We reopened to the public on the 10th of February. With no Paddocks and Exhibition available (the site is currently a very big hole) it feels rather strange! But the Hill Trips are running as usual, in fact for the February half term we brought some of our free ranging cows and nine month old calves in to our hill enclosure allowing us to do two Hill Trips a day. So, we’ve been busy looking after our the herd in the enclosure and checking in with the free rangers once every few days. February has so far been rather mild so far with not very much snow so we’ve been having a relatively easy time, and the reindeer are finding easy grazing. We’ll be back to free range visits very soon (Monday 26th Feb) so if anyone is visiting us between now and the end of April be prepared for potentially much longer walks out to find the herd.
Anyone who has come to visit us will know that we have very strict clothing and footwear requirements. On a fair-weather day, this may sometimes seem slight overkill but when the conditions change, or something goes wrong requiring us to stay on the hill longer than usual, the extra layers are absolutely necessary.
One such occasion happened in December. We had almost come to the end of a hill trip when one of our visitors approached me to ask if I could help her support her wife who had slipped and possibly sprained her ankle. At first they had hoped that between the three of us, we would be able to walk off the hill. When I reached her, it became quickly apparent that the pain was too great for her to walk of the hill even with us taking her weight, making it a very easy decision that we would call mountain rescue. The week before I had done my first aid training and our casualty’s wife was a doctor so hopefully, she was in good hands. While Ben got on the phone, I fetched our group shelter and Isla brought some layers to keep everybody warm. The reindeer, having not seen a group shelter before were very interested in the sudden appearance of a giant orange ‘bag of food’ and Ben and I had to chase them away to avoid any further injury.
We were very lucky, and the mountain rescue team were with us within an hour and a half. As they arrived there were fits of laughter from inside the group shelter as Ben was telling both the women not to worry, that we had pre-paid for the rescue by getting our kit off for a naked calendar the previous year, raising over four and a half grand for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Mountain Rescue teams are made up of volunteers, when a call comes in, they are all alerted and have to leave their jobs/ whatever else they may have been up to come out. Once the team has assembled, they then have to drive from the base and then walk out to find the casualty, all of this can take a good few hours. On this occasion they had already been alerted for another rescue so the first people to respond had gone to the other casualty and then the next people had come straight to us. The mountain rescue team were absolutely fantastic, they splinted her ankle, with some much-appreciated pain relief, and then lifted her onto a stretcher, ready to walk off the hill.
The whole time this was happening, we could hear a helicopter flying a little way south of where we were. It became apparent that the helicopter was meant for the original casualty who had been climbing in the Northern Corries but they were unable to land due to the weather. So as not to waste the flight, and to get our lovely visitor off the hill and to hospital as soon as possible, the helicopter came to us instead.
By this point we’d been on the hill so long that the afternoon Hill Trip had arrived and was gathered a bit further down the hill. The reindeer have regularly seen helicopters in the distance, but we were unsure if one landing this close to the reindeer would spook them causing a rather abrupt end to the Hill Trip. On the contrary, the reindeer barely batted an eyelid, the visitors were all pretty interested though!
The woman with the broken ankle was lifted into the helicopter and as they flew off her wife told us ‘Once she’s out of hospital and her ankle is fixed, she’s going to absolutely love this, she loves helicopters’. The rest of us walked back down off the hill.
Accidents such as these are very rare, in fact at my first aid course the previous week I had smugly told the instructor that I hadn’t had to use any first aid since the previous course 3 years earlier. I clearly spoke too soon. In this case, our visitor slipped despite having the correct footwear, she was just very unlucky. All four of us ended up staying on the hill for a total of 4 hours, for the last 2 we weren’t moving. For me it was a very good reminder of why we have to be so strict with the footwear and clothing that our visitors wear, had our casualty not had enough layers, the situation could have become more serious very quickly.
Editor’s note: The lovely Hannah wrote this blog when she was here back in August 2023 but I have only just found it lurking in a folder on the computer. Sorry Hannah! Read Hannah’s first blog here about her time volunteering with us here: Hannah’s Volunteer Blog – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. And then try to imagine you’re reading this current one in the warm summer month of August!
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since I was up on the hill – it always feels far too long! As usual I signed up for my now annual volunteering stint and was met with an even better offer to come and help for three weeks rather than one! Obviously, this was too good an opportunity to pass up and I quickly abandoned my long-suffering partner (and our impending house move) to come and stay at Reindeer House for the month!
A lot can change in a year – last July I was hand rearing Sunny, now one of our yearlings and a fully-fledged reindeer – antlers and all! My hand rearing days were not over, though – as we had two new calves to meet – Winnie and Alba! Being resident in Reindeer House means extra quality time with these two lovely girls, including late night feeds and mornings taking them up the hill. It’s been amazing watching them progress even over the past few weeks, gaining weight as they should and spotting some antlers beginning to appear.
I’ve been lucky enough to come at a different point of the year which has included adventures with the free ranging females and tracking the discovery of new calves flourishing out on the hills. Having not had much time with our girls, being mostly a summer presence, it was great to finally put faces to the names of the lovely females I have heard so much about and meet some of their new arrivals.
I count myself very lucky to have quadrupled my usual stint here and be a part of the team. Hopefully the next bit of time goes speedily, and I’ll be back out on the hill before I know it!
Over the years I’ve established myself as ‘chief of antler sales’ here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. As with most reindeer related things, it’s not really a job that is straight-forward but one that has evolved with time, and I’ve tweaked and tweaked each year until it is as workable as possible. But – in usual fashion – the devil is in the details, much of which are in my head and memory and it’s therefore not a job that I will delegate to anyone else at any point.
We’ve always sold antlers from the reindeer herd. But is it as easy as 150 reindeer equals 150 pairs of antlers per year to sell? Of course it isn’t…
Firstly, we only find around 30-40% (at a rough estimate) of the antlers each year. This is because the reindeer roam on a huge area of rough, upland land, and the time of year when most antlers are shed – January to April – is exactly the time that almost the entire herd are roaming completely freely and are not enclosed at all. The proverbial needle in the haystack. (In fact sometimes finding the herd itself can be a needle/haystack situation, let alone their cast antlers!).
Secondly, whilst around half of our herd are males, we tend to castrate them at around three years old. This means the bone of their antlers doesn’t calcify to the same extent, and they will usually break their antlers off in pieces as a result. So instead of a nice, clean antler, we get broken sections of – to be quite honest – often rather manky antler, still partly covered with the velvet skin that covered it whilst it grew. Smaller pieces disappear into deep vegetation, never to be seen again, far more easily than a whole antler.
Once castrated, males also tend to grow relatively smaller antlers than they did as a bull. So we really only get two or three big, mature bull sets of antlers each year. But some of these we keep – for example we have almost all of Sherlock’s antlers, and most of Crann’s. Crann holds the record for the biggest antlers ever in the herd, and as such we’ll never sell them as they are of great nostalgic value to us, even though Crann himself is long gone.
Antler selling starts in January each year. The mature bulls have dropped their antlers in November/December, and some of our immature bulls then have their antlers cut off in December before they are let out to their winter grazing up on the mountains. This is done for the safety of hill-walkers – a testosterone-charged ‘teenage’ bull could really inflict damage. It’s done long after the feeling in the antler has gone, so causes zero pain.
From (usually) around March onwards the cows start dropping their antlers, but life gets very busy in the spring with the calving season, followed by writing/editing the June newsletter, so it’s often well into the summer before I pick up the antler list once again.
So… here’s some info for those of you now imagining a nice set of antlers adorning your wall.
Firstly, I give members of our reindeer adoption scheme priority for purchasing antlers over ‘unconnected’ members of the public. I feel it’s a privilege someone who supports our business should get. My method for this is to have a waiting list for adopters to add their name for dibs on ‘their’ reindeer’s antlers, which I work my way through gradually as and when I have something suitable. Should you want to add yourself to this list, drop me an email through the contact form on the website FAO Hen (please don’t just comment on the blog/social media – email means I can keep everything together, and gives more chance of a reply one day from me actually reaching you, rather than disappearing into spam).
If you’ve asked to be on the waiting list in the past, no need to get in touch again – you’ll still be there. Well you will as long as your adoption is still current. I’m afraid that I always double-check someone is still an adopter before emailing them, and you’re scratched off the list if your adoption has lapsed. My list, my rules.
If I have no-one on the waiting list for a particular reindeer’s antler(s), then I will send a letter to all of their (UK based) adopters in one go – and it’s first come, first served. Miss out, and you go on the waiting list. This does mean sometime multiple people are all waiting for the same reindeer to shed his/her antlers – which we might never find from year to year anyway. I’m well aware some poor souls have been languishing on the waiting list for years… sorry.
If you aren’t an adopter of a reindeer and are reading this in despair, wondering whether there’s ever a chance of you getting anything, then all is not lost. Email me anyway, and I have a password-protected webpage with any available antlers on that I can give you details of, and on which you can sign up for occasional email alerts when new ones become available (if I get my arse in gear, this is still only about twice a year, so don’t worry about me flooding your inbox. Also, I hate Mailchimp – it’s totally user-unfriendly). I have separate webpages for single antlers and for pairs, and usually have a much better range of single antlers, since finding both sides of a pair is rarer in the first place.
Yes, they do cost a lot. The biggest sets we ever get to sell are in the region of (at time of writing in 2024) £300. The single antler in the photo above was about £60. I guess other places with reindeer in the UK maybe also sell their antlers, but I’ve never actually heard of them doing so. I do my best to price antlers fairly though – every single one is utterly unique and in someway it is a snapshot of that reindeer at that particular point of their life. I’m sure I could push up the prices hugely and they would still sell eventually, but that isn’t the point. It’s a balancing act to try and get it right.
If you perhaps can’t afford the antler(s) you been contacted about, it’s still worth going on the waiting list. I might have a glorious £200 set of beautiful antlers one year from him/her, and a single broken-off half antler the next year. But hey, it’s still a piece of antler that your reindeer actually grew, and really it means just as much.
Conversely, you miss out on something small that you had your heart set on. But hey presto you might then be first in line for the potentially much more impressive effort from your reindeer next year. It’s all utterly unpredictable and there’s definitely an element of luck involved.
I can’t post abroad, sorry.
If you can collect your antler(s) rather than me having to package and post them, a) it’s cheaper and b) I love you.
If you receive an ‘antler letter’ through the post – read it properly! I always do my best to describe the antler fully before you phone up to buy it – but have never forgotten the lovely couple who arrived to pick up a set of antlers from their adopted reindeer. The bloke was a bit worried about fitting them in the car. The antlers were about 30cm tall.
Antlers come in all sizes but all shapes too. Forget that classic set of ‘perfect’ shapely reindeer antlers you’ve got in your mind’s eye – they probably aren’t going to look like that… If I’m emailing you directly I’ll attach a photo, and if I’ve sent you a letter, you can ask to see a photo before you decide.
As mentioned before, we keep some of the biggest bull antlers. Herders also usually have first dibs on their favourite reindeer’s antlers (I’ll add that (depending on the size of antler) we do usually still have to pay for them!), so there are certain reindeer in the herd whose antlers will come up for sale very rarely, if ever. Huge apologies, if you also adopt one of those reindeer… let’s mention no names.
I do also try to be fair to people – if I know you already have multiple antlers from a certain reindeer but are keen for more, I will usually try and give their other adopters a look in at some point.
And if you adopt Juniper, well don’t give up hope. Ferrari was also a ‘polled’ reindeer (one who doesn’t grow antlers at all) and suddenly sprouted one when she reached 9 years old, so all is not lost. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.
And finally, I’m only human so bear with me as the old brain doesn’t get everything right every time. Apologies again to the lovely lady who I posted the entirely wrong set of antlers to a couple of years ago, and then had to go through a whole rigmarole of getting her to post them on to the correct new owner (Editor’s note: we did get permission to pass on the address first!), whilst I sorted out the right set for her. And years ago I died a little bit inside when I realised we’d sold the same antler to two separate people, and I was going to have to make a very awkward phone-call (although in my defence, it wasn’t actually me that forgot to mark that antler as ‘sold’ on the list). Oh, the horror.