I have been here at the Reindeer Centre (on and off) for eight years now, the last three has been the longest stint I have done with the Reindeer Centre. Now admittedly this is mostly due to Covid, but if it wasn’t for the Reindeer Centre’s generosity in keeping me around as the world went in to lockdown the week that I was meant to be leaving, I probably would never have stuck around and got more involved with the surrounding area.
I’m not one for talking a lot, so here are some of my favourite photos from the past three years with some words.
Being the most recent person to start working at the Reindeer Centre I am experiencing the day-to-day workings of the Centre throughout the seasons for the first time. I thought I would write about one of my favourite “firsts” to date, which is finding the first calf to be born for the 2022 season. It was a beautiful day at the tail end of April, which happened to be my first day back at work after my usual two days off and Andi’s first day back at work after a holiday. We started our usual morning routine and set off from the house to head up to the enclosure to check on our pregnant cows and feed them, upon feeding the cows we realised that one reindeer was missing, so we grabbed our calving bag which includes: feed for the mother, spot on and antibiotic blue spray for the calf’s naval and made a start on searching the enclosure. For anyone that hasn’t been to our enclosure it is a vast amount of space to search, the perimeter line is 8km in length alone! The missing reindeer was the lovely, four year old, Dante.
We headed along the top ridge of the enclosure to check a well-known calving area up there, but the missing reindeer was nowhere to be seen so we continued climbing to the summit of Silver Mount in search of Dante. Keeping with the theme of many “first” experiences, this was also my first time being on and seeing the summit of Silver Mount, which has glorious views of the Northern Corries, Loch Morlich and down onto Glenmore. Luckily for us, Dante was also at the summit of Silver Mount.
With the easy part over we had to try and see whether Dante had calved or not and for the untrained eye this was a lot harder than it sounds. We could see that the reindeer was focusing on a specific ginger looking spot, but was this a new-born calf or a rock? A question that all herders ask themselves on a regular basis when looking for full grown reindeer, never mind a tiny calf! We were lucky though and the ginger mound began to move which confirmed that we had officially found the first calf of the season! Andi headed over to feed the mother, treat the naval of the calf and give spot on to give it protection from those dreaded ticks. Once we had checked that all was ok we headed back down to reindeer house to share the amazing news that our calving season had begun!
At the end of May Dante and her one month old calf headed out to the hills for the summer, along with around half of our other mums and calves. We caught up with them a few times whist they roamed freely in the hills, both mum and daughter seemed to have a great summer as they were always in excellent condition. The pair are now back in our hill enclosure for the autumn where we’ll begin to train Dante’s calf to wear a halter and get to know her personality. Hopefully she’ll grow up to be a big strong girl like her mum, and big sister Mangetout.
Many years ago, a reindeer herder made a Badge. This Badge was pink, and he wore it with pride. In time he decided to pass it on to another herder, who had done a Worthy Thing that day (what the Worthy Thing actually was has since been lost in the mists of time). However, that herder then took it upon themselves to pass it on once again, to another Worthy Person, and so it is that the Pink Badge of Worthiness came into being.
Or something along those lines anyway. The badge maker at Reindeer House was a very good investment of ours, many years back, and has churned out thousands of the things over the years for kids visiting the Paddocks and having a go at a quiz (we use different quizzes through the year and not all have a badge to make on them, before you get your knickers in a knot about why your family didn’t get the option of badges on a visit…). We have, of course, made plenty of badges for ourselves too, and this is how the pink badge started off – it was made from a bright pink post-it note upon which one of us had drawn a smiley face.
I can’t quite remember the full details of exactly how the tradition of passing on the badge came about, but the essence of it is exactly as I’ve written at the start of this blog. The owner of the badge can hold on to it (usually pinning it on their t-shirt/jumper) for as long as they want, and when they feel someone else has gone above and beyond the call of duty, they award them the badge. And then the next person continues, and so on. There are no real rules, no limit on how long you can have it, or how many times; the badge is an item of supreme simplicity.
As I write this the current holder is Ruth, awarded it for managing to get our ancient and decrepit Landrover into 4WD mode on a early morning reindeer retrieval mission! The badge itself is currently in it’s second incarnation, after one too many accidental trips through the washing machine; but I’m not even too sure where Pink Badge 2 came from, as it’s not the size our own badge-maker produces. We’re also not colour blind – we’re well aware that this model is not pink! But in the best tradition the name endures regardless.
At times the badge has been lost, or forgotten about, or unearthed months later on an old jumper in the back of a cupboard. Sometimes it’s just been found on the office pinboard, and no-one has appeared to know how it got there, or who was responsible. Our boss Tilly got it once, but was banned from taking it home with her as we were worried that once it disappeared into the depths of her farmhouse it would never, ever be seen again!
Fiona wishes me to point out that for the first five years she was only ever awarded it once a year, at the end of December, after organising (and surviving) the Christmas tour season, traditionally the busiest time of the year. I myself have been given it for a range of activities, most of which I can’t remember now, but the most memorable was the time I was given it for managing to not throw a printer through the office window. You may laugh, but deep down everyone reading this knows the deep-rooted and boiling fury a malfunctioning printer can incite – what does ‘general error’ even mean?! – so really I feel it was justified. I have had a hate-hate relationship with every single printer that has ever lived in the Reindeer House office.
Later that same day, however, Andi managed to extract a section of old fencing wire that had somehow become entangled around the antlers of one of our biggest breeding bulls, Kota, and this was right in the middle of the rutting season when he had morphed from a gentle giant to a raging testosterone-fueled beast. To this day I am therefore still the record-holder for the shortest ownership of the badge.
A lot of the other reasons for receival have been forgotten over the years, but have often included epic catches of ‘wilder’ reindeer, or memorable displays of herding. Olly received it last year for a stupendous and skillful effort of getting Rain and her newborn calf Jimmy into the right area of the hill enclosure after she had led Nell and myself on a merry (and ultimately unsuccessful) dance the previous day until a good two hours after we should have finished work. Then there was an interesting episode last Christmas when Sherlock got his antlers caught in the fairy lights of our Paddock shelter, and Joe spent about 45 minutes de-tangling him – again no mean feat with an enormous bull. One antler had come off already, but much to Joe’s annoyance when finally freed, Sherlock wandered out the shed, shook his head and the other promptly fell off! It’s completely normal for a bull to cast his antlers at this time of year, but 45 minutes earlier would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.
So if you visit us and notice a herder with the Pink Badge pinned to their shirt, then note that this is a Worthy Person, and should therefore be due the utmost respect. Or maybe it’s just me, and I’ve refrained from throwing another misbehaving electronic item through a window.
Andi has recently been working on digitising some of the oldest photos of the Cairngorm reindeer herd. They’re all fascinating to look at, but it’s also been interesting comparing some similarities and differences over the years. From forest plantations to roads to a funicular railway – there’s been a lot of changes in the area in the time that the reindeer have been here. In this blog I’ve done my best to align some more recent photos with older ones of the same views, to give you all a bit of an idea of what these changes look like.
I’ll start with our first meeting as this was also the first time I’d ever seen a reindeer!
On a wee holiday with my boyfriend, enjoying the hills in the Cairngorms, a funny looking deer walked up to us. It was clear it wasn’t a red deer, but we totally didn’t expect a reindeer to join us on the walk! Soon she realised we didn’t have any food (or at least not the kind of food she would like to eat) with us and she left, but I was able to make a few lovely ‘close up’ pictures.
Later that evening I emailed the Reindeer Centre to let them know there was a reindeer on her own. Not knowing anything about reindeer, but working with sheep, seeing one on its own is usually not a good sign as they like to stay together as a flock (or herd in this case). Showing the picture, they recognised her as, three guesses… yes, it was Oatcake! I learnt that unfortunately, she lost her calf out on the free range and she was likely looking for her little one around that time.
Oatcake made me interested about wanting to know more about reindeer. So really it’s thanks to her I’ve got a job here!
We don’t have any reindeer in the Netherlands where I was born, it’s all way too flat for these beautiful animals who have their habitat above the tree line and out on the hills. I now live in Fort William, with the highest mountain in the UK right at our doorstep, but you’ll not see any reindeer here either. The hills on the west coast are too pointy and rocky rather than the plateaus full of lichen found in the Cairngorms. So I commute to the Cairngorms once a week, returning home the following evening.
This year during calving season I was delighted to go out and try to find Oatcake and her new-born in the hill enclosure. Reindeer being reindeer, often calve on the most exposed and windy spot in our enclosure – at the top of Silver Mount. This is where we found Oatcake. We like to get a hold of the new-born calves to give them a small dose of spot-on (a tick treatment) and spray their navel with antiseptic… and of course, to see if mum and calf are happy and okay!
I was hoping Oatcake would let us come close to her wee one no problem, all we had to do is show her some food, but I was wrong. Oatcake is such a good mum and very protective of her calf, so as soon as she saw us, she started playing hide and seek! Thankfully I wasn’t alone, so my colleague Ben and myself split up, trying to slowly push her towards the part of the enclosure where all the other mums and calves were, so we could get a better look at her calf.
Oatcake was one of the last reindeer to cast her antlers this spring and of course we always hope to find them, which isn’t always possible in such a big area. Luckily she made it very very easy for us, she just left her antler hanging on the fence!
Oatcake and calf, together with the rest of our females, are now out on the free range for the summer months enjoying their freedom and finding the best of food to eat. Hopefully very soon we’ll see her back in the enclosure for the autumn months.