The heading tells it all. I am the oldest person working at the Reindeer Centre and, at the age of 71 years, it really makes me feel a lot younger mixing with all the youngsters who work there.
Officially, I am the book keeper for the Reindeer Company, but my role involves lots of other jobs from Agony Aunt when hearts are broken, to financial advisor when the young ones are starting out in life and need some good sound motherly advice.
I started working with the Reindeer Company approx 15 years ago, and have seen lots of people coming and going in that time. It is always a lovely family atmosphere at the Centre and throughout all the different years I have made some really good friends.
Sometimes in my job I have to help the staff understand the rules of book keeping but they all seem to accept my advice and “do as they are told” to get it all correct. They dread it when they see me reaching for the RED pen, reminds them of school!
Last Summer my grandson, Christopher, came to work at the Centre for one week doing work experience, and got a gold star for his efforts from Tilly, Alan, Alex and Fiona, so maybe a future generation of my family may carry on working amongst the reindeer.
Some of the shop customers are really envious of us here having such a wonderful view of the Cairngorm Mountains and one lady said you must have the best job in Scotland looking at that view every day. We are indeed very fortunate.
Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal which naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in 9 countries; Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. Most importantly of course our small herd here in the Cairngorms!
There are roughly 30 different reindeer herding cultures (i.e. the Sami in Scandinavia) with up to four million reindeer! (A few more than our 150!). There is often an intimate relationship between herders and their reindeer as well as husbandry, which, wherever practiced is often almost identical.
Reindeer represent one of the only domesticated species with which humans still live to their terms and needs instead of making the reindeer adapt to ours. For example, popping a reindeer in a grassy field prevents them grazing and migrating normally, which is key to a healthy and happy (reindeer) life. Reindeer herding is socially and culturally extremely important as each ‘group’ of herding peoples have unique identities and cultures centring on their way of life with their reindeer. Economically reindeer are also very important as meat and other products make up these cultures’ livelihoods.
In the modern reindeer vernacular you’ll find two terms, ‘reindeer herding’ and ‘reindeer husbandry’ – herding is the much older concept which mainly refers to working with the reindeer whereas the ‘husbandry’ encompasses not only the reindeer but the entire herding industry: socio-economic issues, scientific research and management. As with many traditional occupations around the world the reindeer herding lifestyle is under threat from loss of pasture land, predators and of course climate change, which has an immediate effect on grazing.
As you may know, the Cairngorm herd are a family owned business and this is often true of reindeer herders across the globe where individual owners often work in co-operation with their families, neighbours or villages to care for their reindeer. There are around 100,000 reindeer herders in the circumpolar north today which is a lot more than our 7 full-time members of staff! Reindeer herding varies between different cultures and countries but the one thing which remains constant is the need for herds to migrate between summer and winter pastures. If you’ve visited us here in the summer you’ll know that at this time of year our female reindeer are up and away on the Cairngorm plateau where they find yummy alpine plants and relief from insects; they then return to lower more stable winter pastures where they find their favourite food: lichen.
Reindeer herding is not a 9-5 job but a way of life: here in the Cairngorms, our daily routine is dependent on where the reindeer are, the weather conditions, pasture land and the seasons. In fact, for the Sámi, their yearly calendar is entirely based upon what reindeer are doing during specific seasons. For example, early spring is known as Gijrra – The Season of Returning – winter is ending, snow is melting and the reindeer return to familiar calving grounds for May or Miessemannu – the calf month.
The lovely thing about reindeer herding is by working with these wonderful (sometimes ridiculous) creatures your work is not only focused by your own goals but it is truly dependent on the reindeer themselves and most importantly the natural world around you.
Since Minute terrified himself and the curlew chick a lot of water has quite literally ‘gone under the bridge’. About 4 weeks ago there was tremendous heavy rainfall in the Cairngorm Mountains which resulted in the River Avon (pronounced locally “A’an”) beside our Glenlivet farm rising 6 feet in just a matter of hours.
The source of the River Avon is Loch Avon at the back of Cairngorm Mountain, a long slender loch with a beautiful sandy beach and crystal clear water. It is not a popular beach for the family because to get to it you have to climb up on to the Cairngorm Plateau ( about 2,500 ft of climb ) followed by a similar drop down the other side.
The sudden rise in water levels caught out one fisherman on the river who had crossed onto one of the islands to improve his fishing chances. When the river rose so rapidly he hollered for help and luckily one of our neighbours realised the gravity of the situation and called mountain rescue. The first we knew about it was a mountain rescue helicopter arriving and plucking him off to safety.
Just a year ago a similar flood happened in August. Once again heavy rain in the Cairngorms brought havoc to many of the rivers and tributaries and the A’an got its fair share of water with the levels this time rising by about 12 feet. In a space of just 12 hours the heightened water washed trees and debris down and ‘ate away’ at the river bank near our farm before the bank finally gave way, washing 40 metres of the A’anside road downstream. It was six weeks before the road was repaired and re-opened.
If you look back in history there is the famously recorded “muckle spate” of August 2nd to 4th 1829 where heavy rain and thunderstorms in the Cairngorm produced floods which claimed 8 lives, numerous buildings and many cattle and sheep. It would seem that summertime is when these spates occur and it does make you wonder if two floods in the last two years says something about climate change and global warming.
Weather is extremely topical just now with record low temperatures being recorded here. The number of sunny days could almost be counted on one hand during July and there have been times at night when the temperature has dropped to nigh on zero. Not good for the farmer needing his crops to grow, but great for reindeer who struggle in the heat of the day and get frustrated by the buzzing insects that come out in force on warm sunny days.
So there is a silver lining in every cloud, whether it be rain, sun or overcast conditions, someone or something will benefit from the topsy turvy weather we seem to get these days.
If you’ve visited us in the last couple of years and met Boris up in the hill enclosure, there’s every possibility that he was the reindeer that left the strongest impression on you. However, he’s not, shall we say, our finest specimen in the herd. He’s not particularly big, nor does he grow the most impressive antlers, but he is, without even a shadow of doubt, the ugliest reindeer in the entire Cairngorm herd (if you’ve not met him, have a good long look at the photos before you say ‘awww, poor thing’…).
Boris was born in 2012, but way out on the mountain free-range rather than in our hill enclosure. We therefore only saw him once in his first summer, and at that stage nobody noticed something rather strange about his face. It was only when he and his mum Foil came into our hill enclosure in the autumn that we realised something was amiss. At first glance it looks like his eyes are wonky, but in reality both are the same distance below his antlers, and it is only below eye level that his nose takes a dive to the right with alarming squint-ness! As Boris has got older and his skull has continued to grow, the nose has become more and more wonky, but it never appears to cause him any problems, and is instead garnering him quite a fan club. Tilly once saw him having a wee sip from a puddle in a neighbouring field that no other reindeer could reach underneath the fence, so perhaps it has its advantages! Somebody who volunteered here a couple of years back once told me they had seen a similar condition in a red deer before, caused by the nasal passages developing in the womb at different rates. I have no idea if this is indeed the case, but anyone reading this has any knowledge on the subject, we’d be delighted to hear from you. We have seen it before, in a lovely male reindeer named Addjá who joined our herd from Sweden in 2004, but his face is barely squint at all in comparison to Boris; he could almost be called handsome! Although I’ve just looked through his photo archive to choose a picture of him – and on second thoughts, perhaps not.
When we take our harness trained reindeer on tour at Christmas time they are trained to pull a sleigh side by side, and as Addjá’s nose bends in the opposite direction to Boris’s, this has led to a bit of a debate here. Should Boris go on the left and Addjá on the right so their noses point into the centre (more stream-lined?) or should it be the other way around? As Addjá is an old boy now and Boris isn’t yet trained to harness, this may be a question we never get to figure out the answer to.
We’re lucky to see some pretty awesome wildlife whilst looking after the reindeer on the mountains, but its less usual to see wildlife in our back porch. We were taken by surprise last week when we glanced out the back door and saw a rather worked up male sparrowhawk, who had somehow flown in then lost the door out… thankfully we were able to sneak past and open up the door for him to “escape”.
We were pretty delighted to see a sparrowhawk close up, as the normal view of them is them dashing over at top speed, and even happier to see him fly safely away!
Summer is well underway with Scottish schools off and English schools just breaking up and here at the Reindeer Centre we have certainly noticed the rise in visitor numbers. We now offer three guided tours onto the hill daily over the next two months with our additional 3.30pm tour on Monday – Fridays. Trekking has been running for a month now and already we have taken over 23 groups made up of 68 people of which two of them were hardy 5 and 6 year olds! It has all gone very smoothly and the reindeer have been absolute stars. On the whole we have been very lucky with the weather with only a couple of wet trekking days but if you come to Scotland to go trekking in the Cairngorm mountains you have to come with the frame of mind that you may experience all four seasons in one day!
The reindeer that have been trekking already this year are – Marley, Puddock, Caribou, Gnu, Topi, Paintpot, Oryx, Grunter, Strudel, Macaroon, Hornet, Beastie, Tanner, Spider, Hamish, Horse, Rummy, Domino, Origami, Monopoly, Bingo, Svalbard, Rubiks, Stenoa, Olympic, Second, Nutkins, Monty, Balmoral, Duke, Minute, Boris, Mo, Orkney, Ost, Drambuie, Jonne, Kota, Gandi, Bovril, Hook, Boxer, Gin, Max and Nutti. Grunter is used for our younger trekkers. He is what I’d describe as a bombproof reindeer. He is quite happy either at the front of the group or at the back. A wee Dutch lad who led him a couple of weeks ago headed off on his own route jumping all the puddles – I think him and Grunter covered almost twice as much ground than us!
They have all got their different characters, some love the attention and a good fuss while others are quite happy to plod along at the back at their own pace. Some reindeer are super cheeky and others know how to ‘take the mick’ out of trekkers who maybe aren’t so confident in their leading so what I always like to do to match up characters of reindeer to the characters of my trekkers and 90% of the time I get it right. I’ll let my previous trekkers work out how I see their characters compared to the reindeer they led 😉 The 10% I get wrong is my fall back excuse!
As well as our additional summer activities we are still doing our day to day work both out on the hill checking the free-ranging herd of cows and calves as well as here in our office putting adoption packs together, so naturally we need a few extra hands at this time of year and therefore employ more staff. Our latest member of the team has taken to the reindeer herding life very well indeed. She is super fit which is great when out in the hills and although still a bit shy with our visitors she is only young so confidence will come and by the end of summer I’m sure she will be on full form. Recently we have been showing her how to set up adoption packs as we have a great support network of adopters all over the world and each pack has its very own hand written letter because we really feel they deserve that personal touch. She does a great job and who knows we may even keep her on after the summer months if she continues to show hard work and commitment to the job in hand. Everybody, meet Tiree! She is my 10 month old Aussie Shepherd pup and is by far the best looking member of our team here…
Although there are only seven species of deer living wild in the UK, there is often confusion as to which species people have seen, not helped by the fact that usually there is only a fleeting glimpse of a fast-moving rump disappearing into the trees! In this week’s blog, I hope to demystify the issue and perhaps raise your curiosity so you keep a closer look-out for your local deer. So from largest to smallest, here are the species to look out for…
Red deer (Cervus elaphus) Height (shoulder): 110-150cm
Our largest species of deer, and in fact our largest land animal, is the red deer. Named for their beautiful reddish brown summer coats, red deer are native to the UK and are a herd animal preferring to live in woodland with open rides. However, as humans have altered the countryside over the centuries, they have adapted to living on moors and heaths, though the red deer of the Scottish highlands rarely grow as big as their cousins in the lowlands. Red deer are found across the UK, and are best recognised by the combination of their large size (they are big!), their buff rump and short tail. They’re also likely to be seen in herds rather than on their own.
Reindeer are by far the most familiar deer species to me, because this is the species we care for here at the Centre. Reindeer were once found free-ranging across much of the UK, but died out due to the pressures of over-hunting and climate change at least 1000 years ago. Our small herd were reintroduced to the Cairngorms in Scotland in 1952, and around 150 reindeer now roam the mountains here. As the only British deer species to be adapted to Arctic conditions, they are comparatively stocky and dumpy, and tend to carry their heads below the horizontal. Their colour ranges from pure white to almost black – variation caused by thousands of years of domestication – and both males and females grow antlers. For most people, they are an easy candidate to rule out, as they are only found roaming in the Cairngorms in Scotland.
Originally Japanese in origin, Sika deer were introduced to the UK from 1860, and can now be found in patches right across the country, though their stronghold is in north-west Scotland. They are similar in appearance to a red deer at first glance, but are slightly smaller, have a dark dorsal stripe and a much darker brown winter coat. Their heart-shaped rump patch is bright white, compared to the buff colour of a red deer, and for much of the year they are solitary, though they will form small groups of 6-7 in the autumn and winter.
The stereotypical “spotty” deer, fallow deer are a common sight grazing in the grounds of stately homes and parkland. There is evidence that fallow once roamed Britain around 400,000 years ago, but today’s population has resulted from escapees from parks. Fallow bucks grow lovely ‘palmate’ (flattened) antlers. The familiar tan “menil” form with white spots is just one of the colours that this variable deer comes in, whilst some individuals are white, some are dark brown with spots that disappear in winter, and some are completely black. The noticeable trait which is the same for all of these colourations is a light coloured rump patch edged with black, with their long tail appearing to split it into two.
The dainty roe deer is another of our native deer species, and perhaps the one you are most likely to spot in woodland and gardens right across the UK, with some individuals becoming incredibly tame due to living in close proximity to humans. The species was driven close to extinction in this country in the 1700s due to overhunting. Roe deer are usually seen alone or in small family groups, are a solid brown colour with a small rump patch and don’t have a noticeable tail. They will ‘bark’ if alarmed, which can be mistaken for the yap of a dog.
Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) Height (shoulder): 50-60cm
Chinese water deer are a primitive species – instead of growing antlers the males grow tusks which can be seen protruding from their mouths. They were introduced to the UK within the last 150 years and have since become established across the Midlands and East Anglia. As their name suggests, their preferred habitat is fens and wetlands, and they are usually seen alone or in small family groups as they are territorial. The most obvious differences setting Chinese water deer apart are the lack of antlers, large mobile ears and the absence of a rump patch.
The smallest of our deer species was introduced around 1900, and is now well established across most of England. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake a Muntjac for a small dog, or perhaps a large hare, as they tend to have a peculiar hunched stance. Muntjac are usually seen alone or in small family groups, and the males are often heard rather than seen as they bark persistently when rutting. Along with the male’s small antlers, both sexes grow tusks, and as they aren’t seasonal breeders, does can be seen with a fawn at any point of the year. Their tiny stature (think collie-dog size) and hunched posture makes Muntjac easy to distinguish.
So there it is, from the largest to the smallest, the seven species of deer that you may encounter in the UK. Hopefully this has helped make the thought of working out who that disappearing rump belonged to a little less daunting! Keep your eyes open, even in parks and gardens in towns and cities, and perhaps you may be surprised by one of these beautiful animals.
First off, I’m not talking about the reindeer in that heading. Reindeer only fly at Christmas time after Santa has given them the magic powder and our lovely reindeer don’t attack.
I am of course talking about the flying mini beasts – flies, bugs and, the worst of the worst, midges. Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland without those little terrors, and they are a sign that summer has finally arrived here in Cairngorm, but they aren’t my friends. We love this infomatic from Mackays Holidays:
No one here likes the midge, including the reindeer. With the heat rising above 20°C and them still having some of their winter coat, our boys are feeling the heat. In hot weather we often give them access to the shed to hide from the heat – you’d be amazed how many come running out at feeding time.
They are also bothered by the flies and midges, but there’s not much we can do there, apart from douse them with fly repellent. As much as I’d like to eradicate midge for both my own and the reindeer’s comfort, they are an important food source for birds, toads and frogs, and bats.
Our boys cope with the midges fairly well; in the paddocks they hide under our shelter shed and up on the hill avoid stagnant pools where midge breed and shake to get rid of the biting bullies. Sometimes it’s like watching a little reindeer dance: they stomp their back foot a few times, then the other, a little shake, a few more stomps, and then if the midges are really ferocious, they’ll burst off in a sprint, jumping and kicking the air. It’s quite funny to watch!
We also spotted Oryx doing something a bit odd. It was the end of a visit, and we were heading to the gate to leave the enclosure. A few boys followed us, no doubt thinking there’d be more food. There’s a large muddy patch just at the gate, which usually the reindeer don’t bother with, but this time Oryx got into the big puddle and just stood there. He seemed pretty content, so he was left to his own devices while Fran and I did some poo picking (the glamorous lives we lead). Eventually he decided his spa treatment was finished and got out of the mud bath. He looked ridiculous with mud socks up to his ankles, but he seemed pretty happy with himself.
It’s known that red deer wallow, or bathe in mud, but the cause for this is still unknown. Some think it may be to reduce ectoparasites, while others believe it is to cool down. I’m not sure it’s ever been recorded in reindeer before (a quick Google search didn’t come up with much) but I think Oryx may have been trying to avoid the midges biting at his legs. Either that or he fancied a quick mud treatment at the ‘Spa de le Cairngorm’.
Every year we reindeer herders have a little flutter into betting around calving time of year – the idea is to pick a reindeer you think is going to calve first and if your reindeer calves last you have to take an icy dip into Loch Morlich. As you can imagine this makes it all the more serious and some proper consideration should always go into picking your ‘bet’ reindeer. This year turned into a two handed contest between Abby and Hen, and it was never going to end well for one of them…
Abby: Last year (my first calving) I took all the advice on board, I learned about families who calve early, I checked out tummy size and I looked at udder size; and ended up with a female who calved pretty near the beginning.
You would think that after a year of reindeer herding I’d enter this year’s bet with a bit more wisdom and expertise: after all, I’ve got to know the reindeer pretty well now. However, I committed the cardinal sin, and chose a reindeer who I just really liked before weighing up the facts properly. A lovely four year old called Hopscotch, and indeed she was pretty rotund looking when I picked her but there was no sign of an udder, but I’d made my choice and had to stick by it.
Hen: Bets have to be in by the end of April, and this year I went with Lulu. I had dutifully peered between hind legs at udders, assessed general belly size, and considered previous calving patterns, and Lulu seemed like a pretty safe bet. Everyone else made sensible bets too, with the exception of Abby. We ripped her to shreds continuously as she was very obviously going to end up in the loch, and deserved to as well – Hopscotch (daft choice, ha!) was looking pretty slim compared to everyone else’s bets, who were waddling around huffing and puffing.
Abby: By the 30th of April it all kicked off and the calving storm began – one by one the females started popping and one by one my colleagues became safe from the dreaded swim. By mid-May most of the females had calved and all that was left from the bet was me with Hopscotch and Hen with Lulu. Lulu was the size of a barge with an udder to match, and was like the vision of doom every time I saw her up the hill. I began to think myself very foolish indeed and resigned myself to the fact that a very cold swim was coming my way as there was no way Hopscotch would calve before an old pro like Lulu!
However, much to my surprise on Monday the 18th of May Hopscotch was missing, I was all a-flutter and stoked thinking that I was free of the swim and off we headed to track down her and her new calfie. We were, however, a wee bit disappointed, finding her on the top of Silver Mount (which is a very popular calving spot) chillin’ like a villain. There would be no calf today it seemed. It’s very common for reindeer to go off and faff about for up to a week before they actually give birth and I resigned myself to fact once again that I’d probably end up in the water. However the next day the same thing happened, no Hopscotch, hopes were high until once again she was found and pootled back to the herd quite happily but by our afternoon visit she was once again gone… this was it I thought. If a female goes missing in the afternoon a herder will head up the hill at the ungodly hour of 5am to track her down and this is just what I did! Once again she was on Silver mount (a bit of a shock for my legs that early in the morning – this is why reindeer herders get through so many biscuits!), but she didn’t look quite right and upon taking her temperature I realised she had an acute case of ‘Man Flu’! She got a wee dose of antibiotics before I popped her in with the cows and calves. 10 yards later she went down and in my head my thoughts ran along the lines of ‘Oh my god, I’ve killed a reindeer!’ until she started huffing and puffing away… she seemed to be going into labour! I left her to it and waited with glee to meet a new calfie in the afternoon.
Hen: I had foolishly chosen this week to have a few days off, and was away from home too. A smug text message on the Monday told me that Hopscotch was away to calve, but frantic texts from me after that, trying to gauge what was happening, mostly seemed to go unanswered or got a cryptic reply that didn’t really tell me what was going on. I started to sweat. Surely I wasn’t going to be beaten by Abby?! Having been here for a year, she is still ‘new’ compared to me – I’ve been a reindeer herder for over seven years and have experienced a lot more calving seasons than Abby, I should have been able to sail through the bet with no problems! Towards the end of the week I started to doubt myself.
Abby: By Wednesday afternoon Hopscotch was acting completely normally and stuffing her face with glee and was most definitely not giving birth. At this point I felt it was all a bit cruel and gave up on the idea of no swim and as Thursday rolled around with still no sign of a calf I decided it was definite.
Hen: I arrived home from my days off to discover Hopscotch had had a temperature but nothing else, and all was back to normal up the hill. Huge relief, false alarm and all that, and I went back to teasing Abby relentlessly about when she was going swimming! I was stupidly overconfident once again that I was completely safe, Lulu must surely calve any minute, but reindeer have a nasty way of bringing you back down to earth and the ringing phone the following morning signalled the end for me… Andi’s voice sounded like she was stifling the giggles, informing me that she’d just found Hopscotch with her new-born male calf. Abby collapsed in relief and I cursed Lulu, Hopscotch, everyone else and to be honest, reindeer in general.
Being as it was about 8°C at this point, I was given until the end of June to swim. Loch Morlich is only a few hundred metres from Reindeer House, but at this time of year consists mainly of snow melt, and I am not someone to throw myself into cold water with abandon unless there’s a damn good reason.
Summer didn’t arrive right until the end of June in the Cairngorms this year, so I bided my time and kept an eye on the forecast. I left my swim right till the bitter end, on 30th June, and at least the dogs had the decency to come in with me, although everyone else stuck to paddling! I don’t appear to have hypothermia either. Or at least not yet. Maybe it’ll be slow onset hypothermia.
Lulu did eventually calve, far too late for Hen of course, completely unaware of everything that had been riding on her!
It’s always quite a contrast from central London where I work, to the hills of the Cairngorms, where I spend my holidays herding reindeer! This time I couldn’t get further away – a small group of reindeer herders headed up north to wildcamp at Sandwood Bay, one of the most northerly and remote beaches in Britain. After a long clear night (it didn’t really go dark), we headed back south to the Cairngorms where reindeer duties took over. It’s always very varied, from trekking to poop-scooping to manning the shop to taking guided visits.
Calving was finally coming to an end, one of the longest calving seasons there has been, so the last of the females were sent off to the free-range to get the best of the summer grazing on the high mountain tops with their calves, leaving just males in the enclosure to greet visitors. Apart from looking very scruffy at this time of year as their winter coats moult everywhere (I’ll be picking reindeer hair off my clothes for weeks to come in London!), they are also fairly greedy as they bulk up for the summer ahead of the rut in the autumn.
Following a good day’s work at the centre or out in the hills, I headed back out into the mountains for the evenings with the dogs, up to the snow line (yes there’s still snow up here – even in midsummer), to blow the city cobwebs away overlooking the Lairig Ghru or the Northern Corries.
Everything up here functions on a different time-frame. Unlike the city there is rarely any rushing, and meeting people up in the hills is unusual so you have a good old natter. Although the physical work can sometimes be tiring (especially the arrival of the feed lorry and the heaving of seemingly endless sacks into the shed), it is also quite relaxing. More steady than stressful!
Though it’s only a week in the hills, I always get a bit of a jolt returning to city life and the morning commute on Monday! The noise and the people and work kicks in and feels a parallel universe to the reindeer and the hills.