Volunteer Blog: Falling in love with reindeer

How it all started

I have been a reindeer adopter for 10 years and it all started because my brother adopted the lovely Topi as a Xmas present for my sister-in-law. On reading the wonderful welcome pack, I decided I needed to visit the herd. So, the following summer found me up in the Cairngorms on a fantastic trek leading the great Grunter. I was hooked!

The lovely Topi in 2012. When Helen first adopted him.
Grunter looking very handsome in 2013.

Over the years I’ve visited 2 or 3 times a year- thoroughly enjoyable each time. Not only were the reindeer and the setting up in the Cairngorms superb but so were the dedicated group of people who ensure the safety and care of these wonderful creatures. I had promised myself that the first thing I would do when I retired was volunteer at the Reindeer Centre to see behind the scenes and play all be it a small part in this venture.

My first volunteer week

So being accepted September 2019 saw my promise fulfilled – a whole week with the reindeer and of course these wonderful herders. As well as being so very excited, I was a bit apprehensive – not doing the right thing, being more of a hindrance than help. However, I was made so welcome and my help much appreciated no matter what that I soon relaxed. I knew from my own work that supporting volunteers is quite a commitment so all praise to the great team of herders one and all.

Spending twice a day up in the hills was just all I had hoped it would be – don’t think I have the words to do it justice. Getting to share my enthusiasm for the herd and the work done to support them was a privilege. Over the week I learned so much from each of the herders that I grew in confidence in talking to the visitors.

By the end of the week I had developed a whole range of skills – cleaning wellies and scooping poo high on the list! I was also fitter though that may seem ridiculous as I stumbled, fell and broke my wrist (yes, I am THAT volunteer!!) I have high praise for the health services in Aviemore and the care and concern of the herders. Not daunted although I couldn’t sadly go up the hills for the rest of my week, I was able to chat to people who visited the paddocks, make lots of cups of tea and help out in the office (at least I hope it was viewed as help!) I also mastered the art of washing wellies with one hand!

The pandemic put a hold on another opportunity to volunteer – yes, I was going to be welcomed back!

May 2022 – the return

May 2022 was my next chance for a week for all things reindeer. I deliberately wanted to be part of the calving season as my September 2019 stint saw the start of the rut. The May week was a wet one – I don’t think I got out of the wet weather gear and grew to bless wellies. No matter the weather it is always worthwhile going up the hills. The scenery is stunning and atmospheric and of course the welcome from the reindeer makes it all complete.

Marple and Vienna’s calves on a soggy day!

As there had been over a 2-year gap to my volunteering, although I had been a visitor when I could, I was a bit concerned that I would have forgotten everything. No worries, it came rushing back with updates and new things filling the gaps. It was like meeting a new herd as a whole new group of reindeer had been born and grown up as well as saying goodbye to some favourites.

It was a wonderful experience to see the new born. The mothers were very protective initially keeping their distance from us with their calves. When the time was right they joined us with the wee calf at their heels. I think the oldest calves were about 3 or 4 weeks old and to see them also grow in confidence over the week to where they tentatively came up to check you out was quite a privilege. At one point I was “helping” with temperature checks and watching the protective behaviour of the mothers whether new hands or experienced was quite something – and very noisy in a small space! Honking like geese was my comment!

Soon after Helen’s help checking temperatures and making sure the calves and their mothers were healthy, they were put out into the mountains to free range.

My skill set also grew. No welly washing is required anymore but I added making up the feed – good cardiovascular workout. If it was possible to make this week even more special I was lucky enough to be at the Centre on the actual day of the 70th anniversary of reindeer arriving at Cairngorm. Cake was very welcome coming down off the hills. I think visitors also enjoyed the extra surprise of treats at the Centre as well!

Fiona and Lotti food mixing – now one of Helen’s skills too!
70th Anniversary Hill Trip – Helen can be seen clutching the white handfeed bag!

As in 2019 it was sad to say goodbye when the week ended. For a long time afterwards looking at the clock I would be thinking “they’ll be going up on the hill visit” On a lovely day weatherwise I just wanted to be there. The place and experiences get under your skin.

Adopters Weekend

So it was with great pleasure I visited again in October for the Adopters Weekend. The 5-month gap had brought much change to the calves I had seen in May and it was like starting again getting to know them. It was great to see the adults again – hello Beanie always reliable to arrive to greet us particularly when food was involved! It was great day (it didn’t rain!) talking all things reindeer and Tilly’s evening talk humorous and informative was a great way to end the day. Sad again to say goodbye, however there are the Xmas events to look forward to.

The calves in October- a big change since Helen last saw them in May.
Beanie, being Beanie! The face lots of people witness as the handfeed bags appear!

I can’t believe 10 years have passed since I read that welcome pack – thank you, big brother! Here’s to the next 10 and beyond.

Helen Adair

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