Volunteer Blog: From the rutting season to the calving season

Sherlock during the rut in 2023.

I first visited the Cairngorm reindeer herd in August 2000 and since then have visited on many occasions with my husband and our three daughters.

Over the years we have made badges and paper antlers, hunted for elves, taken countless photos of our daughters sitting on the sleigh outside the shop, handfed the reindeer, and have never tired of the beautiful walk up to the hill enclosure.

Our last family trip was on Valentine’s Day in 2022 when we headed out in the pouring rain on the 11am Hill Trip to visit the free ranging herd high up on the mountain. It was following that trip that I heard about the chance to apply to become a volunteer and spend a week helping out at Reindeer House and decided to apply.

Jayne’s husband and daughter smiling despite the rain thanks to Gloriana. Hard to believe this soggy experience made Jayne wish to volunteer with us!

In October 2023 I packed my tent and drove up from Lancashire to spend the week at Glenmore. I was rather apprehensive turning up at 8am on Monday morning with a rucksack full of waterproofs and sandwiches but I needn’t have worried. I was immediately greeted by a room full of very friendly reindeer herders, several dogs and a handful of puppies!

My volunteer week was action packed. In the morning I helped with handling the reindeer down at the Visitor Centre, feeding them, cleaning up and getting everything ready for visitors to come in at 10am.

During October there is just one Hill Trip a day. I would go up onto the hill, carrying a bag of food and talking to visitors about what I was doing. Each day I would heat up some milk and carry it up the hill in a flask to feed two calves named Winnie and Alba who had been successfully hand reared and were now on the hill with the rest of the herd. Whilst I keep insisting that I don’t have a favourite reindeer I do have a soft spot for Alba!

Winnie and Alba, hard not to develop soft spots for these two girls!

October is the rutting season which was quite eventful! The hill enclosure was being used to manage the annual breeding as well as for daily Hill Trips so there was plenty to do. Two male reindeer had been selected for breeding. Sherlock was out on Silver Mount with some of the females whilst Jelly Bean was in another part of the enclosure with some of the other females. Daily checks were made of all the reindeer and extra food provided. It was quite an experience to see these normally very docile males displaying anything but docile behaviour and to see their interactions with the females as they came into season. I was certainly happy to stay behind the fence!

Sherlock out on Silver Mount with Bordeaux, one of his selected cows.

Volunteering in October also meant that I got the opportunity to be involved in the first week of the Christmas sleigh training. I’ll never forget being pulled up the hill from Glenmore Visitor Centre in a Sleigh!

Jayne at the front of the sleigh in hi-vis, on crowd control duty.

I learnt so much that week and thoroughly enjoyed it so it was no surprise to my family when I asked if they would mind if I abandoned them once again this year to spend another week volunteering.

My return to Glenmore was sooner than I imagined and I was back again at the start of May 2024 – approximately 220 days since my last visit – which quite coincidentally happened to be about the same period of time as the average gestation period for a reindeer!

How lucky was I – having experienced the madness of the rutting season I was now in the thick of the calving season.

One of our gorgeous calves.

Three calves had already been born when I arrived on a wet bank holiday weekend and over the course of the week that I was there another 12 were born on the hill.

During my second stint as a volunteer there was no Paddocks and Exhibition to attend to as it has been knocked down over the winter and is in the process of being rebuilt. There was plenty to do though with two Hill Trips a day, plus an early morning walk to find reindeer, check on them, locate newly born reindeer and help with a whole host of other daily jobs to be done.

New mum and calf.

Watching how quickly the calves developed and became so sure footed in such a short space of time was amazing and as the new mums relaxed into motherhood it was a joy to just sit and watch them interact. It’s hard to imagine that in just a few weeks the mums and calves will be out free ranging across the Cairngorm mountains.

During the time I have spent with everyone who works with the Cairngorm Reindeer I have learned so much about these beautiful animals. I have thoroughly enjoyed helping to take visitors up onto the hill, telling them about the reindeer and talking to them about all sorts of things!

Sherlock looking a bit different from Jayne’s last visit.
Zambezi and Shannon now yearlings in May 2024, in the previous October these were some of the calves that were being trained to walk behind the sleigh.

I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity and am rather hoping that I will be allowed back again next year ….

Jayne

Seasonal Volunteer to Seasonal Herder

Editor’s note: The lovely Hannah wrote this blog when she was here back in August 2023 but I have only just found it lurking in a folder on the computer. Sorry Hannah! Read Hannah’s first blog here about her time volunteering with us here: Hannah’s Volunteer Blog – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. And then try to imagine you’re reading this current one in the warm summer month of August!

The herd within the hill enclosure – August 2023.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since I was up on the hill – it always feels far too long! As usual I signed up for my now annual volunteering stint and was met with an even better offer to come and help for three weeks rather than one! Obviously, this was too good an opportunity to pass up and I quickly abandoned my long-suffering partner (and our impending house move) to come and stay at Reindeer House for the month!

A lot can change in a year – last July I was hand rearing Sunny, now one of our yearlings and a fully-fledged reindeer – antlers and all! My hand rearing days were not over, though – as we had two new calves to meet – Winnie and Alba! Being resident in Reindeer House means extra quality time with these two lovely girls, including late night feeds and mornings taking them up the hill. It’s been amazing watching them progress even over the past few weeks, gaining weight as they should and spotting some antlers beginning to appear.

Hannah and Sunny in July 2022.
Sunny all grown up in July 2023.
Winnie and Alba, our hand-reared calves in August 2023.

I’ve been lucky enough to come at a different point of the year which has included adventures with the free ranging females and tracking the discovery of new calves flourishing out on the hills. Having not had much time with our girls, being mostly a summer presence, it was great to finally put faces to the names of the lovely females I have heard so much about and meet some of their new arrivals.

Hannah on the right helping out with harness training with Andi and Hen – August 2023.
Hannah taking her very own Hill Trip and doing a totally superb job!
Meeting some of the free ranging cows.
Catching up with the calves who were born in May – here’s Holy Moley and calf who we later named Mississippi.

I count myself very lucky to have quadrupled my usual stint here and be a part of the team. Hopefully the next bit of time goes speedily, and I’ll be back out on the hill before I know it!

Hannah

Photo Blog: November 2023

November has been a busy month. We’ve had the first decent snow higher up on the hills, the free ranging reindeer have been showing their beautiful faces at the hill enclosure every few days, adoptions are coming in thick and fast so lots of letters are streaming out of the office, sleigh training has continued in Glenmore and the first Christmas teams have been on the road! The ‘Christmas reindeer’ have all been totally super and have made us very proud. So this truly is a mixed bag of pics that I’ve taken over the past few weeks! Enjoy…

1st of November: Feeding a herd of free ranging cows. Caterpillar is closest to the camera.
3rd of November: Brie looking very soggy!
3rd of November: Poirot looking very handsome.
6th of November: Dante getting a close-up.
7th of November: Winnie and Cameron! Cameron did a lot of bottle feeding of Winnie and Alba (our han-reared calves) over the summer months and is particularly fond of ‘his girls’.
8th of November: For Isla (back of sleigh) and Cassie (front of sleigh) this is their first Christmas season, but they are total naturals already. Frost is the reindeer with the patchy white face at the front.
12th of November: No reindeer in this pic but what a wonderful office we have above the clouds! You can just make out the thick layer of cloud hanging over Strathspey.
15th of November: 6-month-old Orinoco being gorgeous! She’s a sweet-natured lass who is growing in confidence. She’s definitely not as pushy as some of our calves this year!
16th of November: Marple and her lovely calf Mekong.
18th of November: My first Christmas event of the year. Here’s LX resting his chin before he pulls the sleigh.
19th of November: Another Christmas event for me. Here’s Olmec licking the rain off our sign.
22nd of November: Dr Seuss flanked by Haricot and Adzuki.
23rd of November: The free ranging herd brought themselves into the enclosure looking for a free lunch! Torch closest to the camera.

Ruth

Winnie and Alba

We thought it was about time you had an update on our hand reared calves of this year. Back in May, off the back of our calving season, we were left hand rearing two female calves. Last year we raised Sunny, a male calf who lost his mum at only a few days old and this year Alba joined us when she was 3 days old and Winne when she was 10 days old. The two of them are thick as thieves and are always together. They spend the day time up on the hill getting exercise and grazing and also learning to be in amongst the herd and in the evenings they are back down here at the Centre with the paddock reindeer. The reason we bring them off the hill is because they are still getting bottles of milk so this makes it a lot easier for us to do.

Winnie (left) and Alba (right) on their way to the enclosure for the day.

Alba is a twin. Her and her brother were born on the 13th of May 2023 and their mother is Suebi, a 7 year old mature female. We had twins born back in 2018 from Lulu. That was the first time we had twins born alive and with no prior experience we decided to try and leave Lulu with both of them to raise herself. So Lulu spent the summer in our mountain enclosure so we could help her out instead of free ranging with the other cows and calves. Although smaller than normal calves their age both the twins seemed to be doing just fine. However, for what felt like no reason whatsoever we lost one of them at 4 months old and the other one at 5 months old. We don’t know why, maybe reindeer just aren’t meant to raise twins? So, we decided back then if we were to have twins again then we’d need to change something and potentially take one away from the mother leaving her with one to rear herself while we hand reared the other. Alba was the smaller and weaker one of the two born this year. We helped both calves out for the first few days making sure they were getting milk from Suebi then it got to day three and the time had come for us to take one away and leave her with the bigger and stronger calf. Suebi was completely unfazed and satisfied she had a calf. I don’t think the maternal instinct goes as far as counting to two which was lucky for us! We took Alba off the hill and for her first 3.5 days she lived with us and the dogs in the house as she was too small to be with other reindeer at this point.

Suebi and her twins! Alba is the one standing.
Alba taking over Reindeer House living room – blankets down to help with the slippery floor!

After a few days Winnie came on the scene and the two of them teamed up as our hand reared duo of 2023. Winne’s story is a little different. It was mid-May and she was with her mum for about 10 days before one morning she came in with the herd and mum wasn’t with her. This is very strange because if mum wasn’t feeling well and lay down usually the calf would always stay with her so for the calf to be in without mum was really unusual. Maybe she had an accident or if she did become ill it’s been far too long now that we can only assume she passed away. Obviously we immediately looked for her on the day she went missing, however, our mountain enclosure with is 1200 acres (the equivalent of 1200 football pitches). This is made up of heathery mountain ground, peat hags, lots of trees, bog and thick juniper so it is like finding a needle in a haystack sometimes. It got to the afternoon of the day she went missing and we had to give Winnie some milk or she would have starved. We also had to take her off the hill that night as she would not be able to stay with the herd without a mum so down she came and both her and Alba teamed up.

Winnie on the hill, still with her mum.
Winnie clearly very settled after being brought of the hill. Her and Alba already thick as thieves.

We laugh as incidents or problems only ever occur when there is something else happening for us herders or when the long term herders are away on holiday. And true to form this all happened during the wedding of two herders so we were already on minimal staff with the long termers away celebrating. The staff that were working that day came up trumps big time to deal with everything though! I did pop back and help out and also pass on advice over the phone but it was the folk on the ground that held the fort and did a bloody good job of it too considering the complications. Also, as it was a herders wedding we of course had the ceilidh to go to that night. While we were all at the party in the evening, who else had to come along… Alba and Winnie, of course! So into our wee livestock truck they went, along with their bottles of milk ready to warm up mid-ceilidh. Then come 8pm, dressed up in my glad rags, off I went to feed the calves. The scene of walking through a wedding party, in a frock, holding two bottles of milk to go and feed the calves should of looked unusual but nobody batted an eyelid. I was definitely in amongst like-minded people!

Kate enjoying calf time!
Calves being babysat by the bigger reindeer in the Paddocks. Iskrem showing where the food is!

So now we are well into the summer, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster having two calves to hand rear. For herders living at Reindeer House there is a further responsibility with two extra feeds after working hours so Cameron, Kate, EK, Fran, Hannah and myself have all been doing this. When we hand reared Sunny last year he spent a lot of time hanging out with us in Reindeer House but as there are two calves this year they don’t come in so much. Cameron has certainly adopted the two girls this year having done most of the looking after so when he went away for a week’s holiday in July he had to trust us we would do a good job!

Volunteer Emily and herder Hannah bottle feeding the duo.
Winnie in the hill enclosure, starting to grow her antlers.
Winnie’s hilarious milk drunk face.

Obviously we’d prefer not to hand rear reindeer calves, however, sometimes there is no option. Sunny is now a year old and I still call out to him in the mornings ‘calf, calf!’ and he even grunts back to me sometimes. This may be a trait which carries on through his life but it certainly gives us a good laugh. Alba and Winnie this year I can already see are going to be naughty little girls. Both coming from quite independent, head strong mothers I think we’ve got out future work cut out with them so watch this space!

Fiona and Sunny in the kitchen at Reindeer House. Fiona’s hand reared boy born in 2022.

Fiona

Photo Blog: July 2023

July has been a good month with not a great deal of unusual things going on within the herd really – which is actually rather nice! The boys in the hill enclosure are generally eating lots and putting all their energy into growing lovely antlers and big bellies! Towards the middle of July the reindeer finally start to look themselves and some in particular look very smart in their short summer coats.

School holiday season is definitely upon us! We’ve got very busy with visitors, running three Hill Trips a day during weekdays and two on weekends. The Paddocks and Exhibition have also been popular and the reindeer here at the Centre have done a good job of ‘babysitting’ our two hand-reared calves (Winnie and Alba) overnight. They are now big enough to spend the daytime with the herd on the hill. This allows them to get some good exercise every day and lots of great grazing but they return each evening so they don’t miss out on their night time bottles of milk!

I’ve been lucky to see some of the free ranging females out on the hills too – all looked great and some stonking big calves out there. Well done mums, keep it up!

Hopefully the following photos will give more of an insight into what’s been going on this month.

3rd of July – Lupin and Bond relaxing after a Hill Trip.
4th of July – The herd heading up to the shed for a routine temperature check. We try to do this around once a week at this time of year.
5th of July – Sunny leading the herd through for their breakfast. What a good boy!
6th of July – Jelly strutting his stuff.
7th of July – 99 (named after the ice cream) is one of our leucistic reindeer. He was one of the first reindeer to moult into his smart summer coat and is in excellent condition.
10th of July – The herd on the move.
11th of July – Wafer and Haricot looking soggy after a wet morning.
13th of July – A hill walk on a day off and was lucky to bump into a herd of our free ranging cows and calves. This is three year old Turtle who was looking very well.
16th of July – Cicero, Andi and Scoop on a VERY wet morning harness training. Both boys happily grazing not fazed by the situation and Andi is still smiling despite the downpour!
17th of July – Sunny (last year’s hand-reared calf) still looking a bit scruffy!
18th of July – Alba and WInnie on their way up to “Reindeer School” for the day. They spend the evenings and nights here at the Centre in the Paddocks and the day time on the hill with the herd – good grazing and exercise.
20th of July – Yearlings Calippo and Kulfi.
23rd of July – So much antler! Morse, Spartan and Kernel.
25th of July – LX and Busby. I think they both thought they were missing out on their breakfast!
26th of July – Blue skies above the hill enclosure! Summer returned for a day!

Ruth

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