We are now into week 5 of lockdown and life for the reindeer herder who is still working has taken a dramatic change in some ways and yet it all feels completely normal in others. Myself (Fiona), Andi and Lotti are still employed while all the other staff here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre are on furlough leave… a term I’m sure everyone is familiar with now. Hen is tending to her ever growing garden, which in this weather is the best place to be; and Dave has got plenty of work on his croft to keep him amused, especially now his sheep are lambing! The other herders have got plenty to keep them busy, though I suspect are missing their ‘reindeer’ time, especially as we go into a crucial time of year… the calving season. Unfortunately they cannot be involved with calving this year but we will be sure to keep them updated with all the new arrivals.
Where the reindeer management has remained the same over the past month (luckily coronavirus doesn’t affect the reindeer themselves), being closed means our work is chopping and changing between a lot of hill time, feeding the herd and a lot of office time. We have had lots of new adoptions come in, as well as donations. Folks who used to adopt reindeer but maybe it has lapsed over the years have renewed as a way of supporting us while we are closed. We are so very grateful to you all so a massive THANK YOU. We will keep our social media well updated so where we can’t have the Centre open and taking all you lovely people on the hill to visit the reindeer, hopefully we can keep you in the loop with the goings on in other ways.
The past week in particular has been pretty hectic so it was all hands on deck! There was a group of six female reindeer who had decided they wanted to venture away for calving into the depths of the mountains so we headed out to bring them home. With four of them haltered up the other two followed nicely and we brought them back to our mountain enclosure. The next day the rest of the herd were brought in too and Lotti and I did the big split of who is pregnant and who isn’t. The ones pregnant have been kept back to calve in our mountain enclosure and the ones who aren’t will head back onto the free-range. That isn’t the last we will see of them though, as we will hopefully still catch up with them daily. The ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrate males) and bulls who have spent the winter either here on Cairngorm or on the Cromdale hills are now all back at our hill farm on the Glenlivet Estate. Although we aren’t doing guided public trips onto the hill daily the management of the herd will remain the same so we may well get a few of the male reindeer back over here to Cairngorm once calving is over.
One thing we have been publicising a lot is our Wild Farm meat which is our sister company based at our hill farm at Glenlivet with our other animals (NOT reindeer!). Reindeer herder Nicky has been fantastic in drumming up local business from her friends and neighbours, so meat sales have gone through the roof. Got to make the most of what business we can still do. I’m having to get involved with setting up adoption packs again. My role in the company over the past few years means I haven’t been so involved with this, but luckily I haven’t forgotten what to do! When Lotti and Andi need a hand to get a load done I swoop in to help out. As long as they don’t expect me to do this when everything is back to normal (wink wink!).
All in all we are getting quite used to the not-so-normal life of a reindeer herder and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rather enjoying it… Our local area of Glenmore is quiet so we have the surrounding hills and Loch Morlich beach to ourselves. With four of us living here at the Centre – Lotti, Olly, Joe and I along with the two dogs Sookie and Tiree we get out running, swimming, cycling, early mornings to watch wildlife at its best, watching movies and TV dramas and lots of lovely cooking. We have even had a pub crawl. This involved each of us turning our bedrooms into a pub… Maybe that is another blog for another time, watch this space! The one enjoying lockdown the most is my dog Tiree. For those of you who know her she isn’t the most sociable dog to strangers, however if she knows you, she loves you. So when going out on walks and pottering around the house with no strangers coming to visit, she is in her absolute element. She is currently fast asleep below my feet in the office after her 7 mile run with Joe at 6am this morning and the morning feed up the hill with us… It’s a dog’s life for sure!
At the beginning of February I took a trip to Iceland in winter conditions and learned about the fascinating history of reindeer on this island country in the North Atlantic. Although I did not spot any reindeer, the history of the animals their interesting story is worth sharing nonetheless.
Similarly to the reindeer here in the Cairngorms, reindeer in Iceland were introduced from another part of the world. However, unlike Scotland reindeer in Iceland were never native to the country at all. All land mammals in Iceland aside from the arctic fox were introduced to the country over the course of its natural history. Reindeer are the largest amongst all of them. In the late 1700s reindeer from Norway were brought to Iceland because the king believed that the reindeer would be a perfect match to the cold, harsh conditions. Being that farming was the most common trade in Iceland, it was assumed that all of the farmers would then take up reindeer herding.
The reindeer were brought to four different regions in Iceland: the South, Southwest, North, and East. And right from the start this venture was a complete failure. Within the first few years the majority of reindeer in Iceland had died off. The harsh volcanic landscape proved difficult to maintain the food resources necessary for the animals to survive. To this day, the only surviving group is in East Iceland where the habitat is more suitable to the needs of the reindeer and food resources are abundant.
Those reindeer continued to thrive though and herding them never took off at all leaving an estimated 6-7000 wild reindeer roaming about the Eastern Fjords. The Ministry of Agriculture found that ‘reindeer farming’ would not be viable given the amount of resources compared to the large population of wild reindeer. Ultimately the decision was made to not begin any sort of commercial reindeer farming.
Just like in Scotland, the reindeer in Iceland do not have any natural predators to control their population. So each year the government issues 1200-1300 permits to hunt reindeer as a means to prevent overpopulation which would collapse an already fragile ecosystem. Where as here in the Cairngorms, the numbers of reindeer are much smaller which allow us to control the population through selective breeding each Autumn. As a result of this, when the snow begins to melt in the spring we are looking forward to another wonderful calving season, just around the corner.
Before we went into lockdown I had one last day of fun catching up with with our boys and girls free-ranging on the Cromdale Hills. The ‘Christmas Reindeer’ (males who are trained to harness) are generally fairly lazy and don’t stray too far but every now and again the females, accompanied by the young bulls, wander off a bit further away than we like.
I headed off into the hills with Tip, herd owner Tilly’s son Alex’s (and his wife Emily’s) dog, to help them find their way back to where they should be. By walking into the hills towards the reindeer and making her bark it is usually sufficient to get the reindeer to head swiftly back in the opposite direction. As the Cromdale Hills form a vaguely straight rounded ridgeline the reindeer – usually – head in the right direction easily enough. Once within a few hundred metres of the reindeer they spotted Tip and myself before promptly turning round and making there way back in the other direction.
With Part 1 of our job done Tip and I made our way back to the van and headed off to the farm. Tip’s work for the day was done, but not for me. Back up onto the Cromdales, this time powered by a quad bike to carry the feed. I caught up with all the reindeer, some of which I hadn’t seen in about five months, giving them some food to reinforce which part of the hills are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ to be on. It’s always good to catch up with them. They all seemed in good health and a few antlers starting to grow amongst the bulls. Roman looks to have got a bit of a head start on the other boys!
It’s not been a very snowy winter at all, and nor was last winter either. While there’s been the odd decent fall every now and then, it’s generally all melted away quite quickly. Until, ironically, about 6 weeks ago, when winter finally made a proper appearance. Since then the mountains have been much whiter, and the skiing good… until our new and nasty acquaintance known as COVID-19 stopped play for the ski centre, and pretty much the rest of the world to be honest.
But thinking about snow reminded me of the incredible 2009-2010 winter, when it started snowing at the beginning of it and just didn’t stop. So here’s some photos of back in the days that we got ‘proper’ snow – all of 10 years ago!
Many of you may have seen this photo (above) before, in one of our calendars or on a Christmas card. But in front of this line of reindeer are herders Fiona and Mary, struggling through deep snow while the reindeer had the easy job behind. This was the day we moved them from the hill enclosure out to the ‘free-range’, having closed to the public at the end of the Christmas holidays. But before moving the reindeer themselves, we had to make a path ourselves – easier said than done in some places!
Back down at Reindeer House, it just didn’t stop snowing! Day after day there were several more inches of fresh white stuff each morning, and gradually everything disappeared.
But thankfully the reindeer coped just fine, and being as a lot of the deepest snow was during our closed spell in January and February, it didn’t matter and we had a ball playing in it most of the time.