Out on the mountains

Hello again, this is Oliver the reindeer herder, and yet again I have been polietly asked to do a blog. I know that others are writing much more interesting blogs than I, but hey ho! This blog is about the weather (not a forecast of the week), and not just any weather, but the reindeer and my favourite weather….. The Snow!

Byron leading the herd through the snow.

I have now worked with the reindeer in all seasons and there’s no better season than the winter. For me it’s because you’re seeing them in their element, in the conditions they have evolved to live in.

A stunning sunset,  made all the more mysterious with sideways snow.

Even when the snow is coming sideways so thickly you can’t see two feet in front of you, and all you want to do is to go back and get a cup of tea, the reindeer look as if it’s just a dusting and go about their normal busness. The reindeer are so well insulated that they often get the snow lying on them (which makes them even harder to see). It shows just how hardy they are and to me, makes them look like some sort of ancient-ice-age-yeti-beast.


Bumble the ancient-ice-age-yeti-beast.

Just the other day we herded out the cows and calves on to the free-range (which is always the best part of the job). Who knows where they will go or what mischief they will get up to, out on the hills they are elusive, and I can see how they blend in like a chameleon. Sitting on the hill watching them is one of the most peaceful things I know.  They are so quiet that in a blizard you could walk within inches of them and not know that they are right next to you.

For the reindeer (and us herders) we hope this wonderful snow stays with us at least a little into the new year. But for everyone, from us and the reindeer, have a great one!


A different view of Christmas

I’ve been helping up at Reindeer House for a good few years now and, after moving back to England, have had to supplement my reindeer fix with helping at Christmas events near to home. I thought it might be interesting to put together a few thoughts and impressions gathered over the years.

I never cease to be fascinated at how people react to the reindeer. Yes, there are occasional doubters, but the herders are always happy to explain how the Cairngorm reindeer, with 1000s of years of domestication in their blood, and a familiarity with people and handling, seem quite happy to take a short trip away from their free-range life on the mountains.

At home on the mountain..
..to down in Bradford pulling a sleigh.

I remember Magnus at Carlisle Races one Christmas. The reindeer pen was set back from the track, but quite near to the large screen which displayed the action. His eyes were glued to the screen when a race was on, only pausing to follow the horses, his head slowly moving right to left, as they galloped past on the track. This cycle was repeated until a race finished.

Magnus 0911.JPG
Not quite at a Christmas event, but this is Magnus when not glued to a TV screen.

I chuckle when I recall being on the M6 in the reindeer van one snowy year. As we drove past one of those huge illuminated signs, displaying the message ‘Is your vehicle ready for winter?’, I couldn’t help thinking of the six reindeer and sleigh in the back. Now THAT’s what I call being prepared!

Every time we drive past this sign it makes us smile (even through in Scotland they’re red deer…) .Picture from pixabay.

Some questions from the crowd become predictable (Which one’s Rudolf? Did they fly here? Where do they live?), but antlers (‘horns’) fascinate people. You do need to be sure, though, that no Santa-believing child is nearby when explaining why our Christmas reindeer have antlers. One year an antler broke off whilst the team were being harnessed up for the procession. There was a gasp from the onlooking crowd, followed by silence, then a solitary voice exclaiming ‘You’ve broken your reindeer!’. Cool thinking by the herders and a quick swap around saved the day.

Other questions have included: ‘What are they – donkeys?’. And often there are wide eyes and gasps of ‘But they are real! – and I don’t mean from children. It’s that magic, and the dawning realisation that reindeer are real creatures with very special needs, and not just props in a seasonal fairy tale, which make these encounters worthwhile.

Stressed I don't think so
Stressed? I don’t think so!

Then there are dogs… The places where I help out are very doggy orientated, and folk like to bring their pets along to the Christmas events – some even lifting them up to get a better view. I can only assume that many people think of their dog as a child substitute, and cannot understand that, to a reindeer, it’s a wolf. Most owners will back off quickly when this is politely pointed out, but it was hard to understand the one who tried to push his dog through the barriers so that he could take a photo of it with the reindeer.

Reindeer characters come and go, but this years star for me has to be Svalbard, who spent much of the event attempting to eat the artificial sleigh decorations. By the end of the day the wreath was part dismantled. I’m not convinced, though, that Alex’s suggestion of making them out of real holly to deter nibblers would go down too well with the herders who have to dress the sleigh.

Job done, time to head home to Cairngorms
Job done! Time for Svalbard and Byron to head home to Cairngorm..



The making of the Cairngorms

Our reindeer roaming here in the highlands of Scotland live in a truly unique landscape, that has been sculpted over the centuries. However, the formation of the Cairngorms is not known by many, and so here I’ve summarised a brief part of it to explain how the reindeer got their home.

A herd of females, happy in their home grounds, the Cairngorms.

The Cairngorms are underlain by 427 million year old Granite and were, believe it or not, once in the range of the Himalayas standing far higher than today. Millions of years of degradation and the prolific effects of repeated glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) cycles throughout the last 2.5 million years (Quaternary) have carved out the landscape in which we see today.

About 13,000 years ago, cold glacial conditions were increasing in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. There have been many debates as to why this happened but scientists have hypothesized that this major cooling event was caused by an enormous dumping of fresh water into the North Atlantic by the large North America Lake Agassiz. As the ice retreated from the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago the lake burst its banks causing a catastrophic flood. The flower (Dryas octopetala), the Younger Dryas or, Loch Lomond Stadial, marked the return to what we see today.

The beautiful wee flower, Dryas octopetula.  Photo from Wikipedia commons.


Photo from Wikipedia commons.

This cold water slowed down the oceans conveyor belt or ‘thermohaline circulation’ to an almost standstill, meaning there was a complete loss of heat transfer and a massive reduction in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. The sea and the atmosphere share a sort of ‘love – hate’ relationship whereby if one is behaving well the other will behave; however if one decides to throw a spanner in the works its counterpart will throw quite the tantrum and this is exactly what happened. The rapid cooling of the previously warm salty sea water coming up the west coast of Scotland caused the atmosphere to cool dramatically; hence resulting in ice growth and incredibly cold conditions across much of Scotland.

The land cover about 12,000 years ago in Europe. Notice the prevalance of ice and tundra habitat in the highlands of Scotland, where our reindeer now live. Photo from Wikipedia commons.

This last ‘hurrah’ of ice has sculpted much of the landscape we see today. As the ice retreated, Scots pine rose up the mountains pushing the level of steppe tundra with it. The subarctic conditions that now occupy this landscape mirror that of Arctic Canada and Siberia meaning that reindeer can survive and thrive here in the Scottish Highlands. These wonderful animals now inhabit a land forged by ice so can therefore thank these bouts of extreme cold as without them we would not have our reindeer here today.

A lone Scots Pine in Scotland’s snowy landscape. Photo from Geograph, licensed for reuse.


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!

Leading our team off the hill
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!
Reindeer happy in their overnight accommodation. Riding arenas aren’t just for horses…
We went for a look round the stables and met all the ponies and assorted menagerie that live there.
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!
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?!
The drive down to Wales was all too much for Morna
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!
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.
One of the perks to tour – you sometimes have time to cook a lovely breakfast!
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.

Tour time begins..

A couple of weeks ago saw the start of my experience of ‘Christmas Tour’ – the fabled hectic time of Christmas at Reindeer House, working away at events all over the UK. To kick me off, I had a week with the wonderful Hen and Andi in the far-flung lands of Cardiff and Yorkshire.

Much to Hen and Andi’s continual amusement, I’d been looking forward to Christmas approaching and tours starting. For what on earth sounds more fun that a week away on a road trip with some reindeer?!

As the day to leave approached I was feeling a little bit unsure of what to expect, and very unsure of what to take. But we upped-and-awayed, with mostly everything, and a prayer that what we’d forgotten wouldn’t be needed.

Here’s a few photos of our trip. With thanks to the wonderful team: the sleepy Svalbard, bowl-tipper Duke, Matto, Byron, and our lovely calves Beatrix and Austen!

We leave the reindeers’ beautiful snowy Cairngorms behind, and head for more southern climates.
Truck Fun. Over 6 hours in a truck is enough to turn anyone a wee bit mad.

On arrival at our base we jump in the back of the truck to take the reindeer out to their home for the night, a lovely big bedded barn and field. But instead of 3 reindeer in the first compartment, we find only 1, the big-tummied Svalbard. After a moment of panic, and a “I’m sure we brought all the reindeer with us?!?!”, we discovered the reason…

Svalbard, travelling in luxurious style, has a compartment all to himself.

We peer through to the next compartment and realise the small door between the two was left open. The wee calf Beatrix, small enough to slip through, had gone to join her calf-friend Austen, and Matto had somehow managed to follow, but poor Svalbard’s antlers were obviously too big, and he just couldn’t fit.

The 5 culprits, snug as a bug in a rug, or reindeer in a truck.
Our base for the first night, with our truck Kenny.
A morning run, in a wonderfully frosty field.

As the days flew by, we saw Cardiff, many motorways, Oxford and Yorkshire, a few lovely bases, and had some great food.

Andi very excited for her breakfast down near Cardiff.

Al in all, only a couple of things got broken, some wonderful breakfasts were eaten, all 6 reindeer returned home safe and sound, and I think, Hen, Andi and I are still friends.

A stressful trip for us all, eh?



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