Volunteer Blog: From the rutting season to the calving season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of our gorgeous calves.

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

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

New mum and calf.

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

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

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

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

Jayne

Reindeer Lookalikes

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

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

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

Emmental’s boys!

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

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

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

Pony’s girls!

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

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

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

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

Ruth

COVID calves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona

Tongues out for the camera

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

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

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

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

Lotti

Photo Blog: April 2024

April has flown by. The first half of the month busy with the Easter holidays. We’ve had some wonderful Hill Trips both out on the free range and also in our hill enclosure here on Cairngorm. Although not much spring weather it has to be said.

The second half of the month was busy with moving reindeer around getting them in the right places for the fast-approaching calving season. Most pregnant females have been brought into our hill enclosure now and the “single ladies” (the old girls, young girls, or ones having a year off motherhood) were put back out to free range. We’ve also brought the first males back into the enclosure after their winter free ranging at our second site. Lovely to see some of the boys back.

The office has also been busy as always – my jobs have included newsletter preparation, working on adoption packs, preparing the 2025 reindeer calendar (wahoo – it’s just gone to print), trying to up our social media game, sorting emails, drinking tea…

It’s been a fun month watching antlers casting and growing, and bellies widen on our pregnant females. Bring on the first calf of 2024!

2nd of April: Moving the herd with Lisette at the back doing a wonderful job as ‘sheep dog’!
3rd of April: Danube with her tongue out!
5th of April: Juniper and Sundae in a blizzard!
6th of April: Fern and Okapi soon to be 17 and 16 years old respectively are the first over at the feed bag!
8th of April: Sunshine!! A rare sight this month. Moving the herd into position for our Hill Trip.
15th of April: Dr Seuss is back in the enclosure after a winter free ranging in the hills. He’s clearly feeling snoozy after the Hill Trip. He takes his role as chief hand-feeder incredibly seriously!
17th of April: Sunny (our hand-reared calf from 2022) was back in the hill enclosure for a short while and followed me back to the gate just like he used to as a young calf!
16th of April: These 11-month-old calves get to feed out of the bag for another month before they turn into “yearlings”. Orinoco is the cutie closest to camera.
18th of April: Mushy, Spy, Dante, Ladybird, Sambar and Sunny.
22nd of April: Sherlock looking handsome with those big velvet antlers.
23rd of April: A lovely morning with Tilly on the hill.
24th of April: I headed over to the farm to help Tilly with a farm tour. Lovely to see some of the boys I haven’t seen much of this winter, like Druid here!
24th of April: The lovely Hemp!

Ruth

Reindeer herder pet peeves!

I thought I’d write a bit about some of our biggest reindeer pet peeves this week – and undeniably, there are quite a few… Pet peeves 1-4 are tongue-in-cheek, so don’t take offence if you’ve made one of these slips in the past – no doubt some of us did too before becoming reindeer herders! But peeves 5 and 6 are serious, and a cause us a constant headache – please don’t be *that* visitor…

Number 1: ‘Reindeers’

The biggest pet peeve of all is most definitely… ‘reindeers’. The plural of reindeer is reindeer, with no ‘s’, and whilst I’ve never heard anyone say ‘sheeps’, ‘reindeers’ is a very common mistake. It’s only a little thing and it’s hardly going to change the world if you say it right or say it wrong, but it’s just something that grates so much. You will see a tiny shudder of horror pass over any one of us if you see us talking to someone who uses the word ‘reindeers’. Not to mention my roar of disgust earlier this year to open our local paper – who really should know better – to find that they had used ‘reindeers’ (in very large font) in the title of their article about us. Face plant.

One REINDEER…
…multiple REINDEER.

Number 2: ‘Horns’

I guess there’s really no reason for people to know or understand the difference between antlers or horns, unless they have background knowledge in biology. But still, when reindeer’s antlers are referred to as horns, it’s something that makes my eye twitch – the word just sounds so wrong. To educate anyone that doesn’t know (every day’s a school day), animals that grow horns, such as cows, sheep and antelope, only grow one set in their lifetime and the horn is made of keratin, the protein that your hair and fingernails are made from. In contrast, antlers are made of bone and are grown by members of the deer family only, and they are grown annually, falling off each year. Technically therefore, they are classed as ‘deciduous’ – not a word normally used other than in relation to trees.

Reindeer have antlers.
Whilst sheep have horns. Photo: Alex Smith

Number 3: Reindeer imagery at Christmas

Oh god… where to start? I think 99% of ‘reindeer’ imagery used on Christmas cards, decorations etc, are not actually reindeer at all.

Where to start?! Santa’s sleigh pulled by… fluffy white Wapiti? They certainly ain’t no reindeer….
Don’t get me started on the fact that reindeer and penguins are found in different hemispheres. They live at opposite ends of the planet, and always have (other than the introduced population of reindeer on South Georgia who lived there for around 100 years before being eradicated about 10 years back, but I doubt that this Christmas card designer was aiming to represent the fauna of a South Atlantic island). In fact, don’t get me started on the (lack of) connection between penguins and Christmas at all…
Granted, it is a reindeer. But with a set of… red deer antlers on it’s head. Backwards on it’s head. I don’t even know where to go with this. The worst thing is it is an advert for a reindeer parade where the providers of the reindeer were – us. We send the organisers of all events we take part in a link to a load of beautiful press photos for them to use for promotion purposes, which, funnily enough, does not include the photo abomination above.

Number 4: Carrots

If you happen to have a child who still believes in Father Christmas and are reading this aloud to them… stop. I don’t want to be responsible for breaking hearts. If you’re an adult however, and think that reindeer love to chow down on a carrot or two – prepare yourself for a shock. Reindeer DO NOT eat carrots. It is a myth. I’m sorry, but there it is.

Santa will eat the mince pie and he’ll no doubt enjoy the dram, but if the carrot vanishes overnight, it’s not Rudolph. Perhaps Santa’s just making sure he can see in the dark? Photo: Scotsman website

Once again, let’s shoe-horn in some education. Reindeer are ruminants, meaning they have four stomachs, like cows and sheep. They have similar dentition too, having tiny teeth at the front of the bottom jaw, and a flat, bony palate at the front of the top jaw (plus molars top and bottom at the back). This means they nip away at the vegetation with the small front teeth, swallow it into the first stomach – the ‘rumen’ – and then bring it back up to chew again with the molars before it progresses through all four stomachs. Tiny front teeth can’t easily much up a carrot, and nor do carrots grow naturally anywhere that reindeer live, so they do not form part of their diet. I am actually aware of reindeer in permanent captivity in some places being fed carrots – but any reindeer that actually eats, or tries to eat, carrots is doing so out of desperation because they are not being fed a sufficient diet.

A reindeer’s teeth. Not designed for eating carrots!

Working here taught me to quickly work out when to lie to people – if an adult brings us carrots for the reindeer then I will tell them the truth. If a small child gives me a carrot at a Christmas event, to give to the reindeer? Then perhaps they do eat carrots after all, but only on Christmas Eve. Not right now. Makes ‘em fly, you see.

Number 5: Visitors who don’t read any information when booking their tickets

I hesitated to include these last two pet peeves… but my fingers have just kept typing, and realistically, they the ones that actually cause us herders problems, rather than just annoy us. Visiting the reindeer here at the Centre is wonderful, and we do our utmost to make sure everyone has a lovely time. But you need to know what you are getting yourself in for, and you need to know what clothing and footwear you need to bring, in order to visit the reindeer safely and with maximum enjoyment. The people who book tickets, tick all the required boxes to say they will have the right footwear etc; they understand they need to use their own car; they realise they have to walk to the reindeer, etc etc etc – and then turn up having not actually read ANY of this info, make us want to cry. Hill Trips change throughout the year, starting from different car-parks and using different routes, so having visited before doesn’t mean you know what to expect.

We have all been shouted at by angry people over the years when it’s entirely their fault and not ours that they’ve (delete as appropriate) missed the trip/have the wrong footwear/are completely unsuitably prepared. Please. Just. Read. It. All. First. Please.

Number 6: ‘That’s not actually waterproof…

Peeve number 6 is linked to number 5. We ask visitors to bring a waterproof jacket with them for the Hill Trip at all times, and in the winter season (Oct – Apr) we ask them to bring waterproof over-trousers too. Obviously we can’t predict the weather and whilst waterproofs might not be needed on the day, at times they really are essential, and it is for people’s own safety that we have to insist they are wearing full waterproof clothing. Hypothermia becomes a risk quickly in winter conditions, and much more so if someone is wet to their skin.

Please understand we don’t want to turn people away, nor force them to purchase waterproofs they may not wear again, but as a company we also REALLY don’t want to be responsible for cases of hypothermia either. Safety in the mountain environment has to be foremost so you MUST come prepared for the worst weather, and just be grateful if you are lucky to get nice weather on the day. It’s also a matter of your own enjoyment – we want you to have the best time possible and you have more chance of doing so if you are not soaked through and frozen.

A wild day on the hill. Note the snow plastered down Eve, from her head to her feet, and on the reindeer too. This weather can occur anytime in the winter season of Oct – Apr. Photo: Getty Images

However, it seems the problem is deep-rooted in that a surprisingly large percentage of people seem to have no understanding as to what the word ‘waterproof’ actually means. It’s really not hard – it means… ‘waterproof’. Water can’t get through. Wet one side, dry the other. Not ‘water-resistant’, not ‘shower-proof’ – ‘WATERPROOF’. No, your ‘hiking trousers’ aren’t waterproof. Nope, nor your puffer jacket. Nor your ‘yoga pants’ (I kid you not – I have had this conversation with someone in our shop).

Cameron suitably dressed for the mountains in winter – hiking boots, waterproof jacket and waterproof over-trousers. Lots of layers underneath too. And look how warm and happy he is!

We’re rather at a loss as to how to get it across to people? We’ve tried everything. I’ve resorted lately to literally asking people if they would remain dry if I chucked a bucket of water at them. No? Then your clothes ARE NOT WATERPROOF.

As I write this today (in late March) 6 of the 26 people booked on the Hill Trip had to buy waterproof trousers in our shop (we have some ’emergency’ pairs for sale) before we would let them take part – despite knowing perfectly well upon booking that they needed to bring them, and being told so in three separate emails. March is not necessarily spring here – today it was full on blizzard conditions on the hill.

I can go into all sorts of other pet peeves, but I’m starting to feel a bit frazzled just thinking about it all, and I notice my use of capitals is increasing throughout this blog as I feel more and more shouty, so it’s probably time to stop here.

Hen

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

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