A typical day in the life of a reindeer herder

During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?” or “is doing the hill trips the best part of the job?”

During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?”

In this week’s blog I will chronologically outline a ‘typical’ day for a reindeer herder. However, it is worth noting that it’s almost impossible to predict how a day may take shape. The job tends to be incredibly variable and diverse. There are time-dependent jobs that may suddenly arise, such as moving reindeer from where they’re not meant to be to. For example, when they venture down from the mountains on to the road. There are also plenty of seasonal-dependent jobs, such as gardening or leading additional hill trips in the summer months. Or in the winter months you may need to clear footpaths to keep them free from snow and ice. Not to mention the early starts that occasionally occur. These tend to be in the calving season or on the epic days when reindeer need to be moved across the Cairngorms. It’s possible that you could be helping Tilly over at Wild Farm as well, transporting reindeer from the farm to the Cairngorms and vice versa, or helping with the other animals there. The list of possibilities is vast.

Nonetheless, the skeleton of a ‘typical’ reindeer herding day is as follows:

08:00 (summer) or 08:30 (winter): Work starts. Turn up and prepare to be greeted by the dogs.

How every morning starts – getting greeted by the dogs!

There typically may be anywhere between 4 and 7 herders working on a day, depending on the business of the season. Half of us will initially head up to feed the herd their breakfast whilst half of us will stay down at the Centre.

Those of us which stay down at the Centre will be responsible for feeding the paddock reindeer their breakfast, poo picking, cleaning the exhibition, answering emails and any phone calls, cleaning the shop and office, as well as opening the shop and checking in guests after 10am.

Flax lending a hand/hoof in the Paddocks.

The cohort of herders which head up the mountain to feed the herd will initially have to locate the herd. The difficulty of which can depend on weather conditions and whether the reindeer are free-roaming or in the hill enclosure. As I write this – at the end of February 2022 – it took Andi and I three hours to venture out in the snow to where the reindeer were located and then lead them closer to where the 11am hill trip would be.

Moving the free-range herd to a suitable location for a hill trip.

It is at this point in the day which we’re most likely to check the temperature of a reindeer – if we suspect illness – and administer any appropriate treatment. Before the morning feed is put down in a straight line (easier to count) with spaces of approximately 1m in between each pile (to try to stop fighting) there may be a spot of preferential feeding. The young calves are encouraged to come and feed out of the bags whilst one herder will circulate around the herd enticing the less tame reindeer to hand-feed. This preferential feeding is very important for the management of reindeer when they become ill. Catching reindeer can be a long ordeal but it’s important if a reindeer is ill that we can get close enough to help them, so by enticing them into the smaller hand-food bag throughout the year they hopefully won’t always associate the food bag with feeling rubbish. The preferential feeding also allows the young, growing calves to get a bit of extra food from the main bag as they are likely to be lower in the pecking order when it comes to feeding from the line and can get the sustenance they need to continue growing.

Morning feed – Joe putting out a long line of food ready to count the herd.
Routine temperature checks are often done in the morning, before our visitors arrive. Note Andi armed with the thermometer!
Preferential feeding – making sure the calves get some extra food!
Lotti offering the white bag of tasty snacks to our shyer reindeer.
Dixie getting some preferential feeding. Definitely not a shy girl, but at almost 16 she deserves spoiling!

11:00: Hill trip. This is the time when some of our herders are let loose to come and meet yourselves and serenade you with some interesting reindeer-related facts and some terrible reindeer-related jokes. This typically lasts for an hour and a half to two hours, depending on the weather.

Heading out to meet the reindeer on a free-range Hill Trip.

Those herders that don’t participate in the hill trip will be responsible for staying at the Centre and minding the shop, dealing with phone calls and emails, compiling adoption packs for our loyal adopters, mixing reindeer food or even, writing blogs.

A full office – renewals, letting writing, emails, writing the daily diary, generally looking busy…
Fiona and Lotti doing a mammoth food mix!

12:30 – 2: The herders stagger their lunches to ensure someone is always free to mind the shop. Shop visitors can often be caught commenting on the lovely smells coming from the kitchen.

The afternoon: Whilst the morning of a reindeer herder is fairly constant and predictable year-round, the afternoon can vary depending upon the time of year. From May to September there is an additional hill trip at 2:30. During these months the hill trips take place in our hill enclosure so the chance of seeing reindeer is almost definite, and the walk out to see them is shorter and less exposed to the elements. The reindeer herding day generally runs to 5pm, although in July and August we run a third daily tour at 3:30. So for a couple of months the day runs until 5:30.

Recently, we’ve also started been doing ‘Seasonal Herder Talks’ during the school holidays. This means throughout the afternoon one of the reindeer herders will be out in the paddocks talking to visitors about the reindeer and answering any questions.

“Winter Herder Talks” were trialed this February half-term – here’s Lotti with Marple.

Close: At about 4:45 the herders will start to perform the closing dance. This involves one of us cashing up the totals from the shop whilst another herder will head out to the woods located behind the paddock area and put food out for the paddock reindeer. Just before 5 o’clock the reindeer will be let through to the woods area whilst the herder closes and wipes down the exhibition area. The shop will also be shut and wiped down at 5pm. You can always tell it’s 5 o’clock as the dogs begin to stir. They become more energetic and boisterous as they realise the working day is ending and there is now a high chance of them heading out on a walk or run with at least one herder.

Approximately half of the reindeer herders live on-site at the Centre, whilst half of us journey in from the local area. Having some staff on-site means that on the very rare occasion where there is a reindeer emergency after hours, there is staff that can stick their capes on and come to the rescue.

Ben B

2017 Calves part 2: Dr Seuss and Christie

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about Kipling, one of the reindeer born in 2017 (click here to read the first installment). This week I will write about two more reindeer born in that year and given names belonging to the theme famous authors and poets.

Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was the first calf I ever got to know due to his unmistakable white face passed down from his mother Merida. From a young age he was full of cheek and character and also had a large appetite for food. As a little dumpy chubster he was probably the reindeer I gave the most fuss to during my first winter in the form of food and cuddles, although the latter I enjoyed more than him. Reindeer aren’t ones for being fussed but it was hard to resist for this little man.

Dr Seuss and his mum Merida in September 2017 – both with very distinctive face markings.
Joe (with flowing long locks!) and Dr Seuss.
Dr Seuss in February 2018.

Being a male, Dr Seuss went through his 1st and 2nd year in true teenage fashion, spending most of his time at the farm and tussling the other young bulls his age during the autumn. In the summer months he would be in our hill enclosure fattening up and meeting visitors. He’s always loved his food and will never let an opportunity go a miss if he spots the white handfeed bag.

Teenage Dr Seuss in September 2019.

At 3 years old and fully grown Dr Seuss was trained to become one of our Christmas reindeer and pull the sleigh on events. Being so relaxed and friendly by this point he took to it very well and looked super impressive with his distinctive large, wide antlers. He was so good, he also featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘A Baby Reindeer’s first Christmas’ as one of the stars of the show pulling Santa’s sleigh with a team which included his fellow co-star and reindeer celebrity, Holy Moley. Since then Dr Seuss has featured in a couple of other film or photography events but I don’t believe I am allowed to reveal them just yet. Dr Seuss is one of our friendliest and still most distinctive reindeer, he’s a lovely lad who all herders have taken a strong liking too. From a small round calf he’s now a whopping size with a huge backside that’s important fat reserves for the winter. That’s my excuse for him anyway.

Dr Seuss pulling the sleigh in November 2021 in the middle of Bradford – what a star!
Back on the snowy hills in December 2021, after a weekend away on sleigh-pulling duty!

Christie

Caddis and Christie as a young calf.
Christie aged 4 months old – checkout those antlers! She certainly takes after her mum.

From a young age Christie has always been a very pretty reindeer with her white spotted face and legs. Her mother Caddis was a true great of our reindeer herd and it was actually her who caught my attention when I first started getting to know the herd. At the time Caddis was more or less the matriarch of the herd, she was one of the biggest females in both size of body and antlers and for as long as I knew her, always seemed to produce the biggest calf each year. With all her majesty though, she never seemed too pushy with the other reindeer and was very tame. As a young female Christie never left her side until eventually Caddis had another calf, now known as Sherlock, a year later and Christie was naturally pushed away. Unlike her mother, Christie in nature is a lot shyer. As a yearling she spent almost a whole year free- ranging and although I rarely saw her I was always interested to see how she was getting on. Unfortunately Caddis sadly passed away before Christie was 2 years old and as her last female calf, I wanted Christie to one day take after her mother and become as big and strong as she was. As a two year old Christie did spent more time in the enclosure during the winter when I moved to the Reindeer Centre. Like Kipling I would often try to give her a little extra feed and handling to encourage her to be more tame but she’s never quite become completely relaxed around people. I do see her sometimes handfeed from visitors and stand in and amongst groups of people more but not as regularly as our tame or greedier reindeer. I’ve began to enjoy this characteristic about Christie though, I know she’ll never be like her mum was with regards to how she acted around people but with a little encouragement Christie will still accept your presence and a tasty handful of food. This year I was so excited to see Christie become a mum and give birth to her first healthy calf. A surprisingly dark male called Akubra, who we named after our hat themed year. Like Caddis once did, Christie has produced the largest calf of the year and has also grown an incredible set of antlers for a mother. It’s really nice to see that Christie has taken after her mother in this way and has carried on the legacy of family genetics. I still think the best of Christie is yet to come and although she may not be the tamest of reindeer, I’ll keep doing my best give her that extra bit of food during the coming winter months and see if she grows in confidence as time goes on.

Looking fabulous free-ranging in August 2020.
Christie and her young calf that we later named Akubra – May 2021.
Joe and Christie – March 2022.

Joe

Mountain Equipment

Joe, Fiona and Lotti modelling our new kit on their first outing!

If anyone is a regular viewer of our social media pages, you will have seen that there are days on the hill when the weather can be absolutely wild! Particularly during winter months, it can often be very cold and windy, with stormy blizzard conditions. Luckily this sort of weather doesn’t bother the reindeer in slightest, in fact winter is the reindeer’s favourite season. With thick winter coats, they don’t feel the cold until -35 degrees Celsius and have been known to survive down the extreme temperature of -72°C!

A blizzard is nothing for young Pumpkin!

Some people may think we herders are hardy folk but there is no way we could last even 5 minutes on a stormy winter’s day without the right clothing. Thankfully as of this year, Mountain Equipment have been kind enough to sell some of their best waterproofs to protect us against the elements at a seriously discounted rate. From now on we will be wearing their clothing during hill trips and filming. With all our old jackets starting to come to the end of their lives, it’s nice to wear something that actually keeps us dry again. Our old red jackets will be retired to the muckier jobs! Mountain Equipment is an outdoor brand based near Manchester and it’s nice to wear clothing which is made for the worst of the British weather. Keeping to tradition we’ve gone for red jackets to help us stand out on the hill, at the moment they are looking shiny and new but I suspect carrying dirty feedbags will put a stop to that, all of my own personal jackets have a reindeer food stain to them these days. We have gone for the Rupal jacket and Saltoro pants as our waterproof top and bottoms which have been great during the recent stormy weeks and we couldn’t recommend them enough. Here is a link to Mountain Equipment’s website to learn more about them: https://www.mountain-equipment.co.uk/

We think Dr Seuss approves of Ruth’s new jacket.
Andi and Lotti making sure the calves get a bit of extra feed whilst looking very fancy and bright!
Lotti and Andi again, with Witch. Just because it’s a lovely photo!

For now we are more than happy to put our new clothing to the test during the rest of the winter. Hopefully there will be plenty of snow forecast to keep reindeer and herders happy for the rest of the season.

Joe

Reindeer Herders 2021

Throughout the year The Reindeer Centre has its core staff with a mix of full time and part time Reindeer Herders. Many of you will know us well, so we’ve got – Fiona, Hen, Andi, Lotti, Ben B, Ruth, Olly, Sheena and Lisette. We also have our hill farm contingent consisting of Alan, Tilly, Derek and Colin. We are here all year round seeing the reindeer (and other animals on the farm) through the different seasons, however we cannot manage all the work ourselves… that would be impossible!

Editor’s note (Ruth): not every herder features in the photos, please do not be offended if I’ve missed any of you lovely herders out! Check out this page on the website for more info and photos about who we all are: Who’s who – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

A gathering or reindeer herders for the annual calf naming night – September 2021.
Fiona and two of her favourite things – reindeer and skiing!
Andi and Hen (with Witch stealing the limelight!) in January 2022.
Sheena and Lisette after a particularly wonderful Hill Trip, by the size of their smiles!
The multi-talented Olly with Juniper and Scully – December 2021.
Seasonal herder Harry and Ben B doing a spot of harness training – summer 2021.
Lotti, with the famous Holy Moley – January 2021.

So we call upon seasonal staff who dot in and out throughout the year to help out. The parts of the year that can be busy are: February half term, Easter holidays then of course right through the summer with schools breaking up in Scotland first and English schools going back at the beginning of September. Although we aren’t so busy with tourists through September it is the start of our rutting season so we are busy with reindeer management. At this time of year we are carrying a lot of feed up the hill so it’s a reindeer herders work out! We usually have around 4 different groups of reindeer in various enclosures either running with a bull or the herd of Christmas reindeer and females we aren’t breeding from so plenty to keep us on our toes. Its busy through October half term just before we gear up in preparation for Christmas and our own Christmas tour which runs through November and December. We can all breath a big sigh of relief in January when we take a month off and close the doors to the public. We do however keep the office and reindeer management ticking over amongst the core staff.

Seasonal staff that worked throughout these busy periods in 2021 consisted of – Joe, Nell, Harry, Kate, Mel, Izzy, Colin D, Ben H, Dave, Manouk and Leonie. We even roped in ex reindeer herders Jack and Eve for a busy weekend in December… Once a reindeer herder, always a reindeer herder!

Seasonal herder Nell with her favourite reindeer Ryvita – August 2021.
Ben H was new to the team in November 2021 and is helping out this winter. I’m sure we’ll be seeing him again!

If you’ve been up to visit us in 2021 you’ll have no doubt bumped into a few of these herders both core and seasonal along the way. We are very lucky with our team here at the Reindeer Centre. Everyone works well together, is great with the public and of course fab with the reindeer. Every day we are learning more when it comes to reindeer management but we all take it in our stride and everyone mucks in which is the important thing

Fiona

Summer mornings

A while ago I wrote a blog about how Reindeer House managed to cope with its temporary hitch back in the summer, when its resident staff caught Covid. I mentioned then that Andi and I (who live outside of Reindeer House and managed to stay unaffected) were responsible throughout for the 8am morning check of the herd on the hill, so I thought I’d perhaps explain a little more about what we do in the mornings, before visitors arrive, in another blog. So I have put fingers to keyboard and here we are.

Typical scruffy summer reindeer! Butter, LX, Druid and Slioch (left to right)

Throughout the whole summer we run the guided Hill Trips up to meet the reindeer in our hill enclosure at 11am and 2.30pm, but the herd are actually fed 3 times a day. By doing the first feed bright and early, it gives us time to check everything is shipshape and ready for the day, allowing us to then concentrate on making sure our visitors have as good a visit as possible, with us safe in the knowledge that all the reindeer are happy and healthy.

Usually 2 or 3 of us will head up early doors, and in the summer there is usually only one group of reindeer in the enclosure to deal with. By comparison right now as I’m writing this (early October), there are reindeer in 5 separate areas of the enclosure, all needing checking and feeding at least twice daily! One group only is much more straightforward and seems like a distant dream right now.

The very first job of the day, before heading to the hill enclosure, is to drive up to the ski centre to check none of the free-ranging reindeer are nearby. Right in the middle of summer this would be unusual, but they do sometimes surprise us, so it’s always worth a check! A convenient layby also gives us a bird’s eye view of much of the enclosure, so we have a quick scan over it too.

Spying with binoculars on a rather murky day.
Even when the herd is waiting for their breakfast in their usual spot, they can be difficult to spot from afar. But antlers give them away sooner or later!

The hill enclosure is around 1200 acres in size; about 2km in length. The nearest end of it consists of several smaller areas, and our first job of the day is to bring the herd through to the nearest area, the ‘bottom corridor’, and to see if everyone walks through cheerfully and willingly. A reindeer who is off colour will lose their appetite and is quite likely to trail through a distance after the others, less enthusiastic about the prospect of breakfast, so that is the first clue of someone feeling under the weather.

If we are suspicious any reindeer is not quite themselves, the first thing we do then is to check their temperature – so it pays not to be the last reindeer through the gate, otherwise there could be a thermometer up your bum before you know what’s happening! However, a high temperature indicates a tick-borne fever, and a shot of antibiotics is the next step, which should nip any infection in the bud.

Injecting a long-acting general antibiotic – something every herder learns to do early on it their reindeer herding career.

Once every week or so in the summer we’ll get the whole herd up to our shed and work our way through the whole herd, checking temperatures, as some reindeer are very good at not showing any symptoms at all even when they have a roaring fever. This type of fairly intensive routine monitoring isn’t necessary in the winter months as there are no ticks about then, but the warmer weather brings them out and so reindeer do get very used to regular violations of their dignity…

Temperature checking. Dr Seuss couldn’t give a stuff, as long as there’s a bag of bribery in it for him…
…and all good! A temperature of 38.3, as seen in this photo, is fine, the average being around 38.9 for a reindeer.

Something else that needs doing regularly of a summer’s morning, even daily at times, is fly-spraying. Like with any animal, flies will buzz around the reindeer on sunny days, and whilst they don’t generally cause any real problem, they drive the reindeer mad at times. No-one likes having flies buzzing round their face! With the reindeer, the flies tend to aim for the antlers, clustering around the soft growing tips where the blood supply is richest. If a tiny nick in the velvet skin is made, the flies will feed on the blood and this brings with it the risk of infection.

Flies around antlers.

So we spray the antlers to help keep the flies off, using a DEET-based spray that is designed for horses. But unfortunately we can’t wipe the spray on with a cloth as reindeer hate their antlers being touched whilst they are growing (and also it would take forever to do 40-odd reindeer this way!), so we have to just spray it on, accepting that – from a financial point of view at least – an upsettingly large percentage of it is lost or misses it’s target. Reindeer very rarely stand quietly to have their antlers sprayed, either doing their best to pull away from us, or rushing around in circles if contained in the shed. But there’s no way around it – antlers need spraying and it’s better for the herd to be rather flustered for a few minutes each morning than spend the day charging around to get away from the flies.

Myself spraying Bond’s antlers – and getting a beady look in return!

On an average summer’s morning, at this point it’s breakfast time! Just like on the Hill Trips, we tip the bag of feed out into small piles in a big long line, count to check every reindeer is present and correct, and make sure every is eating enthusiastically. And then – just as importantly – head back down to the Reindeer Centre and stick the kettle on…

Me feeding the herd.
Andi counting the line to check the numbers match.

This first couple of hours of the morning is also when we do any ‘movement’ of reindeer if needed, such as letting reindeer out to free-range on the mountains outside the enclosure, or swapping over the reindeer in the Paddocks with those up in the hill enclosure. We also regularly poo-pick the nearer areas of the enclosure where the reindeer congregate, or do maintenance jobs on the fencing and boardwalks. I suspect people sometimes wonder why we don’t open any earlier than 10am, but these couple of hours are sacred to us – the time flies by all too quickly and we’re still often left scrabbling around trying to get finished and back to the Centre in time to open on schedule!

Hen

The plague house

Back in July, the dreaded Covid-19 eventually struck down Reindeer House. With around 6 staff living in Reindeer House at any one time, it seemed almost inevitable that it would get us at some point – regardless of how careful everyone was being – and to be honest we’re all amazed that we made it as far as July 2021. Although I admit the 8.30pm phone call from Fiona (“Hen? Bad news…”) still came as a bit of a surprise to me at the time.

Around half the staff, myself and Andi included, don’t live onsite, so only half of the staff were affected. But Reindeer House is quite small with not much space for all its residents to keep away from each other, so once one person in the house caught the virus, everyone else went down like dominoes, one by one. Poor Joe resisted the longest, valiantly testing negative day after day for a full week, so by the point he had finally succumbed and done his 10 day stint, the poor lad had been isolating for 17 days!

The plague house!

Although we closed to the public completely for one day, everyone spent that one day working out how we could possibly continue working to some extent, and actually it all worked out rather well, with two ‘teams’ of staff – the plague-ridden Reindeer House lot dealing with all the office work, while the healthy outsiders dealt with the reindeer on the hill and the guided tours, with no crossover whatsoever. What a blessing to have a business where the main ‘thing’ is all outside, with no need for visitors to come anywhere near Reindeer House at all! While obviously it would have been an unwelcome financial hit to have had to cancel all the Hill Trips for the 2.5 week period, it would have also been terrible to have had to disappoint so many people who were already booked in and champing at the bit to see the reindeer, and this thought did spur us on too to find a way to make this still possible.

Andi feeding the reindeer one morning, whilst the Centre was closed.
Feed was mixed up by the staff at Reindeer House, but then left untouched for several days before we collected it, to reduce any risk.
Tests were taken daily by the rest of us throughout!

We settled into a steady pattern. Andi and I would arrive first thing in the morning and head up on to the hill to check and feed the reindeer herd, making sure everyone was present and correct, applying fly-spray to their antlers if necessary, and giving them their first feed of the day. Then back down to Reindeer House, where we’d have a morning ‘meeting’ over the garden fence. Reindeer House’s plaguey residents would come trotting out into the garden as soon as they saw us through the windows (People! People to talk to! Social interaction!) and thankfully for pretty much the entire time the Centre was closed, the weather was glorious and we could have a good catch up before we headed home. For Andi and I the working day was finished by 10.30am.

Morning meetings, isolation style… One staff team still in pyjamas!
Most of the folks in Reindeer House completely lost their sense of taste temporarily, so much so that Fiona ate an olive (she HATES olives normally!!!)!

Most days, before we headed home, other ‘outside’ (i.e. healthy!) staff would arrive, tag-team style, have a gossip, and then would head up to the carpark ready to meet the morning’s visitors, who had all been emailed a map of where to meet instead of arriving at Reindeer House. And then the same again in the afternoon for the second Hill Trip. It all seemed to work quite well, and (for me anyway), made for a rather relaxing 2.5 weeks… Thanks to the weather playing ball and all our visitors coping very well with the last-minute change to the way their Hill Trip would work, it wasn’t too much of a hiccup. Writing this in the middle of a hectic autumn, with 3 times the number of reindeer in the hill enclosure that there was in July (due to the rutting season) and to-do lists coming out of my ears – I’m very glad it all happened in the summer and not right now! I am very aware however that we (as in the world in general) aren’t out of the woods yet and perhaps it’ll all happen again to us here at Reindeer House, but if so let’s hope it’s not anytime soon…

Hen

A snowy journey

For this blog I have decided to cast my mind back to a very wonderful day at the beginning of January, in the depths of winter when the entire landscape was white with snow.

I will start off by saying that I am not a skier, unlike quite a few of the reindeer herders, I didn’t grow up in a snowy place with planks attached to my feet. Fiona had always promised me that when I worked at Reindeer House through a winter then she would teach me to ski. Sure enough in the winter of 2020 we had a couple of snowy weeks and she helped me ski up and down the pisted ski runs early in the morning or late at night when there were no people around for me to crash into. I had a wonderful time, but spent most of it in the snow plough position which was quite tiring. When the snow arrived this winter, the ski slopes were all shut so my skiing journey had to continue off-piste. I had lots of wonderful tips from all the other reindeer herders as well as Fi, from very technical advice from Dave who had worked as a ski instructor for years. And equally wonderful advice from Sheena ‘you look very tense Lotti, I think you need to sing and dance while you are skiing, it will help you relax’.

Herders from L to R: Ruth, Joe, Fiona, Lotti and Sheena (plus dogs Sookie, Tiree and Elsie!)

About a week into the snowy weather this year Ruth and I were tasked with the job of fetching all 70 or so of the free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure so that one of the reindeer could have a visit from the vet. The snow was so deep that the only way to get to them was on our skis. Ruth is a very wonderful skier and I think it had been a dream of hers since starting to work with the reindeer in 2017 to do some reindeer herding on skis, so this was the perfect opportunity. We headed up, with our skins on the bottom of our skis which allow you to ski up hill without sliding backwards, out of the enclosure, onto the top ridge. We called and called hoping that the reindeer would hear us and come running. But the cloud was low, and I suspect dampened the sound of our calls. We continued in the direction of where we thought the reindeer were, stopping, and calling every few minutes. Eventually after an hour or so of skiing we found the herd near the top of Castle Hill.

Ruth and the herd, in the cloud!
The reindeer were pleased to see our bag of feed!
Scrabble checking out Ruth’s planks!

As soon as we found the reindeer, they were delighted to see us, or delighted to see our bags of food at least. They followed us all the way back to the enclosure, walking in the tracks left by our skis in a single file line. The reindeer always walk through the snow in a single file line as it’s more efficient to walk in the tracks of another reindeer (or in this case skier) than it is to make your own tracks. I was particularly delighted as for most of the way back I was followed so closely by two of my favourite reindeer, Gloriana and her calf Butter, that they kept stepping on my skis! That was the beginning of a winter where almost all the reindeer herding was done on skis or snowshoes as the snow was so deep, but that very first experience of moving over the snow on skis with all the reindeer behind us is something that will stick with both me and Ruth for a long time.

Lotti leading the herd back towards the enclosure.
Lotti with two of her favourite reindeer, Gloriana and her son Butter.
Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves after a successful mission!

Lotti

The Sámi Flag and the Children of the Sun

Recently one of our supporters posted us two Sámi flags. He wrote explaining that he had been hoping to come and visit the reindeer in February, and on Sámi day, take the flags up to the herd, and make a toast to the Sámi people, culture, and way of life. He had originally been planning a trip to visit the Sámi people but when it was apparent this wouldn’t be possible, he had planned to visit us instead. So, you can imagine how disappointed he was to find out that his trip to the Cairngorms also wasn’t possible. He asked if we could take the flags on the hill and raise a toast in his place, of course we were delighted to do this.

Fiona and the Sámi Flag with some of the free-rangers

For the week around Sámi national day, when Dennis had been hoping to visit the reindeer, the weather was so wild that we couldn’t even get to where the reindeer were, let alone fly a flag. We’re talking snow drifts across the road as tall as me! This was serious winter weather. The reindeer were of course totally fine. When the weather gets wild and the snow gets deep the reindeer head up onto the ridges where the wind has blown the snow off and it’s easier to dig through to the grazing underneath. There was a couple of days when we forgot to take the flag out to the herd. The day we were finally able to was pretty wonderful. Me and Fiona headed out to find the herd, we had spied them quite a way away and were hoping to call them a bit closer. In the end we met somewhere in the middle. It was beautiful sunshine and certainly felt like spring was on it’s way. We flied the flag with the reindeer around it, it got me thinking a bit about what the Sámi flag represents.

Fava leading the herd

The Sámi flag is a relatively new flag, it was first designed in the 60s. The colours in the flag, red, green, yellow and blue, are the most common colours used in Sámi clothing. The circle symbolises the sun in red and the moon in blue. The yellow and green in the middle are to symbolise the animals and nature.

The Sámi flag

The sun is incredibly important in Sámi culture and the sun symbol appears in lots of traditional Sámi artwork. The sun is worshipped in Sámi culture in particular due to the lack of sun in winter and the life that it brings in the summer. In the Sámpi, the area where the Sámi live, in the winter the sun doesn’t reach the horizon. Beaivi is the name of the Sámi sun deity. On the winter solstice a ceremony is carried out for Beaivi and a white reindeer is sacrificed to ensure that the sun returns, and the long winter ends. In spring when the sun arrives, the plants start to flourish and so do the reindeer which brings prosperity to the Sámi people. In order to give the sun more strength to rise in the sky, Sámi people leave butter on their doorsteps which melts and provides energy to the sun.

Fiona and Borlotti with the Sámi flag

The moon is also important in Sámi culture, unlike the sun however, in Sámi folklore people are very suspicious of the spirit of the Moon. Supposedly in December the evil spirits wander among the people and the moon is thought to be the leader of them. Traditionally in February there would be a festival under the full moon in which people would bang drums and make a lot of noise to scare the moon away so that the sun can return. The sun and the moon are often shown to be battling in folklore. I would imagine that people are suspicious of the moon as it always comes out at night when it is dark.

The Sámi flag is a beautiful array of colours and wonderfully represents how the Sámi way of life revolves around the seasons and nature, much like the lives of the reindeer themselves.

Lotti

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