Each year, as calving season looms, we reindeer herders have a sweep stake. We place our bets on which reindeer will calve first. Or rather more importantly, try to bet upon which reindeer won’t calve last.
I say ‘bet’…what I really mean is we try to combine luck and science to each predict a reindeer. The herder whose reindeer gives birth last then has to do a punishment. The punishment was historically swim in Loch Morlich. However, this task became obsolete as a punishment a few years ago when it became apparent that most herders regularly braved the cold waters as a leisure activity.
So, the current ‘punishment’ is to bake a cake for the calf naming evening in September. It is on this evening in September that we pick a theme and subsequent names for the recently born reindeer. It’s hungry work, so cake is always greatly appreciated. In fact, in 2009 the cakes were so appreciated that we had a whole naming theme dedicated to ‘cakes, puddings and biscuits’.
We’re in the last week of April as I write this blog and it’s a stage in the year where some of the pregnant females are MASSIVE. We’ll be expecting the first calf in the coming days and each of us will keep a keen eye on who calves throughout the month. I mentioned science as a prediction method in my first paragraph. Some herders like to research when a reindeer stripped the velvet on their antlers in the previous year, some herders like to look at if the reindeer are already growing their new antlers, and some herders like to inspect how big a reindeer’s udder is, all as a sign of their readiness to calve. If a reindeer strips their velvet early it can be an indicator that they come into season earlier. If a reindeer is already growing their new antlers it can be a sign that they are using more of their nutrients for themselves and not sharing them with a foetus.
This makes it all sound very technical actually. I think most of us just tend to pick one of our favourite reindeer. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to take a risk as well. Add to the drama. However, herders have been known in the past to make a risky prediction and the reindeer to not be pregnant at all. Just fat!
Some reindeer are so dependable to calve first that they’re off-bounds. Christie was first last year. And it was Pagan the year before that who always seems to be there or thereabouts. This year Tilly has chosen Ladybird who looks rotund. Ladybird, that is. I’ve chosen first time calver (I hope), Texel. My baking skills aren’t up to much so let’s hope Texel pulls through to reduce the risk of a salmonella outbreak up here.
After sitting at the computer for what seemed like an age trying to think of a topic for a blog which could include lots of reindeer pictures, I finally stumbled across one which means you guys get to look at numerous pictures of reindeer bottoms!
“Acting sheepdog” is a term us herders use when we are trying to manoeuvre the reindeer. Depending on how willing the reindeer are we might only need one person to call and bribe them with food to a new position or if the reindeer are more reluctant two of us can go out with one leading the herd and the other staying behind the herd making sure that they do not stray off in the wrong direction, because once one reindeer wanders off in a different direction they all can go! We can also use this sheepdog technique to our advantage when the reindeer are lethargic and don’t feel like moving far. All we must do is put a head collar on a friendly individual that we know is a pro at leading and the rest of the herd aren’t long in following.
My preference out of the two roles is to be at the back of the herd, in this position your job can either be a breeze or you’re racking up your daily miles trying to ensure the reindeer stay on the right path! The picture above was from a day where the reindeer were not playing ball and Lotti had to put one of the girls on a head collar and lead the herd to our destination, however once we got to the top of the hill at the left-hand side of the picture, the herd found a good lichen spot, so I had my work cut out trying to move them again. This leads me on to my first reason for liking being at the back of the herd and “acting sheepdog”, which is that it gives you a good chance to take lots of photos! Below is a picture of Witch wondering why I’m so red in the face.
Being relatively new to the job I find that walking along behind the herd gives me a chance to look at and notice what defining characteristics each reindeer has, for example, Witch on the left here has the typical reindeer colouring but I find her easy to distinguish as she has quite a narrow face. It also gives you a chance to see how the reindeer behave around one another – who’s a “bossy boots” or who is more timid in nature and sticks to the outskirts of the herd. My final reason for preferring to be at the back of the herd is because currently my navigational skills are rubbish and on cloudy days when you can’t really see where you are going I don’t want to be responsible for getting myself lost as well as a herd of reindeer! [Editor’s note: Amy’s nav skills are better than she thinks!].
It is now officially calving season!! As I write this blog it is the last day of April, and we already have two new calves in our ranks. All the calves will be named in September, as is always the case. In fact, every Cairngorm reindeer has a name, and this follows a designated theme each year. Whilst we have not yet decided on the theme for the 2022 calves, we will often be asked about previous themes. In this blog I’ll describe previous themes. Feel free to leave your ideas for themes in our comments section.
2007: A theme centred around all things ‘Green’ (green) – Fern, Fly.
2006: Popstars (silver) – Elvis, Enya, Lulu.
2005: Countries (yellow) – Malawi.
So, there you have it, that is a list of the naming themes (with the corresponding tag colour and some examples of reindeer names) that are currently in circulation with our reindeer. Now, when you visit again you may have a better idea of how old the reindeer you are feeding may be. Although, as you can see, some colours are repeated which can cause confusion. For example, if you see an orange tag, you may not know if this reindeer was born in 2008 or 2017. Well, each reindeer also has a number on their tag and this number corresponds to the reindeer name on our systems. It is a legal requirement to have a tag on any animal that is transported within the U.K., so we’ve made it work for us with specific colours and numbers that help us identify the reindeer if required.
It is worth noting that we also have just under 10 male reindeer still with us that were born in Sweden between the years of 2009 and 2011 and brought to Scotland to provide new genetics for our herd. These older boys were named individually and not within a theme. Spike, Caesar, Houdini, Bovril, and Hook are some examples of these boys’ names, and they have a range of numbers and colours in their ear tags.
It is not just ‘the Swedes’ that have names that don’t fit into a theme. Occasionally we will get reindeer where a nickname from early on in their life appears to stick and stay with the reindeer. Holy Moley, our television superstar, had such an eventful initial few days to her life that one herder exclaimed ‘holy moley!’ after being informed of events (she fell down a hole in a boulder field). Svalbard is another example. He was supposed to be called Meccano to fit in with the 2011 naming theme of Games & pastimes, but that name never stuck due to him looking incredibly alike a Svalbard reindeer (small and dumpy). Hamish is a final example of being an exception to the naming rule. Hamish was born in 2010 and unfortunately wasn’t being fed by his mother. This led to him being bottle-fed by the herders for the first part of his life so that he could grow into a big, strong Scottish reindeer and as such was given a big, strong Scottish name…Hamish.
Previous themes, prior to 2005, yielded some great names. We have been naming the reindeer after a theme since 1971. It has gotten to the point where a lot of the more obvious themes have been chosen by now. Some examples of previous themes are: Musical instruments & genres (2000), Colours (1999), Sweets & chocolate bars (1998), Fruits & nuts (1992), Wines & whiskies (1991), Herbs & spices (1988), Scottish islands (1987), Fish (1984), Trees (1982 & 1971), Mountains (1980), Weather (1975 & 1996), and Birds (1972). Before 1971, Mr. Utsi and Dr. Lindgren (the original owners of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd) named the male reindeer after Scottish places (e.g., Aviemore) and the female reindeer had human names (e.g., Mary).
In our office we have a folder with naming theme suggestions collected throughout the years. I have just had a look through it and some of the suggested themes are: Vegetables, Ice creams & lollies, Mushrooms & toadstools, Condiments & spreads, Indian foods, Teas & coffees, Cocktails (as you can see, we enjoy our food and drink here), Disney side-kick characters, Mountain ranges, Sea creatures, Gods & goddesses, Rivers of the world, and Dances. Who knows what themes 2022 and beyond will bring? Once we decide, the theme and each reindeer name are revealed to adopters in the autumn newsletter.
Now that calving has come to a close for 2022, we are getting ready to send all the cows and calves out to join the rest of the reindeer already free ranging here on the Cairngorms. Once this happens we will only see them intermittently through the summer months as we leave the mothers be, to teach their young ones where all the best spots in the mountains are!
Meanwhile our boys will be in the hillside enclosure for visitors to come and see, and for us to keep an eye on.
So with all that being said, I wanted to round off our regular free range excursions with a little photo summary of some of my favourite moments out in the hills with the reindeer.