At 12 years old I can’t believe how time has passed and Hamish is now an ‘old boy’! I remember the day he was born as I was the very first person to see him. This includes his mother Rusa because while she was calving she couldn’t manage on her own and I had to assist in pulling him out. A combination of Rusa only being a young mum herself at just 2 years old she wasn’t fully grown and Hamish being a big boy meant he got a little stuck on exit! This was the first ever time I had to assist a reindeer cow calving so with strict instructions from the vet I felt my way around and managed to pull him out, and even better he was un-scathed but the whole ordeal. Because of the nature of our herd the reindeer calve out on the mountain so for a vet to come out to help too much time would have passed and either cow or calf would then be at risk, so I had to crack on, there was no other option!
In Hamish’s first few weeks he spent a little time here in our paddock area so we could keep an eye on the two of them. This is when he got his name. We don’t name the calves until the autumn but as we spent extra time with him Hamish got his name sooner than the others. He then joined the herd free ranging on the Cairngorms for the summer and came back looking great. Rusa was a good mum, very attentive and they were never far apart from each other.
Hamish has grown into a real character in our herd and one of our trusty old pros when it comes to Christmas events. In his hay day he looked fab with great big antlers and always fat as butter… Hamish LOVES his food! A trait passed down from Rusa for sure. But now he is 12 years old he’s starting to look his age. He’s mainly based at our hill farm over the summer months or on our hill grazing during the winter, Hamish is enjoying the easy life. He does pop over here now and again, but his visits are brief nowadays just lasting a few days.
With Christmas just around the corner we may well call on his expertise to help train the new, younger Christmas reindeer. This requires being harnessed up alongside a newbie and pulling the sleigh. This is done next to our Centre in Glenmore, so the reindeer get used to seeing lots of people and cars. Hamish is the perfect role model for this and if the new Christmas reindeer take a leaf out of his book then they will be great!
Late summer/autumn is always a very exciting time of the year for a reindeer herder. It’s when we start seeing the cows and calves more regularly after they’ve spent the summer free ranging in the hills.
Each morning we drive up the ski road to Cairngorm Base Station and have a spy for any free ranging reindeer. One morning in mid-September Fiona, Sheena and myself were checking the roads when we spotted a small herd of reindeer. Exciting! Even from a distance we instantly knew there was a calf in the group, and we knew she had to belong to a lovely female called Ochil.
Ochil had a white (leucistic) calf back in May, and even though we had three white calves born this year, the other two were already safely in the enclosure with their mums so it just had to be her – our ID skills of calves from over a hundred metres away are not usually that good!
Fiona dropped Sheena and I off to try to get the small herd into the enclosure, whilst she headed back down the hill to carry on with feeding the herd in the enclosure. Mission on!
As we got closer to the herd we were able to identify them all. Three cows (Ochil, Vienna and Roule) and their lovely calves, plus a yearling female called Beanie. I’d not seen any of these reindeer since we let them out to free range back in June, so it was lovely to see them again. They all looked great! The enclosure was about 1.5km away from where we were, across a ridge, over a road, across a burn and up a hill affectionately known by the herders as “Killer Hill”. You can see how our mission unfolded in the following photographs….
It started with a Hill Trip. Back in February 2018 my partner took me on a surprise trip to Aviemore and beyond, little did I know that this would result in a lifelong love of reindeer, two volunteering sessions and 3 adoptees!
I have always been an animal person so my partner knew that this would be a winner, but I was completely amazed by these beautiful creatures to the point where I rather embarrassingly burst into tears as we reached the crest of the hill and saw the herd grazing in the snow. Naturally we put the herders through two hours in the cold asking questions and generally staring in awe, and it took only the time between walking back down the hill and into the shop to get my volunteering application at the ready and adopt the lovely Anster!
My first volunteering week was back in August 2019, I turned up super excited to help and I was welcomed with open arms by everyone at Reindeer House. Being the height of the summer holidays, it was hill trips galore and I couldn’t have been happier to throw myself into being a volunteer reindeer herder and guide. I was a little nervous though – what if a visitor had a question I couldn’t answer? It’s amazing though how little a problem that was, with the herders being so lovely, answering my many, many questions and giving me the chance to be as hands on as possible both on the hill in the mornings and down at reindeer house. Suddenly I could hold my own with the questions and was even trusted with a wee bit of the talking by the end of the week. My time on the hill was amazing for many reasons, but especially as I got some great quality time with my adoptee, who was always first in line for a hand feed! I reached the last day so sad to leave (and with another two adoptees as I couldn’t choose between them) but ready to return a year later… Or so I thought!
For reasons I’m sure we all remember well, my 2020 return was unable to go ahead, and continued to be pushed back until finally, I was in the clear to return to Reindeer House in July 2022!
It was lovely to see the friendly faces of the herders again, but this time with a new addition – who should I see coming round the corner, but a tiny calf climbing into the feed bags! I was told all about the lovely Sunny and I couldn’t help but feel that my timing had worked out quite well after all!
Being a returning volunteer allowed me to crack on a little quicker and more confidently which meant that I got even more quality reindeer time! I spent most mornings up on the hill first thing, checking the herd, putting out the feed, checking temperatures and training on the harness. I couldn’t quite believe my luck and the ever-wonderful team helped to guide me along every step of the way.
I was especially lucky to be a part of Sunny’s first ventures into ‘big school’ aka joining all of the boys together for the hill trips. He settled in amazingly well and after a small telling off from some of the yearlings has seemed to find his place among them. Being a volunteer meant that I not only got to spend the hill trips with Sunny, I also got to enjoy walking him to and from the hill, hand rearing (to a lovely chorus of ‘awhhhh’s’ from the visitors) and watching his progress from the beginning to the end of the week.
Though of course Sunny is not only the main event. I threw myself back into my mission to ID as many reindeer as possible on the hill trips and while I’m a huge ways away from the pros, both times I couldn’t believe how quickly you can catch on to the quirks and personalities among the herd that can help you to tell them apart. I have to say though, between lots of new additions to the herd in my three year gap and the transition to summer and winter coats it was a whole lot more of a challenge this time!
Saying this, it was an absolute treat to see how the boys I had got to know so well in my first week had grown and how quickly I recognised them. In 2019, Bond had no antlers and was trying to find his place among his pals in the paddock, now he has a beautiful set and looks like a fully fledged reindeer, Sherlock now has the biggest antlers I have ever seen, many of them now have calves – so much can change in a few years and it’s good to know that while I was cooped up in my flat, the reindeer were still out on the hills living their best lives!
While it’s an amazing experience for anyone, I can honestly say that volunteering not once but twice (so far…) was easily the best decision I ever made, and it is no exaggeration to say it has been life changing. Seeing the team care so diligently for these beautiful animals and how passionate knowledgeable they all are about them and their environment is beyond inspiring. In my other life as a teacher, I returned from my first stint determined to build my students appreciation for the outdoors, for animals, for their world, gained my forest schools qualification and taken steps to bring animals nature to the children and vice versa. It was something I always cared about, but seeing what the herd have achieved gave me the push that I needed to start making these goals a reality. Sharing my experiences, photos and other things I’ve picked up along the way with the children in class has also given me a fair bit of clout in the classroom too – I’ve never had so many reindeer themed Christmas and end of year gifts!
I feel so lucky to have had these opportunities with the herd and the wonderful help everyone in the team to give me the most magical of experiences. I can’t wait to head back up the hills again – just maybe without the three year wait this time…
Back on the 27th May 2022, it was the official date, 70 years on, since reindeer set foot in Scotland. So, although we are having an Open Day this October for all the lovely people who adopt one of our reindeer (this weekend, in fact!), this year as a celebration we decided to mark the occasion in May with a very informal get together of local friends and ex, current and future reindeer herders. Future herders being all the babies and children of reindeer herders past and present!
By chance this was also the day that Sofia our lovely friend and ex herder was visiting Scotland for the first time in 4 years. Sofia and her family are Sami from the north of Sweden and also related to Mikel Utsi who co-started the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, so it was so great she was there. Sally and Ceris came up from north England and I won’t mention everyone’s names who are local as the list would just be too long… let’s just say there were lots of wonderful faces who have been part of the last 70 years of reindeer in Scotland.
During the day in our shop, as well as banners and bunting we had cake and prosecco (and a non-alcoholic version for the drivers) for our visitors to help themselves so if you were booked onto a tour that day this was a massive perk! All our visitors didn’t think twice to join in our celebrations and dig into the treats.
Then in the afternoon we put up a couple of gazebos in our paddock area, put more cake and drinks and later on had a BBQ and salads to soak up the extra prosecco. It was a really lovely afternoon/evening catching up with everyone. Hearing their stories of when they visited or worked here. Some old photos came out and we just chatted the night away. Needless to say, there were a couple of sore heads the next morning.
The kids had a great time, endless cake… what’s not to love! They were burning around on sugar highs with the odd adult trying to keep up. There were many dogs included in the celebrations but luckily they all know each other so while some were persuading people to throw sticks and toys the others were hoovering up left over BBQ. Looking onto a scene of what could only be described as total chaos was actually rather lovely. Seeing familiar friendly faces who have been joined together by our lovely reindeer… We’ve got a lot to thank Dr Lindgren and Mikel Utsi for. If it wasn’t for them then we wouldn’t be lucky enough to be part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and know all these wonderful people.