Dynasties – Spy

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

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

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

Spy feeding Florence.

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

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

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

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

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

Dante as a 2 year old.
Dante fully grown.

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

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

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

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

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

Spy and Florence.
Florence at almost 3 years old.

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

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

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

Spy at 12 years old, still in her prime.

Lotti

Why can’t I touch the reindeer?!

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

Reindeer and visitors mingling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okapi and Hippo – always enthusiastic hand-feeders!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hen

Photo Blog: February 2024

We reopened to the public on the 10th of February. With no Paddocks and Exhibition available (the site is currently a very big hole) it feels rather strange! But the Hill Trips are running as usual, in fact for the February half term we brought some of our free ranging cows and nine month old calves in to our hill enclosure allowing us to do two Hill Trips a day. So, we’ve been busy looking after our the herd in the enclosure and checking in with the free rangers once every few days. February has so far been rather mild so far with not very much snow so we’ve been having a relatively easy time, and the reindeer are finding easy grazing. We’ll be back to free range visits very soon (Monday 26th Feb) so if anyone is visiting us between now and the end of April be prepared for potentially much longer walks out to find the herd.

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

Ruth

A broken ankle and a helicopter ride.

Anyone who has come to visit us will know that we have very strict clothing and footwear requirements. On a fair-weather day, this may sometimes seem slight overkill but when the conditions change, or something goes wrong requiring us to stay on the hill longer than usual, the extra layers are absolutely necessary.

A wild day feeding the reindeer (Getty images).

One such occasion happened in December. We had almost come to the end of a hill trip when one of our visitors approached me to ask if I could help her support her wife who had slipped and possibly sprained her ankle. At first they had hoped that between the three of us, we would be able to walk off the hill. When I reached her, it became quickly apparent that the pain was too great for her to walk of the hill even with us taking her weight, making it a very easy decision that we would call mountain rescue. The week before I had done my first aid training and our casualty’s wife was a doctor so hopefully, she was in good hands. While Ben got on the phone, I fetched our group shelter and Isla brought some layers to keep everybody warm. The reindeer, having not seen a group shelter before were very interested in the sudden appearance of a giant orange ‘bag of food’ and Ben and I had to chase them away to avoid any further injury.

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

We were very lucky, and the mountain rescue team were with us within an hour and a half. As they arrived there were fits of laughter from inside the group shelter as Ben was telling both the women not to worry, that we had pre-paid for the rescue by getting our kit off for a naked calendar the previous year, raising over four and a half grand for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Mountain Rescue teams are made up of volunteers, when a call comes in, they are all alerted and have to leave their jobs/ whatever else they may have been up to come out. Once the team has assembled, they then have to drive from the base and then walk out to find the casualty, all of this can take a good few hours. On this occasion they had already been alerted for another rescue so the first people to respond had gone to the other casualty and then the next people had come straight to us. The mountain rescue team were absolutely fantastic, they splinted her ankle, with some much-appreciated pain relief, and then lifted her onto a stretcher, ready to walk off the hill.

The whole time this was happening, we could hear a helicopter flying a little way south of where we were. It became apparent that the helicopter was meant for the original casualty who had been climbing in the Northern Corries but they were unable to land due to the weather. So as not to waste the flight, and to get our lovely visitor off the hill and to hospital as soon as possible, the helicopter came to us instead.

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

By this point we’d been on the hill so long that the afternoon Hill Trip had arrived and was gathered a bit further down the hill. The reindeer have regularly seen helicopters in the distance, but we were unsure if one landing this close to the reindeer would spook them causing a rather abrupt end to the Hill Trip. On the contrary, the reindeer barely batted an eyelid, the visitors were all pretty interested though!

Helicopter with our next hill trip visitors and reindeer behind.

The woman with the broken ankle was lifted into the helicopter and as they flew off her wife told us ‘Once she’s out of hospital and her ankle is fixed, she’s going to absolutely love this, she loves helicopters’. The rest of us walked back down off the hill.

Helicopter flying away.

Accidents such as these are very rare, in fact at my first aid course the previous week I had smugly told the instructor that I hadn’t had to use any first aid since the previous course 3 years earlier. I clearly spoke too soon. In this case, our visitor slipped despite having the correct footwear, she was just very unlucky. All four of us ended up staying on the hill for a total of 4 hours, for the last 2 we weren’t moving. For me it was a very good reminder of why we have to be so strict with the footwear and clothing that our visitors wear, had our casualty not had enough layers, the situation could have become more serious very quickly.

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

Lotti

Seasonal Volunteer to Seasonal Herder

Editor’s note: The lovely Hannah wrote this blog when she was here back in August 2023 but I have only just found it lurking in a folder on the computer. Sorry Hannah! Read Hannah’s first blog here about her time volunteering with us here: Hannah’s Volunteer Blog – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. And then try to imagine you’re reading this current one in the warm summer month of August!

The herd within the hill enclosure – August 2023.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since I was up on the hill – it always feels far too long! As usual I signed up for my now annual volunteering stint and was met with an even better offer to come and help for three weeks rather than one! Obviously, this was too good an opportunity to pass up and I quickly abandoned my long-suffering partner (and our impending house move) to come and stay at Reindeer House for the month!

A lot can change in a year – last July I was hand rearing Sunny, now one of our yearlings and a fully-fledged reindeer – antlers and all! My hand rearing days were not over, though – as we had two new calves to meet – Winnie and Alba! Being resident in Reindeer House means extra quality time with these two lovely girls, including late night feeds and mornings taking them up the hill. It’s been amazing watching them progress even over the past few weeks, gaining weight as they should and spotting some antlers beginning to appear.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to come at a different point of the year which has included adventures with the free ranging females and tracking the discovery of new calves flourishing out on the hills. Having not had much time with our girls, being mostly a summer presence, it was great to finally put faces to the names of the lovely females I have heard so much about and meet some of their new arrivals.

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

I count myself very lucky to have quadrupled my usual stint here and be a part of the team. Hopefully the next bit of time goes speedily, and I’ll be back out on the hill before I know it!

Hannah

Wanna buy some antlers? It’s a complicated business…

Over the years I’ve established myself as ‘chief of antler sales’ here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. As with most reindeer related things, it’s not really a job that is straight-forward but one that has evolved with time, and I’ve tweaked and tweaked each year until it is as workable as possible. But – in usual fashion – the devil is in the details, much of which are in my head and memory and it’s therefore not a job that I delegate to anyone else.

The dream set of antlers everyone wants… (thanks Spartan).

We’ve always sold antlers from the reindeer herd. But is it as easy as 150 reindeer equals 300 antlers per year to sell? Of course it isn’t…

Firstly, we only find around 30-40% (at a rough estimate) of the antlers each year. This is because the reindeer roam on a huge area of rough, upland land, and the time of year when most antlers are shed – January to April – is exactly the time that almost the entire herd are roaming completely freely and are not enclosed at all. The proverbial needle in the haystack. (In fact sometimes finding the herd itself can be a needle/haystack situation, let alone their cast antlers!).

So many antlers, so few of them found.

Secondly, whilst around half of our herd are males, we tend to castrate them at around three years old. This means the bone of their antlers doesn’t calcify to the same extent, and they will usually break their antlers off in pieces as a result. So instead of a nice, clean antler, we get broken sections of – to be quite honest – often rather manky antler, still partly covered with the velvet skin that covered it whilst it grew. Smaller pieces disappear into deep vegetation – never to be seen again – far more easily than a whole antler.

A classic bit of antler from a castrated male. This one’s from Frost – the top third of his right hand antler, still with remaining skin and a little velvet hair. But it’s still a bit of Frost none-the-less, regardless of it’s appearance.
Classic antlers from a castrate male around February time- the upright sections have broken off and only the points at the base remain, still with the remnants of the velvet skin and hair. Not particularly glamorous, eh Caribou?!

Once castrated, males also tend to grow relatively smaller antlers than they did as a bull. So we really only get two or three big, mature bull sets of antlers each year. But some of these we keep – for example we have almost all of Sherlock’s antlers, and most of Crann’s. Crann holds the record for the biggest antlers ever in the herd, and as such we’ll never sell them as they are of great nostalgic value to us, even though Crann himself is long gone.

Crann with his 2009 antlers (his second biggest set). They are the ones currently in our shop window that we hang stuff for sale on! COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY: LES WILSON

Antler selling starts in January each year. The mature bulls have dropped their antlers in November/December, and some of our immature bulls then have their antlers cut off in December before they are let out to their winter grazing up on the mountains. This is done for the safety of hill-walkers – a testosterone-charged ‘teenage’ bull could really inflict damage. It’s done long after the feeling in the antler has gone, so causes zero pain.

Two year old bull Domino, looking mighty miffed with his antler stumps.

From (usually) around February or March onwards the cows start dropping their antlers, but for me life gets very busy in the spring with the calving season, followed by writing/editing the June newsletter, so it’s often well into the summer before I pick up the antler list once again.

So… here’s some info for those of you now imagining a nice set of antlers adorning your wall.

Firstly, I give members of our reindeer adoption scheme priority for purchasing antlers over ‘unconnected’ members of the public. I feel it’s a privilege someone who supports our business should get. My method for this is to have a waiting list for adopters to add their name for dibs on ‘their’ reindeer’s antlers, which I work my way through gradually as and when I have something suitable. Should you want to add yourself to this list, drop me an email through the contact form on the website FAO Hen (please don’t just comment on the blog/social media – email means I can keep everything together, and gives better chance of a reply one day from me actually reaching you, rather than disappearing into spam).

If you’ve asked to be on the waiting list in the past, no need to get in touch again – you’ll still be there. Well you will as long as your adoption is still current. I’m afraid that I always double-check someone is still an adopter before emailing them, and you’re scratched off the list if your adoption has lapsed. My list, my rules.

If I have no-one on the waiting list for a particular reindeer’s antler(s), then I will send a letter to all of their (UK based) adopters in one go – and it’s first come, first served. Miss out, and you go on the waiting list. This does mean sometime multiple people are all waiting for the same reindeer to shed his/her antlers – which we might never find from year to year anyway. I’m well aware some poor souls have been languishing on the waiting list for years… sorry.

If you aren’t an adopter of a reindeer and are reading this in despair, wondering whether there’s ever a chance of you getting anything, then all is not lost. Email me anyway, and I have a password-protected webpage with any available antlers on that I can give you details of, and on which you can sign up for occasional email alerts when new ones become available (if I get my arse in gear, this is still only two or three times a year, so don’t worry about me flooding your inbox. (Also, I hate Mailchimp – it’s totally user-unfriendly)). I have separate webpages for single antlers and for pairs, and usually have a much better range of single antlers, since finding both sides of a pair is rarer in the first place.

A small, single antler can be very beautiful – size doesn’t always matter 😉

Final info:

Yes, they do cost a lot. The biggest sets we ever get to sell are in the region of (at time of writing in 2024) £300. The single antler in the photo above was about £60. I guess other places with reindeer in the UK maybe also sell their antlers, but I’ve never actually heard of them doing so. I do my best to price antlers fairly though – every single one is utterly unique and in some way it is a snapshot of that reindeer at that particular point of their life. I’m sure I could push up the prices hugely and they would still sell eventually, but that isn’t the point. It’s a balancing act to try and get it right.

For adopters, if you perhaps can’t afford the antler(s) you been contacted about, it’s still worth going on the waiting list. I might have a glorious £200 set of beautiful antlers one year from your reindeer, and a single broken-off – much cheaper – half antler the next year. But hey, it’s still a piece of antler that your reindeer actually grew, and really it means just as much.

Conversely, you miss out on something small that you had your heart set on. But hey presto you might then be first in line for the potentially much more impressive effort from your reindeer next year. It’s all utterly unpredictable and there’s definitely an element of luck involved.

I can’t post abroad, sorry.

If you can collect your antler(s) rather than me having to package and post them, a) it’s cheaper and b) I love you.

Postage nightmare.

If you receive an ‘antler letter’ through the post – read it properly! I always do my best to describe the antler fully before you phone up to buy it – but have never forgotten the lovely couple who arrived to pick up a set of antlers from their adopted reindeer years ago. The bloke was a bit worried about fitting them in the car. The antlers were about 30cm tall.

Antlers come in all sizes but all shapes too. Forget that classic set of ‘perfect’ shapely reindeer antlers you’ve got in your mind’s eye – they probably aren’t going to look like that… If I’m emailing you directly I’ll attach a photo, and if I’ve sent you a letter, you can ask to see a photo before you decide.

Tall and thin…
…or short and wide?

As mentioned before, we keep some of the biggest bull antlers. Herders also usually have first dibs on their favourite reindeer’s antlers (I’ll add that (depending on the size of antler) we do usually still have to pay for them!), so there are certain reindeer in the herd whose antlers will come up for sale very rarely, if ever. Huge apologies, if you also adopt one of those reindeer… let’s mention no names.

I do also try to be fair to people – if I know you already have multiple antlers from a certain reindeer but are keen for more, I will usually try and give their other adopters a look in at some point.

And if you adopt Juniper, well don’t give up hope. Ferrari was also a ‘polled’ reindeer (one who doesn’t grow antlers at all) and suddenly sprouted one when she reached 9 years old, so all is not lost. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.

Ferrari in her latter years. Just one antler! But what a nice antler, after 8 years of baldness.

And finally, I’m only human so bear with me as the old brain doesn’t get everything right every time. Apologies again to the lovely lady who I posted the entirely wrong set of antlers to a couple of years ago, and then had to go through a whole rigmarole of getting her to post them on to the correct new owner (Editor’s note: we did get permission to pass on the address first!), whilst I sorted out the right set for her. And years ago I died a little bit inside when I realised we’d sold the same antler to two separate people, and I was going to have to make a very awkward phone-call (although in my defence, it wasn’t actually me that forgot to mark that antler as ‘sold’ on the list). Oh, the horror.

Hen

Photo Blog: January 2024

January has seen the last few Hill Trips of the Christmas holidays and then the start of our closed period where we can crack on with various office and maintenance jobs such as repairing holes in our waterproof kit (thanks Lotti for keeping us dry!) and oiling the Christmas harness ready to be stored for the next 10 months.

The entire reindeer herd roams freely in the hills at this time of year over two locations. Tilly looks after one group, and we look after the herd here which wander the Cairngorms. We tend to visit them every other day (when the weather allows) to check on our wonderful furry friends. Of course, they’re totally fine and are in their element over the winter months but they won’t turn down a free meal. I think it’s mostly for the herders benefit that we go up and see them else we’d all probably go a bit mad without our reindeer fix.

The HUGE thing which is also going on this January is the exhibition has been demolished so it’s been all hands on deck, taking things down, sorting and storing things to be kept, cutting trees, clearing brash, ripping up boardwalks, loading trailers etc. Here’s a selection of photos from what has turned out to be a rather action packed ‘quiet’ season! We look forward to reopening the shop and taking Hill Trips from Saturday the 10th of February.

2nd of January: A wonderful day for a Hill Trip.
3rd of January: 15 year old Ibex leading the free ranging herd.
5th of January: Cassie overseeing the feeding of the calves.
10th of January: The herd emerging from the mist on a beautiful atmospheric day. Merida at the front.
10th of January: Pavlova with one of the biggest sets of antlers this winter.
11th of January: Snoozy Orinoco and mum Pinto.
13th of January: Ben leading the herd in for a free lunch. Pinto and Orinoco at the front!
14th of January: Lace and her son Limpopo in the snow. Lace is a strong leader, and tends to be at the front of the free ranging herd as they come to our call.
14th of January: Sisters in the snow! Danube and her older sister Sorbet. Their mum Brie was just next to them too, but I missed the full family portrait.
19th of January: Herd on the move! Pinto and Orinoco, Lace and Limpopo and Hopscotch lead the charge.
22nd of January: We left the reindeer to it today, which meant we spent the morning clearing the chaos in the paddocks after the demolition of the exhibition. Here’s Lotti, Andi and Lisette hard at work.
24th of January: Amy leading the free ranging herd.
24th of January: Colin and Cameron on the site of our old exhibition. The Arctic Shed is the only part currently still standing.

Ruth

A Brand New Reindeer Centre!

On 4th August 1989 Alan and I took over the ownership and management of the Cairngorm Reindeer. We had both been working for the family who owned the herd for a number of years and when Mr Utsi and then Dr Lindgren passed away the opportunity arose for us to buy the herd.

Back when Alan and Tilly took over the Reindeer Centre in the late 80s (and Alan had more hair!)

To this day the 4th August is etched on my brain. Our children were 3 and 4 years old and we had never had our own business, Alan had been employed by Dr Lindgren and I was initially a volunteer. But we had lots of ideas and we had a beautiful herd of reindeer.

The requisite Smith family photo – Tilly and Alan with Alex and Fiona, and obligatory reindeer.

We immediately converted part of Reindeer House into the ‘Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’, with reception, shop and office at one end leaving the rest of the house for living in with our young family and friends, many of whom who were volunteer reindeer herders. The reindeer paddocks beside the house became a display area for visitors to see a small group of reindeer, along with the 11am Hill Trips to the herd on the mountains.

The shop and reception area, in what was once the living room of Reindeer House.

Nearly 35 years later and the status quo continues. The only difference is that we’ve all got older; Alan and I moved out to our new ventures at Glenlivet (although still closely involved with the reindeer) and our daughter Fiona is living at Reindeer House with many of the other herders (they’re paid now though!). We attract more visitors and there are extra daily visits onto the hill to the herd.

The Paddocks in recent years.

The set-up has worked really well and the homespun infrastructure and hard working herders, along with a unique herd of free ranging reindeer, has been a great story. I have written three books around the life of reindeer and our journey with them and the herd is still looked after by us along with a band of enthusiastic, caring and clever people. Our herders today have brought with them tremendous life skills which have hugely progressed the way the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is run from day to day. But most importantly the welfare and care of the reindeer is still at the heart of everything we all do on a daily basis.

Looking after the herd. Photo: Alex Smith
Tilly with Scrabble. Reindeer are the heart of the business, and always will be, regardless of the changes around them. Photo: John Paul

In the summer of 2021 we received an incredibly generous donation from a long term reindeer adopter who asked that the monies they donated be put towards upgrading the current facilities at Reindeer House, which would involve returning the house to a domestic property and constructing a stand alone building for our reindeer shop, exhibition and office.

Exhibition displays. They’ve improved a lot over the years, but the building housing them was definitely getting shabbier and shabbier!

The following January we engaged with an architect and since then we have been going through the process of agreeing plans and applying for planning permission and the building warrant. With all the statutory requirements in place we began work last September, building a 16 bay car-park close to the Paddocks. The car-park is now nearly finished (but not available for parking in yet) and work is due to start on the new building in early February, which will be situated in our existing Paddock area.

The artist’s impression of the shiny new building!The existing Reindeer House building can be seen at the left hand side here, with the entrance to the new car-park on the right hand side.

As normal we closed for a few weeks on 8th January 2024 and immediately our son Alex, with help from herders, began to demolish the wooden structures in the Paddocks to make space for the new construction. There is a tinge of sadness seeing the old buildings (that we built ourselves) coming down but I suspect the improvements are long overdue and we are imagining a really special place for visitors to come to learn about our wonderful herd of reindeer alongside new displays, children’s activities and of course reindeer. Most importantly the new Centre will be access to all abilities.

We closed to the public on Monday 8th January. By Friday the 12th the Paddocks looked like this!

So exciting (and expensive!) times ahead. Unfortunately a bit disruptive too as the Paddocks will not be available for viewing reindeer while the building is constructed. However once we re-open to the public on 10th February we will otherwise still operate as normal with reception, shop and office where they have always been and the daily Hill Trips to the herd will continue as usual.

Hill Trips will continue as normal – tickets available on our website (from 30 days in advance)!

To check out what is available and how you can still come and visit do keep an eye on our website for updates and once construction gets underway we will have a better idea of how things are progressing, and more of an idea of the duration of the work.

Tilly

Old lady Okapi

I’m lacking in inspiration, motivation and time to think of a new and so-far unused blog topic, so this week I’m going for the old tried-and-tested method – pick a reindeer and write about him/her.

This week’s subject is Okapi. I’ve known Okapi her entire life, and at 15 and a half years old, it’s a long life indeed. Whilst not right up there in my very, very top favourite reindeer, she’s always been in the upper echelons of the reindeer herd, and I reckon most other herders would agree – collectively amongst us, she’s held in extremely high affection.

Okapi was born in 2008, her mum Esme’s third calf. Esme was a lovely reindeer, and was actually the subject of our very first blog, back in 2015! I first met Okapi at a few months old, at which point she was easily distinguishable from the other 2008 calves by the silver hairs on her face, giving her the appearance of wearing war-paint.

Those silver hairs eventually spread across the rest of Okapi’s body, and although she is still want we would call ‘normal-coloured’, she’s a much greyer colour than many of the other reindeer in the same colour category. Coat colour runs in family lines – Esme was on the silvery side too, as were many other members of the family, most notably Okapi’s big brother Elvis. Elvis became a legendary reindeer in our herd, living to 17 and only passing away a few months ago.

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

Okapi has always been a ‘leader’ in the herd, a relatively dominant female and generally one of the first to start moving in the right direction when we call the herd from a distance, leading them towards us. Reindeer like this are worth their weight in gold to us as a lot of the winter season is spent bellowing towards specks on a distant hill, and wondering whether they are going to come to us or we are going to have to go to them… It needs a dominant reindeer to sigh, stand up and start moving to get the rest of the herd underway too.

As a youngster, out free-ranging up on the mountains.

We usually like to breed from our loveliest female reindeer multiple times, but Okapi had a bit of a hitch in this respect. She had two lovely calves, in 2012 and 2013, Murray and Oka. Murray had the best set of antlers that we’ve seen on a calf in our herd, and we were very excited for what he would grow into in the future. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he passed away at about a year old. Win some and lose some with animals, but this felt like a particularly hard loss.

Okapi with 8 month old Murray – look at those calf antlers!

Okapi’s second calf, Oka, was also lovely, but again didn’t survive long term – dying at about 2 years old. A huge shame, as a female she should have gone on to continue Okapi’s genetic line, but hey ho. Again these things happen, but it feels unfair for Okapi to have lost both her calves.

Oka

And that was that for Okapi’s motherhood career, as a few months after Oka’s birth she suffered a prolapse. This came completely out of the blue and we never knew what – if anything – triggered it, but the end result was that everything had to be pushed back into place more than once, and eventually permanent stitches were inserted by the vet to keep poor old Okapi’s bits where they should be. This meant no more calves for her – a real shame for a lovely 5 year old female in her prime.

Okapi’s classic pose – she’s a reindeer who almost always has her ears pricked. This is how I will remember her when she’s no longer with us.

But life as a permanently ‘single lady’ has meant Okapi has since been a lady of leisure, all her energy going into her own body each year, and quite possibly has contributed to her longevity. Almost every year she’s grown pretty big antlers, and it’s only really in the last couple of years she’s started to look ‘old’.

Never having calves at foot means that Okapi also spends a higher ratio of her time free-ranging out on the mountains, as there’s never really a reason for her to spend any length of time in our hill enclosure. She will come in now and then for a few days as all our reindeer need vaccinating a couple of times of year, or sometimes we’ll hold particularly friendly reindeer back in the enclosure so they can be part of a the group for filming, for example. But on average, I’d say Okapi spends 11.5 months a year out living a completely free lifestyle – pretty nice!

A life of luxury!

And finally, Okapi had one particular starring role – on the cover of our Naked Reindeer Herders charity calendar in 2023. But I don’t think too many people were looking at the reindeer, if I’m honest…

Okapi on the right,with Ochil, Ruth, Fiona, Marple and Lotti, left to right. What a line up!

Hen

Characters

Visitors often ask how on earth we tell apart the 150-strong herd of reindeer. Whilst there is variation in colour, markings and antler shape, one of the biggest distinguishing features is actually character. Just like people, reindeer come in every shade of cheeky, shy, friendly, stand-offish, bolshy, greedy, intelligent, daft… I thought I might mention a few stand out character types, past and present!

Overexcited Labrador

Aztec leading the herd – look at that expectant face

Step up, Aztec! Always the first to be involved, always wanting to “help”, very friendly, lovable, and not a manner to be seen if there is a mere sniff of food… Fun, but a bit of a liability.

Also falling into this category: Kipling, Bumble, Eco

The Thinker

Olmec paying careful consideration to all potential outcomes

Reserved and steady, not always the easiest to catch but utterly dependable when out on tour. Olmec, I’m looking at you.

Also applies to: Dragonfly

TV Diva

HM with her adoring fan Lotti

Introducing the one and only Holy Moley… who knows full well that she basically had her own TV documentary and hence feels that every visitor is there to see her and her alone.

Also: Dr Seuss appears to feel that his minor starring role in the same show entitles him to extra food portions every single day too.

Sweet as Pie, Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

Sweet Diamond, with Hopper in the background

Beautiful light-coloured Diamond has to be one of the gentlest souls in the herd. She walks with a slight limp after an injury back in her younger days, which of course means we all (needlessly) slip her extra bits of feed. 

Also: Amber, Esme, Sunflower

Loyal and True

Okapi in her usual position – right in the footsteps of the herder

Certain reindeer can always be relied upon when we’re moving the free-range herd – they’ll be near the front, they willingly have a headcollar put on, they trustingly plod behind you whilst the rest of the herd debate whether your bribe is worth coming for. Okapi, you’re the star here.

Also: Olympic

The Boy Band Pin-Up

Sherlock, admired by all!

Sherlock has to be one of the most impressive looking reindeer in the herd today, and he also knows how to work it. Some reindeer naturally prick their ears for a photo, and seem to offer their best side!

Also: Elvis, of whom there was never a bad photo taken!

Grumpy Old Men (and Women)

That look in Pony’s eye which was the precursor to antlers being aimed at you! We were always grateful when she cast her antlers each year, though she would then resort to using her front feet!

Bond may only be 5 years old, but he definitely ticks every box for “grouchy” – you only need to look at him and he rolls his eyes at the thought that you might try to interact with him. Likewise, walking too near Lace or Turtle is likely to extract a swing of the antlers and a snap of the mouth as a warning.  Turtle is Pony’s daughter, who was perhaps the grumpiest reindeer we’ve ever had in the herd, so it’s definitely inherited!

Also: Addja once implanted his antlers into my leg when in a bad mood, only to cast one, which definitely didn’t make him any more cheery (though it did make me chuckle at the instant karma).

Big Friendly Giant

Scrabble, our very own BFG!

One of the tallest, heftiest reindeer in the herd, Scrabble was a bit of a liability in his youth as he was just so keen to meet everyone, and somewhat unaware of his sheer size. It almost seemed that his bum was so far away from his brain that he couldn’t keep track of the children he was wiping out as he turned around… Now he’s an old fella so a bit steadier, but just as friendly and enormous!

Also: Comet

Don’t Mess With…

Brie acting like butter wouldn’t melt… until she disagrees with the program

Brie may look little and cute, but her first instinct if she doesn’t like something is to beat it/them with her antlers, and whilst she both she and her antlers may be small, she is ANGRY. As Mel once found out when leading Brie, and Brie decided she did NOT want to be there…

Also: Spy. If Spy has calved, it usually takes about four herders, all hiding behind gates/fences to move her where we want her to be.

Andi

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