The whole herd in one day

It’s not often we see all of our reindeer in one day but on this occasion in February myself and Lotti between our two sites here on Cairngorm and Glenlivet we saw all of the reindeer.

It started with a trip to our enclosure. Over the February half term we have decided that due to how busy the area is and the disturbance form people and dogs for our reindeer free ranging that for the two weeks of half term that we would take a small herd into our enclosure to guarantee Hill Trips, rather than take a group of visitors a 40 minute walk out into the mountains only for the reindeer to have been chased away by hikers with dogs. We figured our female reindeer, who predominantly free range most of the year, it would be a small price for them to pay for two weeks. So Lotti and I headed up first thing for their morning feed and check. While we were up there the free ranging herd of cows and calves had also made their way in for an easy feed so that was all the reindeer on Cairngorm checked by 9.30am… We must be good herders 😉

Pavlova here on Cairngorm.

Once we came off the hill we had to do some vehicle swapping with our farm over at Glenlivet so Lotti and I headed over there to do just that. When we arrived they were busy splitting some red deer who were being relocated so Tilly suggested that we headed up onto the hill with a few bags of feed to see if we could find the reindeer on their winter grazing. Like Cairngorm, the reindeer on our Glenlivet site range the mountains which has particular good lichen heath, lichen being a reindeers favourite food!

Firstly, we wrapped up warm. One difference between Glenlivet and Cairngorm is we can access the hill by quad bike on Glenlivet whereas everything is done on foot here on Cairngorm. When walking we keep warm but when we’re on a quad bike it gets pretty chilly. So the two of us looked like Michelin Men… or Women! We arrived at the top of the track and immediately greeted by 20-30 reindeer. We gave the others a call the best we could in the high winds then I left Lotti to give the calves some preferential feeding while I went on a bit further on the quad to see if I could locate some more.

The herd out free roaming on our 2nd site.
Cottage and Silk.
Flax.
Jenga.
Vienna.

I gave a good call and from various different directions came a few reindeer here and a few reindeer there eventually equating to them all. I was most delighted to see Sunny of course. He was the hand reared male reindeer from 2022 and I definitely have a soft spot for him. He still comes over when I shout ‘calf, calf’! Winnie and Alba our two hand reared female calves form 2023 were delighted to see us… I say us, they were delighted to see the food!

Adzuki and Sherlock.

So all in all, Lotti and I saw the whole herd that day which does happen now and again but it is rare.

Fiona

Sherlock’s Antlers

Sherlock in September 2022.

Despite spending the last 40+ years devoting my life to the Cairngorm Reindeer I am still fascinated by the annual cycle of reindeer growing their new velvet antlers, then stripping the velvet to reveal hard bony antlers and finally casting their antlers and growing a new set next year.

It is an amazing process, hugely demanding on their resources, but very beneficial to the individual whether they are males competing for females in the rut or females and young males competing for food in the winter.

The older mature males grow the most impressive antlers and for them the process of growing their new velvet antlers begins before the end of the winter and continues until they strip the velvet from the antlers around the middle of August, in preparation for the rutting season. The bigger the antlers the more likely they are to ‘win’ a fight and so claim a harem of females, so big antlers are important.

Sherlock – 8th of April 2023.
Sherlock – 9th of May 2023.
Sherlock – 6th of June 2023.

One of our main breeding bulls Sherlock showed all the signs of growing a pretty big set of antlers last year and by the autumn he didn’t disappoint us. Luckily for us he is a real gentleman among reindeer and although he sported these great weapons on his head, he was never aggressive towards us and we could still safely go in beside him and his breeding females on a daily basis to feed and check them all.

Sherlock – 29th of August 2023 – stripping the velvet.
Sherlock in the rut with Bordeaux in front of him on the 2nd of October 2023.

But their glory doesn’t last long and having spent 5 ½ months growing their antlers the breeding males are the first to cast their antlers at the end of the rut and before the winter sets in. So only about 10-12 weeks of glory with big hard antlers to fight with!

Spartan, who is a couple of years older than Sherlock was first to cast his antlers in the middle of November so I knew it wouldn’t be long before Sherlock was antlerless too. Two weeks later and off came one of Sherlock’s antlers making him very lopsided! Then a couple more days and the other one had fallen.

So now we are in 2024 and Sherlock, who was so dominant in the autumn, has been at the bottom of the pecking order over the winter.

Sherlock with no antlers in January 2024.
Sherlock just beginning to grow his antlers on the 28th February 2024.
Sherlock on the left on the with his lovely velvet antlers growing well, still free roaming in the hills – 30th of March 2024.
It’s in the genes! Sherlock’s mum, Caddis, grew very large antlers for a female.

Tilly

Photo Blog: March 2024

March has been a good month on the whole. The reindeer have all been roaming freely over two sites. Here on Cairngorm, we’ve been running our daily Hill Trips at 11am each morning. At the beginning of a work day we divide the duties up and generally we all take it in turns to either head out to find the reindeer and move them to a suitable location for the Hill Trip or we take the Hill Trip itself. I complained at the start of this month that I wasn’t feeling as fit as I usually am at this time of year as the reindeer have been sticking relatively close by meaning the morning walk out has been easy. Maybe they heard me, as for a good few weeks this month the reindeer became deaf to our calls and made us walk right up to them which gave me the workout I was looking for, especially when they decided to hang out at a height of around 900m each night. They usually don’t start being that sluggish until we approach the end of April and the pregnant females start showing their wide bellies. That being said, when we finally get to them, it always impresses me how willing they are to do as we ask. I’ve had some super mornings out with the herd this month and hopefully this will you give you a taste of it!

1st of March: Sorbet having a lie-down after a Hill Trip. She’ll be two in the spring, and her cheeky character is really starting to shine.
2nd of March: Holy Moley in the snow, posing like the TV star she is!
3rd of March: Feta with antlers! Since this photo was taken she’s cast them and are sadly yet to be found.
7th of March: One of the twins! This is Elbe, since he’s cast his wee antlers he looks remarkably like his twin sister Alba and I often have to do a double take.
8th of March: The herd were very high up this morning, making me and Amy walk all the way up to them, pretending they couldn’t hear us calling them for breakfast. You can just see Amy gently pushing them from the back as I’m at the front doing my best to lure them downhill.
12th of March: This time I’m ‘sheepdog’ at the back of the herd today whilst Cassie leads from the front as we get them into position for our 11am Hill Trip.
13th of March: 10-month-old calf Mekong with her lovely big ears and extra fuzzy face.
14th of March: Building work update – the gabion baskets are now in place.
17th of March: Pinto leading the herd, with her daughter Orinoco following just behind.
19th of March: The herd in the distance moving (incredibly slowly) to our call. Cameron and I still had to walk out most of the way to them so we didn’t miss out out on our morning walk.
19th of March: Nuii and her wonderful billowing beard! Nuii will be 2 years old in the spring but she’s so dinky she often gets mistaken for a calf.
21st of March: Feeding the herd underneath a rainbow.
22nd of March: Shannon and her mum Cheer. 10-month-old Shannon is a very greedy young lass and loves her food, however Cheer is one of the shiest members of our entire herd. Shannon therefore appears rather torn between her love of feed and her desire to copy her mum! As she gets older and her confidence will grow and I’m sure her franticness around a feedbag will calm down.
25th of March (a): The free rangers were brought into the enclosure the day before so that this morning we could give everyone a routine health check and some of the herd a vaccination. This is Lolly and mum Oatcake leading the way down to breakfast after their temperature checks.
25th of March (b): A trip to the farm in Glenlivet to help Tilly out give the reindeer there a routine health check. The reindeer looking at the camera is Cicero. It was great to see some of the boys again!
26th of March: Lace already beginning to grow her antlers – go Lace!
26th of March: The herd were remarkable unfazed by their vaccinations so Andi and I let them out of the enclosure to go free roaming again – here’s Gloriana and old girl Fern leading the way. Fern looking amazing for almost 17!
27th of March: Winter returns! Feeding the calves out of the bag to give them a wee bit of an extra boost.
28th of March: Sundae pleading with me for more food – she makes it hard to resist.

Ruth

Memorable reindeer: Lute

My chosen reindeer to write about this time is Lute, who was already a middle-aged female when I first started as a reindeer herder, back in 2007. She died quite a few years back now so the younger staff here won’t remember her at all. But I do, and writing these blogs is not only a nice way to get something written down about a reindeer who may otherwise gradually fade from the mists of memory, but also an enjoyable excursion for me in to my own memories.

January 2011
Lute with one of her calves, Ludo, displaying her typical squint stance. To add to the overall ‘odd’ look, she also had quite bulgy eyes!

Bit of a nuisance for a reindeer, come to think of it, as they normally conserve energy by their hind feet tracking right into the hoofprints left by their forefeet, saving energy when walking in snow for example. Perhaps Lute always made sure to walk in the middle of the herd where her hind hooves could follow someone else’s tracks? Despite her ‘disability’, Lute never really seemed to have any issue keeping up with the herd, so it had just become a quirk specific to her by the time I arrived on the scene. It did mean you could pick her out amongst the herd a couple of miles away through binoculars sometimes, making you look good in front of unsuspecting visitors/volunteers/new staff members when you said knowingly about the dots running down the hillside ‘ah yes, there’s Lute’.

Lute also stood out that first winter for me as she’d grown excellent, enormous antlers for a female reindeer. There must have been something in the water that year, as many of the females had incredible antlers, some despite also having a calf at foot (which normally saps their energy enough to reduce their antler growth). Most years, in the second half of her life anyway, she tended towards growing rather twisted, oddly-shaped antlers. Matching her twisted, odd gait!

Lute when I first knew her – her tall antlers contrasting nicely with Polo’s rounded ones, and Ring’s much smaller, simpler ones.

Good genetics ran in the family, it seems. Lute was one of 11 calves for her mum Ferrari, back in the days when we would let reindeer breed every year. Nowadays we tend to give them a year off from time to time. But Ferrari popped out calf after calf no bother, with Lute being the eighth. Lute herself went on to be a very productive cow too, also with 11 calves to her name, although not all of them survived to adulthood. When I started she had Bean at foot, and then in 2010 her calf Lace was the first newborn reindeer I ever saw. Lace is still with us today, now nearly 14, and has become a real leader amongst the herd. By this I actually mean ‘dominant and bossy’. She’s a much bolder character than her mum ever was – I don’t really remember Lute being anything other than gentle and mild, a real sweetheart.

Lute with Lace as a calf. Presumably mum Ferrari never taught her not to pee in the pool?

Lute bred some relatively shy offspring too, in particular Fada. But characteristics seem to skip generations sometimes, as Fada bred lovely calves usually, the standout being Hopscotch. Hopscotch is still with us today and is now the matriarch of a dynasty of reindeer, including Busby, Pip, Tub and Juniper among others. Quite a legacy for Lute’s family line!

Granddaughter Hopscotch and great-granddaughter Kipling.

Born in 2000, Lute (who was named in the ‘musical’ theme), lived to a good age, passing away out on the mountains in the autumn or early winter of 2013. Daughter Lace is a little older than that now herself, and another daughter, Wapiti, got to around 15 years old, so there are some good long-living genes running in the family still!

Hen

Oldest male and oldest female in our herd

Reindeer live about 12-14 years and anything over 10 years is doing well. The oldest reindeer in our herd is always changing, of course. The oldest reindeer we’ve ever had were two females called Trout and Tuna (guess the theme 😉) who got to 18, but they were beaten to the title by Lilac who reached 19 years old and then passed away the summer after. The oldest male we’ve ever had in our herd was Bagheera (17 years and 7 months), but Elvis – who we only lost last year – was extremely close to his record. These ages are exceptional though and we tend to find the average age for female reindeer is around 12-14 years old and males about 11-12 years old.

The oldest female we’ve ever had – Lilac in September 2017, then aged 18.
The oldest male we’ve ever had – Elvis in September 2022, then aged 16.

At the moment in our herd we have two males both turning 15 in May, Caesar and Parfa. Our oldest female is lovely Fern who will be 17 in May. Caesar and Parfa both joined our herd in 2011 when we imported a number of male reindeer from Sweden to address our genetics. Fern, however, was born into our herd on the 5th May 2007. Her mum was also a lovely-natured reindeer called Sequin who, like her daughter, got to an old age so there must be some good genetics there!

Although we didn’t breed from Caesar and Parfa for one reason or another they have both been with our herd for many years as castrated males. They spend most of the year either on the winter free range at our Glenlivet site or during the summer months they join the other old boys on our hill farm where we supplement their feed. They are too old to do Christmas events now but have taken part in some over the years. They have timid natures and like to give us a good run around sometimes. They both look very individual with their big white patchy faces though Parfa is a bit bigger in the body than Caesar. Caesar has never been a very big reindeer, but what he lacks in size he certainly makes up for in character!

Emily training Caesar to eat from a bucket in Sweden before his move to the Cairngorms.
Caesar in 2015 with a very fat bottom, clearly adjusted to life in Scotland well.
Parfa still in Sweden in 2011, with Emily behind, whilst being tamed and trained for his move to Scotland.
Parfa in September 2023 – looking good for an old boy!

Lovely, lovely Fern! What a cracking reindeer she is. She’s a daughter, mother, aunty, cousin… all of the above. She is Miss Reliable when out free ranging and if you need a nice friendly one to lead when moving the herd then she’s your gal! She is greedy but not pushy and she is beautiful. All in all, she’s a fab reindeer! But is she perfect?!?! Almost… over her younger years Fern took a liking to a part of the mountains which very much wasn’t our leased grazing land. Glenfeshie is pretty far away taking around 5-6 hours of walking over mountain ground or a 30 minute drive around the hill and walking for 1-2 hours from the other direction. Every autumn Fern would commandeer a small group of reindeer and this was where she decided to spend her autumns. We’d all role our eyes when we’d get a report of reindeer in Glenfeshie and could almost predict every time that Fern would be part of the group. She hasn’t done this as much over the past few years so maybe she’s learning slowly but surely. Currently she is part of our free range herd here on Cairngorm for the winter and a great talking point when we take our visitors out to see the reindeer as she looks amazing for her age. Now and again, she gets food stuck in her cheeks and she comes in looking like a hamster so maybe her teeth aren’t quite as good as they used to be. But we can’t fault her condition, she’s not skinny and has grown a beautiful set of antlers in 2023 which she still has in now in March.

Fern as a calf, next to her mum Sequin in 2007.
Fern in April 2008 at 11 months old.
Fern and her daughter Ladybird behind in January 2022.
Fern in February 2024 – 3 months off turning 17.
Fern’s bottom (closest to camera) being led away from one of her favourite hangouts and brought back home!!

So, there you have it. The three oldest reindeer in our herd at the moment – Fern, Caesar and Parfa.

Fiona

Dynasties – Spy

A few years ago, Andi started a series of blogs titled Dynasties after watching the David Attenborough series with the same title. These highlighted matriarchs within the herd, in particular some of our most successful breeders. I thought I would continue this theme and in this blog I will write about Spy. I have only know Spy as an adult reindeer, and she has always been notorious for being a feisty girl, in fact you can read an entire blog about why we are all a little afraid of Spy, written a couple of years ago by Hen: Spy – the reindeer we’re all a bit scared of – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd.

Spy with some of the most beautiful (and pointy) antlers in our herd.
Spy at 7 years old.

Whilst she is fairly wild most of the time, she becomes particularly terrifying when she has a newborn calf. Most of the reindeer, particularly the older mums are quite happy for us to be nearby their calves, knowing we won’t cause them any harm. Spy however will absolutely not let you anywhere near any of her calves, if you read through Hen’s blog linked above it will tell you all about the different tactics required at calving time. Whilst we curse Spy lots of the time, her fierce protection of her offspring makes her a fantastic mother and she has raised now 4 strong female calves; Morven, Dante, Florence and Sundae. In fact, all 11 of Spy’s surviving descendants are female, guaranteeing the continuation of her genetics.

Spy feeding Florence.

Morven was born in 2015 and was named in the ‘Scottish hill races’ theme. Morven has always been a fairly independent reindeer, like her mother. She’s definitely tamer but you still wouldn’t always guarantee being able to catch her out on the free-range. She’s one of the strongest and healthiest reindeer in our herd and herself has now had two daughters of her own, Pinto and Mochi.

Morven as a calf.
Morven showing off her beautiful antlers.

Pinto was born in 2020 and despite being one of our Covid calves, is tamer than her mother yet again. It seems as though with each generation, Spy is diluted a little. Pinto has now had her first calf, the incredibly sweet Orinoco who was born last year. Orinoco is very sweet and tame, but not pushy at all, making her a favourite amongst herders. Mochi is also a real sweetie, she is now almost two years old but due to being one of the smallest of her year is often mistaken for a calf, which sometimes results in her getting preferential feeding along with the calves which she’s certainly not complaining about.

Pinto free-ranging in the winter.
Orinoco on the free range aged 4 months old and clearly very relaxed in our presence already.
Mochi as a calf, who looks much like her mum at the same age.

Dante was born in 2017 and is without a doubt one of the prettiest members of our herd. She also grows an impressive set of antlers each year, even whilst rearing a calf at the same time. Dante whilst also shy in nature, through years of bribery is now reliable to catch and a lovely reindeer to work with. She herself has now had three daughters, Mangetout, Glacée and Amazon.

Dante as a 2 year old.
Dante fully grown.

Mangetout is now fully grown and mother herself, but I couldn’t resist this photo of her as a newborn calf! Mangetout is also tame enough to reliably catch, but occasionally granny Spy shines through as she shows us her beautiful (and pointy) antlers! Mangetout had her own calf this year who we have named Darling. There was some controversy over whether we would name a calf Darling, after the river in Australia. Some of the herders thinking it was a bit too ‘cute’. In the end we thought if we gave is to Mangetout’s calf (Spy’s great-granddaughter) she would almost certainly turn out to be the opposite! So far she has proved us wrong and is generally a lovely reindeer, although can be a bit of a menace if you try to stand between her and a bag of feed.

Mangetout as a new born calf in 2020.
Mangetout at 3 years old.
Darling with mum behind.

Dante’s middle daughter Glacée is now almost two and like her big sister, was also given a French name, the word for ice cream. Glacée is very recognisable as she’s got a big white tuft of hair between her antlers! Amazon, her younger sister, is without a doubt the most impressive calf born last year. Her antlers are absolutely huge, with elaborate splits in them and she’s just as tall as many of the yearlings.

Glacée
Amazon as a calf, already being mistaken for a yearling.

Florence is the next down in Spy’s daughters. She was born in 2019 as is named after the Italian city. I would say she is tamer yet again than either of her sisters, she is the spit of her mother in looks but temperament wise is much calmer. Florence has calved just once, and very sadly he didn’t survive his first summer. Florence is almost 5 so I have no doubt she will have many more breeding years in the herd and will go on to produce just as many wonderful reindeer as either of her sisters.

Spy and Florence.
Florence at almost 3 years old.

Sundae is the youngest and last of Spy’s daughters. She was born in 2022 and named after an ice cream Sundae. Sundae has got a white nose, which she gets from her dad, Spartan. The rest of her features, including the big white rings around her eyes and her large slightly floppy ears, are all Spy! Sundae is now almost two years old and has lost her antlers a bit earlier than some of the others so currently spends feeding time doing her very best calf impression to sneak into the ‘calf only’ green feed sacs. Who can blame her though!

Sundae as a calf with Spy behind.
Sundae and Spy a year later, still side by side.

Spy will be thirteen this year so whilst her breeding days are now behind her (cue huge sigh of relief from all the reindeer herders involved in calving season), her legacy will be continued by all her offspring. She currently has 4 daughters, 5 grand-daughters and 2 great-granddaughters, all of whom are either at breeding age or will be in the next couple of years. There is definitely no fear of the Spy line dying out in our herd, but diluting her ‘Spyness’ a little with each generation, is definitely no bad thing!

Spy at 12 years old, still in her prime.

Lotti

Why can’t I touch the reindeer?!

Reindeer have a hugely thick coat as they are designed to survive Arctic and sub-Arctic winters, and they are one of the only mammals to have hair covering every part of their body, even including their noses. So they look incredibly cuddly and visitors are usually desperate to stroke them. If you’ve been on one of our Hill Trips pre March 2020, you might remember being allowed to stroke them too, but now we have stopped this direct contact between visitor and reindeer. But why?

Reindeer and visitors mingling

First, some background information about reindeer’s behaviour to each other without influence of human presence. Reindeer are not a ‘tactile’ animal, despite their strong herding instinct. Because of their thick coat they have no need to huddle together for warmth at any point, so the only time you see direct contact between them – such as resting their heads on each other – is affection between mother and calf. Calves stay with their mums for a year only (usually), but after this that close bond is broken and direct contact stops.

Contact like this is only between mother and offspring in general. Although I’m not sure Sitini wanted her face cleaned by mum Hippo in this picture!

Living in an incredibly harsh environment also means it’s critical to establish a hierarchy, as reindeer need to be able to compete for food when winter is at it’s hardest – hence the presence of antlers on both males and females. Males are bigger in body size so they lose their antlers first, leaving the smaller females at the top of the pecking order through the winter months when food is at it’s scarcest, and when they are likely to be pregnant too. This means that the herds constantly establish dominance between each other, pushing each other around and chasing less dominant reindeer away from good grazing spots.

Come on a Hill Trip and look around you, and you’re unlikely to see any reindeer nuzzling each other, but it’s almost guaranteed you’ll see reindeer pushing each other around. So a reindeer touching another is generally an agressive action, with antlers – or front feet – used as weapons. The way I like to phrase it to visitors is that we are entering the reindeer’s natural territory, so we therefore play by their rules – touch is a negative thing so we aren’t going to do so.

The main way a reindeer ‘touches’ another – antlers first! Oatcake demonstrating a reindeer’s way of getting another to move on.
Another example of contact between two of the young reindeer, Darling and Elbe – it’s not friendly!

However, pre-covid, we didn’t have a hard-and-fast rule about not touching the reindeer. It was never something we encouraged, but not something we outright banned. As our reindeer are incredibly tame, many did actually tolerate a gentle stroke or pat, and the ones that didn’t had space to move away from visitors. However, some reindeer were well known for standing there looking beautiful and luring visitors in close, only to try and clobber them. This led to us having to have eyes in the back of our heads as guides, and I found myself frequently – often mid-sentence – having to suddenly holler across the hillside: ‘just stand back from that one!’ / ‘don’t try and touch him!’ / ‘oops, sorry about that… are you ok?’. I found this happening more and more too, as our visitor number increased considerably over recent years. Coupled with that, was people’s inability to read reindeer body language – which is perfectly understandable for those not used to being around animals. Generally a grumpy reindeer will warn visitors to keep their distance before going a step further and insisting that they do, but this is often lost in translation from reindeer to humans. Clear as day to those of us who are well-versed in reindeer, but not to all.

Lace. Looks like a supermodel with her glam dark coat and elegant tall antlers – but acts like a thug. To both other reindeer, and visitors, at times.

But covid brought about a change that, in hindsight, needed to happen anyway. For months no-one was allowed to touch anything – reindeer included – and we realised just how much more relaxed the herd were with the new ‘hands-off’ rule. The ‘background’ reindeer of the herd – shyer members who would normally keep themselves a good distance away – started wandering in amongst everyone, sometimes within arms reach, but safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be patted unexpectedly. Everyone was more relaxed and this included us as guides – since our rules changed I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to rescue an unsuspecting visitor from a reindeer who got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. I’m not going to lie – it does still happen sometimes as animals are always unpredictable, but with far less frequency.

Turtle’s reputation precedes her amongst herders – she’s not earned the nickname ‘Snapping Turtle’ for nothing!

So ‘hands-off’ was here to stay. Once covid guidelines relaxed enough we started allowing visitors to hand-feed the reindeer once again, albeit in a more controlled fashion and allowing one turn per person only. This generally keeps manners better amongst the greediest members of the herd, meaning they only barge around for a short time period before settling down, but it does allow one small bit of contact that visitors crave.

Okapi and Hippo – always enthusiastic hand-feeders!

As far as we know, folks who have visited both before and after seem happy with the changes, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the reindeer are more relaxed and that their welfare is utmost. And of course, reindeer don’t read the rulebooks so they sometimes choose to touch visitors themselves, which is fine – it’s on their terms. A visitor finding a furry nose suddenly sniffing them, whiskers tickling their skin, is a happy visitor indeed.

Wee visitor Oakley getting special attention from Aztec! Photo: Candice Bell

It’s perhaps important to add that whilst we don’t – and have never – patted or stroked reindeer unnecessarily, we do have to handle them ourselves, but we do so without ‘fussing’ them. We we need to be able to handle them for veterinary care, worming and vaccinations etc., and this needs to be as unstressful for the animals as possible so we do put work into each individual to make sure they are comfortable being handled in this way. We also need to be able to move reindeer from place to place, so every single animal in the herd is trained to walk on a halter at around 5-6 months old, and a lot of effort goes into getting them easy to catch and halter. If we can’t catch a reindeer we run the risk of not being able to catch them at a critical point, i.e. if ill. Nowadays pretty much all of our reindeer aged 7 or less are catchable with ease as we have put more work into this aspect of training in latter years; but there are admittedly still some wily old reindeer who have to be brought into a shed to get hold of them! Looking at you, Sika…

Still one of the wildest reindeer in the herd, even at 16! Click the link above to read another of Hen’s blog’s, this time about Sika herself.

More work goes into our male reindeer overall, as they help to keep our business afloat by taking part in Christmas parades and events, earning income that helps to pay for their grazing leases etc. But again this is all done in a sensitive way and we work as a partnership with them, and touch is – as ever – kept to the minimum; the reindeer know their job and we know ours, and any reindeer that isn’t comfortable with the situation just stays at home.

Topi demonstrating how totally relaxed he is, even when harnessed up to the sleigh in the centre of Edinburgh – taking his opportunity for a quick nap on my shoulder before a parade many years ago. Note he’s the one choosing to rest his head on my shoulder, I’m just holding on to the lead-ropes!

So hopefully that gives an overview of why we have stuck to the change we made to Hill Trips in 2020. Initially I was worried we’d have a huge negative backlash from visitors, but there never has been really, and whilst we do know how tempting it is to stroke them, we hugely appreciate everyone’s efforts in not doing so. As we say, if struggling to resist the urge, stick your hands in your pockets!

Hen

Photo Blog: February 2024

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.

1st of February: Andi surrounded by some of our wonderful reindeer calves.
1st of February: Colorado the cutie!
7th of February: Repairing a fence at the top of our hill enclosure that got ripped up by a recent storm. Cameron is stood by the hole where the strainer post in the foreground should have been!
8th of February (a): Lotti and I head out to bring in the free ranging herd to our hill enclosure ready for the half term school holidays. Here’s Morven leading the way.
8th of February (b): Trying my best to woo the herd across the burn. I can confirm the burn was higher than the height of my wellies.
8th of February (c): Lace was the first to cross the burn with her calf Limpopo at her side. Thank you Lace for being a great leader! The herd were quick to follow her and then marched up this hill that we affectionately call Killer Hill.
11th of February: Holy Moley showing off her lovely incisors!
14th of February: After a day in the enclosure these reindeer are off back out free roaming. From L to R we’ve got Sorbet, Feta, Pip, Danube, Colorado (and his mum Christie just poking her head out behind) and Elbe.
15th of February: Sundae being cute as ever on a very dreich Hill Trip.
16th of February: Amazon saying hello.
16th of February: The state of the Paddocks just now.
20th of February: A recent storm blew down (another) fence within the enclosure. Here’s the delivery of new posts ready for for work to commence.
22nd of February: We did a enclosure swap. These are the girls who’ve been in the hill enclosure for a wee while now heading back out to free roam with Fiona leading the way.
22nd of February: Our wonderful volunteer Emm is back and has brought the sun with her. All the herders are delighted to see her, and so is Feta!

Ruth

A broken ankle and a helicopter ride.

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.

A wild day feeding the reindeer (Getty images).

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.

Druid, Dr Seuss and Jelly were very interested in the group shelter.

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.

The herd walking down past us to the afternoon Hill Trip.
Helicopter landing in the hill enclosure.

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!

Helicopter with our next hill trip visitors and reindeer behind.

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.

Helicopter flying away.

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.

Ruth and Andi all dressed up for a winter reindeer feed.

Lotti

Seasonal Volunteer to Seasonal Herder

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!

The herd within the hill enclosure – August 2023.

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.

Hannah and Sunny in July 2022.
Sunny all grown up in July 2023.
Winnie and Alba, our hand-reared calves in August 2023.

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.

Hannah on the right helping out with harness training with Andi and Hen – August 2023.
Hannah taking her very own Hill Trip and doing a totally superb job!
Meeting some of the free ranging cows.
Catching up with the calves who were born in May – here’s Holy Moley and calf who we later named Mississippi.

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!

Hannah

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