Life on Tour

‘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…

Topi has a quick nap on my shoulder whilst waiting for the parade to start
Topi has a quick nap on my shoulder whilst waiting for the parade to start

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.

Spider looking incredibly relaxed at an event

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.

Origami, Duke, Hamish, Tanner, Aonach and Fyrish chilling out at our Welsh base
Origami, Duke, Hamish, Tanner, Aonach and Fyrish chilling out at our Welsh base
We’ve been visiting some of our bases for years now, so our hosts are well used to their unusual winter guests!
We’ve been visiting some of our bases for years now, so our hosts are well used to their unusual winter guests!

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!

Run1
Hamish, Origami, Aonach, Duke and Fyrish (plus Tanner) burst out from the barn, down the field…
Run2
… and away up the next one!
Run3
It’s always reassuring when they come back! We pop their head collars on whilst out exercising in case anyone decides to adventure a little too far, but for the rest of the time at base we take them off.
Run4
After a few minutes thundering around letting off steam, they like to settle down to graze and potter.
Run5
Stalking whichever one of us has the bucket of lichen is their favourite pastime

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.

AdoptLetters
Lotti, Hen and Abby on letter writing duty!

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…).

FergusWindsor
Fergus… never a dull moment…

Hen

Truckin’

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.

Kuh
My truck for both this season and last, nicknamed the “Coo” as her number plate ends in KUH

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.

Xmas Compartments
The compartments of the Royal box

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.

Reindeer Box
Sleepy reindeer as seen from above!
Origami Morven
Origami and Morven having a restful journey, I sometimes wish I could join them back there!

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!

Poo picking
The less glamorous side of the job – poo picking!

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…

Lorry Yoga2
Just a bit of morning lorry yoga to warm up the muscles…
Lorry Yoga1
… and reach!

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.

DrivingTruck2
Onward!

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!

TyCap Max
That’s what the gap’s for! Max the cat using our truck as a surveillance point

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!

Andi

 

 

Getting Ready for Christmas (Tour)

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.

Xmas signs
Sleighs and sign boards waiting to be varnished, whilst some of the “farm boys” observe from their part of the barn
Xmas kit
Boxes of sleigh decorations, useful kit for the trucks, spare everything…

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.

Xmas Headcollars
Digging out the smart event head collars and ropes from storage
Xmas varnish
Giving the sleighs a fresh coat of varnish
Xmas bowls
Imogen got the short straw of pressure-washing all of the feed and water bowls

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.

ReindeerLorryFleet1
Some of the trucks and freshly painted boxes ready to go ©Alex Smith
Xmas feed
Mountains of feed waiting to be mixed – we use a cement mixer for speed!
Xmas ropes
Nearly 100 lead ropes and head collars are needed to kit out all of the teams (each reindeer has a “smart” set and an every day set)

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!

Andi