It’s the last blog of the month, so here we have a selection of photos I’ve taken during February. The early part of the month was all about crossing jobs off the to-do list ready for us to re-open to the public on the 11th of February for the busy half-term holidays. The second part of the month has been all about locating the reindeer and moving the herd into a suitable position for our Hill Trips each morning, the Hill Trips themselves, and afternoon talks in the Paddocks. Plus all the usual shop and office work. As always, the holidays are over in a blur, but here are some photos of our beautiful reindeer, giving a small taster of February for you all.
A final point – if you are wondering where all the young bulls and Christmas reindeer are in the photos, they spend the winter free ranging in a different herd that Tilly and other colleagues at the farm mostly look after. I’ve not been to visit them myself this month hence why it’s just photos of our beautiful girls and some male calves that you’ll find in this month’s blog.
At the end of each summer, we bring the cows and calves, who have spent all summer free-ranging in the mountains, back to the enclosure. For most of the reindeer this involves spotting a small herd of reindeer somewhere relatively near the enclosure and using a bit of bribery to lure them into the enclosure. That means the calves, who aren’t used to people, will just follow their mums through the gate and we can then spend the next couple of months training them and getting them used to us.
Every year though, there are a couple of cows and calves who like to keep us on our toes and wander to the wrong side of the hills which means we have to drive around in our wee truck, find and catch the reindeer, and then drive them back again. This just leaves the one small task of catching the calf, who has never worn a halter and has spent all summer avoiding people. Usually the easiest way is to catch their mum, then spend a little time walking with the mum on a halter and getting the calf used to your presence. Once they are settled and are coming back close to their mum then you can use their mum as a shield to hide your body as you get close enough to the calf to catch them. Once you have caught them, the second herder will very speedily put a halter on and lead them down off the hill.
At the end of September last year there were still a couple of reindeer who hadn’t come in yet after free-ranging for the summer. September always ends up being a very busy month but on one, very rainy, day we found ourselves with enough staff on for two of us to head out searching for the last few reindeer. So, Ruth and I rummaged around for the most waterproof of all our jackets before heading off. The jackets that we decided on were both Rohan jackets given to us after Fiona was featured in their magazine, Ruth’s jacket was navy blue and mine was bright turquoise. The colour of our jackets might seem trivial but it is relevant to the story.
We set off walking and fairly quickly spotted three reindeer, two cows and a calf. During our walk up the rain had stopped, and I had taken my jacket off. Once we got closer we realised it was Wapiti, Oatcake and Oatcake’s calf who had recently been named Lolly. We caught both the cows fairly quickly and Lolly seemed unusually tame, she was very happy to be close by to us at which point I thought we were going to have a very easy job!
We walked down the hill and into the trees and at this point it had started to rain again so I put my raincoat on again and we tied Wapiti onto one of the trees to give us an extra set of hands for catching. At which point Lolly ran at high speed up the hill away from us. This isn’t that unusual for a calf who has spent all summer avoiding people so we waited for her to settle and come back to her mum, but she didn’t…. We waited a while and then decided that she clearly had become nervous after we stopped so we would keep walking and hopefully she would come back over. So, we continued walking with Oatcake and Wapiti but Lolly wouldn’t come anywhere near us. I was getting more and more worried that we wouldn’t be able to catch her and our mission wouldn’t be successful at which point I realised that the moment she ran off was when we stopped which was also when I had put the blue jacket on.
It sounded totally ridiculous that a reindeer might be scared of a jacket but I thought it was worth a try, so I took off the jacket, at which point she came charging back down to us. I am very glad Ruth was there too otherwise the story would have seemed quite improbable!! From that moment on, she was a total star and we managed to catch her and walk her off the hill. It rained the entire way back I think but I had to walk back in my t-shirt as we didn’t want to upset Lolly again!
I spent the walk down the hill wondering if the fact that reindeer can see in the UV spectrum (for more information on this read Ruth’s blog here) meant that the blue part of the colour spectrum was accentuated so the jacket looked extra bright. More likely as none of the objects that Lolly had seen on the plateau all summer were blue seeing a walking bright blue jacket was a bit of a surprise. One thing is for sure, that jacket will be used for dog walking and not reindeer herding in the future.
Whilst we’re all still recovering from another busy Christmas season, I took it upon myself to accost some of my colleagues with some Christmas themed questions: There’s a limit to how fast I can type, so I didn’t manage to get down everything – some of the answers were very long, with lots of umming and ahhing! But you’ll get the gist. My chosen interviewees were Tilly (herd owner), her daughter Fiona (manager), and long-term employees Andi, Lotti, Ruth and Joe.
First up – FAVOURITE REINDEER TO WORK WITH AT CHRISTMAS(PAST OR PRESENT): I thought I was starting with an easy question, but apparently not, as lots of people had to come back to it later on once they’d had a think.
Andi’s response came after a short pause ‘At Christmas?… Nutkins. He wasn’t easy and you had to think carefully about which reindeer you paired him with, and which events would suit him, but he was such a fun reindeer.’ I’d like to add in here that Nutkins was, a lot of the time, a nutcase. A lovely reindeer, but undeniably a nutcase. He was one of those unpredictable characters – you never knew whether he was going to behave like a kid on a sugar high, or be utterly chilled. He played Russian roulette with us at every event.
No pause for thought for Tilly though, her answer was quick! ‘Mystery, who was so loyal that he didn’t even need to be led, he just wandered along at the back at his own pace’.
Scolty’s, somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), name came up several times, amongst other deliberations. Lotti: ‘Scolty. He’s very good at both the back and the front of the sleigh, and is an excellent role model for the calves’. Fiona: Scolty. Because he’s not too tame and he’s not too wild! He’s a thinker… like Dragonfly. Or maybe Dragonfly?’. Joe: ‘Probably Olympic. Or Baffin was good. Or Scolty. Well technically Kipling would be in there too, even though she’s a female. She has done some events as an adult though!’
Ruth’s answer, when caught off guard, appeared to not be what she thought she would say… ‘The first reindeer to pop into my head, which was a surprise to me, was Poirot! He was just phenomenal this Christmas, and didn’t put a hoof wrong.’ And for myself, the answer would be Topi I think. He was a total professional at events and parades, bombproof, and would always fall asleep on our shoulders when waiting for the off at the start of a parade. I’m sad he’s no longer with us, he was one of the special ones.
FAVOURITE EVENT? For those of us that have been around for years, this is a hard question as we’ve literally been to hundreds. Tilly has over 30 years of events under her belt! Some stand out whilst others – it must be said – all merge into one another after a while. On that note… Lotti: ‘I can’t remember which I’ve done! It’s all a blur!’
Andi: ‘Cowbridge in Wales [Editor’s note: we only go as far south as Manchester area these days, but Cowbridge (in South Wales) was a long-running event before that change]. An enormous but brilliantly organised event with all the police dressed as elves really took the biscuit!’ I also liked some of the biggest events like Cowbridge the best, where we were just a small cog in a large wheel. One of my other favourites was Wells [again, not one we do these days], where we followed a choir singing carols, which is far more festive than loud Christmas music blaring out. I also like Banff, as we usually got a full Christmas dinner at the end before leaving.
For Joe, it’s the smaller events nearer the day itself: ‘I really like the Christmas Eve events [Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore]. Everyone is festive and happy, in good spirits!’.
Fiona and Tilly had – completely independently – identical answers. ‘The Duke of Gordon Hotel – it’s the last one.’ Predictable – by the end of the season they are knackered and ready to put away the harness till the following year! Tilly did add ‘Yee haa, back home for yummy dinner and lots of alcohol afterwards’ too! And as for Ruth’s favourite event? Got a least favourite one… that count?’. I’ll not elaborate.
FAVOURITE CALF BORN IN 2022? This was met with squeals of horror at the prospect of having to choose! I refused to let anyone cop out with ‘all of them’ though. Nuii was a front-runner, ‘The cutest, pint-sized perfection of a calf!’ (Andi) and Lotti had a particular reason for choosing her: ‘Since I thought she was still-born at first, but then she was fine. But oh goodness! SO difficult! They are all very lovely!’
Ruth was horrified at such a question. ‘Oh Hen, this is mean! [loooong silence] I’ll go with Lolly, since Lotti and I were the ones to bring her in from the free-range… although… Zoom’. Another vote for Zoom came from Tilly ‘A great wee success story and the best friend of Sunny’. Sunny is the calf we hand-reared in 2022, and living at Reindeer House, Fiona was responsible for him a fair bit of the time. I had no need to ask her who her favourite calf was (but I did anyway). ‘Ummm… Wafer. Only joking!’. Another predictable answer came from Joe: ‘Tub. Did you guess that?!’ (Tub’s mum is Joe’s favourite reindeer, Kipling).
This proved a hard question for myself though. As I’ve managed to effectively retire from attending Christmas events these days, instead remaining at Reindeer House, it means I didn’t work quite as closely with some of the calves as others did. It was Choc-ice to start with, as I was so delighted that Cheer had actually had a calf and that he was tame in comparison to her (Cheer is a very shy reindeer) – but he’s turned into a real brute and his little pointy antlers have been responsible for bruises on my backside over the last few months, so I’ve gone off him…
In 1989, when Alan and I took over the herd we opened up the ‘best room’ at the west end of Reindeer House to provide a reception and retail area for our visitors to the reindeer. We grandly named it ‘The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’. From here our visitors have been able to book in for a Hill Trip or Paddock visit and maybe buy a memento to remind them of their visit.
This arrangement has worked for the last 33 years, albeit slightly disjointed with Reindeer House being both ‘The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’ and accommodation for reindeer herders ( which is the reason why it was originally built in 1960 by founders of the Cairngorm reindeer herd, Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren ).
Over the last 18 months we have been developing a vision for the future, which involves improving the visitor experience down in Glenmore, while of course keeping the increasingly popular Hill Trips to the herd on the mountainside.
We commissioned a local architect, Catriona Hill, to come up with a plan that would encompass our vision – a modest, but functional building, which would be accessible to all, provide wonderful reindeer exhibits and the entrance through which visitors will come to either book in for a Hill Trip to see the herd or to see the small group of reindeer on display in the Paddocks.
An initial feasibility study, followed by sketches, preliminary plans, various reports, and a positive pre-application report from our local council meant we lodged a planning application just before Christmas 2022.
So we are now waiting to hear what Highland Council have to say with regards to this and we are keeping our fingers crossed for a favourable decision. Here in the middle of The Cairngorms National Park we are very conscious of the need to construct a sustainable and sensitive building which is in character with the area – the Glenmore Forest with the stunning backdrop of the Cairngorm Mountains. Therefore the timber framed simple build will be wood clad with locally sourced larch, have a single sloping roof and it will be set back into the steep bank, in line with Reindeer House.
This is a very big step for us but we feel that the existing facilities are dated and disjointed and a new building with lovely displays, toilets, bespoke reindeer shop and most importantly the entrance to where the reindeer are on display in the Paddocks will be a mammoth step forward.
But don’t worry, it will still be operated by friendly, knowledgeable reindeer herders who put the welfare of the reindeer first and foremost and who will be the very people that will take you on the hill to see the herd or indeed talk to you in the Centre about our work and love of these beautiful animals! However, the new ‘space’ will be inviting to all visitors and an exciting new workplace for our dedicated staff.
The timescale for this to be up and running will depend of course on many factors, not least when we are awarded planning permission, building warrant, finding a builder and of course the weather. In an ideal world we would like to start physical works at the beginning of 2024 and hopefully have everything finished and open by the middle of the year. Watch this space!