Volunteer Blog: From the rutting season to the calving season

I first visited the Cairngorm reindeer herd in August 2000 and since then have visited on many occasions with my husband and our three daughters.

Over the years we have made badges and paper antlers, hunted for elves, taken countless photos of our daughters sitting on the sleigh outside the shop, handfed the reindeer, and have never tired of the beautiful walk up to the hill enclosure.

Our last family trip was on Valentine’s Day in 2022 when we headed out in the pouring rain on the 11am Hill Trip to visit the free ranging herd high up on the mountain. It was following that trip that I heard about the chance to apply to become a volunteer and spend a week helping out at Reindeer House and decided to apply.

Jayne’s husband and daughter smiling despite the rain thanks to Gloriana. Hard to believe this soggy experience made Jayne wish to volunteer with us!

In October 2023 I packed my tent and drove up from Lancashire to spend the week at Glenmore. I was rather apprehensive turning up at 8am on Monday morning with a rucksack full of waterproofs and sandwiches but I needn’t have worried. I was immediately greeted by a room full of very friendly reindeer herders, several dogs and a handful of puppies!

My volunteer week was action packed. In the morning I helped with handling the reindeer down at the Visitor Centre, feeding them, cleaning up and getting everything ready for visitors to come in at 10am.

During October there is just one Hill Trip a day. I would go up onto the hill, carrying a bag of food and talking to visitors about what I was doing. Each day I would heat up some milk and carry it up the hill in a flask to feed two calves named Winnie and Alba who had been successfully hand reared and were now on the hill with the rest of the herd. Whilst I keep insisting that I don’t have a favourite reindeer I do have a soft spot for Alba!

Winnie and Alba, hard not to develop soft spots for these two girls!

October is the rutting season which was quite eventful! The hill enclosure was being used to manage the annual breeding as well as for daily Hill Trips so there was plenty to do. Two male reindeer had been selected for breeding. Sherlock was out on Silver Mount with some of the females whilst Jelly Bean was in another part of the enclosure with some of the other females. Daily checks were made of all the reindeer and extra food provided. It was quite an experience to see these normally very docile males displaying anything but docile behaviour and to see their interactions with the females as they came into season. I was certainly happy to stay behind the fence!

Sherlock out on Silver Mount with Bordeaux, one of his selected cows.

Volunteering in October also meant that I got the opportunity to be involved in the first week of the Christmas sleigh training. I’ll never forget being pulled up the hill from Glenmore Visitor Centre in a Sleigh!

Jayne at the front of the sleigh in hi-vis, on crowd control duty.

I learnt so much that week and thoroughly enjoyed it so it was no surprise to my family when I asked if they would mind if I abandoned them once again this year to spend another week volunteering.

My return to Glenmore was sooner than I imagined and I was back again at the start of May 2024 – approximately 220 days since my last visit – which quite coincidentally happened to be about the same period of time as the average gestation period for a reindeer!

How lucky was I – having experienced the madness of the rutting season I was now in the thick of the calving season.

One of our gorgeous calves.

Three calves had already been born when I arrived on a wet bank holiday weekend and over the course of the week that I was there another 12 were born on the hill.

During my second stint as a volunteer there was no Paddocks and Exhibition to attend to as it has been knocked down over the winter and is in the process of being rebuilt. There was plenty to do though with two Hill Trips a day, plus an early morning walk to find reindeer, check on them, locate newly born reindeer and help with a whole host of other daily jobs to be done.

New mum and calf.

Watching how quickly the calves developed and became so sure footed in such a short space of time was amazing and as the new mums relaxed into motherhood it was a joy to just sit and watch them interact. It’s hard to imagine that in just a few weeks the mums and calves will be out free ranging across the Cairngorm mountains.

During the time I have spent with everyone who works with the Cairngorm Reindeer I have learned so much about these beautiful animals. I have thoroughly enjoyed helping to take visitors up onto the hill, telling them about the reindeer and talking to them about all sorts of things!

Sherlock looking a bit different from Jayne’s last visit.
Zambezi and Shannon now yearlings in May 2024, in the previous October these were some of the calves that were being trained to walk behind the sleigh.

I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity and am rather hoping that I will be allowed back again next year ….

Jayne

Reindeer Lookalikes

In January 2023 I wrote a blog about reindeer looking like their close relatives: https://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk/2023/01/20/mini-me-reindeer/

As we are now in calving season, I have recently heard myself saying “she looks just like her big sister when she was a calf” or fellow reindeer herder Lotti saying “she looks exactly like her mum as a new born”.

So, it got me thinking, perhaps it’s time for another blog about family resemblances.

Emmental’s boys!

Emmental in 2020, with her pale coat and white nose.

Emmental is a beautiful, mature breeding female, now aged 11 years old. She is rather pale in colour with a white muzzle. Over the years she has been a successful mother and has three surviving sons named Olmec, Iskrem and Ob. Yes, we chose names all beginning with vowels. But that’s not their only similarity. They also all have white noses, just like mum! Looking back through photos of them all as calves it’s easy to confuse who is who.

Emmental herself aged four months old, in 2013.
Olmec as a four month old calf in 2016.
Olmec as an adult with very similar face markings to his mum!
Iskrem also at four months old with the same beautiful colouring.
Emmental with her calf six-month-old calf Ob who also has the white nose (November 2023).

Pony’s girls!

Pony was a rather notorious reindeer in our herd with serious amounts of attitude! She was born in 2011 and sadly passed away a couple of years ago aged 11, which is a fair age for a reindeer. She left us with four surviving offspring – two males Poirot and Cowboy, and two females called Suebi and Turtle. It’s the girls who can sometimes make me confused! Their both normal-coloured, their antler shapes are similar, and they have also both inherited some of Pony’s attitude! We have nicknamed Turtle, “Snapping Turtle” as she often waves her head and smacks her lips at us if we can walk past her too closely.

Pony in 2016 aged 5. Pony herself was very easy to recognise as she was missing the tips of her ears, but look at the shape of her antlers compared to her daughters Suebi and Turtle…
Suebi in 2019 aged 3.
Turtle in September 2023, also aged 3.
Just for good measure, here’s Pony as a three year old too! Note lack of ear tips so very easy to identify.

Suebi and Turtle are both breeding females. Suebi has the lovely Scoop, a two year old male, and also is the mother of the twins Elbe and Alba. Turtle has Amur, who has just turned one and is proving to be a very sweet-natured lad. Time will tell whether they produce any lookalike females!

I’ll leave it there for now but who knows, perhaps I can write a third installment in the future as there are lots of other examples within the herd.

Ruth

COVID calves

Our usual annual practice is the reindeer calves born that spring will join a Christmas team of adult reindeer and go out and about on tour joining in Christmas festivities across the country. This is the start of their training and handling with us which means when the male calves grow up and go on to join a team as an adult with potentially a different role to play (i.e. trained to harness and pulling the sleigh) then they have already seen what events are all about so it’s helpful for their training going forward.

Haricot as a new born in spring 2020.
Tiny new born Lupin in 2020 – hard to imagine him pulling a sleigh three years later!

Back in 2020 all the calves born that year didn’t take part in many Christmas events due to our lack of bookings off the back of the COVID pandemic. We knew further down the line that we would have to work harder on these reindeer. Now Christmas 2023 is well behind us, this was the first Christmas where the three year old males were trained to wear harness and pull the sleigh for the first time. We don’t use female reindeer at Christmas as they tend to be pregnant at that time of year and the males we do use are castrates (non-breeding).

So our Christmas reindeer class of 2023 consisted of – Adzuki, Lupin, Haricot, Hemp and Cicero. Although there were more from that year these were the main five boys who went out and about on tour and pulled the sleigh for their first year. While training here in Glenmore I would say they certainly didn’t all take to it like a duck to water. Some were stubborn, some a bit too forward, however, we definitely got to the point over a number of days where they were used to wearing the harness and pulling the sleigh. Some better than others. I’d say Hemp, Haricot and Lupin did really well, whereas Adzuki and Cicero took a little longer but still did great!

Haricot in trace around Glenmore – no problem with an empty sleigh in training!
Adzuki at the front in training and Hemp at the back.

So now we get to the third weekend in November and it was time for them to head out with a team of experienced Christmas reindeer and herders to go and do a proper Christmas event. Haricot headed to Tain, a town in the north of Scotland, with Joe, Aurelien and Colin. Hemp and Cicero went to the west coast taking part in two parades that day in Fort William and Oban with Lotti, Lisette and Colin (a different Colin) and Lupin and Adzuki both came to Elgin with Ruth and I where we had further assistance from two of our long-term volunteers.

Time to parade in Tain and Haricot steps up alongside super-duper Christmas reindeer Poirot. In their set-up area Joe puts their harness on. Great, Haricot didn’t bat an eye lid. Now time to pop him in sleigh with Poirot, again he wasn’t fazed. Pipe band get set-up ready to start the parade. Joe is at the front leading and ‘alright boys, walk on’… nothing. ‘Alright boys, walk on’… again, nothing. Haricot decided that an empty sleigh in training was much easier to pull than a sleigh with a heavy Santa on it. After a bit of encouragement Haricot was having none of it so they made the sensible decision to swap him for Aztec (another of our trained Christmas reindeer) and therefore Haricot just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, not pull it. The event went really well but maybe back to the drawing board on this one.

The team chilled out and enjoying their lunch before the parade in Tain. Haricot is the pale reindeer right at the back, Aztec is closest to camera who ended up being promoted to sleigh puller!

Now to the team on the west coast. Hemp actually went out on Christmas tour as a two year old, not pulling the sleigh but as a reindeer walking at the back so he has had a fair bit of exposure to these types of events. He pulled the sleigh alongside Frost and acted as though he’d done it his whole life. What a star! This was Cicero’s first time on an event so the team decided that he would be at the back of the sleigh to let him take it in and then aim to get him pulling the sleigh in Oban. The parade sets off following the pipe band with Frost and Hemp pulling and Cicero and Dr Seuss with the calves following behind the sleigh. Cicero thought by being at the back he was being left behind so was keen to go forward therefore Colin took his lead rope and walked him up front with the two reindeer pulling… Cicero thought this was much better and although it wasn’t how our usual parades looked with three reindeer at the front I don’t think anyone really noticed and Cicero was happy plodding along there.

A lovely photo in the Lochaber Times with Cicero looking very relaxed next to the sleigh while Hemp and Frost pull. Copyright Iain Ferguson, alba photos.
The team very chilled after the Fort William parade outside the Nevis Centre. Hemp closest to the camera with one antler.

Now to Oban which is an evening event so pretty dark. For this one the team popped Cicero in the front alongside Dr Seuss (an old hand when it comes to pulling the sleigh). Contrary to Haricot, I don’t think Dr Seuss did any of the pulling during this parade as Cicero did it all. Give him his due he wasn’t fazed by a weighty Santa. To make sure he didn’t pull too hard two handlers walked with him at the front easing him into the ways of pulling the sleigh. I think he could do with a bit more practice, mainly to learn that there are two reindeer and both should be pulling the sleigh equally…. cough cough, Dr Seuss!!!

Now onto Elgin where I was with Ruth and a couple of volunteers as well as newbies Lupin and Adzuki. We decide that Lupin could pull the sleigh and Adzuki would learn the ropes at the back. We set off, again following a pipe band. Lupin was a total star! Didn’t put a hoof wrong and pulled equally alongside pro Druid. Adzuki, however, like Cicero wasn’t for being left behind at the back of the sleigh and was keen to go forward. Each team makes there own decisions with how to manage their reindeer in the best way they think and it was correct for Cicero to be led forward but in my case I made a different decision as I wanted Adzuki to learn that actually being at the back of the sleigh was absolutely fine and there was no need for him to want to go forward. In my quick thinking I asked one of the volunteers to pass me a sneaky bag of lichen hidden Santa’s bag. With a tasty handful of lichen in my hand suddenly Adzuki was pretty delighted to be walking at the back of the sleigh. This got us through the parade wonderfully but I knew this wasn’t a solution long term. I mean we would have a very happy Adzuki but ultimately he had to learn that lichen wasn’t always going to be available.

The teams return to the hills after their events. Here’s a snowy Haricot after his day in Tain.

The teams came home after that weekend all with their own stories of their ‘COVID calves come adults’ and how it wasn’t quite as smooth sailing as other years. However, they were by no means put off, we just had to be canny with how we handled them and which events they went on. Every weekend they would join a team. Haricot pulled the sleigh at Aberfeldy the following weekend and this time we gave him some help by pushing the sleigh therefore all he had to do was walk at the front. ‘He was a total star’ as reported back by Ruth! Lupin was also in that team but as he pulled like a pro last time he went at the back this time and absolutely nailed it! Cicero the following weekend had a reindeer only event so no parade for him. This type of exposure is still really great though and goes towards his training. Adzuki came to a local event with myself and Mel. It was a short parade but already he was better than before… again the more exposure the better.

Haricot pulling the sleigh in Aberfeldy where he was a total star! Lupin at the back also doing a super job.
Adzuki pulling the sleigh like a pro in Lairg.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can be two of the busiest days of the year. There are three parades locally on Christmas Eve and they can be dark, busy and fast pace whereas Christmas day there are four parades and they are a bit more laid back and all in the light of day which is easier. With Haricot and Lupin taking to it better than Cicero and Adzuki we decided they would do Christmas Eve and that would leave Christmas Day to Cicero and Adzuki. All alongside some of our other trained Christmas reindeer of course. I cannot sing their praises more, all four boys were absolute superstars! With full sets of antlers they all looked beautiful in the front of the sleigh. They make us feel so proud!

The biggest reward is of course heading to winter free range which happens after Christmas. So to finish off the photos here is Adzuki, still with his enormous set of antlers in February while free ranging with the rest of the herd.

Adzuki enjoying roaming freely in the hills after his Christmas work.

Fiona

Tongues out for the camera

When we came off the hill today, I was having a flick through the photos I had taken in order to find a couple to post on social media. I found that two of the reindeer today had stuck their tongues out to me. They must have been unimpressed at having their photos taken. I thought that our blog readers might appreciate seeing some rather silly photos taken over the past couple of months.

Mangetout trying to lick the last bit of food off her nose.
It clearly runs in the family as here is Mangetout’s auntie Morven.
Olympic sticking his tongue out at a Primary school class who we visited.
Peanut, usually one of the most photogenic reindeer in the herd…
Bordeaux is also attempting to get the last bit of feed off her snout.
The tip of Torch’s tongue (there’s a tongue twister to be found in their somewhere).

It would be impossible to write a blog of tongue out photos without featuring the lovely Dug, king of the lolling tongue! Dug is one of the Reindeer House dogs and due to a combination of an unusually long tongue, and a slight overbite, he spends 99% of the time with his tongue stuck out. This causes great amusement to everyone who sees Dug, and we frequently look out our office window to passersby sticking their tongues out back to Dug. Thanks for making us all laugh Dug!!

Dug and his tongue catching the breeze!
Dug and Tiree.
Dug enjoying some afternoon sunshine!

Lotti

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