A Family Affair

I thought I’d write a bit about the family trees of our herd for this week’s blog, since they work a little differently from a ‘standard’ human family tree. Those of you who have been adopting an individual reindeer within our herd for a while will probably have received a family tree at some point, as we send them out with adoption packs in even years of sponsorship (2nd, 4th, 6th etc) normally. I say ‘will probably have received’ however, as the Swedish born reindeer in our herd obviously don’t have them, and if you’ve only ever adopted the herd as a whole then you’ll not have seen one before.

We record the lineage of the reindeer born here in the herd, stretching back to the original ones imported from Sweden in the 50s, through the maternal line only (on the trees at least – of course we record the father of each calf on our database to keep track of their genetics). More dimensions than a sheet of A4 can offer would be required for anything more than the maternal line in this form however. Let’s look at a sample of a tree (apologies, you’ll probably have to zoom in to see it properly):

(no, I didn’t mean to scan in a leaf as well as the tree…)

This tree (above) is the one currently in use for the living descendants of female reindeer Russia (highlighted in red), born in 2005. As an example, you would receive this particular tree if you adopt Morse – you can see that he is the second of four calves for his mum Torch, herself the first of three offspring for Pavlova. Pavlova’s mum was Russia, Russia’s mum was Cherry, and so on. This goes right the way back to Vilda at the top, one of the reindeer brought over to Scotland in the 3rd consignment to join the growing herd, back in 1954. This particular family tree currently stands at 10 generations in the maternal line. In reality it’s actually more than that, as Morse himself is a breeding bull with multiple offspring, but let’s just stick to the maternal line and not confuse matters!

Vilda in 1955, aged 2 years old. The ancestor of many, many members of our herd!

But again A4 paper has it’s limitations, and as Russia’s mum Cherry (highlighted green on the tree above) was such a productive breeding female then this tree has had to be split into multiple ones once all her calves started calving themselves and we ran out of space. So Cherry’s descendants are now on three separate trees, the top halves of which are all identical until Cherry and her nine calves, but then different below. So Cherry’s daughter Cello (highlighted red below) went on to lots of descendants mainly via her daughter Fonn, who are on this tree:

…whilst another daughter, Tjakko (highlighted red below), was also very productive, as seen on this version of the tree:

This explains why sometimes we chat away about a relative of your reindeer in your adoption letter – who doesn’t seem to exist on the tree you’ve also received in your pack. We haven’t made them up – they’re just on an adjacent branch of their tree that you don’t have!

At times we get a family line that effectively runs out of breeding females – a so-called ‘dead line’. Not the nicest of names perhaps, but it is what is says on the tin… Tjakko’s tree, above, is an example of this – the only living female still remaining on it is Ibex, now too old to breed, so this tree will never change. As a result in this situation we stop sending the trees out to adopters once they’ve received it in it’s final state, as there’s no point receiving it again and again with no additions. Ibex does actually have descendants but they are on yet another permutation of this tree, showing her offspring and those of Bumble.

Within the animal world, there is quite a ‘flexible’, shall we say, approach to age and generations, in comparison to humans at least. We tend to breed our female reindeer up to the age of around 12 or 13, but usually only with a bull aged 3-5. This is because we castrate our male reindeer at this age, but females are never castrated as there’s no need for us to do so. Reindeer calve first (usually) at age 3, so a 3 year old bull could be three generations younger than some of his ladies, if he has a 12 year old cow in his harem. Questionable, in the human world anyway, but no reindeer eyebrows are raised. 

5 year old bull Sherlock during this year’s rut, with his older ladies (left to right) Feta (10), Jenga (12) and Torch (11).

The shortest family tree I can find is that of Okapi, consisting of only 8 generations in total including Vilda back in 1954. But again this is a family that has calved itself into a breeding cul-de-sac, as it were, with no new additions since 2013. In contrast, the most generations in a tree is 13, with two year old Sombrero and yearling Solero the most recent of the generations.

Okapi’s family tree (she has outlived both of her calves).

I thought that as a final part to this blog – and a way of getting some photos of actual reindeer into it – here’s some photo evidence of the 8 generations of Okapi’s tree. Vilda we’ve seen already, and I can’t actually find a photo of Sarah. We will no doubt have one in the albums, but we’ve only digitised up to the early 60s so far so I don’t have one to hand… But then comes Eidart, who was apparently the first reindeer that herd owner Tilly ever met, when she arrived here in 1981:

Eidart, with one of her calves

Eidart’s final calf was Trout, who held the joint record for oldest ever member of the herd (aged 18) for many years, until 19 year old Lilac stole her crown.

Trout in her latter years

Trout was an extremely productive female, with 11 calves to her name, the final one being Amber:

Amber

…whose first calf was Esme….

Esme

…the mother of Okapi.

Okapi

And finally – the end of the line – came Oka. Sadly she died before producing any offspring herself, effectively bringing this line of reindeer to an abrupt end.

Oka

So there you have it, a bit of info about our family trees. So should you get one in your next adoption pack, you can think about all those reindeer who came before your lovely adoptee.

Hen

Photo Blog: A Typical Sleigh Training Session

Our adult ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrated males) are trained to harness at around 3 or 4 years old, so they can take part in a few events and parades in November and December each year, bringing in part of the income that then supports the herd for the rest of the year. About 25 of our males are trained so this enables them to take their turn at events, most of which are at weekends, and no-one is overworked at Christmas time (except, perhaps, us…)! Between weekends all the reindeer are back on the mountainside getting some good grazing and some downtime.

What happens during a training session? This photo blog will hopefully give you a taster of what we get up to during afternoons in October and early November here in Glenmore in preparation for Christmas tour.

These photos have all been collated over the past few days over several training sessions involving different reindeer and reindeer herders.

Step 1: Ready the sleigh! Here Lisette and Sheena are unloading the sleigh and trace. We also get the harness all laid out, ready to put straight on.
Step 2 (a): Retrieve your reindeer! We bring down reindeer from the hill enclosure and they spend a short spell in the Paddocks whilst we undertake sleigh training. At least two of the adults will be highly experienced sleigh-pullers who show the new recruits how it’s done. Here is a Christmas team (four adults and two calves) chilling in the Paddocks just before a training session.
Step 2 (b): Catching the slightly shyer reindeer in order to put halters on often involves a bucket of lichen! Thankfully their greed usually wins them over very quickly.
Step 3: Reindeer are caught, herders are attached to their ropes and off we go… Athens is the owner of the very wide antlers closest to the camera.
Step 4: Take them for a wee walk and jog to get rid of any extra energy they may have before putting their harness on.
Step 5 (a): Harness gets put on outside the shop. The “trainer” is the most experienced reindeer who stands next to the less experienced reindeer. In this photo 8-year-old Scolty is teaching 4-year-old Athens that all is calm and there’s nothing to worry about whilst Hen puts on their harness.
Step 5 (b): With Scolty’s harness on, it’s now Athens’s turn.
Step 5 (c): Reindeer like to be together in herds so whilst Scolty and Athens are getting their harness on the other boys and calves are right behind, patiently waiting for their turn.
Step 5 (d): After getting used to wearing a halter and going for wee walks around Glenmore, we can put harness on the calves too. Having their heads in a bucket of tasty lichen definitely helps the process! This is 6-month-old Yangtze having harness on for the very first time – completely unfazed!
Step 6: Once all reindeer are wearing their harness we go for another short walk to give the reindeer the opportunity to get used to their bells and how everything feels. Alba is the calf at the back wearing her harness for the second time.
Step 7: Attach the two sleigh-pulling reindeer to the ‘trace’. Here Frost is closest to the camera. The trace then gets attached to the sleigh.
Step 8: The four ‘back reindeer’ now get tied to the sleigh. Here Sheena is at the back with Morse and Jelly (both of whom have cast their antlers already). The calves are sandwiched between the big boys to make them feel safe.
Step 9 (a): All attached and ready to go! But Clouseau is asleep already!
Step 9 (b): Off we go! Here we have Clouseau pulling closest to camera, and Frost at the back.
Step 9 (b): The view from behind – lots of lovely bottoms! Along with the two herders who walk at the front and back of the sleigh, one person walks ahead and one person walks behind in hi-vis slowing down any traffic.
Step 10: Having a pause. Practicing patience is equally as important as practicing walking. Here Lupin is closest to the camera and is doing a super job for his 4th ever go at pulling the sleigh.
Step 11: Add weight to the sleigh! If we have a fifth person helping us out, we sometimes get them to sit in the sleigh to make sure the front reindeer are actually pulling. On a real event they will have Father Christmas in the sleigh who can weigh quite a lot!
Step 12: All done for Lupin and Clouseau – time to get unattached from the trace. At this point, we usually switch the back boys to the front so all four adults can have a go at being the sleigh pullers.
Step 13: Once all the reindeer have had their go and we’re back at the Centre then the harness can come off, and the boys do their “Christmas shake”!
Step 14: Back to the Paddocks they go! Well done boys and herders! The adults usually have around three or four goes of this over several days and then head back to the hills. Such wonderful animals to work with!

Ruth

Reindeer in France? Avez-vous des rennes?

Ubaye in his prime, Oct 2001

This summer I picked up a few days of reindeer herding to cover the absences of holidaying herders (how dare they take time off?!). It was surprisingly easy to slide back into many of the day-to-day generic herding tasks. Opening the Paddocks, doing Hill Trips, chatting to visitors, doing the shop, it all seemed like yesterday when I last did it.

Especially doing tours and answering questions came back to me faster than I’d expected. I seem to have a mental encyclopedia of knowledge stored somewhere in the back of my mind and it just takes a good question for a switch to be flicked for the words to start tumbling out. My mouth starts answering the question before the brain has even processed it, it seems. One of the things I heard myself say was that there used to be reindeer even in France. I know this to be true, but it surprised me that I’d never really researched this fact a bit more. So why not make Ruth happy and do it in a blog?

Reindeer in France during the last Ice Age

The last ice age came to an end about 10,000 years ago. It was around this time that the last ‘land bridge’ between Britain and the European mainland turned into initially salt marsh, and eventually sea.  Archeologists have found evidence of animals that lived in Europe in these times. Amongst other species there were bison, arctic foxes and reindeer.

These reindeer were wild reindeer and there’s a well-known historical place in France where hunter-gatherers would use fires to drive reindeer and wild horses into corrals in a narrow valley to make it easier to kill them in great numbers. The meat resulting from this would be dried to sustain the people throughout the year.

So yes, there were reindeer as far South as France, but this was in the time there were other (sub)arctic animals too, as might be expected during an ice age. That might make you wonder if it would make sense to reintroduce reindeer in France too. Well, there’s a story…

Reindeer in France in the 20th Century

Josephine jumping a burn, March 2003

There was someone who tried this, a few decades ago now. Pierre Marc loved reindeer so much that he bought reindeer from Northern Scandinavia to start ‘La Vallee de Renne’ in the Jura mountains. He had a summer pasture and a winter pasture, with plenty of Alpine grassland for the reindeer to graze on. It’s not exactly a subarctic climate so the temperatures were a bit higher, and he had to supplement their diet with pellets a bit more than we do with our reindeer. He brought visitors up to see them on snow scooters. Unfortunately for Pierre, the area became a national park whilst he was there and snow scooters were banned, which meant the end of his business. He decided to send the remaining 38-strong herd to none other than the Cairngorm reindeer herd in Scotland! In April 1995 all 38 reindeer (some of the cows pregnant) came across. They settled in brilliantly and the new bloodlines were welcomed with open arms. French bulls were crossed with Scottish cows and French cows with Scottish bulls. One of the bulls, Ubaye even went on to father one of our most legendary reindeer ever, Lilac, who till this day is still the oldest reindeer the herd has ever seen. Some genes 😊. 

Neige & (supposedly) her daughter, Amber, August 2002

One of the last traces I could find in our computers was a 2004 herd’s list, with the oldest Scottish ones on it born in 1990 (that’s older than me!). On this list are 4 French reindeer: Neige (which means ‘snow’), Ubaye (after a valley in the French Alps), Josephine and Sophie. I’d love to say the reindeer came over from France with these names but in the rush of things, the Scottish herders never learned the French names, so they came up with their own. It’s lovely that we have a wee bit of a legacy of the history of French reindeer still running through the veins of our current herd.  

Sophie, September 2002

Manouk

Sources:

BBC – History : British History Timeline

How Early Humans Survived the Ice Age | HISTORY

What a Motley Crew

At this time of year the reindeer look really scruffy and it’s all down to their thick light coloured winter coat falling away to reveal a short dark summer coat underneath.

There’s many an adjective I could use to describe them, moth-eaten, scruffy, hairy, shabby and when taking to people to see the reindeer at this time of year I always apologise in advance for their appearance.

99.
Arta.
Bingo.
Caesar and Spider.

This recent long dry, windless, hot spell we have been experiencing here in the Highlands of Scotland actually hasn’t helped the process, because it’s really wind and rain that speeds up the process of moulting. Once ready to truly moult the winter coat comes off in handfuls

Elvis – the oldest reindeer in the herd at 17!

It’s a long process because while the new summer coat grows in underneath there are two layers of winter coat to fall off at the same time.  This close up of Anster’s shoulder shows quite nicely the ‘three’ coats. To the left the thick light coloured winter ‘top coat’ . Then the slightly darker and shorter winter ‘undercoat’. And then finally the new very short and dark summer coat.

Anster.
A close up of Anster’s shoulder.

It occurs to me that there must be an awful lot happening in the skin of a reindeer at this time of year! The two winter coats cannot start moulting until the new summer coat is growing, so while old hair follicles are falling out new ones are being created.  Very complicated!

And so I couldn’t resist this little rhyme!

The moult of a reindeer is a complicated affair

With old coats making way for lots of new hair

The process can sometimes take many a week

With the full summer coat making them look so sleek 

I always knew I had the ability to be a poet!!

Parfa.
Svalbard.

Tilly

2015 Scottish Hill Races naming theme

In the year 2015, we decided upon a naming theme of hill running races located in Scotland. Therefore, all the calves that were born in 2015 were subsequently given a name from this theme. Some of which I’d have had no idea how to pronounce had I not been told. These reindeer – who are now 8 years old – wear a white ear tag with a number between 900 and 950. Hill running appears to be a common activity amongst reindeer herders. Perhaps it’s an occupational hobby. A way to keep fit for the physical nature of reindeer herding, or indeed capitalise on the miles that are done on the job by trying to win a few competitions. In this blog I will explain a bit about the races that are responsible for five reindeer names.

Scolty is a tall and handsome chap. He’s a fantastic “Christmas Reindeer”, a highly experienced and reliable sleigh-puller. He’s named after a race in Deeside, located just south of the town of Banchory. At the top of Scolty Hill there is a tower – measuring 20 metres high – that was built in 1840. The race has a distance of 7.2km with an ascent of 396 metres.

Scolty looking a bit scruffy in July 2022, coming to the end of the moult.
Scolty looking looking more himself in October 2022, with a fresh winter coat growing though.

Morven is a beautiful breeding female who grows a unique set of antlers year after year. The Morven hill race occurs on Morven hill and is 8km long with an ascent of 640 metres. It is one of the favourite races of Alan Smith. It is located near to the village of Dinnet in the Aboyne area (Aberdeenshire). Dinnet is the first village along the River Dee to be located in the Cairngorms National Park.

Morven in autumn 2021.
Morven and her calf Mochi in the snow – March 2023.

Tap is a dark-coloured breeding female, she’s one of the shyer reindeer in the herd but very beautiful. She gets her name from the hill race Tap O’Noth which is a 7.9km race starting out from Rhynie, a village in Aberdeenshire. There is approximately 390 metres of ascent. With Tap’s athleticism, I’d fancy her chances if she was to compete in the race. What’s the prize? 7.9 kilograms of lichen?

Tap looking beautiful in August 2021.
Tap looking a bit of the scruffier side as she begins to moult her old winter coat – May 2023.

Ochil is a distinctive lass with a white patchy face and a big personality. She’s a good mum and is also a granny. Ochil is named after a long-distance hill race starting out from Stirling University. Its route travels through the Ochil Hills, hills formed from a thick wedge of Devonian age volcanic and volcano-sedimentary rocks. Reindeer herder Joe is planning to compete in this year’s race as it is one of the races selected for the 2023 Scottish hill running championships. He’ll have to navigate through 1200 metres of ascent over the distance of 31.2km. The etymology of the name Ochil – recorded as Okhel – is thought to be Pictish in origin and may derive from the old word ‘ogel’ meaning ‘ridge’.

Ochil free ranging in summer 2021.
Ochil in her thick winter coat next to her calf Vanilla – December 2022.

Suidhe (pronounced Sue-e) is a good mother but a rather shy lass, and can be fairly suspicious of what our intentions are but she can usually be won over by her greed! Suidhe is one of our local hill races. It starts from the Kincraig village green and has an approximate distance of 5km, with roughly 250 metres in ascent. The hill must be an important part of the local community because Kincraig’s pub takes its name from it.

Suide (closest to the camera) with her sister Feta, and her calf Solero in Feb 2023.
Suidhe in March 2023 after casting an antler.

Ben

‘Uncover the Mythology of Reindeer’ with Sharon Hudgins

A few years back I replied to an email from a lady who had visited Glenmore from the USA back in 1969, and had been put up for the night in Reindeer House by Mikel Utsi. She remembered meeting a pure white reindeer in the pen behind the house (what is now the Paddocks), and from our herd records I could tell this must have been Snowflake, one of the first ‘leucistic’ reindeer in the Cairngorm herd.

Snowflake outside Reindeer House in 1970.

We corresponded a bit and Sharon, who is an author and public speaker, then came back to visit Scotland again that summer, returning to the Reindeer Centre once more, and has stayed in touch since through becoming an adopter (picking a descendant of Snowflake as her adoptee!). Her unexpected encounter with a reindeer back in the 60s sparked a life-long interest , and she has gone on to write a book about her early travels and her time since spent amongst reindeer herders all over the world. She wrote a wee blog for us too a couple of years back too.

In 2019 Sharon gave lectures on reindeer on Viking ocean cruises, using a mixture of photos she has taken and ones we have provided, and in 2022 the lecture was recorded for Viking TV. And here it is!

Hen

Naming Themes

It is now officially calving season!! As I write this blog it is the last day of April, and we already have two new calves in our ranks. All the calves will be named in September, as is always the case. In fact, every Cairngorm reindeer has a name, and this follows a designated theme each year. Whilst we have not yet decided on the theme for the 2022 calves, we will often be asked about previous themes. In this blog I’ll describe previous themes. Feel free to leave your ideas for themes in our comments section.

2021: Hats (blue coloured tag) – e.g., Fez, Sombrero, Trilby.

2020: Peas, seeds & beans (grey) – Chickpea, Mushy, Sunflower.

2019: European cities & towns (brown) – Berlin, Kiruna, Florence.

2018: Detectives, inspectors & spies (orange) – Marple, Bond, Poirot.

2017: Poets & authors (hot pink) – Dr. Seuss, Kipling, Christie.

2016: Ancient civilizations (green) – Spartan, Celt, Inca.

2015: Scottish hill races (white) – Ochil, Morven, Scolty.

2014: Bays, seas & oceans (purple) – none remaining alive.

2013: Cheeses (yellow) – Brie, Camembert, Feta.

2012: The year ‘2012’ was the theme (black) – Olympic, Diamond, Torch.

2011: Games & pastimes (red) – Jenga, Scrabble, Origami.

2010: Bugs & beasties (blue) – Caterpillar, Spider, Ladybird.

2009: Cakes, puddings & desserts (pink) – Strudel, Pavlova, Hobnob.

2008: Antlered & horned animals (orange) – Moose, Gazelle, Ibex.

2007: A theme centred around all things ‘Green’ (green) – Fern, Fly.

2006: Popstars (silver) – Elvis, Enya, Lulu.

2005: Countries (yellow) – Malawi.

Three white-nosed reindeer: Beanie (2021), Dr Seuss (2017) and Spartan (2016).
Fly named in 2007’s “green things” theme – so she’s named after a greenfly!
Jester (2021), Ochil (2015), and Feta (2013).
Oatcake (2009) and Scully (from the X-Files, 2018).
Okapi and Addax – both named after other “horned or antlered animals” (2008).
Mum and daughter pair, Hobnob (2009) and Mushy (2020). Sometimes we try to be clever and match the calf’s name with his or her mum’s name. In this cash Mushy (named after mushy peas) was linked to Hobnob (the cakes and biscuits year), because hobnobs go mushy when you dip them in tea!

So, there you have it, that is a list of the naming themes (with the corresponding tag colour and some examples of reindeer names) that are currently in circulation with our reindeer. Now, when you visit again you may have a better idea of how old the reindeer you are feeding may be. Although, as you can see, some colours are repeated which can cause confusion. For example, if you see an orange tag, you may not know if this reindeer was born in 2008 or 2017. Well, each reindeer also has a number on their tag and this number corresponds to the reindeer name on our systems. It is a legal requirement to have a tag on any animal that is transported within the U.K., so we’ve made it work for us with specific colours and numbers that help us identify the reindeer if required.

Juniper (2020) showing off her grey ear-tag.

It is worth noting that we also have just under 10 male reindeer still with us that were born in Sweden between the years of 2009 and 2011 and brought to Scotland to provide new genetics for our herd. These older boys were named individually and not within a theme. Spike, Caesar, Houdini, Bovril, and Hook are some examples of these boys’ names, and they have a range of numbers and colours in their ear tags.

Bovril (photo from 2020) was used as a breeding bull here on Cairngorm for several years after being imported from Sweden in 2011. He was named by Fiona, just because she likes the name!

It is not just ‘the Swedes’ that have names that don’t fit into a theme. Occasionally we will get reindeer where a nickname from early on in their life appears to stick and stay with the reindeer. Holy Moley, our television superstar, had such an eventful initial few days to her life that one herder exclaimed ‘holy moley!’ after being informed of events (she fell down a hole in a boulder field). Svalbard is another example. He was supposed to be called Meccano to fit in with the 2011 naming theme of Games & pastimes, but that name never stuck due to him looking incredibly alike a Svalbard reindeer (small and dumpy). Hamish is a final example of being an exception to the naming rule. Hamish was born in 2010 and unfortunately wasn’t being fed by his mother. This led to him being bottle-fed by the herders for the first part of his life so that he could grow into a big, strong Scottish reindeer and as such was given a big, strong Scottish name…Hamish.

Hamish in 2019 – still a big strong reindeer and character in our herd.

Previous themes, prior to 2005, yielded some great names. We have been naming the reindeer after a theme since 1971. It has gotten to the point where a lot of the more obvious themes have been chosen by now. Some examples of previous themes are: Musical instruments & genres (2000), Colours (1999), Sweets & chocolate bars (1998), Fruits & nuts (1992), Wines & whiskies (1991), Herbs & spices (1988), Scottish islands (1987), Fish (1984), Trees (1982 & 1971), Mountains (1980), Weather (1975 & 1996), and Birds (1972). Before 1971, Mr. Utsi and Dr. Lindgren (the original owners of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd) named the male reindeer after Scottish places (e.g., Aviemore) and the female reindeer had human names (e.g., Mary).

If you have ever visited the Paddocks and Exhibition you may have noticed the timeline of naming themes, starting in 1971.

In our office we have a folder with naming theme suggestions collected throughout the years. I have just had a look through it and some of the suggested themes are: Vegetables, Ice creams & lollies, Mushrooms & toadstools, Condiments & spreads, Indian foods, Teas & coffees, Cocktails (as you can see, we enjoy our food and drink here), Disney side-kick characters, Mountain ranges, Sea creatures, Gods & goddesses, Rivers of the world, and Dances. Who knows what themes 2022 and beyond will bring? Once we decide, the theme and each reindeer name are revealed to adopters in the autumn newsletter.

Ben

The Bridge over the Allt Mor

Funny story…. For months Hen’s been meaning to write a blog about the new bridge en route to our hill enclosure, but eventually this autumn found herself too short of time and suggested to Andi that she wrote it instead, hence Andi’s recent blog. And then, displaying a woeful level of forgetfulness, Hen found the blog that SHE WROTE HERSELF, and had NO memory of writing…Wow. So, you might as well read this one too.

I often talk to people who came to visit years ago but can’t remember much about their walk to the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure, other than the fact ‘there was a big bridge’ over a river. Ah, we say knowingly, you mean Utsi bridge. It’s become an iconic part of our most common route on to the mountains to see the reindeer herd. (But it’s not the sole route we use, so if you read on and have no memory of a bridge, then you aren’t going mad – we probably just took you to meet the herd in a different location!)

Utsi’s bridge as it has been for many, many years.

The original Utsi bridge over the Allt Mor (the river which leads down to Loch Morlich) was built in the 60s, and consisted of not much more than telegraph poles with some planks on them, or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen that remain of it.

The very first bridge was a bit more ‘rustic’!

Bridge mark II was built in 1979 by the Army, and it’s this one, with it’s high-sided handrails, that is the one that most people will remember. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve crossed it, but being as between late April and early January it’s rare for a working day to pass without doing so at least twice (i.e. once in each direction), and often a lot more – it’s certainly a lot of times. I think my record was 9 or 10 trips up to the hill enclosure once whilst shuttling boardwalking material up there. I cursed the lack of vehicle access that day!

Many reindeer hooves have crossed the bridge over the years too. Obviously reindeer can, and do, cross the river directly a lot of the time, but the free-ranging herd will cross the bridge instead at times if making their way towards the enclosure of their own accord. Tell-tale droppings on the bridge give away their route!

Fiona, Sofia and Alan leading reindeer up to the hill enclosure in spring many years ago.

We lead reindeer to and from the enclosure over the bridge, and the most eventful time is always their very first time, usually at around 5 months old, learning to walk on a halter. Actually the bridge itself is no issue at this point – it’s getting on the bridge which can be really hard as there are steps up on to it.

After over 40 years, the second incarnation of Utsi bridge was starting to show signs of wear and tear, the central support starting to get more undermined each time the river was in spate, and eventually it became obvious that it needed to be replaced. We don’t own the land that the bridge is built on so this didn’t come down to us thankfully, although we did attend meetings with regards to how it would happen, and made sure that the plan was definitely to complete the new bridge fully before the old one was removed!

The new bridge under construction, already dwarfing the older one!

Work began in November 2020, but ground to a juddering halt with the second lockdown after Christmas, and even though construction was permitted to continue, the impassable road and deep snow conditions of January and February 2021 made any progress an impossibility. It was mid-April before the bridge was finally completed, just before we re-opened to the public in late April, so all of our visitors in 2021 have walked to the reindeer herd via Utsi bridge mark III. This version is quite considerably bigger, and makes quite a landmark, but I’m not yet as fond of it as I was the old one.

Tilly and Sherlock crossing the new bridge – with a bit more space for large antlers than the previous one!

We all kept pieces of the old bridge, so I have two of the uprights which once supported the handrails in my workshop at home. Maybe one day I’ll use them for gateposts somewhere! Alan and Tilly (owners of the reindeer herd) kept the four 30’ long steel girders that stretched the 60’ span of the river, which had to be helicoptered out from the site to the nearby car-park, and then collected via tractor and (large!) trailer! No doubt they will one day become part of one of Alan’s many sheds.

An old photo of Tilly on the second bridge when it was quite young, showing off the massive steel girders quite nicely!

So if you are visiting us, particularly in the summer and autumn months, have your camera ready for this iconic bridge in case you happen to be lucky enough to cross it en route to the reindeer herd. You’ll be following in the footprints of thousands of visitors, hundreds of reindeer and dozens of reindeer herders, spanning nearly 7 decades.

Hen

Utsi Bridge

Constuction ahead! (or a man with an umbrella, as Olly said!)

If you’ve been to visit our reindeer on the hill at Cairngorm, it’s likely that you’ve walked over Utsi Bridge. Named after the charismatic Sami, Mikel Utsi, who was responsible (along with his wife Ethel Lindgren) for reintroducing the reindeer to Scotland, this bridge gives access over the Allt Mor river to the Chalamain Gap, and – more importantly for us – our hill enclosure.

The second incarnation of Utsi Bridge, which we’ve been using for the past 42 years.

The first incarnation was replaced in 1979 by the Edinburgh and Heriot Watt Universities Officer Training Corps, as a summer engineering project, but after 41 years and being crossed by thousands upon thousands of feet (and hooves), it had reached the end of its safe working life and was due to be replaced. However, as it was the only crossing point for some distance, the new bridge would have to be built first, before the old one was removed. Anyone who has been here will also appreciate how difficult the location was for a major build too – there was no chance of getting a digger down into the valley for example – and as it is in a sensitive area other considerations were also necessary. All of the new materials had to be airlifted in, and the old bridge airlifted out, and this had to be done outside of capercaillie breeding season, to prevent disturbance.

Piles of materials for the new bridge after they were dropped off by the helicopter.

Work began in October 2020, and the work crew from ACT Heritage did a fantastic job, working through rain, sleet, hail, high winds and snow. Not to mention the extra complications of an ongoing pandemic! It was also nice that the crew included Ross, the fiancé of ex-herder Ali. They were very good with us, and would always stop work to give us space when we were leading reindeer across the old bridge. Though the orange safety netting was definitely an entertaining obstacle when leading antlered animals! The second national lockdown from Christmas brought work to a halt for a while, but in March a helicopter lifted out the old bridge, and our twin bridges were down to one sturdy, hopefully long-lasting, shiny new bridge.

New supports in place.
Slioch keeping an eye on progress as we cross the old bridge. The orange safety fencing was… entertaining… when passing close by with pointy antlers…
The framework for the new bridge complete.
The wintry Cairngorms weather didn’t help matters!
The final wooden structure being built on the metal framework.
Nearly there, just the steps and finishing touches to go.

Not wanting to lose a piece of the Reindeer Company history, Alan drove a tractor and trailer all the way from our hill farm to collect the old dismantled bridge. Apparently the old steel girders were of a quality that is impossible to buy these days! There is a plan to reinstate the old bridge at a suitable location at the farm.

The helicopter at the Sugarbowl after lifting out the old bridge in sections – the giant metal girders are just visible in the background.
The shiny new bridge in use with the last of the old bridge being dismantled.

It has taken the reindeer a bit of time to get used to the new crossing – the steps were perhaps not quite designed for reindeer strides – but once they’ve been over it once or twice they get the hang of it. It’s great having the edging alongside the steps to guide them in the right direction – the old bridge was rather awkward as the steps didn’t have a rail on each side, so calves would sometimes “miss”! And with the new ample width, we’re still debating if we can be bothered carrying one of our Christmas sleighs down the narrow path to get a photo of a full team of reindeer in sleigh on the bridge – it would fit!

Sherlock testing out the new bridge.

Andi

Reindeer in the Southern Hemisphere

This week’s blog focuses on the introduction of reindeer to obscure places around the world. I will pay particular attention to the introduction of reindeer in the lesser-known Kerguelen Islands.

Reindeer and Penguins co-existing on South Georgia Island (image from: https://assets.atlasobscura.com/article_images/62073/image.jpg)

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is a re-introduced herd. Reindeer were once native to Scotland, and before that they could also be found across England. In fact, cave paintings of reindeer have been found as far south as the Pyrenees in Northern Spain/Southern France. A leftover memory from when the planet was no doubt a lot colder. However, the native reindeer in Scotland were thought to have died out between 800 and 1100 years ago due to both over-hunting and climate change related habitat loss. The story of our current herd of 150 reindeer began in 1949 when a Swedish reindeer herder called Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, began their honeymoon in Aviemore. Mr Utsi gazed out at the Cairngorm mountains and saw the perfect conditions for reindeer but, alas, no reindeer. Mr Utsi would have seen cold and windy temperatures, a tundra landscape, and sub-arctic flora. This is because the Cairngorm mountains are the only place in the United Kingdom with sub-arctic conditions. Mr Utsi apparently spent days looking for the reindeer in the hills before dropping down to the local pub to ask the locals about their reindeer. It was here that he found out that there were no reindeer. His honeymoon doesn’t sound like your stereotypical relaxing and romantic honeymoon, at least they got some time in the pub, but his marriage withstood and together Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren made it their life’s work to reintroduce reindeer to Scotland. It started with 8 reindeer being shipped over from Sweden in 1952 and many subsequent initial imports. And the rest, as they say, is history. We now have a reintroduced herd with a variety of genetic diversity.

Mr Utsi and Sarek the reindeer on-board the coincidentally named S.S. Sarek. Circa 1955.

Other herds of reindeer have also been introduced to different countries around the world in the not so distant past. Some reindeer have been introduced into locations where there have never been reindeer previously. Iceland is a good example of a country where reindeer have been introduced successfully. Although, this introduction wasn’t without its problems. Predominantly located in the east of Iceland, Icelandic reindeer were once close to extinction having been introduced between the years of 1771-1787. Up until the year of 1940 their numbers had gradually dropped to approximately 100-200 but stocks have now risen to between 6000-7000. The reason for the fluctuations in population is probably due to natural circumstances such as insufficient grazing, range deterioration and volcanic eruptions. More information about reindeer in Iceland can be found in a previous blog post written by Bobby: https://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk/2020/04/17/the-curious-history-of-reindeer-in-iceland/.

Most reindeer and caribou around the world live in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere as these are the conditions that they’ve evolved to thrive in over the course of evolution. But reindeer are incredibly adaptable and resilient, and humans have attempted to introduce them to a variety of places, some even south of the equator. Reindeer were introduced to the South Georgia Islands (about 1000 miles east of Cape Horn, Argentina) by Norwegian whalers, where the reindeer lived alongside penguins for around 100 years. However, in 2010 the government decided to eradicate the reindeer as the number were increasing and putting too much pressure on the island’s native plants and wildlife. By 2017 all reindeer were eradicated from the island. Approximately 6,750 reindeer were culled in total. More information about reindeer in South Georgia can be found here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/reindeer-in-the-southern-hemisphere.

The South Georgia Islands (image from: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-ML303_southg_P_20160204101610.jpg)
The South Georgia Islands (image from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f6/88/76/f68876f58629710a940a1bf0a1c0d593.jpg)

The introduction of reindeer to the Kerguelen Islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, is a slightly happier story. The reindeer remain as residents today in these islands that are located over 2000 miles from their nearest neighbour, Madagascar. The Kerguelen Islands are a group of islands in the sub-Antarctic (southern Indian Ocean) made from igneous (volcanic) rock. They are part of a submerged microcontinent called the Kerguelen Subcontinent. Kerguelen’s climate is considered to be a tundra climate with cold temperatures and high wind speeds. The mountains are frequently covered in snow and the average annual temperature is 4.9 degrees Celsius. Lichens, grasses, and mosses grow plentifully as does the famous, indigenous Kerguelen cabbage which was popular with sailors in their bid to increase their vitamin C intake. The main indigenous animals are wingless insects, seabirds, seals, and penguins but there has been plenty of introduced animals such as cats, rabbits, sheep, and reindeer (interestingly, all cats on the island are black and white because the original 3 introduced cats were black and white).

The Kerguelen Islands from afar (image from: https://www.islandconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-invasive-species-Kerguelen-Islands-feat.jpg)

The French originally introduced Swedish reindeer to the islands in 1956. The Kerguelen Islands were used as one of the whaling stations, where whalers would bring their catch for processing. Reindeer were introduced to be shot for food, as well as being hunted for sport. However, when the whaling industry collapsed, the reindeer stayed and there is now an estimated 3000 – 5000 reindeer on the islands. The reindeer were originally introduced to Ile des Rennes (Reindeer Island), also called Ile Australia. However, the reindeer eventually swam across to the main island of La Grande Terre a short distance away.

Reindeer and Penguins co-existing on the Kerguelen Islands (image from: http://www.pelagicodyssey.ca/ao2/64.jpg)

The conditions in the Kerguelen Islands are very similar to the conditions found in parts of Scandinavia. However, it would be interesting to know how the reindeer adapted to the change in seasons as they moved from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. And, moreover, the effect that reindeer have had on the island’s vegetation. Researchers have previously believed that very high grazing pressure over time pushes the ecosystem in a positive direction, so that over time, the areas that are grazed become dominated by productive plants, such as nutrient-rich species of grasses. However, The Ecosystem Finnmark project believe that reindeer have a negative effect on grazing areas, even in the most productive summer pastures.

Ben