As the schools go back, and the Christmas decorations, sleighs and harness are packed away at the end of another busy but successful season, the Reindeer Centre closes its doors to the public for a wee break. Of course we don’t get an actual holiday, the reindeer still like to be fed, but we put every single member of the herd out to free-range on the mountains. The boys head on over to the Cromdale mountains (where their lazy habit of hanging out on car parks can be prevented!) whilst most of the cows and calves go onto the Cairngorm range. The enclosure, and paddocks down in Glenmore, stand empty.
Every day we still drive up the mountain road early, spying for reindeer. Sometimes they make our job easy, like when the herd decide to get our attention and wait on the car park. It’s a bit of a giveaway when we see a traffic jam in an unusual place – you can guarantee there are a few females hanging out at the front of it, with excited tourists abandoning their cars to take photos!
Other times we spot the reindeer a long way away, and on a good day they’ll hear you calling and run a mile or more to reach you. One of my favourite moments is when you see the distant dots on a faraway mountainside suddenly start streaming down towards you, looking alarmingly similar to ants until they transform into reindeer!
Winter is when the reindeer are in their element and whilst they’re always delighted to see us, if the weather prevents us finding them for a few days, or they decide to not be found, it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t need us. Their metabolisms slow right down in the winter months, and with shovel-like feet they have no difficulty digging through the snow for food.
Whilst it makes life fairly unpredictable (Will we find the reindeer? Will they come to call? Will I have to hike up a mountain in the snow and wind with a massive sack of feed on my back???) it’s a really fun time of the year, and great to see the reindeer loving life in their natural habitat.
As December dawned upon Glenmore the word ‘Christmas Fun’ began to be whispered amongst the herders, tinsel appeared and Christmas sneezed upon the Reindeer Centre once more.
The Christmas period is one of our busiest times of year and we feel we should do something a wee bit extra special this is where Christmas Fun begins. Over December we arm ourselves with Christmas cheer and crafting supplies and head to the paddocks. An army of extra herders appear and we make decorations, Christmas hands and even help Santa himself – he valiantly mans the paddocks and gets all the last minute Christmas requests!
We even had a major reindeer herding success when one afternoon before Christmas when myself and Imogen went for a shwizzle around the mountain roads to check for any rogue reindeer. We do this daily as the girls have a great habit of creating some rather impressive traffic jams and if so we swoop in like a reindeer removal squad and deposit them atop a ridge with some yummy food. It’s also a great wee break from Christmas madness down at Reindeer Hoose!
This time we had a very specific mission to seek out Lulu and her lovely calf Bhuachaille who had not been seen properly since September! October is usually our month for training our wee calfies to wear a head collar but wee Bhuachaille managed to miss out on all of this! The mission was bring him in and halter train him so he could participate in our Christmas day parades.
We drove up the road and saw nothing, went to the ski-ing carpark and again saw nothing promising until we spotted a loitering car then one reindeer… then 24 reindeer including Lulu! I ran down the carpark and caught Lulu so fast I forgot about getting a head collar (thank god for Imogen!) and then forgot to take off my mittens so once again required assistance. In a space of one minute we had Lulu haltered and were heading with the herd to the hill enclosure with Bhuachaille in tow. Not bad for just a wee afternoon drive!
The ultimate day is Christmas Eve, definitely one of the busiest days of the year and the team that day was Andi, Hen, Sheena, Imogen, Abby, Anne and a very festive Shona! We took the busiest visit of the year, and to our knowledge of all time, with a whopping 51 cars on the visit! Have a look at all the people!
We all survived Christmas fun and even wore some very stylish jumpers!
Today’s the day – Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you’re all having a lovely day and have eaten your weight in chocolate and cheese and are having a good rest. If your wee ones (or your big ones!) have already tired of some of their presents, then I have a very quick little Christmas decoration tutorial for you all.
Everyone meet Gerald, the pom pom Christmas reindeer! This is a quick wee make that hopefully the kids will manage, with some adult supervision, of course.
Yarn or wool. It doesn’t really matter what kind, or what colour, but I used brown for realism. Please feel free to make rainbow reindeer!
Red felt. I buy whole sheets from local crafty places for about 50p, but you only need a little to make a nose.
Googly eyes. I use ones that you peel that backing off and it sticks to anything.
A pair of scissors
Cardboard or a pom pom maker. I used a pom pom maker because I am super into crafts and like to buy useless stuff.
Firstly, make a pom pom. I presume everyone knows how to make a pom pom with cardboard, but if not there are lots of tutorials on Youtube. I will put links in to tutorials at the end of the blog.
If you don’t know how to make one, you basically get two pieces of cardboard, cut them into circles of equal size, and make a fairly large hole in the middle. Put the pieces of card together and then wrap the yarn/wool around the circles, going through the hole in the middle and round the outside. Once the circles are completely covered in a fairly thick layer of yarn, you then have to cut the yarn. To do this, I get a pair of scissors and hold the cardboard circles so that I’m looking down on top, i.e. like a bird’s eye view of a tyre on a car, as opposed to looking at a tyre lying flat on the ground. I then put the scissors roughly in the middle and cut down, trying to find the split where the two sides of cardboard meet. Then cut along this split all the way round. You’ll be left with lots of little bits of yarn all poking out. Keep a good hold of that cardboard! You need to wrap a length of yarn around all those little bits, so put the length in between the cardboard bits and then basically tie it as tight as you can. This is where the pom pom can go wrong – if that piece of yarn isn’t tied tight enough, your little yarn bits will all fall out and you won’t have a pom pom!
Tie it really tight a few times and then you want to make a loop with the end, to be able to hang Gerald on your tree. I just tie a knot in the yarn quite low down and it gets hidden in amongst the pom pom.
The next step to a pom pom is to remove the cardboard, but HOLD ON! We’ll do that in a minute, but first we want to make a start on those reindeer antlers! I put a pipe cleaner in the middle of the pom pom, basically through the hole in the middle and then you can remove the cardboard. You should be left with a pom pom with two ends of pipe cleaner coming out of the middle. I then bend the pipe cleaners so they stick up, like antennae.
You can leave the antlers like this if you like, to make something similar to calf antlers, of you can add more pipe cleaners and make cow or bull antlers. I just twist the pipe cleaners round the sticking up pipe cleaners and bend them into shape and I ended up with this.
Starting to look a little like a reindeer now! Next, we need to cut out a nose for our reindeer. I went for red, but you can do whatever colour you like. Just cut a wee circle out of your felt.
I then get my sticky tape and cut a little bit off. I bend it on itself to make it double-sided and stick it on the back of my nose. I then place my nose on my pom pom.
The next step is to put your googly eyes on Gerald. I just chose a nice big pair and stuck them on!
And finally, hang him on your tree!
Admire your handiwork and enjoy the rest of the festive period!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us at the Reindeer Centre.
‘Christmas’ for us reindeer herders, doesn’t just mean Dec 25th, but rather the entire period of November and December. After 7-8 weeks of (organised) chaos, hectic days and usually less than desirable weather, Christmas Day itself always seems a rather incidental event at the end of it all! While tour is frequently great fun, it is also extremely tiring and by the end we’re all ready to heave a huge sigh of relief and pack away everything for another 10 months. Come January, should one more person jokingly ask a herder which one Rudolph is, then so help them God…
While up to eight teams of reindeer are away on the weekends in November and December, the weekdays are quieter, and most teams return home. We have around 45 big male castrate reindeer who are trained to harness, four of which will travel to each event along with two 6 to 7 month old calves, making teams of six. So even on the busiest weekends there are still reindeer at home taking their turn to ‘hold the fort’, and no single reindeer will go out to events week upon week. Many teams go out only for a night or two at the weekend, returning home straight away afterwards, while a few head away for longer but 2.5 weeks at a time is always the longest stint we ever do with the same six reindeer.
Obviously, being based in the Cairngorms means that most trips away on tour for a ‘long stint’ start with the long haul down the A9 and onward, so a network of ‘bases’ across the UK to keep our travelling time down is a necessity. Our two main big bases are in the Lake District and South Wales, but we also have three in the central and southern Scotland, plus another five or so in England. Most are farms, so the reindeer are housed in a large, airy barn or undercover yard while we herders have accommodation on site too, usually in the form of a self-catering cottage. This then enables us to travel much shorter distances to our events, and (like us!) reindeer require days off while on tour, so the bases provide safe and secure locations for them then.
Grass is far too rich for a reindeer’s diet, so while we let them get some grazing each day while exercising them, we don’t leave them on grass for too long at any one time. Our usual routine is to get up and to take the reindeer out for a stretch of the legs first thing. At some bases this involves a run on halters, but at most we can let them loose in a field and they will hurtle around ‘dancing’ (reindeer don’t buck like excited horses, but will leap in the air, spin around and bounce about!). Then it’s back to the barn for their breakfast, while we poo-pick, refill water bowls and sort the lorry ready for the next event. Then it’s breakfast time for us!
Aside from looking after the reindeer, base days can go one of two ways, depending on your team partner is. Should it be Mel or Sally (among others) then it might become what has become known as ‘boot-camp’ – an energetic day of walking or cycling. For the lazier or less fit amongst us (primarily pointing the finger at myself here), a day of pottering around local towns, drinking coffee and sight-seeing seems more appealing! We do however, have to help out Reindeer House on occasion, who will sometimes send us lists of letters to write to go into adoption packs – Christmas is a hectic time for those left behind at base.
And then there are the events. They range from shopping centres to light switch-ons, town centre parades to private functions, and are a way of raising the money needed for the reindeer to continue their free-ranging lifestyle on the Cairngorms. Reindeer are a herd animal, hence why we never take less than four out together (usually six), and as they all go out to events as calves then they are very relaxed when we take them out and about again as full-grown adults, as they’ve seen it all before. They are great fun on tour and we always return home with endless stories from each event: how each reindeer behaved when pulling the sleigh, who fell asleep into their feed bowl, who kept trying to eat the tinsel on the sleigh, and who tried to eat nick a box of Celebrations from the Queen’s head groom at Windsor (stand up and take a bow, Fergus…).
For just six weeks a year, the normal job description of a reindeer herder changes a little, and many of us start driving massive trucks around the country. Well, 7.5 tonne trucks anyway, which are pretty big in comparison to our wee 3 tonne truck (affectionately named Brenda) who we use for day-to-day transport for the rest of the year.
On a busy Christmas weekend we can have up to 8 teams of reindeer and herders out and about across the country, so we hire 5 flatbed trucks and put our own specially designed and built boxes on the back, each with ample space for sleigh, kit, feed and of course most importantly, the reindeer themselves. There’s even internal lights! Each of the 5 boxes is a slightly different design, and over the years everyone has gotten attached to a particular box. Alex’s box is the most unique in design, with the space for the feed and equipment running down the side of the reindeer compartment. Great for Alex, who is tall, but not ideal for someone short like Hen, who can’t reach far enough over the barrier to grab the bags at the bottom! Fiona’s box has a rather heavy ramp, again difficult if you’re shorter, though Fi has the strength to heave it up herself. The “Post Box” did indeed start out its life as a Royal Mail box, and still has a few bits of red paint! It has a roller door into the sleigh compartment which takes a fair bit of practice and agility to get open and shut! The Metal box is a little smaller than some of the others so tends to be used for more local events – fitting enough feed in it for 2 weeks away can leave you short of room to move.
And then there is the newest box, nicknamed the Royal box as it seemed so posh and shiny when first made, and the name stuck. This is my favourite box, and having taken it out on tour for the last few years I’m now very familiar with its quirks. Our ramp has been tensioned beautifully (i.e. quite a lot) so it’s easy for us shorties to put up, but also meaning that you can unintentionally “ramp-surf” as you’re opening up the back gates, finding yourself hovering several feet in the air and having to gingerly edge your weight down the ramp until it touches down.
Like most of the boxes, the Royal box has a “corridor” with access to storage for all of the reindeer feed, lichen, straw, buckets, odds and ends, shovel, broom, etc; the sleigh compartment for the sleigh itself, all the decorations and harness; and then of course the biggest area is for the reindeer. Our reindeer travel loose, and whenever we check on them (if we stop for fuel, for example) they’re usually lying down catching some shut-eye! It’s reassuring for us that they seem to like the box, and virtually load themselves, always happy to walk up the ramp.
The boxes are bedded thickly with straw, poo-picked after each journey (let’s just say we’ve discovered another use for the “diesel gloves” you can pick up at garages…) and completely mucked out & pressure washed each time we return home. Keeps us and the reindeer smelling fresher and helps prevent that embarrassing moment when you emerge from the box with “something” stuck to your shoe!
Getting kit in and out of the corridor can be fairly entertaining, and over the years the pastime of “lorry yoga” has evolved, providing gentle muscle stretches for the herder on tour as you manoeuvre and contort into weird positions to get (sometimes heavy or awkward) things in and out. The straw bales are the worst, as they frequently try to take you with them as you eject them from the shelf! Getting them back in is even harder, especially when they weigh half as much as you do…
Driving the trucks is something I half dread and half look forward to each year. As I’m not old enough to drive them on “grandfather rights”, I did a training course a few years ago and passed the dreaded test to get my license. The problem is we go for over 10 months of the year without driving anything so big, so there’s always a bit of apprehension when the trucks are picked up for the season and you first get behind the wheel… It’s funny though, as everything is bigger, the mirrors are bigger, and they just feel totally different to a car, and your brain automatically seems to click into “slow careful truck-driving” mode. Everything has to be done slower as the trucks are so big, and it’s essential to give the reindeer a smooth ride, so it instantly stops you hurrying and gives you a new sense of patience. Our top speed, even on a motorway, is restricted to 56mph, but it’s quite delightful to pop on cruise control and just potter along to your destination.
There are a several things I didn’t know about before starting to drive the trucks. Firstly, the ruts on motorways, created by the endless trucks using the slow lane – whilst I never tend to notice them in a car as the wheels are closer together, when you’re in a truck you can get “sucked in” which is rather disconcerting. Secondly, the frustration of being limited to 56mph when trying to overtake on a motorway. All trucks theoretically have the same limit, but speedos can have a bit of variation, meaning that you’ll sometimes get stuck trying to overtake a bigger truck that’s going just fractionally slower than you. When going uphill, their extra weight slows them down and we gain on them, but once we reach the top of the hill and start heading down again, their weight speeds them up and off they shoot again! This may explain why you sometimes see trucks “duelling” for miles along a motorway… The other time your limiter is frustrating is when you come up behind a car doing 50mph on the motorway, you pull out to overtake, at which point they instantly speed up, just enough to pull ahead, so you tuck in behind them again, at which point they slow back down again!
Most of the time though it’s great fun driving a truck, and I still love arriving at an event, the organiser pointing out a tricky bit of manoeuvring that you’ll need to pull off (archways being a major culprit, sometimes with mirrors folded in and a couple of inches to spare each side) and looking hugely impressed when a girl manages to pull it off!
To any southerner just an inch of snow means great excitement, school closed for a week and the front page story on every newspaper! Having spent the first 18 years of my life living in Bristol, where the yearly day of snow is celebrated (before everything grinds to a halt) you can imagine my excitement to wake up to snow one morning in early November!
Seeing as my room (fondly known as the Cave) in Reindeer House has no external windows, it was not till I opened the curtains in the kitchen, I saw the snow covered wonderland that was Glenmore. I proceeded to eat my porridge in the garden and then spend the last ten minutes before work throwing snowballs for the dogs, before realising I had no gloves on and could no longer feel my hands.
Initially my excitement was laughed at as the dusting that we woke up to barely counts as snow if you’re Scottish. By mid-morning however I was told by Fiona that we now had ‘real snow’ which looked a lot like a blizzard to me!
I was away on Christmas events the first three weekends that it snowed here, but I just about managed to fit in a few rounds of torch-lit sledging before work (dogs in tow of course) and a snow angel or two. This weekend was the first weekend to be at home for the snow (enough for the snow plough to be out) and I took up a lovely snowy visit.
The reindeer are absolutely in their element at this time of year; they couldn’t be happier in the snow. If you’re coming up to visit us make sure you’re well wrapped up (as many layers are you can wear and still move and a full set of waterproofs) so you can feed the reindeer in the snow and love it as much as I do!
I have decided to run the Paris Marathon in April 2016, what have I let myself in for!
I will be raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, aiming to reach a target of £1000. Luckily, working as a Reindeer Herder is fantastic fitness training….running around the mountains looking for free-ranging reindeer, carrying feed up the hill, running after non-conforming reindeer!….. and the years of ‘compulsory’ hill-running, prompted by Alan Smith, are going to set me in good stead, I hope! However, I still definitely need to train in long distances and having someone to run with always helps with motivation… and here are some of my eager running partners:
All the Reindeer House dogs… Tiree, Moskki, Tip, Sookie and Murdo (not pictured… off eating something no doubt!)… they never say no to a run… and of course Fergus!
Fergus offering some training tips from his months of running experience!
I chose to run for Macmillan as cancer seems to affect so many of us these days, whether directly or indirectly through friends or family. I am running the Marathon with one of my best friends, Ailsa, who hasn’t as much running experience as me but as she lost a friend recently to cancer she has been motivated to give it a go and I think it’s really brave of her so want to support her and raise money for a great cause. Macmillan nurses provide amazing support to people who are fighting cancer and their work is invaluable.
Fergus is providing fundraising support! I did try to persuade him to come to Paris too but he says he prefers the hills to the cities!
Fergus counting the donations so far…
If you would like to support me please donate by going to:
We’re pleased to tell you about an exhibition we’re helping to host up here in Glenmore.
Life in the snow forests: 100-year-old photographs displayed for the first time
Indigenous people from the snow forests of Inner Mongolia and Siberia have been reunited with century-old photographs of their family and communities as part of a research project and exhibition at the University of Cambridge.
Previously unseen photographs capturing life in a remote corner of the world a hundred years ago will now be displayed in Glenmore, following the River Stars Reindeer first unveiling at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.
The photographs record the indigenous Evenki and Orochen communities and were made by Russian ethnographer Sergei Shirokogoroff and his wife Elizabeth between 1912-1917, and by Cambridge graduate Ethel Lindgren and her husband, Oscar Mamen, between 1929-1932.
The exhibition, was the culmination of a painstaking curatorial process, which involved choosing 70 images from more than 26,000 photographs. A process further complicated by the research team coming from ten different institutes located in three different countries.
One of the curators of the Cambridge exhibition, Jocelyne Dudding said: “This is a unique opportunity to see the very best of their images together for the very first time. The photographs are not only a wonderful record of the ways of life for Evenki and Orochen, but they also speak of the more personal stories behind every image.
“Each photograph tells many, many different stories about the lives of the people, the clothes they wore, the animals they raised and the places they called home.
The conversations Dudding and her fellow researchers from Aberdeen, St Petersburg and Hohhot had with the indigenous communities directly influenced the selection process for the exhibition. As the project developed and word spread, more and more communities from other areas came forward and asked to be included.
“River Stars Reindeer comes about from a digital sharing project to reunite Evenki and Orochen communities with their photographs, and thereby their histories and their cultural heritage,” added Dudding. “We are now in the process of digitally sharing our photographs with them – having spent the last 18 months digitising 16,000 images so far.
The exhibition title River Stars Reindeer speaks of the cosmologies and realities of the lives of Evenkis and Orochens in an area known as the three rivers region.
Many of the photographs to be displayed at the exhibition were gathered by anthropologist Dr Ethel Lindgren and photographer Oscar Mamen. Lindgren went on to continue her studies and immersion with reindeer husbandry and in later years married her second husband Mikel Utsi, Swedish Sami reindeer herder. In 1952 Lindgren and Utsi successfully re-introduced reindeer to Scotland. The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd still thrive today and exist freely within the Cairngorm mountains.
River Stars Reindeers exhibition runs from 26 November 2015 until 3 January 2016 and will be displayed at Glenmore Visitor Centre. The exhibition is on loan from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge where it has recently been shown.
Whilst our reindeer spend the vast majority of the year leading a very relaxed life out on the Cairngorm mountains, for the six weeks running up to Christmas, some of our full-grown adult males and six-month-old calves take it in turns to join in Christmas events across the country. These events serve several purposes: spreading the word and educating people about the reindeer, raising vital funds to sustain the herd through the coming year, and of course spreading some festive cheer, especially to those who are unable to make it up to see the herd at home.
Of course taking up to eight teams of six reindeer away on tour requires just a bit of preparation. Or rather, a lot of preparation. Poor Fiona deals with all of the paperwork and logistics, starting in January (it’s always Christmas for her!), whilst Tilly is the queen of organising the rest of us into helping her sort out the physical kit required. In October, most of the team end up spending a day or two at the farm, helping to scrub, sort, varnish, count and clean the various bowls, head collars, harness, ropes, boxes and sleighs, and to mix numerous bags of feed.
Our specially designed “boxes” which the reindeer travel in, similar to a large horse box but with additional room for a sleigh, also have to be taken out of storage and painted, cleaned and bedded down ready for the first trip of the year.
All in all, it’s a lot of work, but meeting so many excited and delighted people out on tour with our beautiful reindeer makes it all worthwhile!
A few weekends ago a selection of our beautiful reindeer were invited to a wedding, with a special request for the lovely Fergus (the wee calf we are currently hand rearing). Along with Fergus we took four of our Christmas reindeer; Moose (an old hand at pulling the sleigh and wearing bells and harness), Svalbard (a rather small and stocky but very handsome reindeer aptly named after the reindeer from the island of Svalbard who are much smaller than their Scottish cousins), Monty and Duke (two of our three year olds who have recently become Christmas reindeer this year and will be trained to pull the sleigh and go out on tour with Father Christmas this winter, both are very handsome reindeer with lovely big antlers).
First we took the boys out of the Brenda (our fondly named livestock lorry) and gave them a good bit of lichen. This bribe allowed us to slip the harness and bells onto the boys, who barely batted an eye lid. Having worn harness for many years Moose was the perfect role model for Svalbard who has only done one Christmas season and Duke and Monty who have never worn bells before but behaved themselves fantastically. Fergus has always followed us like a little lamb and jumped in the back of our van, so I think his nose was a put a bit out of joint when he had to wear a halter and travel in the reindeer lorry with the other reindeer (instead of in with the herders and dogs).
Once the ceremony was finished the wedding party and guests came out to meet the reindeer, all of them posed fantastically for photos and Fergus charmed everybody with his cheeky personality.
All in all a fantastic afternoon was had by everybody. The boys behaved themselves wonderfully and had a little practice for the madness that is Christmas. I think after a bit of sleigh training for Duke and Monty, they will all be ready in time to pull Santa’s sleigh all over the country. The real question is will we be?