in a horse paddock beside the houses so we would walk them round on head collars then once in the paddock we could let them all off and give them a good run around. This also exercised us quite nicely too! We even found a ball which Viking and Rummy were very curious about. The others obviously aren’t football fans! We’d then walk them back to their yard and barn for breakfast which was more like them leading us back… they really do love their food the reindeer. After breakfast and yard cleaning duties we then had the day to ourselves which usually involved a nice walk somewhere or a trip into town. Two country girls in the middle of Cambridge is quite hilarious. Just a little bit out of our comfort zone!

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Days off at bases…Anything for a good photo opportunity!

On one occasion after our morning duties we had quite the treat lined up. David Mills, conservationist from the British Wildlife Centre was visiting with his partner Dame Judi Dench. The connection was through the two charities, the CRT (Countryside Restoration Trust) and the British Wildlife Centre. We have had strong connections with the CRT for many years now with Tilly being a trustee of the charity, and David and Judi were coming up to visit our friends but also coming to see the reindeer. The couple were really lovely and I think quite taken by the reindeer… lets face it who isn’t! Elvis, Oryx and Viking were the stars of the show… Of course. And this wasn’t the last time we were to meet David and Judi as we were doing an event at Ascot Racecourse closer to Christmas and who  wanders over to the pen? Again it was lovely to have a chat, but this time with a different team of reindeer as we had been home with our first team and come south with a different team so they got to meet some other members of the herd.

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Back at base. Morning exercises and hanging out with the stars…And Judi Dench 😉

During our first trip away we only had 5 events to do over two weeks and for the first 4 events we had volunteers coming to help out. Lesley, Yvonne and Paul turned up at our events and helped for the day which was great… except we got to our 5th event and suddenly we had to do everything ourselves. That was a wakeup call! Lol.

Folk music rocked out of our lorry cab. It’s important to have a team mate with a similar taste in music! We’d pick up words and phrases along the way that only we understood what they meant… This did mean when someone else joined our team or we met up with another reindeer team they were sure we were bonkers. We’d talk to the reindeer like they were one of us, naturally of course (it’s ok we know we are completely mad). We were called sisters constantly – but just cos we have blonde hair doesn’t mean we are related. All in all we had a great time away, the reindeer, as always, were absolute stars. They make us so proud. Needless to say they were delighted when they got home, as were we! I like going south but it is very different to the Highlands of Scotland so I will stick to doing it for a couple of weeks in the year. There is no place like home!

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Land Rover photo shoot (top left). The zippy horse ‘Haggis’ (pulls your zip up and down), upgrading our lorry for a pink limo…or not! And Monty the terrier from one of our bases.

Fiona

A Second Day in the Life of a Herder on Tour

It’s a couple of days since I wrote my last blog and I’m on a roll, so here’s another. We’ve travelled back to South Wales from Cornwall, and there’s another event to be done.

7.45am: Once I again I greet my alarm clock with despair, and consider whether I would be better suited to a job working nights somewhere. The first few minutes of my day are not improved when I remember that I arrived back to Wales yesterday sans toothbrush, which is languishing in Cornwall. Andi (infinitely quicker than me in the morning to cope with life) nips out to the shed to give the reindeer a small breakfast, but they are deeply unimpressed that she doesn’t give them any lichen – that can wait until we get to our event.

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Exercising the reindeer in the field yesterday afternoon

8.20am: There’s no time this morning to take the reindeer out into the field to stretch their legs, but being as they had a good blast when we got back to the farm yesterday afternoon, we’re not too worried that they’ll be too full of bounce. We collect up their feed bowls, load them up and off we go, bang on schedule at 8.45am.

A beautiful setting for our welsh farm base
A beautiful setting for our welsh farm base

We’re staying on a farm near Cwmbran, and Andi and I know it well having been here every winter for years on end. Being in rural Wales, that therefore means winding lanes and big hedges, and the first 3 miles of any journey is a narrow gauntlet to be run before we emerge on to a dual carriageway. We always play the ‘gauntlet game’ here – guessing how many cars we’ll meet – and I thrash Andi soundly this morning. What can I say – we have to make our own fun on tour…

9.55am: Today’s event is in a wee town in South Wales, and is a favourite of mine, being very well run. It’s our most ‘standard’ type of event, with a quiet set up area away from the crowds, then the parade and finally a couple of hours in a display pen before we pack up and head away. We head to the pen first to drop off our signs, feed bowls, water and leaflet box, and then make our way another half kilometre along the road to our set-up area.

10.30am: Having set up our tether rope for the reindeer so they can come out of the lorry and have a second (small!) breakfast before the parade, Andi climbs through the partition in the lorry into the reindeer area to put on their halters. A couple of minutes later there is a muffled squeak, as Paintpot has shaken his head unexpectedly and clouted Andi really hard across the face. She sticks her head back out through the partition for me to check there’s no blood (i.e. hers, not Paintpot’s!), and then emerges, reindeer in tow, with a visible bump and bruise on her forehead – an occupational hazard of the job. Paintpot appears to be smirking. We potter around the field a couple of times, letting the reindeer stretch their legs a bit, before attaching them to their tether and giving them a pile of food each.

11.30am: Reindeer are fed and happy, the event organizers are faffing with the sleigh, cable ties and a tiny camera with which to film the parade (how long can it take to attach a 3 inch camera?!), and we’re about to start harnessing up. We’ve had to had a quick experiment with Tanner to check we can actually do the harness up around his fat belly – Tilly’s obviously been feeding him too much at the farm – but unfortunately for Tanner we managed, so it’s his turn to pull the sleigh today, along with Sooty.

12 noon: We are good to go. The best thing about this event is its organization – it’s a huge parade of which we’re only a small part, but whereas most events are slightly spoiled visually by a sea of security people wearing hi-viz jackets, this town comes up trumps. There are apparently 50 police here today on duty, but almost all of them are dressed as elves! Looks-wise they are in keeping with the parade, and everything runs very smoothly with no problems – after all, who messes with a 6ft elf?

Sooty and Tanner flanked by their giant security elves!
Sooty and Tanner flanked by their giant security elves!

12.15pm: There’s been a brief delay as everybody in the parade is organized and set off in the right order, with a disagreement about where the St Bernard dogs pulling carts (oh yes) should go. NOT right in front of the reindeer is the answer! The band should have been at the front but were all in the toilet at the wrong moment, so have to be slotted in further down the line… We are the back markers as usual, and once we’re over the speed bump then Santa gets in and off we go. Our sleigh has very low ground clearance (it only flies on Christmas Eve) so grounds at the slightest opportunity, leading to us frequently kicking Santa out while we heft it over a speed bump or kerb.

Our team of reindeer behave impeccably, with Andi and I feeling slightly surplus to requirements at times, particularly so Andi at the back of the sleigh. She might as well have gone for a coffee instead to be honest, being as Paintpot, Minute, Nazca and Olmec plod along with no guidance needed at all. At the front I am barely needed either, with Sooty and Tanner being total pros. As one of the elves comments, we should be concerned for our jobs! My main task in the entire parade ends up being yelling at a helium balloon seller, marching right towards Tanner with an enormous bunch of balloons. Tanner’s eyes pop out on stalks, but the rogue bunch of balloons with legs is accosted by a police elf, who quickly sends her packing in the opposite direction.

1.10pm: After possibly the slowest, but most relaxed, parade I’ve ever done, we finally arrive in the pen. Andi unattaches the reindeer from the sleigh as quickly as possible, and the crowd has a good laugh at Nazca, who has clocked the food bowls hidden in the corner of the pen instantly. He beats us to them, and then batters us continuously with his antler twiglets as we try to space the bowls out around the pen. Toerag.

And then… I hear a chorus of gasps, and exclamations of horror. Everyone is pointing in alarm towards Minute, who 10 seconds ago had two antlers, and now only has one… Oh dear. I grab the offending antler out of his bowl where it has fallen, and head to the side of the pen to make my way around, explaining to everyone that this is completely natural at this time of year and that poor Minute has not been maimed for life! A cast antler is a very useful prop in a pen, as everyone’s natural instinct is to lean over the barriers and touch the furry velvet antlers. When still attached to the reindeer this is a strict no-no, but once one has fallen off then suddenly a new opportunity arises, and lots of hands reach out eagerly to feel the soft velvet. I do laps of the pen continuously with the antler until Andi takes over, and I head off to retrieve the lorry from the set-up, filing away a mental note of the location of a brownie stall en route. Gotta keep my priorities straight…

Antler disaster for Minute! Photo by @HortopHortop via Twitter
Antler disaster for Minute! Photo courtesy of @HortopHortop via Twitter

3pm: After the exceptionally long parade and the huge crowds around the pen (roughly 15,000 people attended today’s event), the afternoon has flown by, and we’ve just finished packing up. Thankfully it’s been dry which is always nicer anyway, as nothing is worse than packing soaked straw (rain and reindeer pee) into giant plastic bags with frozen bare hands… If any of you ever catch me at that point and choose then to tell me I’ve the best job in the UK – I may argue. But today it’s dry and I’m warm (fleece lined trousers!) so all is good with the World.

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Snoozing Olmec! © John Lewis via Facebook

After a hasty gallop into Tesco on a toothbrush related mission, Team Handi are ready to go. The reindeer will be tired after a busy day and deserve to get back to base as soon as possible, so we do our best to oblige. Andi wins the gauntlet game this time.

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Dramatic backlit reindeer! 

4.50pm: Reindeer are back in their barn, the animal movement license paperwork for the day is finished, we are back in our cottage and another day is done. We’ve checked in briefly with Fiona to let her know that all has gone well, and written our ‘event report’. This details carefully all relevant info from the day, including the travel times taken, details of the pen (was it big enough etc), set-up area and behaviour of the reindeer, plus anything that needs addressing for future years. At the bottom of the sheet is the most important bit though – the Santa rating. Today’s Santa has garnered himself a big fat shiny 10, based on: good banter, own beard (bonus point), glittery boots and the fact that he didn’t instantly address all the reindeer as ‘Dasher’ or ‘Dancer’. A Santa rating of 10 is not too common, or at least not from the pen of Team Handi, so good work that man!

Now, to finally brush my teeth…

Hen

A Day in The Life of a Herder on Tour

I thought I’d enlighten readers of a typical day in the life of a reindeer herder on tour.

7.30am: Anyone who knows me will know that I am terrible in the mornings, so my alarm clock is greeted with the usual feeling of utter horror, quickly followed by extreme distress. Fiona (my manager at Reindeer House) will testify that this can last till lunchtime sometimes.

Andi and I (collectively known as team Handi) are on tour with our reindeer once again and are currently right down in Cornwall. This is the furthest afield that we travel and are away from home for 2.5 weeks, the longest time we ever take reindeer on tour for. Home from home just now is a farm near St Austell, when both us and the reindeer have accommodation – but we’ve stayed on two other farms en route down here, and have had several days with no events, so by no means have we travelled all this way in one go.

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Morning boys!

8am: Our event today doesn’t start till late afternoon, so it’s a fairly relaxed start for us. First priority is to check the reindeer, who are all still lying down dozing when we reach them. On this farm they have a lovely large barn with a deep straw bed, and it’s a particularly nice building for them as it is very well ventilated and they can see out at every angle. They also have some very close neighbours here, in the form of several groups of cattle, all of whom couldn’t quite believe their eyes when we led the reindeer into their shed on arrival yesterday!

Paintpot ignoring his inquisitive neighbours
Paintpot ignoring his inquisitive neighbours

Before we feed the reindeer their breakfast, we pop their halters on and lead them out in to a neighbouring field to stretch their legs. There’s a brief bit of galloping about and ‘dancing’ (the reindeer equivalent of a horse bucking), but they soon knuckle down to the more important business of grazing. Grass is far too rich for a reindeer’s diet for them to exist purely on it, but a short spell in a field does them no harm and they enjoy it immensely. Andi and I have the usual team of 6 reindeer with us – 4 castrated males (‘Christmas reindeer’) and two 6-month-old calves. Our team this time consists of Paintpot, Tanner, Sooty, Minute, Nazca and Olmec, and having been away from home for 8 days now, we have got the measure of them all, knowing all their little quirks and the exact pecking order between them.

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Olmec, Nazca and Sooty following us round the fields

They look so relaxed out in the field that we prepare their breakfasts in the barn, but decide to have our own breakfast before bringing them in. It’s a nice secure field so there’s no worries about them deciding to explore the Cornish countryside on their own.

9am: We bring the reindeer in, but as this team are so relaxed, experiment with a laid-back method i.e. we don’t bother putting leadropes on the calves (we are nowhere near a road). They potter along – just the ticket – if only all teams were quite this easy to lead about! They dive into their breakfast bowls with enthusiasm and we leave them to it.

Leading the whole team back to the barn
Leading the whole team back to the barn

Team Handi head inside – at this time of year Reindeer House is in the grip of Christmas chaos, and the staff left at home fight to keep their heads above water amidst (among many other jobs) the adoption packs that require making up in time for Christmas presents. As such, Imogen has emailed us through a list of letters that need writing, and Andi and I just happen to be equipped with headed paper, envelopes and stamps. Fancy that.

2pm: We’ve had a couple of hours off chilling out, but lunch has been had and there’s work to be done. We’re off to a Cornish seaside town today, about an hour’s drive away. We load up the reindeer, and off we go!

3.30pm: We arrive on schedule, and are greeted by the organisers of the event. Our pen is outside a hotel on a grassy area, and there’s a brief delay while they frantically locate some more barriers, the number needed having been lost in translation. This is why we always arrive with plenty of time to spare! I move the lorry around the back of the hotel into its car park, with one of the (male) staff taking it upon himself to ‘help’ me reverse. Have been driving a lorry for years, and have made it all the way here from northern Scotland – can probably just about manage this bit myself, thank you very much…

4pm: The reindeer are on public display before the parade today, so we get them settled into their pen with feed and water, and pop up our info signs. I wangle a couple of cups of tea too, essential for reindeer herders on tour. Well me anyway – Andi’s day was ruined earlier by a coffee machine producing a cup of hot milk without a hint of caffeine to be found. Disaster.

Delighted people looking at the reindeer
Delighted people looking at the reindeer

With a couple of hours to go before the parade Andi goes off to decorate the sleigh, while I man the fort in the pen, chatting to people and handing out leaflets. The reindeer still have their furry noses in their bowls and ignore the fairly large crowd, particularly, it seems to me, all the people hanging over the barriers calling out ‘Rudolph!’…

6.10pm: 20 minutes to go, so it’s time for us to start harnessing. Minute and Paintpot are the chosen sleigh pullers today, so they wear the bigger harnesses, while the ‘back reindeer’ wear smaller body belts and bells. We get a bucket of lichen to keep Olmec, who is the shyer of the two calves, busy while we put his harness on, but it just results in a mugging from the bolder Nazca – who has earned the reputation of ‘small and annoying’ in the last few days! Olmec stands quietly watching the antics of his buddy…

6.20pm: T-minus-10 minutes, so it’s time to put the reindeer ‘into trace’ (attach them to the sleigh). Andi is leading the reindeer at the front today, so it’s my job to clip the various straps to the right places, and make sure everything is correctly connected. Not helped halfway through by having to retrieve Nazca from the other side of the pen, complete with a wreath and set of bells on his head that he’s collected from the front of the sleigh. ‘Small and very annoying’ today, but it gives the crowd a good laugh! I attach his leadrope to the back of the sleigh, and hope he behaves himself. He doesn’t.

Minute and Paintpot all set for the parade
Minute and Paintpot all set for the parade

6.40pm: After a slightly late start (not our fault), we are off! The boys excel themselves to say the least, and are proper pros, ambling along steadily. Nazca even manages to keep his wee antlers to himself for a little while, rather than poking them where they don’t belong: into the decorations, another reindeer, the leadropes, parts of my anatomy. It’s a fairly short parade, so we’re finished by 7pm. Work done for the day, we unharness the boys (while the organisers and hotel staff all take selfies with Nazca!) and repack everything into the lorry.

7.25pm: The reindeer are loaded up, and we set off. A brief stop for fuel, and a short detour in the wrong direction at a roundabout, but we’re back at the farm by 8.30pm. The reindeer are unloaded back into their barn, the cows looking on, and as soon as I pick up the feed bag there’s a chorus of moos, just in case it’s for them. The reindeer are utterly unperturbed.

9pm: Boom! Job done! Dinner is in the oven and pyjamas are on. At this time of year they are the only item of my clothing without a background aroma of reindeer pee. And people think travelling all over Britain on tour with reindeer must be glamorous…

Hen

Memorable reindeer: Amber

Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.

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Amber in 2007 with her awesome antlers

Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.

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Amber in 2009
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Amber looking out over the hills towards Meall a Bhuachaille

Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!

The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.

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Esme in 2009, with yearling Okapi
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Amber with Sambar on the left, in 2008

Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.

Hen

 

 

 

 

Filming reindeer

They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.

A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.

The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.

In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!

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Fiona starring in Highlands Book

 

When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.

The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.

Tilly

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The “Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart” book

We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.

 

 

Fergus

Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!

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Fergus looking angelic on the hill

In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!

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Fergus sleeping in a feed bowl, inside reindeer house.

So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.

Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.

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Fergus and Tiree guarding the door
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Murdo and Fergus on a ride up to the hill
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Trying some different beds out for size

Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!

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Fergus in the news and up on the hill

In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.

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Little Fergus ‘helping out’ on a trek in 2015

Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!

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Fergus having a cuddle with ‘mum’ Mel

Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.

Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.

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Cheeky devil!
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Fergus looking great at 1.5 years old

He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!

Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!

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He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!

Imogen

Dinner Date

So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!

The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!

As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)

Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.

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Lichen covering the forest floor

Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.

NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.

The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!

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Lilac and Hornet, roaming around in the lush grazing

Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often  = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!

Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!

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Kate shedding the velvet from her antlers
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Sambar shedding velvet

Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.

First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.

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Dark Grains

It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!

One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.

We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!

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Gandi and Puddock with their main course of lichen!

Abby

 

Romford Retailer becomes a Cairngorm Reindeer Herder: Part 2

The second installment of Sonya’s blog about volunteering is here! The weather isn’t so great in this blog but Sonya’s enthusiasm shines through. If you missed the first installment, here’s a link to days 1 and 2 of Sonya’s week with us.

Day Three

The weather is dreadful today, I have become obsessed with the weather forecast so I am aware the rain is due to last at least two days or more, this calls for waterproofs and a certain strength of spirit to face heading outside and up the hill. Fiona and Abby take me to help separate six reindeer from the rest of the herd. There is a pre-booked trek the next day so we are getting the trekking reindeer in a separate enclosure, we must be sure to include Bingo in the smaller group as his adoptee is one of the trekkers. As the reindeer head through two gates, my task is to count them to ensure they all come in for breakfast. A simple task you’d think. Well it would have helped if they stood still, or even if they moved at a steady pace in an orderly manner. A few times they stop, then rush through two or three at a time, or occasionally shove their way through the wrong gate and have to come back and be encouraged through the correct gate. I’m aiming to reach a total of thirty five. By the time I’m up to seventeen or was it fifteen….., I’m hoping Abby or Fiona are double checking me and counting too. By the time we get to the last reindeer, I’m only up to thirty two but not feeling too confident about my total.

After settling the smaller group of six, we set about feeding the larger group which means we can more easily recount them. I’m not sure what to wish for at this point because if there are twenty-six it means my count was accurate, but if there are twenty-nine it means all the reindeer are here and we don’t have to walk the 1200 acre enclosure in this downpour, looking for them. There are twenty-six. Three are missing and one of them is my Gandi. Fiona thinks they’re likely to turn up for the 11:00 feed to we don’t rush into looking for them, we will have to do that if they’re not hanging around by then. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to miss the odd feeding session at this time of year as there are such tasty nibbles available elsewhere in the form of a variety of new green shoots all across the hillside.

With all this counting of reindeer and trying to identify which ones are missing, I’ve learnt another name today. I had noticed Puddock’s antlers before, without knowing his name. They are many branching but he is castrated so they don’t grow so tall. They end up in a tangled mass going every which way. He was born in 2007 when calves were named after green things like Fern and Meadow. I didn’t know what a Puddock was but I’m reliably informed it’s an old Scottish term for a frog. My education continues.

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Puddock

I spent quite a lot of time in the shop today as a rainy day is a good opportunity to wipe everything down and have a general tidy up and restock. Some hardy individuals are still out and about in this awful weather and there is a steady stream of bookings for the 11:00 hill trip so the waterproofs are back on and up we go again. Despite the weather I’m eager to see if Gandi has turned up since this morning and sure enough, when we get up to the hill, he’s there at the gate with two companions, all indignant at missing breakfast. We have an adopter on this hill trip who is eager to see Dragonfly but he is not on the hillside at the moment. Dragonfly is due to arrive later in the afternoon as he is currently on the farm and coming over to take his turn in the paddocks. So his adopter can have a leisurely lunch and pop back to see him later on.

Fiona’s brother Alex arrives at lunch time with the reindeer from the farm. He has Ross with him who I haven’t met before. I remembered Imogen’s suggestion about how to look like a local and wear less clothing, so I guess Ross is a true Scot as it is the coolest and wettest of days and Ross is wearing the flimsiest of shorts! I began to share the joke with him and merrily tell the tale of Imogen’s advice…. At the end of my story, Ross looks at me in a confused way and simply says “Sorry?”.

He hasn’t understood a word of what I said, in what must sound to him, like a broad southern accent. My joke is wasted and he thinks I’m crazy! Oh well, you can’t win them all, so we get back to the reindeer.

The plan is to put them in the paddocks and take the current paddock reindeer up to the hill enclosure. I’m not sure how we managed to achieve this swap over but it seemed a well-practised opening and closing of multiple gates and trailers until eventually the right reindeer were in the paddock and the others were stowed in the trailer to go up the hill. We all squeezed in ‘Brenda the truck’ for the short journey but there aren’t quite enough seats so Fiona bravely gets in the back with the reindeer. It’s a big novelty for me to lead them along the public footpath, over Utsi’s bridge and up to the enclosure, I find myself hoping a walker will come along the path as I’d love to see the look on their faces as five reindeer on halters are lead past them, but nobody comes by to witness the incongruous sight of reindeer using a footbridge and they are reunited with the herd without further incident.

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Dave approaching Utsi’s Bridge

Day Four

Today is the day of the trek for a pre-booked party and I am heading up in the rain again, with Andi. It’s lovely to meet Andi as she was the herder I made contact with to seek this volunteering placement and it’s good for both of us to put a face to the name. Our fellow trekkers are Bessie and Joyce from Glasgow, Bessie has adopted Bingo for a few years and is keen to see him again. Our other companions are Susan and her granddaughter Mira from Whistler in Canada. They are on an extended trip to Scotland in an attempt to track down some family graves as they know their ancestors were from Scotland many generations ago. Susan has a deep love of all hooved animals, she has goats and sheep as pets at home in Canada, and Sooty the reindeer is her best friend within minutes. It’s a cold damp morning but at least it keeps the midges at bay and we ascend through low cloud to the peak of Silver Mount.

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Low cloud on the trek

I am walking Camus, as a non-paying trekker it’s only fair that I take a reindeer that needs the practise and training, rather than the nice quiet obliging ones that the tourists get. Camus was a jittery boy for the ascent, jumping and prancing around until at one point it took all my strength to hang on to him. Until that point I had been trying to bring up the rear of the group so we didn’t leave anyone behind but Andi quite rightly suggested I bring him into the middle of the group. Reindeer are herd animals and nothing is more comforting to them than a bit of company and by this time I was keen to try anything to calm him down, I just hoped we didn’t end up losing any of the group in the mist on the mountain. When we reached the peak of Silver Mount we stopped for photos and a soggy snack before descending. When the rest of the herd were in sight we removed the reindeer halters and let them re-join their companions. Some other reindeer came to meet us, tempted by Andi’s stash of lichen. More photos were taken and sweet nothings were murmured to all our favourites and as we headed out of the enclosure the reindeer proved themselves to be in a friendly mood and followed us all along the boardwalk as far as the gate. I know they were just hopeful of more food but it looked for all the world like they were waving us off.

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Sonya

The final installment will be out in August!