Before we went into lockdown I had one last day of fun catching up with with our boys and girls free-ranging on the Cromdale Hills. The ‘Christmas Reindeer’ (males who are trained to harness) are generally fairly lazy and don’t stray too far but every now and again the females, accompanied by the young bulls, wander off a bit further away than we like.
I headed off into the hills with Tip, herd owner Tilly’s son Alex’s (and his wife Emily’s) dog, to help them find their way back to where they should be. By walking into the hills towards the reindeer and making her bark it is usually sufficient to get the reindeer to head swiftly back in the opposite direction. As the Cromdale Hills form a vaguely straight rounded ridgeline the reindeer – usually – head in the right direction easily enough. Once within a few hundred metres of the reindeer they spotted Tip and myself before promptly turning round and making there way back in the other direction.
With Part 1 of our job done Tip and I made our way back to the van and headed off to the farm. Tip’s work for the day was done, but not for me. Back up onto the Cromdales, this time powered by a quad bike to carry the feed. I caught up with all the reindeer, some of which I hadn’t seen in about five months, giving them some food to reinforce which part of the hills are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ to be on. It’s always good to catch up with them. They all seemed in good health and a few antlers starting to grow amongst the bulls. Roman looks to have got a bit of a head start on the other boys!
During this year’s Christmas tour we ended up taking the reindeer on boats a couple of different times. The reindeer visited Northern Ireland, Orkney and the Isle of Lewis. I was lucky enough to go with them to Stornoway on Lewis and this got me thinking about the journey taken by the first 8 reindeer in the Cairngorm reindeer herd from Sweden with Mikel Utsi in 1952.
The reindeer were reintroduced to Scotland by a couple called Dr Ethel Lindgren and Mikel Utsi. Dr Lindgren was an American anthropologist whose speciality was reindeer herding people. She travelled much of the arctic studying different indigenous reindeer herders including the Sami. Whilst Dr Lindgren was with the Sami she met, and later married a reindeer herder named Mikel Utsi. For their honeymoon Dr Lindgren and Mikel Utsi came over to the Cairngorms and immediately recognised the artic habitat here as perfect for reindeer. Upon finding out that reindeer had become extinct in Scotland they decided to bring the reindeer back. In 1952 the first group of reindeer came over from Sweden, this is where boats now come into the story. The group consisted of 8 reindeer, 2 bulls, 5 cows and a castrate male named Sarek. Interestingly the boat they travelled to Scotland on was called the S.S. Sarek. The crossing from the north of Sweden to Glasgow was a fairly rough one and the reindeer were at sea for four days travelling 700 miles. Once the reindeer arrived they were quarantined at Edinburgh zoo before finally making it to the Cairngorms.
Once the first group of reindeer had settled in, Utsi and Lindgren brought another consignment of reindeer over later on in 1952. By 1954 they had finally procured a lease of silver mount, the hill at the far end of the reindeer enclosure, from forestry commission. This allowed more reindeer to be brought over from Sweden in 1954 and 1955.
The herd has grown in number steadily since the fifties until it reached 150, which is the number we are now maintaining. Throughout that time a few more consignments of reindeer have come over from Sweden to introduce new bloodlines into the herd. 68 years on the reindeer still happily roam the Cairngorms, at the moment every single reindeer is free-roaming for the winter.
I know, it’s a new year, the end of February and I’m already talking about Christmas. But don’t worry! I’m not talking about next Christmas, I’m going to cast my mind back to last years and more specifically, close to the big day itself.
On the 23rd of December our first Christmas event started just over the hill in Braemar. We survived the icy drive over to the Fife arms who were putting the event on for the hotel and local community and there was a real warm feel about the place. The parade was small but it felt a though the whole village had turned out to see the reindeer. The most amusing part of the day was that instead of Santa riding in the sleigh, we had a Queen Victoria who to this day still appears to be an iconic figure for the area. Yep, it turns out she’s still alive and kicking around Deeside! It was also nice to talk to people who knew and understood about the environment that our reindeer live in. I guess living on the other side of the plateau a lot of locals know all too well what the Cairngorm hills are like by living directly under them. All in all it was a delightful event in a very nice part of the world. Also, go and check out the flying taxidermy red deer above the Fife Arms bar…. Very interesting!
Christmas Eve was a much busier day. We started at the farm by feeding the free-range reindeer on the hill, jumping on a quad bike and heading up to find them. Fi’s dogs Tiree and Sookie came along for the exercise although poor Sookie is knocking on a bit so she hitched a lift on the bike and ran off the hill. At the farm we loaded up our awesome reindeer team for the next 2 days. Baffin, Celt, Rubiks and Matto were our experienced sleigh pullers while Helsinki and Florence were our 2 young calves.
Our first event for the day was Baxter’s Highland village factory in Fochabers. Carol Parsons, a local volunteer did a great job at helping us, talking to members of the public so that Fi and I could get the sleigh and reindeer ready. The event was very straight forward and reindeer were great. Everyone was in a happy Christmassy mood thanks to a singer on a microphone who sounded just like Michael Buble (he was either very good at singing or a very good mime). In what felt like no time at all we were packed up and heading in the direction of Aviemore.
Aviemore is the biggest of the local parades one of the busiest in general. Setting up for the event was helped by reindeer herders Tilly, Olly, Zoe and Sheena. Friends who lived close by in the town also came to say hi and everyone was in good spirits. It didn’t take long for the street lit pavements to be lined full of people who had come out to see Santa and the reindeer. The closer we got to the Cairngorm hotel the busier it got and with a few hundred people also following behind us. The reindeer were all so well behaved, calm and relaxed. It was thoroughly enjoyable to be part of the event, working with the reindeer and Fi. Everyone was in such great spirits and there was a real warm Christmas community feel about the whole event.
Strarthspey Heralds picture of the Aviemore Parade
After scoffing Sausage and chips in the lorry we arrived in Kingussie. With the help from the other herders the parade went smoothly. Up the high street, turn around at the lights and back with a stop along the way. By this point all the reindeer just knew exactly what to do and couldn’t have made it any easier for us. After almost leaving the trace in the dark set up area we set off were in the direction of our final event of the day in Newtonmore.
Driving through the village to the start, we could see everyone who has been waiting patiently, it was 20:00 – 20:30 by this time but I suspect all the young children were allowed to stay up later to see Santa and the reindeer. The pipers and drummers finished their pints outside the pub and we were ready to go. This time Olly went to the back of the sleigh with Rubiks, Matto and the two calves and Fi was at the front Baffin and Celt. Fi had planned to surprise Zoe by giving her the lead half way through the parade, it was her first time doing so but she did a great job! The Highland hotel kindly offered everyone a mince pie and mulled wine at the end and after a little speaking to the hotel guest we finally headed back home to the reindeer centre for a dram of whisky and bed before another day of events.
While children across the country started to wake up in excitement and open presents on Christmas morning Fiona, Tilly and I were back out on the road with the reindeer. First stop Columbridge hotel. Fi was surprised with how little people were at the hotel to see Santa and his reindeer, it turned out for some reason that the hotel wasn’t fully booked so after 30 minutes or so we were packing up and ready to move on. Event number two was the Macdonald resort in Aviemore. This was a much busier event and as we started walking down to the main entrance with Santa in the sleigh and reindeer pulling in front. A large crowd was waiting for us. The reindeer were now getting too relaxed for their own good, and while people were saying hello and taking pictures, Rubiks decided he’d lie down for a little snooze. We also had help from several elves during the parade who were so good that each one was able to walk a reindeer back to the lorry, they were of course delighted.
Next up was the Nethybridge hotel. The hotel very kindly fed us lunch beforehand and with our stomachs full we were ready to go. Along with the 3 of us, Tilly’s son Alex and 2 year old grandson Hamish (the youngest reindeer herder) came to help out. Hamish helped Fiona at the front of the sleigh making sure that Fiona didn’t drop the ropes. Once we were outside the hotel he also got to meet Santa! He was a bit unsure at first but once Santa gave him a present he was much happier. Along with the reindeer Hamish was certainly the star of the show and once again helped lead the reindeer away after everyone made their way back into the hotel.
Finally in the middle of the afternoon we arrived at our final event at the Duke of Gordon hotel in Kingussie. With Tilly’s disappearing off to help get Christmas dinner on the go, just Fiona and I worked with the reindeer at the event. Like all 4 events on Christmas day It was nice and straight forward and everyone was happy and in the Christmas spirit. People could sit on the sleigh while we chatted to others and just before it got dark we were packing up for the final Christmas event of 2019!
Finally it was time to start the Christmas celebrations of our own at Reindeer House with everybody else. The reindeer spent the night in the paddocks and not too long after were once again free- ranging on Cairngorm mountain or in the Cromdale hills enjoying the rest of the winter grazing for a very well earned break.
Having worked as a seasonal herder for many years working January is a real novelty for me. Usually on the 24th of December I hop on a train home to Bristol to spend Christmas with my family and then return to uni in the new year. But having graduated last year, and with a gentle bit of persuasion and the promise of reindeer, I convinced my family to spend Christmas up in the Cairngorms. It is now January and I am delighted to still be here. So on Monday the 6th, with no more hill visits for over a month we merrily waved the reindeer off onto the free-range for the winter.
The first full day ended up being incredibly wild and windy (gusting at 100mph) and the reindeer were very far away so we left them to find their own food for the day, something that they are absolutely fine doing as they live in their natural habitat. We spent the days slowly working through the seemingly endless list of ‘January Jobs’ some of which I think were on the list last year and still haven’t been done. On day two however, the sun was shining and then reindeer were slightly closer to home. So me, Sheena and Chris headed up to the Cairngorm ski carpark with rucksacks full of food. Upon arriving we saw lots of cars pulled over with people taking photos, a clear sign of reindeer. About a third 30 of the reindeer were waiting for us, just by the road. We walked these reindeer away from the road, a task easier said than done. Whilst the reindeer were good as gold, walking across incredibly uneven ground in the snow with 20kg of food on your back is quite difficult . Throughout the walk, Sheena lost a wellie in a patch of bog, Chris didn’t fall over once(!), and I fell over completely and couldn’t get back up because of the rucksack full of food. I can’t certainly say that I now know exactly how a woodlouse feels.
As we were leading the group of reindeer away from the road about half a mile away we could see another group of mostly male reindeer coming over from the top of the reindeer enclosure. Eventually we also saw another group of cows and calves coming from the other direction. As the reindeer were getting closer and closer the race was underway, who would come first, the boys or the girls. The boys certainly are greedier but the girls are fitter. Both groups went out of site as they ducked onto a lower area and then eventually the boys showed up, just ahead of the girls. Turns out that the motivation of an easy meal was enough to overcome their lack of distance training. Once the entire group of reindeer currently free-roaming in this area had arrived we fed them all, took plenty of photos of the beautiful reindeer in the snow and then walked back to the van.
Whilst for most people January seems like a bit of a dreary month, I can certainly now see why reindeer herders love January so much. Having all the reindeer free-ranging the hills and going up to feed them with not a soul in sight really is a fantastic experience.
As I received so many positive comments on my blog about running to The Netherlands whilst I was on my way, and as some people requested to hear all about it, here’s my follow-up blog to tell you how it went! For those not knowing what I’m on about, here’s my previous blog: ….
The idea had come quite last-minute and it left me with a limited amount of time to prepare. Things I had to think about were ‘where do I sleep and how do I stay warm’; ‘what do I eat and where can I top up supplies’; ‘what route am I taking and how do I navigate en route’. As I can be a little impulsive and prone to just winging it at times, my voice of reason came from Chris. Supportive as though he was, he was constantly asking me critical questions of ‘what if’. This made me think twice about most things (and sometimes about setting off altogether) and meant I left as prepared as I could. However much he insisted I’d go out on a rainy stormy day and run for a day and camp afterwards to test my gear and capability, I couldn’t find the time to do it before I eventually left.
The first day was hard, it rained all day, the distance seemed much further than any 30k I’d ever done before, and pitching a tent whilst it’s raining must be amongst the top 3 least favourite things I’d ever done. It made it extra hard that I was only 20 miles from my own warm cosy bed, roughing it in a tent in the rain near the Drumochter pass. The next day it rained again.. And my tent hadn’t been 100% waterproof, I had had to pack it whilst it was wet and I was dreading the night to come. Besides, it was Chris’ birthday, and I was passing a train station from which I could get home… I decided to go home for the night, dry all my kit, and set off again from the same station the morning after. Man, did I appreciate my shower and bed that night.. And it was great to be able to spend Chris’ birthday with him.
The next few days were relatively sunny and I had support, in the form of meeting my friend Ross, staying at Adrian’s, and having Alan come along for half a leg. However, this was the point my body was at its sorest. A nagging knee (and leg and hip and back) and a half-broken cart made it the hardest section running-wise. Thankfully most of the views were great around Pitlochry, Birnam, and South of Perth. By the end of day 5 I started to develop a new type of run, which I decided to call ‘granny-shuffling’. By hardly lifting my feet but shuffling forwards at varying paces I managed to speed up a bit, and give my muscles and joints a rest. During this period I met up with fellow herders Fiona and Joe, who made me coffee and gave me fudge and teabags (thanks!!), stayed at fellow herder Julia’s in Edinburgh, who did a bit of bike support too, had bike support from Chris who camped out with me for a night too, had help from Brian Marshall, and eventually ran into the next bit of rain.
Completely soaked and windswept I arrived in the castle gardens of Duns Castle. I’d seen lots of deer (creepy red lights staring back at my head torch whenever I gazed into the woods), an owl, and lots of other wildlife. I couldn’t bear to get into my tent all wet and make myself food, so decided to walk an extra mile into Duns after pitching my tent in the woods. There I treated myself to a kebab (I’d never usually..) and set foot in a local pub. Hilariously enough, on a Monday night, it was completely packed, as 2 local darts teams were playing each other. Thankfully there was one other woman in the bar, otherwise I would have probably turned right around. The other woman was the bartender, who turned out to be great company, as were some of the local darts players. Guinness hardly ever tasted as good as it did that evening. The next day was easy and I had the great outlook of staying overnight at one of our enthusiastic reindeer adopters’ holiday home, free of charge! A lovely palace of warmth and cosiness made for a perfect night. It also meant I got to wash and dry all my stuff, which by now was a kindness to my own nose and that of everyone I was to encounter from there onwards.
Then my section in England properly began the next day, and I quickly found out that finding suitable spots to wild-camp wasn’t easy in England. One miserable night of looking out for a spot whilst battling storm Brian was enough for me, and I decided to book accommodation for the next 2 nights. This was my best decision yet, as they were 2 awesome nights again. The first I stayed at a cabin in the garden of a couple, Andy the UTMB ultra runner and Lynn the circus acrobat! What an amazing couple! And the next night I had a whole barn turned hostel to myself at an Alpaca farm, with a fireplace. If sipping cider next to the fire overlooking a field of alpacas isn’t yet on your bucket list, make it so because it was fantastic. The last day with my cart went amazingly well, and I was speedier than ever, had the sun on my face and the wind in my back. I felt like I could continue for miles and miles, but the best bit of the day was arriving in Whitley bay, supported by Chris’ mum, and running up to the hotel where Chris was waiting. Cart Larry got disassembled there and then, as it was getting a ride to get stored in Shropshire whilst I’d be on the ferry to the Netherlands. A good diner, lovely breakfast, and the lack of a cart made the last 10k in the UK to the ferry easy peasy lemon squeezy.
The ferry journey went smoothly and when we arrived on the other side my mom and her boyfriend were there with my best friend and 2 bicycles, one for her and one for Chris. They’d support me on the last 30k. The first 2/3s were bleak and ugly and made my question my choice of final destination. However, the last 10k, straight through Amsterdam, dodging cyclists and tourists, whilst getting half-high of the smell of weed everywhere, strangely made me a bit nostalgic in a weird way. It was great seeing my friends and family at the finish line too, and we celebrated my finish at my mum’s flat with prosecco, beer, homemade soup and salad. What a journey. The more time passes the more I seem to forget about the hard times and the more fondly I look back on it.
What’s next? A question people ask me quite a lot nowadays. No idea, there are lots of vague plans or it may be something impulsive again, we’ll see! I’m 100% it will be some crazy thing again though, so maybe ask me again in a year ;).
Thanks to everyone for all the lovely messages and comments!
In this blog, I will be exploring the way Reindeer and other Deer species are represented within myths, legends and general stories over a variety of cultures. From old folklore to modern day films and books, Deer have been used as symbolism for magic, and an insight into the natural world.
2000 years ago, the Sami people inhabited large parts of the arctic circle. The oldest recorded document regarding the Sami people dates back to 98AD by the Roman Historian Tacitus. The Sami have a close connection with nature and the animals that live and survive around them.
Sami folklore states that the white reindeer was the most magical reindeer of all the reindeer. It was believed that if a human was to catch a white reindeer it would bring them luck, riches and eternal happiness.
In some other cultures they have a beautiful belief of how they believe that in the beginning there was only the sun and the earth, and the white reindeer created the wold. The Veins became rivers, its fur became the forest, and its antlers became the mountains. Either way it seems that people who work alongside reindeer have a deep connection and understanding about nature and its natural balance.
What makes a reindeer white- Leucism is a mutation in the genetics of reindeer. This makes the particular reindeer pure white, however the mutation can also cause them to be deaf too. Reindeer rely on hearing to communicate through involuntary clicking from a tendon snapping against the bone as they walk. If a predator is close by the clicking would be loud and in quick succession, signalling that the herd was running. A deaf reindeer wouldn’t be able to hear this, therefore, not so many white reindeer exist in the wild.
In the Cairngorms we have two pure white Scottish females Mozzarella and Blondie, and one white Swedish male, Matto (although not Leucistic), he was chosen for us, so we would have a white reindeer in our herd. Matto was brought over from Sweden to potentially be a breeding bull, however there were sadly more handsome specimens available, and Matto was a bit on the small side. However, with no large bodied predators in Scotland, such as wolves and lynx, allows the white reindeer to survive, and pass on the lucky trait of being pure white! Or we are just a really lucky herd with huge amounts of eternal happiness.
Deer in general have strong places in the mythology across the world. In Celtic folklore, has several stories involving deer as spiritual figures. In some Scottish and Irish tales Deer are seen as “Fairy Cattle,” and are herded by otherworldly women, who can shapeshift into the form of a red or a white deer.
Furthermore, in many other culture’s deer are heavily featured in songs and poems, such as the beginning proportion of the poem Beowulf, and in the Poetic Edda poem Gimnismal The Four Stags of Yggdrasil, who are four stags who eat among the “Yggdrasil” (the world tree). A theory to these four stags is that they represent the four seasons, and the “World Tree” This poem also relates to mythical stag “Eikbyrnir” who lives on top of Valhalla.
Deer have also got links with Greek Mythology. The Third Labour of Heracles; Eurystheus and Hera were angered that Heracles had beaten the beasts in the first two labours, so gave him the task of capturing the female Cerynein Hind, a hind that could grow antlers, and outrun a flying arrow.
There are different versions of the story, one where Hercules captures the deer by waiting for her to fall asleep; another version says that Artemis intercepts Hercules trying to capture her sacred animal and tells him to relay the message to Hera and Eurystheus and the labour would be considered complete.
The hind was the sacred animal of Artemis, the goddess of hunting and the wilderness. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and one of the twelve Olympians.
Reindeer pee- now this isn’t myth or legend, just a good (and true) story. Reindeer, particularly young males, occasionally enjoy eating a variety of mushrooms. Some of these mushrooms are highly poisonous to humans, however, because reindeer are ruminants, they are able to digest and deal with the poisons within the mushrooms. These mushrooms, however, can have some side effects. They can get high off the mushrooms; this happens in the cairngorm reindeer herd too, our boys go ‘shrooming’.
In some Scandinavian countries, they use this talent of digesting poisonous mushrooms to their advantage and drink the urine of the reindeer. Due to the poisons in the mushrooms being broken down, it just leaves trace elements from the fungi. These can have psychedelic effects if ingested.
Rudolph the red nose reindeer- The shiny nosed reindeer was first introduced by Robert L. May in 1939, in order to save money for annual Christmas promotions in the department store chain, Montgomery Ward. In its first year over 2 million copies were sold. May tried and tested different versions of the story on his young daughter. “Rudolph the red nose reindeer” was first printed on a large scale in 1947, and due to its success, a short cartoon was shown in theatres the following year. From the increasing success since 1939, Rudolph is probably the most famous reindeer of all.
Annabelle’s wish is a Christmas film about a cow who wants to become a reindeer. Is still my favourite Christmas film of all time! Annabelle and the rest of the farm animals are able to talk for one whole day, due to Santa’s magical powers. Annabelle is amazed by the reindeer who pull his sleigh and decides that next year she’ll ask Santa to make her a reindeer too. She is given as a gift to a little boy who cannot speak. She becomes really close friends with the boy and when the following Christmas comes decides to ask for another wish- so Billy can speak again. However, in doing this Annabelle is never given the power to talk again. She grows old and stays with Billy until he’s an adult with his own family. In the end Santa grants Annabelle her original wish and she becomes a reindeer, and part of Santa’s sleigh team.
Bambi- Was released in 1942 produced by Walt Disney and based on the book Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten. Bambi was only the fifth Disney animated feature film.
Bambi is based on a mule deer. However, Disney had to change the species from Roe deer to Mule deer to better fit the native species in north America. The film received three Academy Awards.
Fire Bringer was published in 1999 as a young adult Fantasy Novel by David Clement- Davies. The story follows the life of a young red deer, Rannoch, during the 13th century in the lowlands of Scotland, whose life is subject of an old prophecy among the deer.
Fire Bringer is one of the few books that I have read that I wish I could read again for the first time all over again. It is such a beautiful story with many adult underling themes. If I was to compare it to another book it would be of the same themes of Watership Down. With several different links to historical events throughout the book. I Highly recommend reading this book!
Midges…complete and utter nuisances. That’s what most people tend to say.
Well…I’ve heard quite a few individuals use more colourful language than that, but that’s the gist of most people’s views on this small flying insect that occupies the Highlands. This view is commonly expressed whilst people flap their hands around as if they’re aiming to actually launch off and flee the plague of midges.
In the bible there is reference to a plague of locust but this past week it is the midge numbers that have been of biblical proportions, causing people to look like they have moustaches and tattoos. In the five years that I’ve been reindeer herding last week was by far the worst that I’ve ever seen the midges.
During this past week I also found that the term midge can get lost in translation! We recently had a visitor who complained about being attacked by midgets. It’s amazing the difference one letter in a sentence can make!
It was during the latest inundation of midge attacks that I found myself asking: Where do these midges even live? Why are they biting us? How long do they live? Well, look no further folks…let’s rattle out some midge facts.
• Midges have a life span of around one month. Although adults are only capable of flight for a short portion of that time.
• Midges lay their eggs in wet soil, bogs, mires and the soggy surrounding landscape.
• In the U.K. there is 2-3 batches of midge eggs per year. The first batch is in May or June depending on warmth and moisture levels. A second occurs in late July or early August. And if the season is a warm one, a third batch can occur in September.
• In the U.K. alone there are more than 500 species of non-biting midges, and more than 150 species of biting midges. Most of these are found in Scotland, however they can also be found in Northern England and Northern Wales.
• Only the female midges bite. The male and female midges survive upon sugary food such as plant nectar. However, the females need a protein rich meal of fresh blood in order to mature their eggs. They get this from both birds and mammals, with the majority of blood coming from cattle, sheep and deer.
• Female midges tend to bite in close proximity to their breeding site and rarely go further than 1km away (cough, cough, Utsi bridge).
• Once they’ve found a blood source, midges emit pheromones and summon all their buddies to come on over, hence the swarming.
• They have short and sharp mandibles to pierce the skin of mammals and then they increase the blood flow via histamines in their saliva. This is what causes the wound to swell afterwards.
• Low light spurs their feeding habits so they’re most active at dawn and dusk.
• It takes a midge five minutes of feeding to become engorged.
• Mild and wet winters usually means a bigger midge season. Moreover, a very cold winter can also mean a bigger midge season. In 2010 the prolonged freezing conditions in Scotland reduced the number of natural predators such as bats and birds, meaning more midges.
• It is estimated that midges cost the Scottish tourism industry around £268 million per year in lost visits.
• On the Isle of Rum, folk lore says that as punishment for improperly burying a body, a gravedigger was stripped, tied to a post and left outside for the midges to feast on. They did kill him, eventually.
• Rumour has it that pomegranate skin, marmite, lavender and charcoal are all deterrents.
• They’re attracted to the CO2 that us animals produce. Some people are more attractive than others due to a combination of specific body odour and temperature. They are also more attracted to dark coloured clothing than light coloured clothing.
• There is a midge forecast, detailing how torrential the midge downpour is across Scotland, which can be located at https://www.smidgeup.com/midge-forecast/.
So, there you have it. They say knowledge is power, but I’m not sure this knowledge will stop you being attacked by these small critters, but at least it may give you some happiness to know that you’re playing a part in a midge’s life cycle. Bah, who am I kidding? Probably not! But you may get some happiness in knowing that at least you’re not a midge.
It’s time for me to write a blog and my one-year anniversary of being an (employed that is) reindeer herder is coming up soon, so why not make that my topic?
I arrived at reindeer house July the 5th, after a long drive from Newcastle where I was released from the ferry, ready to start my life as a herder in the Cairngorms. I was immediately swept away with the fast-flowing life of reindeer house, as a few hours after my arrival we were to play a game of rounders on Hayfield. My weekend plans had also already been laid out, there would be a ceilidh on Skye after a hill race the Saturday, and everyone was going. I’d only ever volunteered as a reindeer herder, and had never done a hillrace in my life, yet I’d been to one ceilidh so I kind of knew what was going on (or did I?). What followed was a summer full of running and walking around hills and mountains in rain and sunshine, long nights at the Pinemarten bar, short nights in my bed at the reindeer centre, nightly swims in Loch Morlich, and music gigs where we danced until our feet hurt and then we’d dance some more. I thought that within a year and a bit I might leave again, so I had best make the most of it.
Fast forward to last week (Ed. back in June – it’s taken two months to upload this blog!), where I did a couple of days of reindeer herding, then drove off in a van to spend a long weekend in Arran with Chris. The main reason of our visit was participating in the furthest hillrace I’ve ever run (26k, 2000+m of ascent!!) but also to discover more of Scotland. I’ve now seen a fair bit of Scotland, but the more I see, the more I find I still want to see. I’ve also had every season now in terms of reindeer herding. I saved the best for last, as calving season has just come and gone and now our summer season is just about to start again. In a year I’ve learned lots, but most importantly that one can never know what to expect from a day at the reindeer centre. I’ll briefly go over the seasons as I’ve experienced them the past year.
Full on, both in terms of reindeer herding and life at reindeer house. At some points there were 7 people living at reindeer house, excluding visiting friends and family for whom there’s always a bed to crash at the centre. On top of that, on frequent occasions there were guests at parties that filled up the house and left it again, like the tides of a sea coming and going. This meant there was constantly a high level of energy in the house, and so were the people living and working in and around it. There were 3 hill trips a day, most of which were quite full. So basically, a standard day looked like this: wake up, get breakfast and a big big coffee. Then either go up the hill first thing, or do the paddocks and/or emails down at the centre. Then take a fairly large group of visitors up the hill to show them the reindeer, work a bit in the shop and the office, shut the centre at 5pm. After work we’d go for a run, eat together with everyone who lived at the centre at the moment and their guests, and this would often then end with a night at the Pinemarten bar for “just one drink” (which often somehow ended up being a bit more than that).
There’s no clear boundary between Summer and Autumn, but at one point most of the seasonal staff has unfortunately left, and there’s an eerie kind of quietness that takes over in Reindeer house. All of the sudden some nights no-one took the initiative to go for a run, swim, or visit to the pub. And the nights I sat still I noticed a bit of a tiredness, like a giant hangover from the lack of sleep and excess of activities and drinks over summer. Autumn we took things a little bit slower, there weren’t as many hill trips and visitors anymore, the centre had quietened down and so had the house. It was also time for my first hill race ever, which was absolutely great. The days started getting shorter and the head torches came out for the runs at night..
And then it was winter. First wet and windy, later on a bit colder and snowy, but never as cold as I’d expected it from the stories of the years before. Reindeer house exchanged the running shoes for ski-touring boots and skis, and instead of walking or running up and down mountains we’d “skin” up and ski down, whenever there was snow. The first months of winter were crazy busy again, because of our Christmas events and weekends of Christmas fun. We’d either be at the centre, carrying out Christmas fun duties or regular herding tasks (including lots and lots of adopts), or we were going all over the country in teams, with big lorries for Christmas parades, staying overnight at our farm bases. When Christmas was over, another sort of peace and quiet came over reindeer house, different from the one after summer. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the events, but shutting the centre for a couple of weeks in January allowed us time to work less and enjoy the Scottish winter. We were also able to catch up on all sorts of tasks that had been dropped in the Christmas craziness. Days were very short and this meant energy levels a lot lower, so lots of excuses for going to bed early!
Eventually the long nights got shorter, bit by bit. Our female reindeer started showing signs of pregnancy. It was still very quiet at the centre, with the odd school holiday in between. Every time I went down South for a hill race or a trip of a different nature, it was clear that Spring was on its way, but in the subarctic climate of the Cairngorms we had to wait quite a while. Even once spring signs had clearly presented themselves we had a bit of snow every now and then. The last month of Spring was also the best month of my “career” as a reindeer herder so far – calving time is amazing. I’d be willing to drop everything at once if I’d get a shot at walking around the enclosure to find a wee ball of fluff next to its mum somewhere tucked away in a corner. The changing weather and daylight hours gave lots of extra energy, either spend chasing calves and mums or training for or participating in my first proper season of hill racing. What a joy to live in the hills, with such great animals and nature around!
And so my first year as a reindeer herder was complete. Summer staff came to move back into reindeer house, and the centre started getting busier. Tufts of hair were flying around: the reindeer were moulting their winter coats and the circle would start all over again.
Nobody can be completely guilt free in what they choose to do through life whether it be what they eat, wear or decide to go on holiday by jumping on an aeroplane. However, everyone can do the small things which will add up and help towards a better and more sustainable environment. Here is how we have started at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and obviously we hope to do more in the future.
Two years ago we made a fairly massive purchase at the Reindeer Centre. We got an electric car. As a result, a free electric point was installed at our centre through the incentive of getting the vehicle and it’s been a great success. We use it for dotting up and down the hill which is only a 6 mile round trip each time so it makes a lot of sense. We don’t tend to use it to go further than Aviemore (12 mile round trip) but mainly because the mileage can’t really be trusted with a full charge only giving you 70 miles. Although going downhill means you can gain some miles as soon as you hit an uphill, which there are quite a lot of in Scotland, you rapidly lose those miles.
Andi is chief of shop stock!!! She is always trying to source locally produced souvenirs and gifts for us to sell in our Shop. I make crafts and jewellery out of the reindeer antler, Andi makes fishing flies from reindeer hair, Manouk whittles away at green wood making reindeer figurines and ‘make your own reindeer’ packs, Ali sews together tartan clips and bows, the list goes on. Andi has also sourced biodegradable pens, re-useable coffee cups and tote bags which is great, plus free advertising when folk are out and about doing their shopping and getting a brew. We are always trying to find the happy medium in what we sell and offer so these are all great steps being made. Well done Andi!
Something you all want to know I’m sure… Reindeer herders are now using 100% recycled toilet paper! Buying in bulk from a company aptly name ‘Who Gives a Crap’ (look them up!) they are determined to prove that toilet paper is about more than just wiping bums. They make all their products with environmentally friendly materials, and also donate 50% of there profits to help build toilets for those in need. To date they’ve donated over $1.8m Aussie dollars (that’s the equivalent of over £1,000,000!) to charity and saved a heck of a lot of trees, water and energy. Not bad for a toilet paper company, eh?
Linking this back to the reindeer as a species and their natural environment, by doing these small things it helps with the bigger picture. It’s ironic really that man is extracting energy from the Arctic in the forms of oil and gas and here is a well-adapted animal in that same habitat adapted to conserve it’s energy. The Arctic is a ‘canary in the coal mine’ – the first area in the world to alert man to the affects of climate change and global warming. Melting permafrost, unexplained sinkholes in the tundra, vanishing pack ice, rapid freeze/thaw of snow and invasions of insects more commonly associated with the southerly climes are all effects of human induced climate change. It’s not only the Arctic being affected, all over the world extreme weather patterns are causing carnage to those living there whether it be man or animal. One wonders what the future holds!
So guys and girls I’m sure you heard it before and will continue to hear it again – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! We’ve started here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, good luck with your own journey.
Following from a previous blog about Haze’s dynasty, I thought Fly was another good candidate to look at. Like Haze, she is also a big, striking reindeer, not necessarily the friendliest – she likes her own space – but a dependable leader of the herd and a fantastic mother.
Fly was born in our “green theme” year in 2007, and is probably the largest female in the herd today – she’s a clear inch taller than any of the others. She also grows beautiful large antlers, whilst rearing a calf most years – a sign of a strong healthy reindeer as it takes a huge amount of energy for both of these activities and most reindeer will focus on one or the other rather than both.
Fly reared her first calf, Custard, when she was two – whilst reindeer are perfectly capable of rearing calves at this age, we try to make them wait until they’re a bit more mature at three years old. Fly evidently thought differently, and reliably reared a big strong calf in 2009 (Custard), 2010 (Dragonfly), 2011 (Domino), 2012 (Balmoral), 2013 (Anster), 2014 (Hudson) and 2015 (Aonach). At that point we decided she should definitely have a bit of time off!
In 2015 and 2016, we decided to run Balmoral, Fly’s son, as one of our breeding bulls, and he fathered a lovely selection of youngsters, including Inca, Christie, Burns, Shakespeare and Dante. We are hoping that Inca may have a calf of her own this May.
Fly’s only daughter, Custard, reared several calves of her own – Coe, Cream, Ceram and Tang – and Cream has also been a mum, though unfortunately her calf didn’t survive. Hopefully she may have better luck this year.
Fly has, so far, been a mother seven times, a grandmother eighteen times, and a great-grandmother once, and she’s still in full fitness and looking like she’s got many years ahead of her!