June has whizzed by in a cloud of reindeer hair – it’s definitely scruffy reindeer month! Not their most photogenic season but a wonderful time of year nonetheless. After a couple of days off the antlers have noticeably grown – even after six years of working with the herd, I still find it amazing just how quickly it all happens.
The last batch of cows and calves left the enclosure on the 5th and we’ve brought more male reindeer over from the farm to increase our number here to keep our visitors happy on Hill Trips. It’s also the time of year we start harness training – both the reindeer and the herders! It’s a fun way to spend the morning. Another lovely way of spending a morning is walking our two hand-reared calves, Alba and Winnie. This month we have started taking them on daily walks allowing them access to good grazing meanwhile getting all-important exercise.
Lastly, I can’t write a blog post about June 2023 without mentioning the loss of our old reindeer herding collie, Sookie. A very sad time at Reindeer House, but what an amazing life she had and I feel grateful to be part of it. She’ll be missed.
At the time, it really does seem like it will last forever. When you head to work and it’s dark, then the sun sets again at 3.30pm and you’re heading home in the dark. But it must be my favorite season, you experience such varying weather conditions, and it gives you such an appreciation of what the reindeer endure out on the free range. So, I thought I would do a blog of my favorite wintery pictures and tell some tales from the free range.
One trip that will forever stay in my memory was a morning in April when Ruth and I went out on to the free range to move the herd for the 11am Hill Trip. There had been snow the night before and it was so windy! Once on the hill we weren’t entirely sure whether it was still snowing, or whether the wind was whipping the snow up off the ground and into our eyes. Either way, we both were wishing that we had brought along goggles to wear. We trudged along, having a rough idea of where the reindeer were and finally stumbled across them. The amount of snow and lack of visibility meant that the reindeer were very well camouflaged, so it took me basically tripping over them to finally notice them. I wish I had noted down the wind speed for that day but to give you some insight, the day before had a mountain gust of 91mph.
On another trip to collect the herd for the 11am Hill Trip later in April that included myself and Ben Hester, we came across a stark contrast in the weather from the Ski Center car park and in the Northern Corries, where the herd were that morning. At the Ski Center we were eluded into the false belief that we wouldn’t need much in the way of layers as it was a beautiful sunny morning but due to the nature of the hills, we decided to take something waterproof just in case. As we continued up into the Corries, the weather began to take a turn. The cloud came in, the wind kicked up and we were pelted with icy rain. It was a good thing that we were only collecting the herd and moving them down to a lower spot as the weather would have made an uncomfortable Hill Trip!
But for every couple of bad weather days, we get exceptionally beautiful days to make up for the lack of daylight hours and hard going weather…
Other days we get great shows of the clouds through the mountains, I always love to see how clouds hug the landscape…
And to be honest, it’s not all doom and gloom when the sun sets early as we get to experience beautiful sunsets…
Sometimes you can head out in cloudy conditions and by the time you have found the herd the cloud has lifted, and you have the most fantastic view…
Overall, I love the winter seasons, you get to experience so many extremes when it comes to weather and even though most plants have died back, you still get such a variety of colour within the environment. More importantly, we (as herders) talk frequently about the adaptations that reindeer have to help them survive in a sub-artic environment, so it is thrilling to actually experience the elements like they do!
Bingo is one of our older Christmas reindeer now at the age of 12 years old. He has always been a pretty, what’s the polite way of saying it, aloof reindeer. He’s not timid, cos he has plenty of confidence but he’s certainly had his moments over the years where he falls into the category of being very head strong or independent. Lets just say when working with him out on the open hill some swear words may have been passed amongst herders when trying to herd Bingo!
The days of bringing the herd down from our winter grazing at Glenlivet usually involved a few of us on foot pushing the herd down to our corral on the hill ready to bring them back to our hill farm for the summer. Without fail for years Bingo would always double back and for anyone who has tried to chase a four-legged animal, flat out going up hill you’ll know it’s a losing battle. On the odd occasion we did either turn him, or he decided to go in with the herd (this was rare), he was first to be brought off the hill to avoid the risk of him somehow finding his way out!
As I said earlier he’s one of our Christmas reindeer. This means he’s trained to harness and pull the sleigh and to be fair to him he’s a total pro. Having done some pretty big events over the years including the very prestigious Windsor Castle he doesn’t put a foot wrong and being so handsome he of course looks great too. When I had him in my team Christmas 2019 my team mate, Joe, had to do lots of sweet talking and bribery with Bingo. For whatever reason Bingo took a dislike to Joe. Whenever we had to go about our normal handling of catching, loading, putting on harness Bingo always showed his antlers to Joe. Never me, I could walk up to him and he’s act like a well behaved dog and not put a foot wrong but he did not like Joe. Joe would find himself trying to win him over… extra lichen treats and giving him lots of personal space but more often than none he’d just find Bingo poking him with his antlers… Needless to say I found it very amusing! So much so that when Bingo cast his antlers before Christmas 2019 on Christmas Day I said to Joe I had a present for him but he had to close his eyes. Then I proceeded to poke him with Bingos antlers, this was Joe’s special Christmas present for Joe and now Joe has them mounted in his room, never to forget the wonderful friendship the two of them had…
However, I think Bingo has slightly mellowed over the years. Maybe running in the opposite direction every time we want to bring the herd in has worn thin and is maybe just a bit exhausting now in his older years. A couple months ago when we brought the free range herd into out hill corral for some annual management we were handling reindeer and low and behold Bingo come down to the corral of his own accord. I got myself a small bag of feed and halter and open the gate. He comes waltzing in, head in the bag of feed and I pop his halter on… Does that mean we no longer have to chase him around the hill side anymore, I do hope so.
I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Bingo. As lovely as it is having a well behaved Christmas reindeer who never puts a foot wrong and always obliges when we’re doing any handling there is something about a challenge and Bingo has certainly provided us with a challenge over the years. He’s got a spark to him which I love and he didn’t poke me with his antlers so maybe we have a mutual agreement between the two of us? Who knows…
I was recently looking back over photos from the calving season in 2020. This was the first calving season I had worked and it was in the middle of lockdown with fewer staff working so I was very lucky to be totally immersed in what was a very busy month! The calves born in 2020 are now three years old and some of them have had their own calves for the first time this year. I thought it would be nice to look back on a few favourites and how they have changed over the last few years.
Note: This started out being a fairly short blog just going through a couple of my favourite calves but very soon became longer and longer… Turns out I have a real soft-spot for the 2020 calves with lots and lots of favourites amongst them! I decided to split the males and females and make it into two blogs otherwise there was no way anyone would read all the way to the bottom. Part 2 is now online too.
First and foremost, Holy Moley was the first calf born in 2020, the first new-born calf I had ever seen, and still to this day, I maintain she was the most beautiful calf ever to be born. Not that I’m biased.
Anyone who watched ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’ (Channel 4, first broadcast on Christmas Eve 2020) will be well aware that Holy Moley didn’t have the easiest start but she’s done really well over the last couple of years and has grown up into a strong, feisty and very cheeky young reindeer! Her name is often accompanied by the word ‘diva’ which I think explains a lot.
The most distinguishing feature I remember about Sunflower when she was a calf was the perfect arrow pointing along her back towards her head. We joked that the arrow was to show to ‘insert food here’.
Sunflower’s arrow sadly didn’t stay longer than her calf coat but luckily we’re pretty well practiced at which end reindeer food goes! Sunflower has grown up to be such a lovely lass. She’s tame but not pushy. She’s also one of the tallest of the female reindeer her age, go Sunflower!!
When Pumpkin was a day or so old it was time to bring her from where she was born to a bit closer by and into our creche area to keep an eye on her. Me and Olly went to fetch Pagan and Pumpkin but about half-way through the walk Pumpkin was getting tired, as it was a long walk for brand new legs, so instead I had to carry her in, what a hardship!!!
Pumpkin is very greedy much like the rest of her family. She’s usually one of the first in line for handfeeding, so if any of you reading this have been on a hill trip in the winter, you’ve probably met her.
Ibex, Flax’s mum, was another experienced mum who was totally chilled out around us as we treated and checked her calf. She was also the first reindeer who I’d watched eat her afterbirth which was amazing to see! Flax was born on a beautiful sunny day so we enjoyed ten minutes or so hanging out with the two of them before leaving Ibex to finish her lichen in peace.
Flax is Ibex’s last calf, so she’s not been pushed away after the birth of a younger sibling. As a result, Flax and Ibex are as thick as thieves and usually still at each other’s sides. Flax can be bossy and greedy just like her mum!
Pip was Kipling’s first ever calf and motherhood definitely took a little getting used to for Kipling. For the first couple of days when we went to feed them Kipling would come charging over for the feed and we would spend the next five minutes searching for her calf who would be left behind somewhere totally unaware that her mother seemed to have chosen feed over her. After the first week or so, Pip was mobile enough to stick with Kipling easily though. Kipling is Joe’s favourite reindeer and he caught and treated Pip when she was first born so when it came to naming Joe asked if he could name her Pip in memory of his dog who had had the same name.
Pip has grown up into a very independent young female, she’s rarely with the rest of her family and is quite different from them in personality. Her mum Kipling is probably one of the tamest reindeer in our herd whereas Pip has a wee bit of a wild streak. Ruth thinks that if Pip was a human she’d be a real party girl and I think she’s right!
At the end of calving in 2020, Angua was the only cows left to calve. When we went to feed the herd one morning she wasn’t with the herd, so we set off around the enclosure to try to find her and her new-born calf, unfortunately no luck! She was nowhere to be seen! We continued to search for the next few days without any success and were all getting more and more worried, particularly as it was Angua’s first time calving. A couple of days later, after lots of searching, we were bringing the herd in for their breakfast and suddenly realised there was one extra calf than the day before!
Chickpea is fairly shy in nature, so we’ve spent lots of time over the last three years bribing her with food. This has definitely worked; you can now see her licking her lips whenever one of the herders approaches with a bag of extra tasty food.
Now Peanut came as a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t actually thought that her mum, Roule, was pregnant. Then as we were splitting the pregnant females to stay in the enclosure and the non-pregnant ones to go back out we took a second look at her and decided that her belly looked rather wide, sure enough a few weeks later, Peanut was born.
Peanut has become tamer and tamer over the last three years and in 2022 she also surprised us by having her first calf who we have named Nuii. Nuii is definitely one of my favourite of our ice-creams – she’s a real sweetie!
In the year 2015, we decided upon a naming theme of hill running races located in Scotland. Therefore, all the calves that were born in 2015 were subsequently given a name from this theme. Some of which I’d have had no idea how to pronounce had I not been told. These reindeer – who are now 8 years old – wear a white ear tag with a number between 900 and 950. Hill running appears to be a common activity amongst reindeer herders. Perhaps it’s an occupational hobby. A way to keep fit for the physical nature of reindeer herding, or indeed capitalise on the miles that are done on the job by trying to win a few competitions. In this blog I will explain a bit about the races that are responsible for five reindeer names.
Scolty is a tall and handsome chap. He’s a fantastic “Christmas Reindeer”, a highly experienced and reliable sleigh-puller. He’s named after a race in Deeside, located just south of the town of Banchory. At the top of Scolty Hill there is a tower – measuring 20 metres high – that was built in 1840. The race has a distance of 7.2km with an ascent of 396 metres.
Morven is a beautiful breeding female who grows a unique set of antlers year after year. The Morven hill race occurs on Morven hill and is 8km long with an ascent of 640 metres. It is one of the favourite races of Alan Smith. It is located near to the village of Dinnet in the Aboyne area (Aberdeenshire). Dinnet is the first village along the River Dee to be located in the Cairngorms National Park.
Tap is a dark-coloured breeding female, she’s one of the shyer reindeer in the herd but very beautiful. She gets her name from the hill race Tap O’Noth which is a 7.9km race starting out from Rhynie, a village in Aberdeenshire. There is approximately 390 metres of ascent. With Tap’s athleticism, I’d fancy her chances if she was to compete in the race. What’s the prize? 7.9 kilograms of lichen?
Ochil is a distinctive lass with a white patchy face and a big personality. She’s a good mum and is also a granny. Ochil is named after a long-distance hill race starting out from Stirling University. Its route travels through the Ochil Hills, hills formed from a thick wedge of Devonian age volcanic and volcano-sedimentary rocks. Reindeer herder Joe is planning to compete in this year’s race as it is one of the races selected for the 2023 Scottish hill running championships. He’ll have to navigate through 1200 metres of ascent over the distance of 31.2km. The etymology of the name Ochil – recorded as Okhel – is thought to be Pictish in origin and may derive from the old word ‘ogel’ meaning ‘ridge’.
Suidhe (pronounced Sue-e) is a good mother but a rather shy lass, and can be fairly suspicious of what our intentions are but she can usually be won over by her greed! Suidhe is one of our local hill races. It starts from the Kincraig village green and has an approximate distance of 5km, with roughly 250 metres in ascent. The hill must be an important part of the local community because Kincraig’s pub takes its name from it.