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.

The Kerguelen Islands (image from: https://c1.staticflickr.com/8/7441/9383732243_19ecdd620b_b.jpg)

Ben

Stinky Boys

Roman with his cows

By the time you read this, the rut will be underway here at Cairngorm, with our chosen breeding bulls split with selected unrelated females, to make sure we know who the parents of each calf are. While the bulls tend to be fairly relaxed and laid back for most of the year, as September comes to an end and the cows come into season, they start to “rut”, strutting around, posturing and rounding up their females, and challenging any other bull they see. Reindeer bulls don’t “roar” like some deer species (including the iconic Scottish red deer stag), instead they grunt. But one of the most noticeable changes for me is their smell.

Kota in 2020, grunting to his cows

Now, I don’t claim to have a particularly good sense of smell, but in general reindeer are fairly unsmelly creatures. However, a rutting bull is a different matter, and already, as I write in mid-September, our boys are getting stinky. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell – very musky and, well, masculine I suppose. One of the main reasons they smell so strong is that they begin deliberately peeing on their hindlegs. This always seemed a bit odd until I did my research and realised that reindeer, like all deer, have scent glands on the inside of their hocks, the tarsal glands. This gland produces an oily secretion, and when the natural bacteria on this area combines with pheromones in the urine, that distinctive scent is produced. Apparently every reindeer has a unique, individual scent, due to their own winning combination of bacteria, though I definitely don’t have a sensitive enough nose to be able to tell!

Nutti, illustrating the position of the tarsal gland
Roman peeing on his legs to increase his allure

Why do they feel the urge to be so stinky?? Well, part of it must be as a statement of dominance – when I, as a mere human, can smell a bull from 100 metres away, the other reindeer must be able to smell them from… 800 metres?… a mile?? This must act as a deterrent to a weaker bull, and quite possibly as an attractant to a female in season – they definitely come looking for bulls when they’re ready.

Feeding the big bulls last year, just before the rut – they were already stinky!

We have a vague theory among us herders that the female herders notice the scent of the rutting bulls more than the male herders do. Quite what that means, I have no idea – perhaps the smell is designed more as an attractant to cows than a deterrent to bulls after all (not that any of us lassies have said that we actually like the smell!). Either that or the men amongst us are less sensitive when it comes to body odour!

Andi

Through the Eyes of a Reindeer

A visitor recently asked me why reindeer have horizontal pupils. The question had me thinking about the importance of vision to reindeer. It is easy to forget that many animals don’t see the world the same way we do, and reindeer eyes are in many ways different from our own.

Reindeer live in arctic and sub arctic regions that experience hugely variable light levels. Above the arctic circle, they’ll experience 24 hour darkness in winter and 24 hour sun in summer, and no matter how dark it is, they still need to be able to find their food and see predators coming. So how do reindeer eyes cope with their environment?

Origami – Photo by Kate Brown

When you look at a reindeer, the most obvious thing about their eyes is that they are placed on the side of their heads. This is common in prey animals, and it gives them a wide field of vision that means they can see danger coming from almost any direction. The placement of their eyes does mean they have a blind spot right in front of their noses, but aside from this it’s very hard to sneak up on a reindeer!

Ladybird – Photo by Kate Brown

If you look a bit closer, the next thing you might notice – aside from their beautiful eyelashes – is that they have long,  horizontal pupils. This adaption helps focus a reindeer’s sense of sight at the ground level and the horizon – where their food and their predator’s are found. These horizontal pupils also help compensate for the placement of their eyes and reduce the size of that blind spot in front of a reindeer, so that they can see forwards – vital for finding an escape route when on the run from a predator.

Dr. Seuss – Photo by Kate Brown

If you looked deeper into a reindeer’s eyes, you would find even more amazing adaptions. In 2013 scientists discovered that reindeer eyes actually change colour with the seasons! A layer of tissue in the retina changes from a golden colour in summer to a deep blue in winter. This change means that less light is reflected back out of the eye, helping reindeer keep their vision sharp even in the long dark winter months. This is the first time this kind of colour change in a mammalian eye has been found. It is thought the colour change might be caused by increased pressure in the eye in winter. The pupil is permanently dilated in the dark, and this reduces the space in the collagen structure of the retina, which in turn changes the reflectiveness of the retina and shortens the wavelengths of light being reflected.

Two dissected reindeer eyes, the left taken from a reindeer that died in winter, the right from one that died in summer. Photo by Glen Jeffrey (The Independent).

Reindeer vision is made even more interesting by the fact that they can see into the UV range. There are high levels of UV light present in the polar regions of the world due to the reflections from snow and ice. Many lichens – the favoured winter food of reindeer – are very effective at absorbing UV. Wolf fur as well is also shown to absorb UV, so being able to see UV wavelengths helps reindeer pick out both their food and their predators in the snow (see here for a previous blog on UV vision).

Reindeer seem to view the world quite differently to us, and it’s clear their eyes have had to adapt to many challenges. They’ve had to adapt to pick out predators and hard to find food, to cope with extreme seasonal changes in light, and to deal with the large amount of UV present in the arctic. Their eyes are just another example of how well adapted reindeer are for their environments.

Kate

Sources:

Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes? | Science Advances (sciencemag.org)

Arctic reindeer extend their visual range into the ultraviolet | Journal of Experimental Biology | The Company of Biologists

Shifting mirrors: adaptive changes in retinal reflections to winter darkness in Arctic reindeer | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)

Review of The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky

Published in 2005.

An anthropological study of the roaming reindeer herders of northern Russia, this book is filled to the brim with interesting facts and fascinating stories. The author, Piers Vitebsky, was the first westerner to get the chance to visit and live alongside Siberian reindeer herders since the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and his book mainly follows the Eveny people, and the ways their lives are changed by the Soviet regime and its eventual demise.

A 1000-strong reindeer herd in Kamchatka, far east Russia, owned by the Eveny people – photo taken by Tilly on her “busman’s holiday” in September 2018

As much as this may all sound like very heavy reading, Vitebsky does a great job at making it interesting. Although I approached the book looking to learn, I was expecting a lot of stats, figures, and the like, but instead he does a great job at focusing on the human side of things – introducing you to all the key characters he met on his travels. This personal approach makes for a much more engaging read than I had initially expected, as you get more of a sense of the indigenous people passing on their stories to you through him.

Cow and calf with very distinct markings in Bistrinsky Natural Park, Kamchatka – photo taken by Tilly (September 2018)
Eveny reindeer herder with a herd of reindeer, Bistrinsky Natural Park, Kamchatka – photo taken by Tilly (September 2018)

As for the stories, there is an incredible range. From descriptions of the earliest tribes to domesticate reindeer – and how their religions often revolved around them – to the ins and outs of what it means to work with a herd of 2,500 reindeer, in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, this book has it all! I found it interesting that Vitebsky was able to effectively blend interrelated stories together- so you understood things both from a big picture perspective and how these bigger events have affected the friends he made within the herders group. This is the key in what makes the book an interesting read, rather than just a compilation of statistics. The personal trials and tribulations become much more relatable and understandable, even for us outsiders.

Towards the end of the book, he begins to question how the Eveny will adapt for the future. As many negatives as the Soviet Union brought, they also created a system that forced the Eveny to rely on their support, and now that support has been taken away. The expansion of oil pipelines and the ever-growing threat of global warming are also huge factors in the changing lifestyle of many indigenous people and finding the balance between preserving their ancient cultures and surviving and adapting to the modern world is a huge question too.

Wide variety of coat colours within the herd, Kamchatka – photo taken by Tilly (September 2018)

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested not just in reindeer, but in the culture that surrounds them. It’s not necessarily light reading, but you will learn a lot – without feeling like you’re reading a textbook!

Harry

Reach for the sky! How reindeer antlers grow so fast

They’re the most distinctive feature of the reindeer, and the most incredible. Branching elegantly like the trees which the tundra so sorely misses, and renewing themselves each year, antlers demonstrate nature’s complexity and mystery in one. At this time of year the reindeer’s quickly growing antlers constantly amaze visitors and captivate my own imagination. It occurred to me recently that the cells in growing antlers and the cells used in the Covid-19 vaccine are both the same type of rare cell: undifferentiated stem cells! It might be interesting to join the dots between this.

A line of hungry boys and growing antlers (August 2021)
Nell being inspired to write this blog, surrounded by lots of wonderful antlers (July 2021)

Greater Antlers, Greater Chances…

Large antlers lead to a (sexually selective) advantage in males, and even in females too as those that are better able to defend areas of food in the winter are more likely to produce healthy offspring. A physical advantage in a single characteristic, leading to it’s selection is a process called directional selection. This means that over time, reindeer populations evolve very (VERY) gradually to have larger antlers.

Swedish-born (and the very handsome) Kota, who was used as a breeding bull for several years (August 2017)
The lovely Fly, who tends to grow big antlers for a female (September 2019)

However, large antlers come at a cost, requiring huge amounts of energy to grow in such a short space of time. Reindeer eat lichen, which is fairly low in nutrition and has a long digestive process, as well as other low lying plants, mosses and mushrooms found across sub-arctic areas. As even eating a lot of food won’t make up the energy, the animals shift calcium from parts of the skeleton which don’t carry a lot of weight (such as the ribs) in a process called cyclical reversible osteoporosis, which humans also go through during pregnancy. There are still more adjustments, as the reindeer’s neck and shoulder muscles need to swell in order to carry the bulky weight of the antlers, and movement becomes restrictive. It’s no wonder then that the rutting season becomes so taxing for large bulls that their life is typically shorter than that of a female. Taken to an extreme there is even a theory that the great Irish Elk, or Megalocerous, was partially driven to extinction due to the amount of energy it lost to it’s enormous antlers! I find it unlikely that this will happen to the reindeer but there’s no doubt that these huge organs take a lot for the reindeer to grow.

The Irish Elk or Megaloceros with it’s weighty antlers (image: Biggest. Antlers. Ever. Meet the Irish Elk | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian Magazine)

Shooting for the Skies

Although we know what pushes antlers to grow to such a huge size, it’s truly incredible when we begin to ask how. Antlers are the fastest growing organs in the animal kingdom, potentially growing around three inches a week (dependent on nutrition). This is mainly due to the quick regeneration of stem cells from which they are formed; the only type of cell in a body which can differentiate into any kind of tissue, such as bone, fat or skin. We have some of these cells in our bone marrow, as an important part of our bodily regeneration, and the quick formation of embryos is also due to them. Stem cells are also an important resource in therapies for degenerative diseases or to support the body following certain aggressive cancer treatments. Stem cells have even been used in the creation of several vaccines – including for Covid-19! This, combined with their versatility and potential in lab experiments makes stem cells an extremely valuable resource to medical research. It’s awesome to think that the same cells from which reindeer antlers are formed are what we use to treat life threatening diseases.

Finally, the antlers are not just useful to the reindeer, but also to the other animals in the wider ecosystem. Often when we find an antler which has been out on the hill for a while it will be worn thin and marked by the tooth marks of different animals. In the Paddocks we also see that mice and squirrels chew the antlers in the display area! This is because once they are dropped they are an open source of calcium which sometimes the reindeer, or other animals, (like your own pet dogs) will chew in order to reclaim the minerals. There have even been times that reindeer have chewed each other’s antlers while they’re still on their head!

Reindeer chewing on a cast antler in the enclosure, video by herder Olly

Next spring I plan to photograph the same reindeer once a week from the time it’s antlers are small stumps until they’re fully grown as there really is an incredible difference. There’s so much which is unique and wonderful to say about antlers and I’m looking forward to writing still more about them!

Ryvita (and her lovely antlers) with Nell on the free-range (August 2021)

P.S. What’s the difference between an antler and a horn?…… A horn makes a noise!

Nell

Reindeer Internationals!

International herders

We’ve got a new Dutch reindeer herder! No, not me (Manouk), yet another one, we’re taking over 😉.  From the start of May, Lisette has been part our team for 2 days a week. Having lived in Fort Bill for 5 years, experienced with sheep, shepherding and dealing with the public, we thought she’d make an excellent addition to the team. That now brings the team to 2 Dutchies, as I’m back doing Mondays again. This left Hen to wonder if there are more Dutch reindeer herders than Scottish ones, but we quickly realised that that wasn’t the case. The Scots are definitely out-Englished though!

Lisette on a snowy hill run

Lisette and I are not the first Dutch herders in Scotland. Decades back, there was a Dutch ultra-runner, Jan Knippenberg, who would fly from the Netherlands to Inverness and continue on to run to the Cairngorms. When he ran the distance from Braemar police station to Aviemore police station through the Lairig Ghru (now known as the popular Lairig Ghru hill race), Mikel Utsi asked if he fancied helping him herd his reindeer from time to time. Knippenberg inspired current owner of the herd Alan Smith to get into (long-distance) running too, and thereby left his mark by starting an era of hill running reindeer herders. It won’t surprise you to read that both Lisette and myself are also hill runners (as are many herders in the team), Lisette often even crossing the finish line as the first lady! Read more on reindeer herders and hill running in my previous blogs, where I go over why reindeer herders run in the hills and about running from Scotland to the Netherlands.

Jan Knippenberg, back in the 80s

Besides these Dutchies, we have a large variety of nationalities amongst our present and past teams of herders! Ben was born in Australia, though spent most of his life in the UK. We occasionally get American herder Bobby over and look forward to seeing him soon again when it’s possible. Ex-herder Dave is from New Zealand, his kiwi accent still present after years in the Highlands 😊. Both Olly and Lotti both are ¼ Greek, and this shows in them being slightly less pale than your average Brit and for Lotti in part of her last name too (Papastavrou). We’ve had way more but as it’s a relative newbie writing this blog (I’ve only been involved with the herd for 4 years), I won’t be able to mention them all.

Herders Lotti and Ollie, who are both part-Greek!
American Bobby a couple of winters ago
Kiwi Dave, completely surrounded by calves!

There have also been many international volunteers too over the years, but the list is too long to go over everyone. Double thanks for coming over all the way from wherever you live to come and help us here!

International reindeer

Not all our reindeer are Scottish either! Most of you will know from visiting, BBC programmes, or reading about the herd that reindeer were reintroduced to the Cairngorms in the 50s, after having been extinct for +/- 1000 years. That means the origins of our herd lie in Sweden. To keep the gene pool diverse, we’ve introduced new bulls every few years too. At the moment we only have ten Swedish reindeer, none of which are still being used to breed from.

Amongst these ten Swedish boys, there are a few all-time favourites. We have the lovely ‘dark bull’ Bovril. Bovril is a favourite amongst (ex-)herders and a tv star as well! He featured in the BBC’s Four Seasons documentary, where he can be seen fighting a younger, light bull, trying to win the battle for the right to mate. Long after his tv premiere he could be seen striking a pose to visitors, I’m sure he knows he’s handsome.

Myself with handsome Bovril, during my first week of reindeer herding!

Another well-known Swede is Matto, who is white in colour. This makes him stick out like a sore thumb when you’re looking for the herd on a hillside, making the life of a reindeer herder a lot easier! He’s also a firm favourite ‘Christmas reindeer,’ looking extra festive with a red harness and bells contrasting nicely with his white coat.

International visitors

Amongst the many sad consequences of Covid19, was the fact that we’re hardly getting any international visitors anymore. We love the wide range of people we get, from all over the world. It’s always exciting to ask where people are from and realise that, at times, within one group of people, every continent (apart from maybe Antarctica) is represented! Herders have a habit of asking people where they’re from, and with Covid restrictions this may have sounded as if we were harassing you to check you weren’t breaking any rules. So sorry if we made you feel that way – and, honestly, we just love to hear where people are from!

We are so looking forward to getting people from overseas again (as well as British people of course 😊) – please do come and visit us once it’s allowed to do so!

Manouk

Reindeer, fairy folk and giants

This week’s blog is by Sarah Hobbs, a former reindeer herder here who now has a very different job! If you’re looking for a perfect activity to learn more about the local area while you’re here on holiday, then Strathspey Storywalks is for you! Enjoy a relaxed and leisurely potter while tasting some wild tea, and you’ll go away full of knowledge about the myths and legends of Aviemore and the surrounding area. Highly recommended!

We are all so fond of the reindeer that we might forget that they (and we!) live alongside giants, fairies, ghosts of cattle raiders, cleared townships, and remains of illicit whisky distilling…

In 2013 I randomly googled ‘reindeer in the UK’ while idly wondering about returning to Norway where I’d lived for a while, to work with deer during my holidays. It came as a surprise to discover a herd free-ranging the Cairngorms, and I immediately wrote an email enquiring about volunteering. A long train journey with Nan Shepherd’s wonderful book about the mountains and a warm welcome later, it never takes long to fall for the place! The reindeer are totally captivating, calming and totally belong there – it’s a very special feeling. 

After several years of spending all my annual leave volunteering with the herd, I quit my lovely job and life in London and moved to Glenmore in early 2016, completely taken with the reindeer, the mountains, and the quiet openness and warmth of Highlands folk. I worked with the herd for a year, a full turn of the calendar, and it was amazing to be with and observe them so closely as they constantly change and grow.

Glenmore and Aviemore is now my home (why would I leave?!), so fast forward to lockdown 2020, when I set up Strathspey Storywalks, taking folk on ‘slow adventures’ in and around Aviemore to share the history, culture, nature, Gaelic heritage and of course stories that this area is full of.

Myself and Abby, feeding the reindeer herd in a blizzard back in winter 2016.

After several years of spending all my annual leave volunteering with the herd, I quit everything and moved to Glenmore in early 2016, completely taken with the reindeer, the mountains, and the quiet openness and warmth of Highlands folk. Fast forward to lockdown 2020, and I set up Strathspey Storywalks, taking folk on ‘slow adventures’ in and around Aviemore to share the history, culture, nature, Gaelic heritage and of course stories that this area is full of.

Drinking pine needle tea at a Neolithic cairn on a Storywalk, looking back at the Cairngorms

I’m now doing a short mentoring program with a professional storyteller, through TRACS, Scotland’s national network for traditional arts and culture.

So, the next time you come and visit the reindeer, maybe you’ll pay a visit to Loch Morlich to try and spot Red Hand, a giant Highland warrior who patrols the beach, making sure people respect the beautiful surroundings and don’t take more than they need. Listen out for strange pipe music too – this might be Donald, King of the Fairies, who lives closeby. There are several stories of encounters with ghostly happenings and eerie music here.

Loch Morlich beach, home of Red Hand and Donald King of the Fairies

Or you might wander to Lochan Uaine, the Green Lochan, beneath Robbers’ Hill on Rathad nam Mèirleach or the Thieves’ Road, where of course it’s said the fairies wash their clothes. The strange conical hill above the lochan is a Sìthean, or Fairy Hill, and there are many across the Highlands (just look at a map and it won’t be long before you spot one!) This ‘fairy hill’ however is where local folk set up an illicit still to distill whisky, and the archaeological remains are still there.

Glenmore, the Cairngorms and Strathspey are so rich in incredible stories, it’s a genuine pleasure to share them, and for all of you to continue sharing them for many years to come! If I’ve whetted your appetite for more, please feel free to follow Strathspey Storywalks on Facebook or Instagram.

Sarah

The Ten Commandments of Reindeer Herding

There’s a poster that has been kicking around the Reindeer Centre for as long as I’ve known. It’s since been framed and we keep it in our shop area as it’s a rather sweet poster with some words of wisdom when it comes to reindeer herding.

In case the image is too small to read properly, the text is:

  1. Shepherd thy herd closely when calving for thy calves are more precious than rubies.
  2. Kill not thy healthy reindeer except they be in abundance or be castrated and castrate not thy young reindeer for they will grow slowly and fatten as quickly as thy bulls.
  3. Husband thy pastures carefully that they not be over-grazed or destroyed by fires or trampling and never allow surplus reindeer to graze on winter lichen ranges.
  4. Love thy reindeer as thy sons and daughters, protecting them from wolves and bears, and assuring them abundant food and water all the days of their lives.
  5. Thou shalt not cause they reindeer great stress or make them to run swiftly for they will lose weight or overheat and die as surely as though smitten by thy sword.
  6. Healthy reindeer grow fat and have many calves, whereas sickly and diseased reindeer bring only shame and an empty purse.
  7. Seek solace for thy reindeer in cool breezes when hordes of mosquitos and warble flies haunt the summer ranges.
  8. Suffer not thy old, thy sickly not thy castrated reindeer to endure another snowfall for these reindeer are unproductive and will not fatten further.
  9. Attend to thy tablets carefully for the keeping of tally sheets and daily journals is the hallmark of a successful reindeer herder.
  10. Honour thy pasturelands, its waters and all its creatures, large and small, for they are a family that has endured for centuries.

In reference to point 2, I’ll add that we don’t cull any of our herd at all – when they were reintroduced from Sweden in the 50s it would have been the intention to cull ‘extra’ males who weren’t needed for breeding, but the direction of the herd changed pretty quickly to being purely a tourist attraction. No reindeer burgers here!

And on point 9, a diary has been kept daily since the 50s, recording the movements of the herd and any interesting information, and this is something that we continue to this day. Of course now it’s on a computer rather than hand-written, but everything is religiously recorded, day in and day out.

An example of one of last year’s daily diaries – detailing exactly how much feed was fed to each group of reindeer in each area of the hill enclosure (this was during the rutting season so a very busy time of year for us), movements between groups of certain reindeer – and who was working that day (so we know who to blame things on a later date!).

Fiona/Hen

Reindeer: An Arctic Life

This is the third (but maybe not last!) book I have written about reindeer.  Published by The History Press, I was approached by them in the latter months of 2015 to ask if I would write another book about reindeer.

My immediate reaction was, “I’m not sure, there is only so much that can be written about reindeer!”, but after I had given it some thought I decided to agree.  I don’t dispute I enjoy writing, I am passionate about reindeer and I have had many ‘busman’s holidays’ to reindeer places in the world. It would also be another way of promoting our unique herd of reindeer. So by the end of the year I was already putting pen to paper.

A trip to Mongolia in 2005 – no point going on holiday anywhere where there aren’t reindeer!

The History Press was looking to have the book on the shelves by Christmas 2016 and so I had to get my skates on. In fact as a person who likes a deadline I said I would have the draft ready by the end of March. And much to their surprise I did!

When we talked about the layout of the book the editor was keen to have the book illustrated, rather then include photographs. At first I was not so sure this was a good idea, reindeer are incredibly photogenic and of course live in some of the most iconic places in the world. However now in hindsight I am really pleased that it is illustrated with line-cut drawings and actually I think it may have made me more descriptive in my writing.

I start and finish the book in winter, the time of year that reindeer are without a doubt, in their element.  It is the sort of book you can dip into for fun facts or entertaining stories, and a must for any reindeer enthusiasts, groupie or geek like myself!

Reindeer: An Arctic Life is still in print and if you fancy a copy then buying a signed copy (with personal dedication if you so wish) from us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre will help to support the herd far more than going to Amazon! You can buy it from our online shop ( along with lots of other reindeer related gifts ) or just ring the Reindeer Centre and speak to a friendly reindeer herder to you prefer to order things the old-fashioned way, or want a personalised dedication.

Tilly

Tilly has also written blogs about her previous books Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses, and The Real Rudolph.