As Ben and Fiona have explained in previous blogs (click here, and here to read), we had a busy December with events and parades up and down the country, as well as a busy Centre here in Glenmore with fully-booked Hill Trips and Christmas Fun paddock slots! Plus hundreds of adoption packs to make up and post out, alongside all the usual office antics.
For this week’s blog, I’ve collated a series of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what went on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
After the busy festive season, the Centre is now closed for a few weeks to give both us herders and the reindeer a chance to wind down and also to catch up on a few jobs that can’t be done whilst we’re open, like giving the Exhibition a fresh lick of paint.
We’re still feeding the herd most days, but as they’re all free-ranging (with nothing in the enclosure at all) this can involve quite a walk out in some…well…entertaining conditions. Earlier this week Fiona, Ben and I hiked out in crazily windy weather, being constantly buffeted and blown off our feet, and narrowly avoiding faceplanting as the ground was like sheet ice. We eventually got off the hill 2 hours later utterly exhausted.
We’re looking forward to welcoming visitors back from the 12th February, and will be running our Hill Trips daily (weather permitting), but as these will be to our free-range herd rather than to the enclosure that we use from May – December, we are putting an age restriction on the Trips, with our minimum age being 4 years old. We’re also recommending against younger children (aged 4 – 11) coming at this time of the year, instead recommending a visit from May onwards.
Why? I know a lot of people will have visited from February to April before with a toddler, and had a wonderful time. However, the Cairngorm winter can be extreme, and as we just don’t know until the day if it will be a pleasant bluebird day, or gale force winds with a wind chill of -20, we’ve decided we need to be sensible about it.
Small children tend to struggle with the weather more than adults, just because they’re wee – this isn’t a criticism of their toughness, just an observation from the years we’ve been running Trips. Indeed, for a large number of our previous Hill Trips in this season we have had to restrict them to “adults only” due to the weather or distance – safety has to be our first priority. We need to be realistic that if folks are booking ahead, it is unfair to everyone to then have to cancel their Trip on the day.
Along with the weather, there is also the difficulty and length of the walk. In the free-range season this can be four or even five times the distance of the walk to the enclosure, meaning that we are out on the hill for much longer. Younger kids often find these longer distances tougher (again no criticism of their ability, just an observation of their smaller legs and reserves) and struggle to keep up with the group, which then leads to the rest of the people getting cold as we stand waiting. Little kids in backpacks often struggle even more, as they are stationary and not generating any muscle warmth. There is also the added risk of the parent slipping with them, resulting in injury.
In addition, the area has been so much busier in the last couple of years, and as a result we are needing to take our free-range Trips further and further to find a quiet spot where the reindeer are less likely to be disturbed by passing dogs. It is also trickier now that we take advance bookings as it means almost all tickets are sold before the day itself – in the past we used to only sell tickets on the day once we opened at 10am, at which point we already knew what the weather was like up on the mountains. That meant we could literally look people up and down as they entered the shop and judge ourselves whether they were adequately dressed for the current conditions – before selling them tickets! Unfortunately Hill Trips are just so oversubscribed now that advance bookings are our only option.
We know this decision will be a disappointment to some, so as an alternative we are going to trial “Winter Herder Talks” here in the Paddocks on afternoons through the February half term. From 1.30pm each day you will have the opportunity to meet some of our beautiful reindeer and learn all about them from one of our herders. The Paddocks is usually a self-guided experience (and will remain so from 10am until 1.30pm), but with a herder available in the afternoons to share their knowledge of the reindeer as a species and as individuals, it gives a much more in-depth experience. We hope that this will be a good alternative for families with small children. We are still delighted to take all miniature children from May to December, when the walk (and generally the weather) is more predictable and manageable.
Reindeer don’t eat carrots, and other myths to ruin your new year… 😉
Myth 1 – Reindeer are made up
It seems silly when you work with them every day, but it is easy to forget that for a lot of people the only reindeer they know of fly around the world in a single night, so perhaps its not that surprising that they assume they aren’t real.
I’m glad to be able to confirm that reindeer are in fact real and are great fun to work with.
Myth 2 – Reindeer eat carrots
Recent surveys have suggested that British people leave out around 3,000 tonnes of carrots for Rudolph to eat every Christmas Eve. But we aren’t sure where this tradition stems from as they do not grow in sub-Arctic habitats, and reindeer physically can’t eat carrots. Their lack of top teeth prevents them from chewing them down into a digestible size.
The food of choice for most reindeer is lichen, a fungi-algi symbiote, that grows here in the Cairngorm mountains and keeps the herd healthy. We also use it to help entice our reindeer during handling, or sometimes just give it out as a treat!
Myth 3 – Reindeer can fly
This one really goes hand in hand with Myth 1, but I am still yet to see one fly.
I do hear things are different on Christmas Eve though…?
Myth 4 – Antler points correlate with age
Antlers do tend to increase in size (and therefore often the number of points) with age, however this doesn’t necessarily align with exact ages in years. Also, over the course of their lives, the antlers are susceptible to change. For example, a cow’s antlers tend to be smaller any year she has a calf, a more senior reindeer tends to grow a smaller set, and damage or breaks in antlers can change the growth pattern permanently.
Myth 5 – Who pulls the sleigh at Christmas
This is an interesting one because the fact that some reindeer keep their antlers through winter leads to confusion about who might be pulling the sleigh. Many people’s first assumption is that it is all boys, due to the antlers. However, the fact that bulls will drop their heavier antlers before winter sets in has led many people to believe that sleigh teams are led by female reindeer (who tend to keep their antlers until the end of winter). While we may take female yearlings and calves out with the sleigh, the reindeer we have pulling the sleigh are castrated males. This is due to their laid-back nature, but also, they tend to hold their antlers longer than entire bulls. Additionally, mature female reindeer could be pregnant at Christmas time.
Castrates have long played an important role in reindeer herding culture. They tend to be more docile and better for training than bulls or cows, and in herds of thousands of reindeer a well-trained castrate male can be used as a ‘decoy’ to influence the movement of the herd in a desired direction.
Myth 6 – Antlers are made of wood
While the various textures and colours of antlers throughout their life cycle can often make them look wooden, fully grown antlers are formed of bone. They grow throughout the summer months, while covered in a thin layer of skin and a fur called velvet, and then in autumn the skin will be shed, and the bone shows through. At this point there is no more feeling in the antler, as the blood supply has fully stopped – which is the reason the skin sheds. The reindeer often look quite dramatic at this point, as residual blood can make for a scary looking reindeer! But after a rainy day or two the antlers will look lovely and clean.