Photo Blog: December 2021

As Ben and Fiona have explained in previous blogs (click here, and here to read), we had a busy December with events and parades up and down the country, as well as a busy Centre here in Glenmore with fully-booked Hill Trips and Christmas Fun paddock slots! Plus hundreds of adoption packs to make up and post out, alongside all the usual office antics.

For this week’s blog, I’ve collated a series of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what went on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!

2nd of December – The unmistakable snozzle of Dr Seuss enjoying the fresh snow. The first half of the month was snowy and cold, great for the reindeer but unfortunately this meant we had to cancel some of our Hill Trips. Thankfully the majority were able to go ahead without complications.
3rd of December – Olly and I spying for the free-rangers in a winter wonderland. We watched the herd coming to our call from a couple of kilometers away! Note: stances might not be entirely natural. Photo by herder Sheena.
4th of December – Lotti and I went away for the weekend with this wonderful team of reindeer (Clouseau, Bond, Holy Moley, Trilby and Akubra) seen here having a snooze at the Langholm event.
5th of December – After a night at our Lockerbie base, we headed to Lancaster. Here’s Holy Moley trying to beat-up her own reflection whilst in the pen, much to the amusement of the crowd.
7th of December – the first day of our shiny new Mountain Equipment jackets here modeled by Joe and Lotti, whilst giving the calves some extra feed. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it!
7th of December – Witch having a big stretch after a snooze during Storm Barra! The ice cracked on her side as she stood up and moved – very cool!
8th of December – After one weekend looking dramatic in our paddocks for “Christmas Fun” Sherlock decided he’d had enough and cast his antlers! Here’s Ben modeling the impressive head gear. Soon after, Sherlock and the other young bulls were out free-ranging on the Cromdales.
9th of December – Cowboy, now 7 months old, already knows that tasty snacks are kept in white bags! What a cutie.
12th of December – Fiona and I had an event at a farm near Inverness. Good opportunity to write some adoption letters whilst waiting for people to visit the reindeer!
13th of December – Finding some peace and quiet away from the office by feeding the beautiful free-ranging herd! Note the lack of snow, there was a thaw halfway through the month but still chilly with frosts most mornings which means happy reindeer!
19th of December – Feeding the free-ranging herd again, lovely Sambar leading the herd in whilst busily chewing the cud.
20th of December – Tiree the dog having a snooze in the office, it’s all a bit much for her!
23rd of December – Herder Harry re-joined us again for December. Here he is being all cute surrounded by our cute but greedy calves.
24th of December – Another trip up the mountain to feed the free-rangers. Here’s Puzzle looking great!
26th of December – It was very windy and wild Boxing Day so we dropped down in to the woods to find some shelter on our Hill Trips.
31st of December – Some very snoozy reindeer after the last Hill Trip of 2021! What superstars they are.

Ruth

Wild weather and tricky walks

After the busy festive season, the Centre is now closed for a few weeks to give both us herders and the reindeer a chance to wind down and also to catch up on a few jobs that can’t be done whilst we’re open, like giving the Exhibition a fresh lick of paint.

The dogs often come along for most of the walk out to feed the herd, then waiting patiently at a safe distance.

We’re still feeding the herd most days, but as they’re all free-ranging (with nothing in the enclosure at all) this can involve quite a walk out in some…well…entertaining conditions. Earlier this week Fiona, Ben and I hiked out in crazily windy weather, being constantly buffeted and blown off our feet, and narrowly avoiding faceplanting as the ground was like sheet ice. We eventually got off the hill 2 hours later utterly exhausted.

Dreich weather – wind and sleety snow – can make walking out hard work even when we’re well equipped and used to the conditions. Soggy herders!

We’re looking forward to welcoming visitors back from the 12th February, and will be running our Hill Trips daily (weather permitting), but as these will be to our free-range herd rather than to the enclosure that we use from May – December, we are putting an age restriction on the Trips, with our minimum age being 4 years old. We’re also recommending against younger children (aged 4 – 11) coming at this time of the year, instead recommending a visit from May onwards.

Why? I know a lot of people will have visited from February to April before with a toddler, and had a wonderful time. However, the Cairngorm winter can be extreme, and as we just don’t know until the day if it will be a pleasant bluebird day, or gale force winds with a wind chill of -20, we’ve decided we need to be sensible about it.

Reindeer and herders battling the elements (c) Joe Mann

Small children tend to struggle with the weather more than adults, just because they’re wee – this isn’t a criticism of their toughness, just an observation from the years we’ve been running Trips. Indeed, for a large number of our previous Hill Trips in this season we have had to restrict them to “adults only” due to the weather or distance – safety has to be our first priority. We need to be realistic that if folks are booking ahead, it is unfair to everyone to then have to cancel their Trip on the day.

Even when the weather is calm, the walk to the herd frequently involves crossing unavoidable snow patches, which can be waist deep in places

Along with the weather, there is also the difficulty and length of the walk. In the free-range season this can be four or even five times the distance of the walk to the enclosure, meaning that we are out on the hill for much longer. Younger kids often find these longer distances tougher (again no criticism of their ability, just an observation of their smaller legs and reserves) and struggle to keep up with the group, which then leads to the rest of the people getting cold as we stand waiting. Little kids in backpacks often struggle even more, as they are stationary and not generating any muscle warmth. There is also the added risk of the parent slipping with them, resulting in injury.

Conditions like this are far from unusual, and are just not a place for wee kids to be (c) Andi Probert

In addition, the area has been so much busier in the last couple of years, and as a result we are needing to take our free-range Trips further and further to find a quiet spot where the reindeer are less likely to be disturbed by passing dogs. It is also trickier now that we take advance bookings as it means almost all tickets are sold before the day itself – in the past we used to only sell tickets on the day once we opened at 10am, at which point we already knew what the weather was like up on the mountains. That meant we could literally look people up and down as they entered the shop and judge ourselves whether they were adequately dressed for the current conditions – before selling them tickets! Unfortunately Hill Trips are just so oversubscribed now that advance bookings are our only option.

It looks beautiful but… Eve battles to feed the herd in winter – hypothermia and exposure are a real risk, even for well-equipped adults (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

We know this decision will be a disappointment to some, so as an alternative we are going to trial “Winter Herder Talks” here in the Paddocks on afternoons through the February half term. From 1.30pm each day you will have the opportunity to meet some of our beautiful reindeer and learn all about them from one of our herders. The Paddocks is usually a self-guided experience (and will remain so from 10am until 1.30pm), but with a herder available in the afternoons to share their knowledge of the reindeer as a species and as individuals, it gives a much more in-depth experience. We hope that this will be a good alternative for families with small children. We are still delighted to take all miniature children from May to December, when the walk (and generally the weather) is more predictable and manageable.

Andi

Reindeer Myth Buster

Reindeer don’t eat carrots, and other myths to ruin your new year… 😉

Myth 1 – Reindeer are made up

It seems silly when you work with them every day, but it is easy to forget that for a lot of people the only reindeer they know of fly around the world in a single night, so perhaps its not that surprising that they assume they aren’t real.

I’m glad to be able to confirm that reindeer are in fact real and are great fun to work with.

Harry surrounded by real-life reindeer.

Myth 2 – Reindeer eat carrots

Recent surveys have suggested that British people leave out around 3,000 tonnes of carrots for Rudolph to eat every Christmas Eve. But we aren’t sure where this tradition stems from as they do not grow in sub-Arctic habitats, and reindeer physically can’t eat carrots. Their lack of top teeth prevents them from chewing them down into a digestible size.

The food of choice for most reindeer is lichen, a fungi-algi symbiote, that grows here in the Cairngorm mountains and keeps the herd healthy. We also use it to help entice our reindeer during handling, or sometimes just give it out as a treat!

Nom nom nom – a reindeer’s favourite food is lichen. Origami is desperate to get his nose in that bucket!

Myth 3 – Reindeer can fly

This one really goes hand in hand with Myth 1, but I am still yet to see one fly.

I do hear things are different on Christmas Eve though…?

Holy Moley – jealous of the flying ability of ducks?

Myth 4 – Antler points correlate with age

Antlers do tend to increase in size (and therefore often the number of points) with age, however this doesn’t necessarily align with exact ages in years. Also, over the course of their lives, the antlers are susceptible to change. For example, a cow’s antlers tend to be smaller any year she has a calf, a more senior reindeer tends to grow a smaller set, and damage or breaks in antlers can change the growth pattern permanently.

Christie in September 2017 – just 4 months old but she’s grown a whopping set of antlers!
Christie in September 2019 with a lovely big set of antlers for a 2 year old cow.

Myth 5 – Who pulls the sleigh at Christmas

This is an interesting one because the fact that some reindeer keep their antlers through winter leads to confusion about who might be pulling the sleigh. Many people’s first assumption is that it is all boys, due to the antlers. However, the fact that bulls will drop their heavier antlers before winter sets in has led many people to believe that sleigh teams are led by female reindeer (who tend to keep their antlers until the end of winter). While we may take female yearlings and calves out with the sleigh, the reindeer we have pulling the sleigh are castrated males. This is due to their laid-back nature, but also, they tend to hold their antlers longer than entire bulls. Additionally, mature female reindeer could be pregnant at Christmas time.

Castrates have long played an important role in reindeer herding culture. They tend to be more docile and better for training than bulls or cows, and in herds of thousands of reindeer a well-trained castrate male can be used as a ‘decoy’ to influence the movement of the herd in a desired direction.

Two of our lovely gelded males Celt and Frost pulling the sleigh in Stockeld Park last November with herders Fiona and Lotti.

Myth 6 – Antlers are made of wood

While the various textures and colours of antlers throughout their life cycle can often make them look wooden, fully grown antlers are formed of bone. They grow throughout the summer months, while covered in a thin layer of skin and a fur called velvet, and then in autumn the skin will be shed, and the bone shows through. At this point there is no more feeling in the antler, as the blood supply has fully stopped – which is the reason the skin sheds. The reindeer often look quite dramatic at this point, as residual blood can make for a scary looking reindeer! But after a rainy day or two the antlers will look lovely and clean.

Sherlock stripping his velvet and revealing his antlers are indeed made of bone, not wood!

Harry

It’s a wrap!

Holy Moley on Christmas Day morning.

Well, that is Christmas here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre done for another year and I have to say it has been A LOT busier than 2020 when COVID restrictions didn’t allow us to go about our usual business. Although it wasn’t as busy as the years before COVID-19 I think this year has been an eye opener for us and how we go forward in the future. The income we receive over the November/December period through Christmas events is something we once relied on to help support the reindeer herd and running costs for the rest of the year but nowadays we are busier than ever and as a result the income through the Centre has proved itself, so I think a quieter Christmas tour in years to come could actually be better in the long run and therefore concentrating on what we have here at home. I’m not saying we won’t carry on with our Christmas tour but I will look into downsizing, which it has naturally done this year anyway and it’s been very manageable.

We went through all the normal training with the reindeer through the October period. The 5-6 month old calves being trained to wear and walk on a head collar and the new young male Christmas reindeer being trained to wear harness and pull the sleigh. They all did great and I think gold stars in particular go to Christie’s calf Akubra, who I can only describe as a born Christmas reindeer and Frost, our 3 year old who pulled the sleigh like he’d done it his whole life, taking part in some huge events and taking it all in his stride. They make you so proud when out and about on tour its hard not to shout their praises from the roof tops!

A training session in Glenmore back in the autumn, coincidentally the 4 adult reindeer featured are our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day team!
3 year old Frost and 6 year old Scolty pulling the sleigh in Aviemore on Christmas Day.

I also have to sing the praises of all our wonderful reindeer herders including core employees, seasonal reindeer herders and volunteers. Without this ridiculously capable team of folk we would not be where we are today. It takes input from every single one of us to make it work so thank you to everyone! I have to mention one person in particular who I know won’t want me to make a fuss, but I am going to anyway, because she has been a total super star. Carol thank you so much for just being you. Your kind and caring nature not to mention a special way you have when talking to the public about reindeer is wonderful to watch and you are an asset to our already great team. I know the reindeer also bring a huge amount of joy to Carol as well so I think it works both ways.

Carol and 7 month old Akubra – the most chilled-out of all our calves this year!

We finished off Christmas with 6 events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The team of reindeer were quite a young bunch with the oldest being 6 years, but what a team they were! Scolty, Dr Seuss, Frost, Clouseau, Holy Moley and Akubra. Handlers over the two days consisted of Tilly, Fiona, Joe, Ben Hester, Ruth, Carol and Aurélien. Although icy and cold the weather was kind to us bringing bright blue skies and sunshine on Christmas day. The public were delighted to see the reindeer bringing huge smiles to both adults and kids… and herders of course. Carol was in charge of 7 month old Akubra all day and the two of them got on really well. Introducing him to lots of people delighted to see the reindeer over this festive time. Though Akubra was a little tired by the 4th event so he took a wee nap mid performance! What a dude! Aurélien and Holy Moley were on top form, although Holy Moley can sometimes be a little bossy with small children so Aurélien did a great job of anger management… she’s a wee toerag!

Aurélien and Holy Moley were a great double act.

At our second last event of Christmas day a couple of our youngest reindeer herders joined us and even mucked in helping to handle the reindeer. Oscar and Tilly (little Tilly, not big Tilly) were excellent in taking instruction when it came to leading and handling the reindeer… I see a couple of future reindeer herders in these two for sure! Newbie Christmas reindeer Frost and Clouseau both pulled the sleigh at three of the events each alongside role models Dr Seuss and Scolty. A-star team so bravo boys and girls… you all get an extra handful of lichen… the favourite food of a reindeer.

[Little] Tilly leading the reindeer and sleigh in Nethy Bridge.
Oscar and Holy Moley at the back of the sleigh doing a superb job.

So that is it for another year and when I thought at the beginning of November that the end was nowhere near in sight. Suddenly Christmas is over. I’d worried that the reindeer would forget what to do on events having had a year off but that was absolutely not the case. If anything it was the humans that needed reminding and reassuring that they knew what to do, the reindeer were fab.

Fiona

A summary of December 2021

Merry Christmas everyone. As you may well imagine, when you have a herd of reindeer, December is a busy time of the year. And this year has been no different. In this blog, I’ll provide a summary of what happens at the Reindeer Centre throughout December.

We’ve been having plenty of ‘Christmas Fun’ in the Paddocks and Exhibition area. This has taken place every December weekend as well as every day this past week in the build up to Christmas Day. Here we’ve had Santa Claus in his cosy, fire-lit grotto as well as arts and crafts, a special Christmas activity booklet for the kids to complete and plenty of herder talks out in the paddocks alongside the reindeer. We hope you’ve enjoyed chatting to us herders and seeing Santa!

The BBQ hut warm and cosy, ready for Father Christmas!
The main man himself! Delighted to have him join us every weekend in December.

The weather hasn’t always played ball with our plans. In fact, the start of December brought some pretty wild weather. We had over 10cm of snow. The reindeer were delighted and could often be seen dancing with joy, which can be seen in the video below. However, the Ski Road leading up to the car park had to be closed on occasion due to dangerous, icy conditions and a few Hill Trips were subsequently cancelled.

Reindeer dancing with joy in the snow!
Blizzard conditions led to several Hill Trips being cancelled earlier in the month.

The snow melted about halfway through the month due to a mild spell of weather and we now have just a bit of frost on the ground in all areas except the very tops of the mountains. The weather didn’t put you hardy folks off visiting though and we had lots of visitors wrapping up warm and braving the elements on our hill trips. In fact, the December weekend hill trips were all booked up before December even started!

December is also the busiest month for our adoption scheme. As such we’ve been wading through seemingly never-ending torrents of incoming adoptions. All the herders have gallantly pulled long shifts of office work and about a week before Christmas Day we managed to paddle through the swell and get through the backlog of adoptions. No adoption was waiting more than a couple of days after being received so we hope that you receive your packages in a timely manner. During the busiest times, herders were writing letters whilst on tour and we recruited help from Linda and Tina who have been fantastic at writing letters for us from their homes.

Fiona and Ruth writing letters on an event, whilst waiting for people to visit the reindeer.

One of the other events that happens over November and December is that a selection of trained reindeer may go out on tour around the nation. Events are often relatively local, however we reached as far south as Windsor this year and went as far away as Llanelli in South Wales. Training for the reindeer occurs throughout summer and really hots up during the autumn. The reindeer may be in a display pen or participating in a sleigh procession. It varies from event to event. The team and their herders will stay at overnight bases throughout the UK, and they will travel in big lorries with lots of space which means that the reindeer will often lie down on the straw when travelling or as some of you may have seen, they may also lie down when they’re in a pen. They like to relax whenever possible. Our calves have even had a bit of exposure to Christmas events and overall, they’ve been absolute champions.

One of our Christmas lorries on the road, containing two herders and six reindeer (usually 4 adult males and 2 calves).
Bond, Clouseau, Holy Moley, Trilby and Akubra lying down in a pen in Lancaster earlier this month.

Colin D (we have two Colins!) has clocked up the most miles of all of us herders and that’s good news for the rest of us as he produces the funniest videos. Here is Colin narrating Dr Seuss’ gardening skills. Stay tuned for more of Colin’s videos in a future blog/social media posts…

Colin Delap and Dr Seuss with a special Christmas offer…

We are still open as usual until the 6th of January 2022. The Centre will then close until the 12th of February, re-opening in time for the February half-term. The entire herd will soon be free-ranging either on the Cairngorms or the Cromdales, fingers crossed for another cold and snowy winter. Thank you for all our wonderful visitors, supporters, blog-readers, and adopters throughout 2021. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, from all the reindeer herders!

Ben

Storm Arwen

So last week the whole country had a bit of a blustery time with Storm Arwen crossing our paths. When we clocked mid week it was on its way we started putting plans in action for how to run one of our busiest weekends of the season with 6 teams of handlers and reindeer out and about on tour as far south as Oldham and as far north as Portree on Skye. And not to mention the day to day runnings at the Reindeer Centre itself.

Snowy roads for Colin S and Ruth’s team – a bit of sunshine in between the snow showers.

Firstly Banchory, near Aberdeen was due to have an event on the Friday night. But very sensibly made the decision two days before their event to postpone until the following week. Luckily weekdays for us aren’t so busy so we could accommodate with little fuss.

Next I had to think about my own team. Joe and I were heading to Yorkshire on Friday ready for events in the north of England on the Saturday and Sunday. Usually I’d get my reindeer off the hill that morning and hit the road but with the snow and wind forecast to come in mid-late morning I brought my team off the hill the day before, they then spent the night in the paddocks here at the Centre and we got away in good time, getting down country safe and sound.

Another team were spending the night at our farm base in Central Scotland ready for Milngavie the next day. When they’d usually leave late afternoon with only a two hour drive in normal conditions they also got away once their reindeer were off the hill on Friday morning. Our Perth event team were meant to go down Saturday morning but opted to also stay at our Central Scotland farm base as well… and it’s a good job they did because the snow came in thick and fast!!! The final three teams were all leaving from home on Saturday morning to get to Oban, Skye and Tain so just made sure they gave themselves plenty of time.

Lotti and Colin D, setting off to Oban with their team, picking up Lisette on route in Fort William.
Ben and Olly’s team + Mel and Leonie’s team on a morning walk after a night at the Gleneagles base.

The Oban team had to divert via Inverness due to closed roads but got there in time to visit a care home prior to their event which was a great hit amongst the residents bringing lots of Christmas cheer to those who couldn’t come and see the reindeer parade. A long day for the Skye team but they have a day off on Sunday to recover. And Tain had a superstar in their team… Holy Moley made an appearance and that went down very well indeed!

Also in Tain, were Hamish and LX who pulled the sleigh with Ruth leading them. During the parade the team got an mention over the microphone, the man announced that Hamish and Alex were pulling the sleigh! Now this to all us herders was rather funny as of course Hamish and Alex are also the names of two of my family members. Alex is my brother and his son is Hamish… So we all had a good chuckle imagining those two pulling the sleigh instead of the reindeer!

Colin D, Lotti and Lisette safely made it to the relatively tropical Oban with their team!
Colin S and Ruth made it to Tain, and had a wonderfully snowy parade! Here’s Holy Moley in the display pen lapping up the attention!
“Alex” (LX) and Hamish pulling the sleigh in Tain!

So, Saturday for the reindeer teams all went well despite the harsh wintery conditions. Although my parade in Oldham was cancelled we still managed to do a small arrival with Santa and sleigh and the folk of Oldham welcomed us with open arms for the 24th year visiting the Spindles Shopping Centre.

That was the news from all of us out and about on tour so I can’t properly relay the stories from home and the running of the Reindeer Centre. I know the hill trips had to be cancelled due to the hill road being closed as the mountain was storm-bound. Instead the herders trooped together and did paddock talks throughout the day hoping the disappointment wasn’t too much for those missing out on the hill trips… Though to be completely honest if there was a hill trip in those conditions you wouldn’t be able to hear, see or take much in as the wild winds and snow conditions would have been too epic! Some of the herders still had to go up onto the mountain to feed and check the reindeer but actually doing this in these conditions just reminds us how incredible these animals are. They have the most amazing coats to cope with such low temperatures. Facing the wind means they get amazing ice masks covering their foreheads and ice covering their antlers… It looks very cool! Hopefully for those of you who missed the hill trip will get another chance sometime soon, it was very unfortunate but we are at the mercy of the weather gods and when they call it off there is little we can do about it. The main thing is everyone stays safe in these conditions, the reindeer will be here for a long time and certainly ready for your return!

The team back at the centre feeding the reindeer on the hill, note the snow encrusted reindeer!

Fiona

The Bridge over the Allt Mor

Funny story…. For months Hen’s been meaning to write a blog about the new bridge en route to our hill enclosure, but eventually this autumn found herself too short of time and suggested to Andi that she wrote it instead, hence Andi’s recent blog. And then, displaying a woeful level of forgetfulness, Hen found the blog that SHE WROTE HERSELF, and had NO memory of writing…Wow. So, you might as well read this one too.

I often talk to people who came to visit years ago but can’t remember much about their walk to the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure, other than the fact ‘there was a big bridge’ over a river. Ah, we say knowingly, you mean Utsi bridge. It’s become an iconic part of our most common route on to the mountains to see the reindeer herd. (But it’s not the sole route we use, so if you read on and have no memory of a bridge, then you aren’t going mad – we probably just took you to meet the herd in a different location!)

Utsi’s bridge as it has been for many, many years.

The original Utsi bridge over the Allt Mor (the river which leads down to Loch Morlich) was built in the 60s, and consisted of not much more than telegraph poles with some planks on them, or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen that remain of it.

The very first bridge was a bit more ‘rustic’!

Bridge mark II was built in 1979 by the Army, and it’s this one, with it’s high-sided handrails, that is the one that most people will remember. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve crossed it, but being as between late April and early January it’s rare for a working day to pass without doing so at least twice (i.e. once in each direction), and often a lot more – it’s certainly a lot of times. I think my record was 9 or 10 trips up to the hill enclosure once whilst shuttling boardwalking material up there. I cursed the lack of vehicle access that day!

Many reindeer hooves have crossed the bridge over the years too. Obviously reindeer can, and do, cross the river directly a lot of the time, but the free-ranging herd will cross the bridge instead at times if making their way towards the enclosure of their own accord. Tell-tale droppings on the bridge give away their route!

Fiona, Sofia and Alan leading reindeer up to the hill enclosure in spring many years ago.

We lead reindeer to and from the enclosure over the bridge, and the most eventful time is always their very first time, usually at around 5 months old, learning to walk on a halter. Actually the bridge itself is no issue at this point – it’s getting on the bridge which can be really hard as there are steps up on to it.

After over 40 years, the second incarnation of Utsi bridge was starting to show signs of wear and tear, the central support starting to get more undermined each time the river was in spate, and eventually it became obvious that it needed to be replaced. We don’t own the land that the bridge is built on so this didn’t come down to us thankfully, although we did attend meetings with regards to how it would happen, and made sure that the plan was definitely to complete the new bridge fully before the old one was removed!

The new bridge under construction, already dwarfing the older one!

Work began in November 2020, but ground to a juddering halt with the second lockdown after Christmas, and even though construction was permitted to continue, the impassable road and deep snow conditions of January and February 2021 made any progress an impossibility. It was mid-April before the bridge was finally completed, just before we re-opened to the public in late April, so all of our visitors in 2021 have walked to the reindeer herd via Utsi bridge mark III. This version is quite considerably bigger, and makes quite a landmark, but I’m not yet as fond of it as I was the old one.

Tilly and Sherlock crossing the new bridge – with a bit more space for large antlers than the previous one!

We all kept pieces of the old bridge, so I have two of the uprights which once supported the handrails in my workshop at home. Maybe one day I’ll use them for gateposts somewhere! Alan and Tilly (owners of the reindeer herd) kept the four 30’ long steel girders that stretched the 60’ span of the river, which had to be helicoptered out from the site to the nearby car-park, and then collected via tractor and (large!) trailer! No doubt they will one day become part of one of Alan’s many sheds.

An old photo of Tilly on the second bridge when it was quite young, showing off the massive steel girders quite nicely!

So if you are visiting us, particularly in the summer and autumn months, have your camera ready for this iconic bridge in case you happen to be lucky enough to cross it en route to the reindeer herd. You’ll be following in the footprints of thousands of visitors, hundreds of reindeer and dozens of reindeer herders, spanning nearly 7 decades.

Hen

Summer mornings

A while ago I wrote a blog about how Reindeer House managed to cope with its temporary hitch back in the summer, when its resident staff caught Covid. I mentioned then that Andi and I (who live outside of Reindeer House and managed to stay unaffected) were responsible throughout for the 8am morning check of the herd on the hill, so I thought I’d perhaps explain a little more about what we do in the mornings, before visitors arrive, in another blog. So I have put fingers to keyboard and here we are.

Typical scruffy summer reindeer! Butter, LX, Druid and Slioch (left to right)

Throughout the whole summer we run the guided Hill Trips up to meet the reindeer in our hill enclosure at 11am and 2.30pm, but the herd are actually fed 3 times a day. By doing the first feed bright and early, it gives us time to check everything is shipshape and ready for the day, allowing us to then concentrate on making sure our visitors have as good a visit as possible, with us safe in the knowledge that all the reindeer are happy and healthy.

Usually 2 or 3 of us will head up early doors, and in the summer there is usually only one group of reindeer in the enclosure to deal with. By comparison right now as I’m writing this (early October), there are reindeer in 5 separate areas of the enclosure, all needing checking and feeding at least twice daily! One group only is much more straightforward and seems like a distant dream right now.

The very first job of the day, before heading to the hill enclosure, is to drive up to the ski centre to check none of the free-ranging reindeer are nearby. Right in the middle of summer this would be unusual, but they do sometimes surprise us, so it’s always worth a check! A convenient layby also gives us a bird’s eye view of much of the enclosure, so we have a quick scan over it too.

Spying with binoculars on a rather murky day.
Even when the herd is waiting for their breakfast in their usual spot, they can be difficult to spot from afar. But antlers give them away sooner or later!

The hill enclosure is around 1200 acres in size; about 2km in length. The nearest end of it consists of several smaller areas, and our first job of the day is to bring the herd through to the nearest area, the ‘bottom corridor’, and to see if everyone walks through cheerfully and willingly. A reindeer who is off colour will lose their appetite and is quite likely to trail through a distance after the others, less enthusiastic about the prospect of breakfast, so that is the first clue of someone feeling under the weather.

If we are suspicious any reindeer is not quite themselves, the first thing we do then is to check their temperature – so it pays not to be the last reindeer through the gate, otherwise there could be a thermometer up your bum before you know what’s happening! However, a high temperature indicates a tick-borne fever, and a shot of antibiotics is the next step, which should nip any infection in the bud.

Injecting a long-acting general antibiotic – something every herder learns to do early on it their reindeer herding career.

Once every week or so in the summer we’ll get the whole herd up to our shed and work our way through the whole herd, checking temperatures, as some reindeer are very good at not showing any symptoms at all even when they have a roaring fever. This type of fairly intensive routine monitoring isn’t necessary in the winter months as there are no ticks about then, but the warmer weather brings them out and so reindeer do get very used to regular violations of their dignity…

Temperature checking. Dr Seuss couldn’t give a stuff, as long as there’s a bag of bribery in it for him…
…and all good! A temperature of 38.3, as seen in this photo, is fine, the average being around 38.9 for a reindeer.

Something else that needs doing regularly of a summer’s morning, even daily at times, is fly-spraying. Like with any animal, flies will buzz around the reindeer on sunny days, and whilst they don’t generally cause any real problem, they drive the reindeer mad at times. No-one likes having flies buzzing round their face! With the reindeer, the flies tend to aim for the antlers, clustering around the soft growing tips where the blood supply is richest. If a tiny nick in the velvet skin is made, the flies will feed on the blood and this brings with it the risk of infection.

Flies around antlers.

So we spray the antlers to help keep the flies off, using a DEET-based spray that is designed for horses. But unfortunately we can’t wipe the spray on with a cloth as reindeer hate their antlers being touched whilst they are growing (and also it would take forever to do 40-odd reindeer this way!), so we have to just spray it on, accepting that – from a financial point of view at least – an upsettingly large percentage of it is lost or misses it’s target. Reindeer very rarely stand quietly to have their antlers sprayed, either doing their best to pull away from us, or rushing around in circles if contained in the shed. But there’s no way around it – antlers need spraying and it’s better for the herd to be rather flustered for a few minutes each morning than spend the day charging around to get away from the flies.

Myself spraying Bond’s antlers – and getting a beady look in return!

On an average summer’s morning, at this point it’s breakfast time! Just like on the Hill Trips, we tip the bag of feed out into small piles in a big long line, count to check every reindeer is present and correct, and make sure every is eating enthusiastically. And then – just as importantly – head back down to the Reindeer Centre and stick the kettle on…

Me feeding the herd.
Andi counting the line to check the numbers match.

This first couple of hours of the morning is also when we do any ‘movement’ of reindeer if needed, such as letting reindeer out to free-range on the mountains outside the enclosure, or swapping over the reindeer in the Paddocks with those up in the hill enclosure. We also regularly poo-pick the nearer areas of the enclosure where the reindeer congregate, or do maintenance jobs on the fencing and boardwalks. I suspect people sometimes wonder why we don’t open any earlier than 10am, but these couple of hours are sacred to us – the time flies by all too quickly and we’re still often left scrabbling around trying to get finished and back to the Centre in time to open on schedule!

Hen

The plague house

Back in July, the dreaded Covid-19 eventually struck down Reindeer House. With around 6 staff living in Reindeer House at any one time, it seemed almost inevitable that it would get us at some point – regardless of how careful everyone was being – and to be honest we’re all amazed that we made it as far as July 2021. Although I admit the 8.30pm phone call from Fiona (“Hen? Bad news…”) still came as a bit of a surprise to me at the time.

Around half the staff, myself and Andi included, don’t live onsite, so only half of the staff were affected. But Reindeer House is quite small with not much space for all its residents to keep away from each other, so once one person in the house caught the virus, everyone else went down like dominoes, one by one. Poor Joe resisted the longest, valiantly testing negative day after day for a full week, so by the point he had finally succumbed and done his 10 day stint, the poor lad had been isolating for 17 days!

The plague house!

Although we closed to the public completely for one day, everyone spent that one day working out how we could possibly continue working to some extent, and actually it all worked out rather well, with two ‘teams’ of staff – the plague-ridden Reindeer House lot dealing with all the office work, while the healthy outsiders dealt with the reindeer on the hill and the guided tours, with no crossover whatsoever. What a blessing to have a business where the main ‘thing’ is all outside, with no need for visitors to come anywhere near Reindeer House at all! While obviously it would have been an unwelcome financial hit to have had to cancel all the Hill Trips for the 2.5 week period, it would have also been terrible to have had to disappoint so many people who were already booked in and champing at the bit to see the reindeer, and this thought did spur us on too to find a way to make this still possible.

Andi feeding the reindeer one morning, whilst the Centre was closed.
Feed was mixed up by the staff at Reindeer House, but then left untouched for several days before we collected it, to reduce any risk.
Tests were taken daily by the rest of us throughout!

We settled into a steady pattern. Andi and I would arrive first thing in the morning and head up on to the hill to check and feed the reindeer herd, making sure everyone was present and correct, applying fly-spray to their antlers if necessary, and giving them their first feed of the day. Then back down to Reindeer House, where we’d have a morning ‘meeting’ over the garden fence. Reindeer House’s plaguey residents would come trotting out into the garden as soon as they saw us through the windows (People! People to talk to! Social interaction!) and thankfully for pretty much the entire time the Centre was closed, the weather was glorious and we could have a good catch up before we headed home. For Andi and I the working day was finished by 10.30am.

Morning meetings, isolation style… One staff team still in pyjamas!
Most of the folks in Reindeer House completely lost their sense of taste temporarily, so much so that Fiona ate an olive (she HATES olives normally!!!)!

Most days, before we headed home, other ‘outside’ (i.e. healthy!) staff would arrive, tag-team style, have a gossip, and then would head up to the carpark ready to meet the morning’s visitors, who had all been emailed a map of where to meet instead of arriving at Reindeer House. And then the same again in the afternoon for the second Hill Trip. It all seemed to work quite well, and (for me anyway), made for a rather relaxing 2.5 weeks… Thanks to the weather playing ball and all our visitors coping very well with the last-minute change to the way their Hill Trip would work, it wasn’t too much of a hiccup. Writing this in the middle of a hectic autumn, with 3 times the number of reindeer in the hill enclosure that there was in July (due to the rutting season) and to-do lists coming out of my ears – I’m very glad it all happened in the summer and not right now! I am very aware however that we (as in the world in general) aren’t out of the woods yet and perhaps it’ll all happen again to us here at Reindeer House, but if so let’s hope it’s not anytime soon…

Hen

Utsi Bridge

Constuction ahead! (or a man with an umbrella, as Olly said!)

If you’ve been to visit our reindeer on the hill at Cairngorm, it’s likely that you’ve walked over Utsi Bridge. Named after the charismatic Sami, Mikel Utsi, who was responsible (along with his wife Ethel Lindgren) for reintroducing the reindeer to Scotland, this bridge gives access over the Allt Mor river to the Chalamain Gap, and – more importantly for us – our hill enclosure.

The second incarnation of Utsi Bridge, which we’ve been using for the past 42 years.

The first incarnation was replaced in 1979 by the Edinburgh and Heriot Watt Universities Officer Training Corps, as a summer engineering project, but after 41 years and being crossed by thousands upon thousands of feet (and hooves), it had reached the end of its safe working life and was due to be replaced. However, as it was the only crossing point for some distance, the new bridge would have to be built first, before the old one was removed. Anyone who has been here will also appreciate how difficult the location was for a major build too – there was no chance of getting a digger down into the valley for example – and as it is in a sensitive area other considerations were also necessary. All of the new materials had to be airlifted in, and the old bridge airlifted out, and this had to be done outside of capercaillie breeding season, to prevent disturbance.

Piles of materials for the new bridge after they were dropped off by the helicopter.

Work began in October 2020, and the work crew from ACT Heritage did a fantastic job, working through rain, sleet, hail, high winds and snow. Not to mention the extra complications of an ongoing pandemic! It was also nice that the crew included Ross, the fiancé of ex-herder Ali. They were very good with us, and would always stop work to give us space when we were leading reindeer across the old bridge. Though the orange safety netting was definitely an entertaining obstacle when leading antlered animals! The second national lockdown from Christmas brought work to a halt for a while, but in March a helicopter lifted out the old bridge, and our twin bridges were down to one sturdy, hopefully long-lasting, shiny new bridge.

New supports in place.
Slioch keeping an eye on progress as we cross the old bridge. The orange safety fencing was… entertaining… when passing close by with pointy antlers…
The framework for the new bridge complete.
The wintry Cairngorms weather didn’t help matters!
The final wooden structure being built on the metal framework.
Nearly there, just the steps and finishing touches to go.

Not wanting to lose a piece of the Reindeer Company history, Alan drove a tractor and trailer all the way from our hill farm to collect the old dismantled bridge. Apparently the old steel girders were of a quality that is impossible to buy these days! There is a plan to reinstate the old bridge at a suitable location at the farm.

The helicopter at the Sugarbowl after lifting out the old bridge in sections – the giant metal girders are just visible in the background.
The shiny new bridge in use with the last of the old bridge being dismantled.

It has taken the reindeer a bit of time to get used to the new crossing – the steps were perhaps not quite designed for reindeer strides – but once they’ve been over it once or twice they get the hang of it. It’s great having the edging alongside the steps to guide them in the right direction – the old bridge was rather awkward as the steps didn’t have a rail on each side, so calves would sometimes “miss”! And with the new ample width, we’re still debating if we can be bothered carrying one of our Christmas sleighs down the narrow path to get a photo of a full team of reindeer in sleigh on the bridge – it would fit!

Sherlock testing out the new bridge.

Andi