The difficulties of reindeer location at calving time

Most of the time our reindeer give birth in our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, not requiring any assistance or shelter whatsoever. Calves are born with a thick, waterproof calf coat, so anything the Scottish weather throws at them is not an issue. Our enclosure can be segmented into several different areas, so what we do is to have the herd of pregnant females in the main, largest, bit, and create a ‘nursery’ in a smaller area, known as the ‘Bottom Corridor’ (as opposed to the ‘Top Corridor’, unsurprisingly further up the hill). Pre-natal and ante-natal, if you will.

Cows and their calves in the Bottom Corridor ‘nursery’

When a cow is ready to calve she will generally head away from the herd, wanting her own space and peace and quiet. This may be a few hours before calving or it may be a couple of days, depending on the individual. We always count the reindeer each time we feed them, so can work out if a cow has suddenly gone AWOL; and will then head out round the enclosure to track them down (usually the following morning). However, 1200 acres is the size of 1200 football pitches, part of it heavily wooded, and finding a lone reindeer can be a real mission. If they are out in the open somewhere then generally it’s not too hard to track them down, but if they disappear into the depths of the woods then it’s much harder.

A photo to give you an idea of the rough size of the enclosure – the boundary fence goes right around behind the mountain in the centre of the picture, Silver Mount, and right down into the forest at the right.
A closer view of Silver Mount in the enclosure, and Black Loch which is hidden from view from most of the enclosure.

This calving season in particular felt like the reindeer were running rings around us, with hardly any of the cows being easy to find. In fact the very first cow who headed away from the herd to calve wasn’t found until two days later, and most of the following few reindeer calved down in the woods too, necessitating long searches, sometimes fruitless and sometimes fruitful.

Let me make this clear too, we’re not talking a pleasant stroll along nice easy footpaths. The forest in the enclosure is proper Caledonian pine forest, complete with a dense understory of juniper, blaeberry and heather, and VERY boggy. Oh, and some of it is extremely steep. And there’s no proper paths, only narrow, muddy deer tracks (made by the reindeer, but also wild red and roe deer). Several hours of trawling through the forest is utterly exhausting, and if emerging eventually empty handed with boots squelching, also utterly demoralising.

A tiny proportion of the enclosure woods…
The enclosure encompasses a large area of Caledonian pine forest, complete with dense understory of juniper and blaeberry – ideal for concealing reindeer!
Dense birch woodland in the enclosure too – a reindeer’s eye view!

In 2020, thankfully the reindeer were kind to us during the calving season, as it fell right in the middle of the first lockdown and most staff were furloughed. Reindeer calved mostly out in the open, were found quickly and easily, and brought through to the bottom corridor ‘nursery’ with little hassle. This year however… Sika was the first reindeer to head away from the herd to calve, but it was two days later by the time we found her. And in fact that’s not even really true, we didn’t actually find her at all – she joined up with another cow who had calved by that point and we found both together, Sika’s calf at least 48 hours old by that point.

Pagan was the hardest of the lot – it wasn’t until the fourth day of searching before she was eventually located – tucked into the forest in a hidden spot. I was on my day off and very glad to receive a message to say she’d been found – it had been long enough that I had started to think she must have died giving birth. Normally reindeer won’t stay in the spot where they calved for longer than a couple of days, re-joining the herd of their own volition and making finding them eventually more straight-forward. Heading out to the woods with the prospect of several hours of searching ahead, after several days when you think you may actually be looking for a body rather than a newborn calf, is no-one’s idea of fun. But in this case, Pagan was completely fine, and probably rather smug that she’d managed to waste many, many hours of our time over four days!

A rubbish photo as it’s really zoomed in – but my moment of triumph this calving season was seeing Feta’s head pop up out the deep heather, after a couple of hours of plodding back and forth through the forest…
…who promptly tried to lead her calf away from me, but the wee one didn’t make it up this bank, being only a few hours old and not yet wobble-free!

At least it was a small calving this year, so the continual trudging around the enclosure only went on for so long. And the reindeer appeared to finally take pity on us as a couple of the later ones to calve did so in a much more open, agreeable area where they were plainly visible. In fact first time mum Blyton calved right beside the Bottom Corridor fence, right beside the cows and calves, and did so right before we did a Facebook Live video (https://www.facebook.com/182577928433967/videos/517342392958642), meaning she could be seen in the background throughout, and making Andi’s life nice and easy as all she had to do was pop over the fence once the camera stopped rolling to check out the new arrival!

Hen

Hot hot hot!

Whilst we’re lucky enough to live here in the Cairngorms, the only area of sub-arctic ecosystem left in the UK, and generally associated with snow and winter sports, we do (occasionally!) get some glorious sunny weather too. Loch Morlich beach turns into a resort, people are braving a dip in the water, and ice creams are being consumed.

A sunny day at Loch Morlich, © Mike McBey, shared under licence CC by 2.0

But what happens to those arctic survival specialists that we look after, the reindeer? I have to say whilst I look forward to the sun, my heart also sinks a little that the herd are going to be unimpressed.

Reindeer are native to this area and habitat, as well as being found right across Scandinavia and Russia. And although those areas experience extreme cold, the summer temperatures rise to a similar level as here at Cairngorm. I actually looked up some average temperatures of prime reindeer herding locations in Sweden (Kvikkjokk by Sarek National Park) and Norway (Tromso) and compared them to Cairngorm.

Cairngorm, Scotland – thanks to worldweatheronline.com
Kvikkjokk, Sweden – thanks to worldweatheronline.com
Tromso, Norway – thanks to worldweatheronline.com

It was interesting to see that their average summer temperatures actually exceed ours here, though they have much colder, and longer, winters. So, reindeer are definitely able to cope with the warmer temperatures – how do they do this?

Crann moulting his winter coat, with a little human assistance

Firstly, the reindeer have a much shorter, cooler summer coat than their insanely thick winter coat. From May they are moulting rapidly, looking like shaggy beasts with bad hair-dos, though with so much fur to lose it can take them until July to be fully into their sleek summer outfit. This must be much nicer for the sunny days – like when you’ve had a haircut and can feel the breeze on your neck!

Male reindeer in their short summer coats

Whilst reindeer don’t sweat like humans, they instead act like (large, overgrown, funny looking) dogs – flopping down and panting. This can look quite dramatic as their whole body moves with each breath, but it does seem to work. They do like the shade and will often sardine themselves into the shed in our Hill enclosure!

Another technique is to pee… a lot! By peeing, hot liquid is expelled from the body, and is replaced with cooler water as they drink to replace it, almost like an internal cooling system.

Anster can pee for Scotland! © Hen Robinson

Reindeer also become “Beasts of the Bog” and disappear into muddy ditches and hollows, often lying down to cool their bellies. They will occasionally wade into pools and have even been known to swim in the loch – they are of course marvellous swimmers with their huge hooves.

Calves learn the art of bog wallowing at a young age © Lotti PB

The herd also tend to naturally choose the higher ground on hot days – in general there is a 1ºC drop in temperature for every 100 m gain in height (due to the lower air density), and this, along with the greater likelihood of a breeze to cool them, means the ridges and high tops of mountains are preferred when the sun is out. Up there, there is also more chance of late-lying snow drifts – even as late as August here in the Cairngorms, which are the ultimate cool bed to lie on!

Reindeer on a last snow patch © Gary Hodgson Photography of www.tarmachan-mountaineering.org.uk

So, while I do feel sorry for our reindeer on hot cloudless summer days, as they would much prefer the snows of winter, it turns out that they are pretty well adapted to cope with whatever the weather throws at them!

Andi

The Sámi Flag and the Children of the Sun

Recently one of our supporters posted us two Sámi flags. He wrote explaining that he had been hoping to come and visit the reindeer in February, and on Sámi day, take the flags up to the herd, and make a toast to the Sámi people, culture, and way of life. He had originally been planning a trip to visit the Sámi people but when it was apparent this wouldn’t be possible, he had planned to visit us instead. So, you can imagine how disappointed he was to find out that his trip to the Cairngorms also wasn’t possible. He asked if we could take the flags on the hill and raise a toast in his place, of course we were delighted to do this.

Fiona and the Sámi Flag with some of the free-rangers

For the week around Sámi national day, when Dennis had been hoping to visit the reindeer, the weather was so wild that we couldn’t even get to where the reindeer were, let alone fly a flag. We’re talking snow drifts across the road as tall as me! This was serious winter weather. The reindeer were of course totally fine. When the weather gets wild and the snow gets deep the reindeer head up onto the ridges where the wind has blown the snow off and it’s easier to dig through to the grazing underneath. There was a couple of days when we forgot to take the flag out to the herd. The day we were finally able to was pretty wonderful. Me and Fiona headed out to find the herd, we had spied them quite a way away and were hoping to call them a bit closer. In the end we met somewhere in the middle. It was beautiful sunshine and certainly felt like spring was on it’s way. We flied the flag with the reindeer around it, it got me thinking a bit about what the Sámi flag represents.

Fava leading the herd

The Sámi flag is a relatively new flag, it was first designed in the 60s. The colours in the flag, red, green, yellow and blue, are the most common colours used in Sámi clothing. The circle symbolises the sun in red and the moon in blue. The yellow and green in the middle are to symbolise the animals and nature.

The Sámi flag

The sun is incredibly important in Sámi culture and the sun symbol appears in lots of traditional Sámi artwork. The sun is worshipped in Sámi culture in particular due to the lack of sun in winter and the life that it brings in the summer. In the Sámpi, the area where the Sámi live, in the winter the sun doesn’t reach the horizon. Beaivi is the name of the Sámi sun deity. On the winter solstice a ceremony is carried out for Beaivi and a white reindeer is sacrificed to ensure that the sun returns, and the long winter ends. In spring when the sun arrives, the plants start to flourish and so do the reindeer which brings prosperity to the Sámi people. In order to give the sun more strength to rise in the sky, Sámi people leave butter on their doorsteps which melts and provides energy to the sun.

Fiona and Borlotti with the Sámi flag

The moon is also important in Sámi culture, unlike the sun however, in Sámi folklore people are very suspicious of the spirit of the Moon. Supposedly in December the evil spirits wander among the people and the moon is thought to be the leader of them. Traditionally in February there would be a festival under the full moon in which people would bang drums and make a lot of noise to scare the moon away so that the sun can return. The sun and the moon are often shown to be battling in folklore. I would imagine that people are suspicious of the moon as it always comes out at night when it is dark.

The Sámi flag is a beautiful array of colours and wonderfully represents how the Sámi way of life revolves around the seasons and nature, much like the lives of the reindeer themselves.

Lotti

Reindeer Internationals!

International herders

We’ve got a new Dutch reindeer herder! No, not me (Manouk), yet another one, we’re taking over 😉.  From the start of May, Lisette has been part our team for 2 days a week. Having lived in Fort Bill for 5 years, experienced with sheep, shepherding and dealing with the public, we thought she’d make an excellent addition to the team. That now brings the team to 2 Dutchies, as I’m back doing Mondays again. This left Hen to wonder if there are more Dutch reindeer herders than Scottish ones, but we quickly realised that that wasn’t the case. The Scots are definitely out-Englished though!

Lisette on a snowy hill run

Lisette and I are not the first Dutch herders in Scotland. Decades back, there was a Dutch ultra-runner, Jan Knippenberg, who would fly from the Netherlands to Inverness and continue on to run to the Cairngorms. When he ran the distance from Braemar police station to Aviemore police station through the Lairig Ghru (now known as the popular Lairig Ghru hill race), Mikel Utsi asked if he fancied helping him herd his reindeer from time to time. Knippenberg inspired current owner of the herd Alan Smith to get into (long-distance) running too, and thereby left his mark by starting an era of hill running reindeer herders. It won’t surprise you to read that both Lisette and myself are also hill runners (as are many herders in the team), Lisette often even crossing the finish line as the first lady! Read more on reindeer herders and hill running in my previous blogs, where I go over why reindeer herders run in the hills and about running from Scotland to the Netherlands.

Jan Knippenberg, back in the 80s

Besides these Dutchies, we have a large variety of nationalities amongst our present and past teams of herders! Ben was born in Australia, though spent most of his life in the UK. We occasionally get American herder Bobby over and look forward to seeing him soon again when it’s possible. Ex-herder Dave is from New Zealand, his kiwi accent still present after years in the Highlands 😊. Both Olly and Lotti both are ¼ Greek, and this shows in them being slightly less pale than your average Brit and for Lotti in part of her last name too (Papastavrou). We’ve had way more but as it’s a relative newbie writing this blog (I’ve only been involved with the herd for 4 years), I won’t be able to mention them all.

Herders Lotti and Ollie, who are both part-Greek!
American Bobby a couple of winters ago
Kiwi Dave, completely surrounded by calves!

There have also been many international volunteers too over the years, but the list is too long to go over everyone. Double thanks for coming over all the way from wherever you live to come and help us here!

International reindeer

Not all our reindeer are Scottish either! Most of you will know from visiting, BBC programmes, or reading about the herd that reindeer were reintroduced to the Cairngorms in the 50s, after having been extinct for +/- 1000 years. That means the origins of our herd lie in Sweden. To keep the gene pool diverse, we’ve introduced new bulls every few years too. At the moment we only have ten Swedish reindeer, none of which are still being used to breed from.

Amongst these ten Swedish boys, there are a few all-time favourites. We have the lovely ‘dark bull’ Bovril. Bovril is a favourite amongst (ex-)herders and a tv star as well! He featured in the BBC’s Four Seasons documentary, where he can be seen fighting a younger, light bull, trying to win the battle for the right to mate. Long after his tv premiere he could be seen striking a pose to visitors, I’m sure he knows he’s handsome.

Myself with handsome Bovril, during my first week of reindeer herding!

Another well-known Swede is Matto, who is white in colour. This makes him stick out like a sore thumb when you’re looking for the herd on a hillside, making the life of a reindeer herder a lot easier! He’s also a firm favourite ‘Christmas reindeer,’ looking extra festive with a red harness and bells contrasting nicely with his white coat.

International visitors

Amongst the many sad consequences of Covid19, was the fact that we’re hardly getting any international visitors anymore. We love the wide range of people we get, from all over the world. It’s always exciting to ask where people are from and realise that, at times, within one group of people, every continent (apart from maybe Antarctica) is represented! Herders have a habit of asking people where they’re from, and with Covid restrictions this may have sounded as if we were harassing you to check you weren’t breaking any rules. So sorry if we made you feel that way – and, honestly, we just love to hear where people are from!

We are so looking forward to getting people from overseas again (as well as British people of course 😊) – please do come and visit us once it’s allowed to do so!

Manouk