Four pop stars and an Okapi walked into a carpark…

Four pop stars and an Okapi walked into a carpark…

…and no this is not the start of a bad joke but instead a phone call that we get every once in a while from Jamie, the carpark attendant on Cairngorm mountain. At the moment most of the females are in our hill enclosure either because they have calves that we are training and getting used to people, or because they have been running with a bull with the hope they will calve next spring. We do have a few reindeer though who are fully retired and we won’t breed from anymore. These reindeer are allowed to free-roam to their hearts content but seem to keep showing up in various places keeping us busy. I will introduce you to the members of the group, four of whom were born in 2006 and named after pop and rock legends and the final one who was born in 2008 when the theme was horned and antlered animals.

The Golden Oldies


Named after the Scottish singer-songwriter, Lulu is a firm favourite amongst herders; we can definitely all shout about how much we love her. She is very tame and friendly and is the mother of LX who has inherited her greediness. For any of you who have been on the hill to meet the reindeer you may have fed LX as he is often one of the first in line for hand feeding.


Named due to being totally white, Blondie certainly doesn’t have a heart of glass. Blondie is a leucistic reindeer, a genetic condition that causes a loss of pigmentation and also causes her to be deaf. Blondie is often the last of the reindeer in the group to come for food as she may not have heard us calling. Blondie is also very useful as unless she is in snow, she doesn’t camouflage as well as the other reindeer so she helps us spot the group.


Enya is one of the most independent reindeer in the herd; I’m sure much like her namesake the Irish singer. Recently we have barely had a day without rain but the reindeer don’t seem to mind, being very well adapted for the environment that they live in. Enya always grows a lovely set of antlers.


The final of the 4 rock and pop legends in this group is Santana named after the American rock band. Her coat is certainly as smooth as it looks in this photo of her taken last autumn. Santana is the oldest daughter of Haze, who was a strong matriarch in the herd in her day. Santana certainly is no stranger to being amongst strong women with Gazelle, Caddis and Camembert as sisters. So it’s no surprise that she has formed a clear group with these lovely older girls.


Now last but certainly not least is Okapi, who is two years younger than the others but also retired from motherhood. If you’re not sure what the animal Okapi is named after looks like then definitely google it as they are incredibly cool looking. They live in the forest and are related to giraffes. Okapi is incredibly tame and greedy, and will follow you almost anywhere if you have a bag of feed.

These five reindeer have a collective age of 63 (old enough to get a bus pass) and have been on all sorts of adventures throughout the autumn. We originally brought them into the enclosure as a part of a larger group, the rest of which we wanted in the enclosure for the rut. We then let these guys out of the enclosure to free-range the hills which they did for a couple of weeks, before trying their hand at a bit of reindeer herding. They successfully brought two cows and calves back with them to the enclosure. Cheers girls, thanks for doing our job for us. After the reward of an easy meal we let the girls back out of the enclosure, half hoping they would continue to play the game and collect some more reindeer for us…


Funny Photos

Working with the reindeer means spending a lot of time with them. This means we often get amazing photo opportunities, with great weather conditions or reindeer posing. This also means that we can often see their slightly less glamorous side, and tend to capture it every now and then…


Diamond’s tongue
LX (Lulu’s son)
Izzy discovered what a bog is during her first week of volunteering!
The boys always seem keen to get in the Christmas spirit early by decorating their antlers.

A reindeer in the house!
Sooty letting a youngster have a nap at the end of a hill trip
Kate’s picture of Fly
Limbering up for another busy day of Hill Trips!


Autumn in the Cairngorm Mountains




During the autumn months reindeer are starting to prepare for winter. By October, their summer coat has begun to disappear below a fresh new winter coat. Reindeer winter coat is one of the warmest coats in the animal kingdom, with over 2000 hairs per square inch on their body. About 600 hairs per square inch are hollow allowing air to be trapped between them forming an insulating layer, which can keep help them survive down to 72°C.



Cairn Gorm views

The rutting season is an important time of year for Reindeer bulls. First their velvet strips off their antlers leaving them with solid bone, stained red from the blood supply that was there to help the antlers to grow. Eventually the antlers lose the red stain and their impressive sets are revealed!


Kota during this year’s rutting season

Castrated males don’t lose the velvet from their antlers quite so quickly. This is because the reduction of testosterone doesn’t trigger the response to shed it. This also means that the castrated males get to keep their antlers slightly longer than the bulls. Because of this, castrated males make for the best Christmas reindeer.


Females that are put with the bulls during the rutting season spend the majority of the time with the breeding bull. Calves and yearlings will stay with their mothers during this period too.

Female with her calf and a friend


Red squirrels


The red squirrels are also preparing for winter during the autumn too. They collect stores of nuts and burry them so once winter begins they have a source of food, even when no suitable food is available. The only issue they have is remembering where they buried their store.


Also during the autumn Red Squirrels begin to grow their winter coat. Their winter coat, like reindeer, is thicker than their summer coat, and denser. This allows them to keep warm during the winter. Their ear tufts also become thicker and more prominent.


Pine Martins


A group of pine martins is called “richness”, even though they are skilful climbers they normally hunt on the ground. Pine martens are believed to have come to Britain around 10,500 BC, at the end of the last ice age. They live in woodland habitats and were Britain’s second most common carnivore around 6,500 years ago in Britain and Ireland.


Similar to red squirrels, pine martins do not hibernate. They have thick fur all over there body to keep them warm during the cold winters. Pine Martins are hardy mammals and will eat anything including mushrooms, insects, small mammals such as voles and bird eggs. Being omnivorous allows them to always have a source of food even when certain plants and berries have died off due to the winter frost. They mainly forage or hunt for food at night or late in the evening.


The local bar to the Reindeer Centre is named after this elusive creature, the reason being that several Pine Martins have been spotted outside the bar late in the evening eating the various feed which is left out for the Red Squirrels. (Reindeer herders are also often found at the Pine Marten Bar late in the evening…)






During the autumn Ospreys will start their incredible journey back to Africa, where they travel up to 5000 miles. The female is the first to leave. She leaves the nest and her fledglings in the care of the male who will continue to fish for them until they are able to fend for themselves, once they can the male will set of on the migration. Then finally the young will start their journey.


The mating pair may not see each other over the winter period, but will meet up again the following breeding season back in Scotland or Northern England. Ospreys were driven to extinction in the UK in the 1900’s due to egg collectors, they were also considered a pest due to them eating the salmon and trout.


Ospreys returned for the first time to breed in 1954 to Loch Garten near Aviemore. This was a natural recolonization, but the birds still needed a huge amount of help and protection to breed successfully in the Scottish highlands.

Eventually several pairs of osprey began to breed successfully in more remote parts of Scotland. However, many birds were helped with artificial nest platforms and nest protection watches, and a huge public enthusiasm for the birds helped ensure their survival.


Golden eagle


The golden eagle is the top predator in Scotland. It’s a massive bird of prey that mainly hunts rabbits and mountain hares but will also catch foxes, young deer and large birds like grouse. It can be seen soaring high in the sky in upland areas and remote glens. Golden eagles have large home territories, nesting on rocky cliff faces and in trees where it builds a giant nest or ‘eyrie’. These nests are often used by successive generations to rear their own young. Furthermore, similar to Osprey, Golden eagles pair for life


There are around 400 breeding pairs of Golden Eagles within Scotland and Northern England too. The birds are perfectly adapted to survive the harsh Scottish environment. Their talons can grow up to three inches, along with an amazingly sharp beak makes them perfect hunters. Also their varied diet means that there will always be some sort of prey to hunt.




They are exclusively found in the Scottish Highlands. Mature birds eat a diet of seeds, berries, nuts and leaves, while juveniles will also eat invertebrates. During the breeding season, males usually mate with one hen, producing one brood a year of around seven eggs.


You can often find them all year round on top of the highest mountains in the UK, especially on the Cairngorm Plato. Ptarmigans prefer the rocky tops of mountains to the forest environment.


During the autumn months they start to grow in their winter feathers. Eventually they change from brown to a pristine white colour. This helps protect them from predation. Blending into the snowy winter background makes it more difficult for Golden Eagles to hunt the small bird.


Our awesome 2019 volunteers!

We have a huge network (well, by our standards) of staff members who work at least part of the year for us, ranging from those full-time year round, through seasonal staff right down to the odd ex-herder roped in for literally just a day or two a year. Our job is made far easier however, by the epic efforts of a constant stream of volunteers, and 2019 has been no exception. So this is just a wee blog to say thank you to everyone!


We have, over the years, built up quite a collection of regular, long-standing volunteers, some of whom visit annually, and some just every now and then. The top dog of this crew has to be retired joiner Paul, who first came to help for a couple of weeks back in May 1999. Twenty years on and he’s still coming for a fortnight twice a year to ‘mend, bend, and fix’ and while he may be 80 now, age hasn’t slowed him down too much yet!

Paul with Olympic

Emm is another very regular volunteer, having settled into a regular pattern in the last couple of years of 4 separate weeks of volunteering throughout the year. She’s a great help to us with everything reindeer related, and the kitchen table is never short of cake while she’s around… You can read more about one of her stints in her blog here. We also have Sharon and Colin who come once or twice a year too – always bringing a good supply of crafting materials for the Paddocks, and – socks! Their blog is here:

Emm with her adopted reindeer Mo, braving the weather at a very cold and wet local Christmas event.

Our other type of regular volunteer is the lovely Anna who’s been helping us out once a week throughout the summer and autumn, and we hope will continue to do so in the future. Stella fits into this category too but is a bit elusive of late – she’s always off volunteering for all sorts of different organisations or visiting far-flung parts of the world. Having far too much fun! Stella – if you’re reading this, will we ever see you again?!


Long-standing volunteers have the luxury of picking and choosing what season they want to come in, but otherwise we are helped out by a steady stream of helpers from the last week of May until the end of October. This year has been great, and I think I’ve remarked to everyone here at some point just how lucky we’ve been with the 2019 vols! Once upon a time we used to get mainly vet students wanting to volunteer in order to gain experience, but nowadays we seem to get a much wider range of people from all walks of life, which suits us nicely as it’s lovely to meet so many interesting people! This year they included a chocolatier, an Olympic physiotherapist, a costume designer and a goat milker, with all sorts in between! So HUGE thanks for all their willing and tireless help to Arianne, Cathy, Becks, Katy, Rowena, Katie F, Sally, Laura F, Amy, Ida, Mary, Hannah, Christine, Kathleen, Helen K, Laura W, Helen A, Heather, Katie D, Kimberley, Mhairi, Lou and Joanne. But no thanks whatsoever to the volunteer who booked in for a week and then never turned up, having not thought to mention to us that her plans had changed…

Volunteer Amy finding time for a selfie with Olympic. Or possibly just being a head-rest for him!


Special thanks and recognition go to Cathy, who downed tools with 3 days’ notice to drive to the opposite end of the country to help us out after another volunteer cancelled on us; and to Rowena, Sally, Mary and Katie D who all came in 2018 and had such a good time they gave up another spell of their precious time to come back this year. And another special mention (and possibly a round of applause!) has to go to Helen A, who managed to break her wrist on the third day of her week with us but still soldiered on for the next 4 days! And finally Nell, who managed to time her volunteering stint just at the point that we decided we needed an extra staff member for the summer, so she ended up with two months’ paid work afterwards.

Laura with Fly. Looking the part!

Thank you all SO much – we’ve loved having you all here and hope you all had a great time! And I expect we’ll see quite a few of you again in the future 😊


Family Ties

A frequent questions from visitors is whether reindeer retain a bond with their mother. Whilst we often see female calves stay strongly bonded with their mum throughout their life, we see it less often with the males. Male calves tend to be seeking their independence from about 8 months old, and we start seeing them grazing away from their mother more and more. We tend to split them at a year old, and it’s rare that either cow or male calf seem to notice the absence of the other. When they come back into contact with each other at a later date, there rarely seems to be any recognition of their relationship.


When we recently brought Emmental and her new calf into the hill enclosure from the summer free-range however, she met up with her three-year-old son Olmec. He clearly recognised her as his mum, going over to her, having a sniff and grunting, like he would have back when he was a calf. I’m not sure that Emmental really returned the affection – once a cow has a new calf, they become the centre of their world and their main priority.

Olmec and Emmental

A few days later, Olmec was in the same part of the enclosure as Emmental and her calf Oslo, and he was definitely fascinated by this new addition to the family – following him around and having a good sniff! Perhaps he realised how similar they all looked!


Olmec and Oslo

Little Oslo is one of the most confident calves this year, and was the first calf to be brave enough to come and eat out of the feed bag.

Oslo feeding

Hopefully he will follow in the hooves of big brother Olmec and grow into a confident friendly and handsome lad. He’s already learned to walk on a headcollar and is very sweet.


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