On the whole, calving season back in May went really well with between 25-30 calves born. There were a few, new, young mums in the group but also some of our older girls who have been there, done that when it comes to calving. At the end of May / beginning of June the whole lot went out onto the summer free range where that’ll be them now for the next few months hopefully getting the best of the summer grazing on the Cairngorms.
One calf who didn’t join them is Sunny. He was born on Friday 20th May and his mother was Rain. At 5-6 days old unfortunately we lost Rain. We suspect there was an internal infection, from calving, which she hid from us and as a result she passed away. This rarely happens but in this case we were left holding the baby! He came straight down here to our Centre where we could start the hand rearing process. We knew there was no other option at this stage and we have hand reared lots of reindeer calves in the past so were confident that although we wouldn’t do as good a job as Rain would have we would manage nonetheless.
It’s been a good few weeks now and Sunny has become part of the Reindeer house family of humans, dogs and now baby reindeer! He joins us for dog walks, where we know it’ll be quiet and we won’t bump into other walkers with their dogs, he makes himself at home on our kitchen floor on the odd occasion when he comes into the house. His favourite spot is beside the washing machine. In fact he is so comfortable in ours and the dogs presence that he’s the ultimate ‘lazy boy’ and he pees while he is lying down! Needless to say we’re all quite used to mopping up after him now. It’s a good job we have an easy to clean floor and aren’t fazed by a bit of pee and poo!
Every morning he gets in our reindeer van and joins the herders and dogs for the walk over to our enclosure. Getting some tasty grazing along the way it’s also very good exercise and socialising for him as he comes in with the main herd. The first time we took him up the reindeer on the hill acted like they had no idea what he was… Is he a dog?!?! They sniffed him and with sudden movements Sunny made they darted off, tail in the air worried he’d do them harm. Little did they know he was just a very young version of them. They are now accustomed to him and he mixes in just fine.
So here you have it, Sunny our hand reared calf of 2022. We named him Sunny as his mother was called Rain and his brother is called Jimmy so for the Scottish folk out there you’ll know the saying ‘Sonny Jim’! We’ve just tweaked the spelling. I cannot predict the weather this summer but I know for sure that we will have a Sunny summer!
Each year, as calving season looms, we reindeer herders have a sweep stake. We place our bets on which reindeer will calve first. Or rather more importantly, try to bet upon which reindeer won’t calve last.
I say ‘bet’…what I really mean is we try to combine luck and science to each predict a reindeer. The herder whose reindeer gives birth last then has to do a punishment. The punishment was historically swim in Loch Morlich. However, this task became obsolete as a punishment a few years ago when it became apparent that most herders regularly braved the cold waters as a leisure activity.
So, the current ‘punishment’ is to bake a cake for the calf naming evening in September. It is on this evening in September that we pick a theme and subsequent names for the recently born reindeer. It’s hungry work, so cake is always greatly appreciated. In fact, in 2009 the cakes were so appreciated that we had a whole naming theme dedicated to ‘cakes, puddings and biscuits’.
We’re in the last week of April as I write this blog and it’s a stage in the year where some of the pregnant females are MASSIVE. We’ll be expecting the first calf in the coming days and each of us will keep a keen eye on who calves throughout the month. I mentioned science as a prediction method in my first paragraph. Some herders like to research when a reindeer stripped the velvet on their antlers in the previous year, some herders like to look at if the reindeer are already growing their new antlers, and some herders like to inspect how big a reindeer’s udder is, all as a sign of their readiness to calve. If a reindeer strips their velvet early it can be an indicator that they come into season earlier. If a reindeer is already growing their new antlers it can be a sign that they are using more of their nutrients for themselves and not sharing them with a foetus.
This makes it all sound very technical actually. I think most of us just tend to pick one of our favourite reindeer. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to take a risk as well. Add to the drama. However, herders have been known in the past to make a risky prediction and the reindeer to not be pregnant at all. Just fat!
Some reindeer are so dependable to calve first that they’re off-bounds. Christie was first last year. And it was Pagan the year before that who always seems to be there or thereabouts. This year Tilly has chosen Ladybird who looks rotund. Ladybird, that is. I’ve chosen first time calver (I hope), Texel. My baking skills aren’t up to much so let’s hope Texel pulls through to reduce the risk of a salmonella outbreak up here.
After sitting at the computer for what seemed like an age trying to think of a topic for a blog which could include lots of reindeer pictures, I finally stumbled across one which means you guys get to look at numerous pictures of reindeer bottoms!
“Acting sheepdog” is a term us herders use when we are trying to manoeuvre the reindeer. Depending on how willing the reindeer are we might only need one person to call and bribe them with food to a new position or if the reindeer are more reluctant two of us can go out with one leading the herd and the other staying behind the herd making sure that they do not stray off in the wrong direction, because once one reindeer wanders off in a different direction they all can go! We can also use this sheepdog technique to our advantage when the reindeer are lethargic and don’t feel like moving far. All we must do is put a head collar on a friendly individual that we know is a pro at leading and the rest of the herd aren’t long in following.
My preference out of the two roles is to be at the back of the herd, in this position your job can either be a breeze or you’re racking up your daily miles trying to ensure the reindeer stay on the right path! The picture above was from a day where the reindeer were not playing ball and Lotti had to put one of the girls on a head collar and lead the herd to our destination, however once we got to the top of the hill at the left-hand side of the picture, the herd found a good lichen spot, so I had my work cut out trying to move them again. This leads me on to my first reason for liking being at the back of the herd and “acting sheepdog”, which is that it gives you a good chance to take lots of photos! Below is a picture of Witch wondering why I’m so red in the face.
Being relatively new to the job I find that walking along behind the herd gives me a chance to look at and notice what defining characteristics each reindeer has, for example, Witch on the left here has the typical reindeer colouring but I find her easy to distinguish as she has quite a narrow face. It also gives you a chance to see how the reindeer behave around one another – who’s a “bossy boots” or who is more timid in nature and sticks to the outskirts of the herd. My final reason for preferring to be at the back of the herd is because currently my navigational skills are rubbish and on cloudy days when you can’t really see where you are going I don’t want to be responsible for getting myself lost as well as a herd of reindeer! [Editor’s note: Amy’s nav skills are better than she thinks!].
It is now officially calving season!! As I write this blog it is the last day of April, and we already have two new calves in our ranks. All the calves will be named in September, as is always the case. In fact, every Cairngorm reindeer has a name, and this follows a designated theme each year. Whilst we have not yet decided on the theme for the 2022 calves, we will often be asked about previous themes. In this blog I’ll describe previous themes. Feel free to leave your ideas for themes in our comments section.
2007: A theme centred around all things ‘Green’ (green) – Fern, Fly.
2006: Popstars (silver) – Elvis, Enya, Lulu.
2005: Countries (yellow) – Malawi.
So, there you have it, that is a list of the naming themes (with the corresponding tag colour and some examples of reindeer names) that are currently in circulation with our reindeer. Now, when you visit again you may have a better idea of how old the reindeer you are feeding may be. Although, as you can see, some colours are repeated which can cause confusion. For example, if you see an orange tag, you may not know if this reindeer was born in 2008 or 2017. Well, each reindeer also has a number on their tag and this number corresponds to the reindeer name on our systems. It is a legal requirement to have a tag on any animal that is transported within the U.K., so we’ve made it work for us with specific colours and numbers that help us identify the reindeer if required.
It is worth noting that we also have just under 10 male reindeer still with us that were born in Sweden between the years of 2009 and 2011 and brought to Scotland to provide new genetics for our herd. These older boys were named individually and not within a theme. Spike, Caesar, Houdini, Bovril, and Hook are some examples of these boys’ names, and they have a range of numbers and colours in their ear tags.
It is not just ‘the Swedes’ that have names that don’t fit into a theme. Occasionally we will get reindeer where a nickname from early on in their life appears to stick and stay with the reindeer. Holy Moley, our television superstar, had such an eventful initial few days to her life that one herder exclaimed ‘holy moley!’ after being informed of events (she fell down a hole in a boulder field). Svalbard is another example. He was supposed to be called Meccano to fit in with the 2011 naming theme of Games & pastimes, but that name never stuck due to him looking incredibly alike a Svalbard reindeer (small and dumpy). Hamish is a final example of being an exception to the naming rule. Hamish was born in 2010 and unfortunately wasn’t being fed by his mother. This led to him being bottle-fed by the herders for the first part of his life so that he could grow into a big, strong Scottish reindeer and as such was given a big, strong Scottish name…Hamish.
Previous themes, prior to 2005, yielded some great names. We have been naming the reindeer after a theme since 1971. It has gotten to the point where a lot of the more obvious themes have been chosen by now. Some examples of previous themes are: Musical instruments & genres (2000), Colours (1999), Sweets & chocolate bars (1998), Fruits & nuts (1992), Wines & whiskies (1991), Herbs & spices (1988), Scottish islands (1987), Fish (1984), Trees (1982 & 1971), Mountains (1980), Weather (1975 & 1996), and Birds (1972). Before 1971, Mr. Utsi and Dr. Lindgren (the original owners of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd) named the male reindeer after Scottish places (e.g., Aviemore) and the female reindeer had human names (e.g., Mary).
In our office we have a folder with naming theme suggestions collected throughout the years. I have just had a look through it and some of the suggested themes are: Vegetables, Ice creams & lollies, Mushrooms & toadstools, Condiments & spreads, Indian foods, Teas & coffees, Cocktails (as you can see, we enjoy our food and drink here), Disney side-kick characters, Mountain ranges, Sea creatures, Gods & goddesses, Rivers of the world, and Dances. Who knows what themes 2022 and beyond will bring? Once we decide, the theme and each reindeer name are revealed to adopters in the autumn newsletter.
Now that calving has come to a close for 2022, we are getting ready to send all the cows and calves out to join the rest of the reindeer already free ranging here on the Cairngorms. Once this happens we will only see them intermittently through the summer months as we leave the mothers be, to teach their young ones where all the best spots in the mountains are!
Meanwhile our boys will be in the hillside enclosure for visitors to come and see, and for us to keep an eye on.
So with all that being said, I wanted to round off our regular free range excursions with a little photo summary of some of my favourite moments out in the hills with the reindeer.
Here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we are ‘popping the bottles of bubbly’ and celebrating, because it was this day 70 years ago that the first small group of reindeer arrived in the Cairngorms for what would be a successful experiment to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland after many years of absence.
An idea conceived by ‘couple extraordinaire’ Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, their tenacity and zeal paid off and the first small breeding group actually set foot on terra firma here in the Cairngorms on 27th May 1952.
The first consignment was swiftly followed by a second group of reindeer coming in the following October and finally on 29th April 1954 a third group arrived. These reindeer would form the nucleus of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd we love and cherish today.
Mikel Utsi was a Swedish Sami, born 17th May 1908 and brought up in a reindeer herding family in Swedish Lapland. As the second child of 8 children he was expected to ‘make his own way in life’, something I think we can all agree he certainly did!
His wife Dr Lindgren came from a very different background. Born on 1st January 1905 she was the only child of a wealthy Swedish-American banking family. She travelled extensively as a child with her family, graduated at Cambridge University with a first class honours in oriental languages and moral science and studied and wrote her PhD on reindeer herding people, the Tungus after expeditions to NW Manchuria in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren met in Jokkmokk on the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland and they married in 1947. They then devoted their lives to their ‘dream’ to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland. And 70 years on that dream has been a huge success, providing enjoyment to many. We have a lot to thank them both for.
The vast majority of reindeer have been born here in the Cairngorms and they descend from original females brought in during the 1950’s. Over a span of 11+ generations, both homebred and imported bulls have been used to ensure genetic diversity in the herd.
Today visitors to the herd, our reindeer support scheme and Christmas events with our trained reindeer are all ways we generate income to help keep this unique herd of reindeer in their natural, free-living environment. We have a dedicated group of ‘Scottish Reindeer Herders’ who are also family and friends and who are involved daily in the well-being and caring of this unique herd.
So for me as co-owner of the herd I would like to say a big ‘THANK YOU’ to the late Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren for establishing this herd and also to our reindeer herders of today who continue to make this imaginative experiment such a success.
So raise your glass to The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and may they thrive in the Cairngorms for many years to come.
Tilly Smith. Co-owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer
A podcast with Tilly about 70 years of reindeer on the Cairngorms, produced by Pinsharp Studios, can be found here.
I can’t help but smile when I see a reindeer yawn. They have the most wonderful facial expressions, produce the best sounds, and have the wobbliest of chins. I always try to capture the moment on camera but I’m usually way too slow and miss the moment. Over the past year I’ve been compiling a folder of my best reindeer yawns ready to produce a blog one day. Despite reindeer herding being my full time job, at the rate I’m going it would probably take several years before I’ve captured a decent amount of silly pictures and videos.
Sooo… I mentioned my blog idea to Hen and Andi recently whist *working very hard* in the office. Of course, they came to my rescue and more or less instantly produced many glorious pictures of yawning reindeer to bolster my collection.
So here goes, in no order or for any great reason other than hopefully making people smile. Enjoy!
The eagle-eyed amongst you, or those who have followed us on social media for a long time, might have noticed a reindeer named Sika popping up on our pages once or twice in the last few months, having never heard of her before. So where has she come from? Is she ‘new’?!
In fact, she’s not remotely new – actually she’s rather old. Sika was born in 2008 and has been here her whole life, but this winter there’s been a bit of a turnaround in her character, which has taken all of us rather by surprise. Let me explain…
In 2008 we named our calves after ‘horned and antlered animal species’, and the name we picked for Malawi’s wee female calf was Impala. But time passed and Malawi and Impala weren’t seen for ages, and whilst winter crept on and all the other calves came into the hill enclosure and got used to being handled and were halter-trained, there was still no sign of the two. Eventually, Malawi showed up but she was alone, with no sign on Impala. Frustrated, we wrote off Impala as one of the losses that year – not every calf makes it to adulthood sadly.
And then in January 2009, a report reached us of a reindeer calf alone at the far end of the Kincardine hills, at the edge of the Cairngorms but not in a spot that reindeer normally stray to. Off we went to investigate, and there was a wee calf – alone and very shy. Eventually she was captured with the aid of some makeshift fencing and a small group of tame adult reindeer acting as decoys – but who was she? Process of elimination led us to realise she must be Impala, separated from Malawi accidentally at some point and then lost by herself in an area she didn’t know. But as we had had to ‘seek her’ (geddit?), and the name Sika hadn’t been used in that year’s naming theme, ‘Impala’ fell by the wayside and ‘Sika’ joined the herd instead.
Christmas is the time that our calves receive most of their formative handling, transforming from effectively wild animals to tame ones well used to being around people. But Sika had missed this window, and while we did initially halter-train her, she remained very wild still in character compared to others, and quickly became a reindeer that we didn’t even consider trying to put a halter on in adult life. She lived her life up on the Cairngorms, never being brought down to our Paddocks or moved across to our alternative winter grazing range as moving her just wasn’t an option. A ‘background’ reindeer – never noticed by visitors (and often barely by us!), just there in the herd but never really featuring much or making any great impact on any of our lives. She has never even had an adopter – one of the very few reindeer in the herd with this dubious accolade.
Over the years Sika produced a couple of calves, but in general we avoiding breeding her to some extent as breeding a wild streak into our herd is not ideal. Her calves, few and far between, also turned out rather shy too, although not as bad as Sika herself. The one anomaly was Bordeaux, her only female calf, who was born in 2019 and is an absolute sweetie! We have no idea really why she has turned out the way she has – she certainly didn’t get her trust in humans from her mum!
In the last 3 or 4 years we have put a lot more effort in to training our reindeer to come and put their heads into a feed bag and allowing us to touch them, in order to make it easier to catch and halter them when necessary. All winter when we’ve walked out to the herd first thing in the morning, before putting feed down on the ground for them we have wandered around the shyer reindeer, offering a bit of bribery in return for any positive behaviour towards us. For most reindeer this has worked wonders, and some characters that we could never have considered catching in the past (or at least whilst out in a large open space) are now easily won over – Inca, Suidhe and Roule have been our particular success stories! But as for Sika… she was a reindeer that would never really make eye contact but just turn away whenever a herder optimistically proffered a bag.
Fast forward to January 2022, and I snorted ‘Hmphh. Good luck!’ at Andi as she tried to catch Sika’s attention with the feed bag once again. But something was different. Just for a second she looked, before turning away again. Andi is like a dog with a bone in these situations, and I know I can push her to keep at something by telling her it isn’t worth bothering about (god bless you, reverse psychology) and sure enough she kept persisting. I almost fell over in surprise when, 5 minutes later, Sika had got to the point where she was stretching her neck out towards the feed bag, although not yet bold enough to put her nose right in it. This behaviour persisted from day to day until finally she snatched a mouthful… and a light-bulb went on somewhere in her little brain!
Now, Sika is one of the first reindeer over to us each morning, actively hunting down the feed bag and keeping a close eye on it until she’s offered a wee extra nibble. I love to look around at the herd, patiently hanging around waiting for us, catch her eye and rustle the bag a tiny bit… and see that head lift a bit, her eyes widen and a lick of the lips in anticipation! All her attention is on us the whole time – so different from the years of ignoring, or even actively avoiding – us.
She is still quite jumpy around us however, and is definitely not a reindeer we’re about to try and actually catch and put a halter on, but at 14 years old there’s no need to. We are just enjoying finally getting to know her after a lifetime of obscurity! I can’t express enough how surprised we all are to find out that Sika is actually a lovely character, after all these years…
From when we close in January through until around the end of April, most of the reindeer here at Cairngorm will be out free-ranging. This is great for them as they get to roam wherever they please (mostly) and spend time in their natural habitat, where they are at their most comfortable. But it does mean that before every Hill Trip during this time, we must head up into the hills to find the herd.
Generally getting to the reindeer is a pretty simple process but getting them back to whichever site we are running the hill trip from can be more complicated – they don’t always want to follow us!
Around the beginning of April, we had a morning collecting reindeer that were a little more difficult than usual. The cloud was extremely low and thick, and they were in an area of the hills with almost no established paths, only a handful of trodden trails at best. It’s also not an area we go too all that much and there are very few proper landmarks to navigate by. All this is a way of saying that it was quite a difficult morning of reindeer herding!
We’ve had quite a few new additions to our shop recently, so I thought I’d grab this opportunity to tell you all about some of them, in case you fancy indulging your reindeer themed fancies!
Magnets! Featuring our beautiful calves, plus adults Celt, Athens and Origami.
Hats! Of many types to keep your head warm!
From left to right: Wendy’s Woolies; our own branded hat; Woolly Hatz Aviemore style; locally knitted beanie. Our branded hats are available on the website, but if you fancy one of the others just give us a call!