These are a selection of my favourite photos taken over the last couple of years showing reindeer throughout all the seasons…
These are a selection of my favourite photos taken over the last couple of years showing reindeer throughout all the seasons…
A while back I interviewed a few of my colleagues with some questions relating to the Christmas season. The first half of this blog can be read here. But onward…
THE SMELL YOU MOST ASSOCIATE WITH CHRISTMAS? With this question, I just wanted to check that everyone else had the same – as far as I’m concerned – very obvious answer. Turns out they do. Every. Single. One. ‘I think we all know the smell associated with Christmas…’. ‘Reindeer pee, obviously!’
Maybe I should elaborate though, for the uninitiated. Whilst we do our best to keep our leadropes clean, they invariably end up on the ground at times. Whilst the reindeer don’t actually actively pee on them (unless you’re really unlucky), they tend to stand on the ends regularly (lay a rope over a reindeer’s back, whilst catching another, and they often shake it off). We keep the straw beds in our sheds, at our temporary bases we stay at, and in our lorries as clean as possible at all times, but it is as certain as death and taxes that the ropes always end up smelling of pee from the reindeer’s feet and the straw. Lotti: ‘Reindeer pee on the leadropes. Particularly when drying out in the caravan…’
Tilly adds ‘Once Christmas is over I wash all the halters and ropes and even if everyone has been really careful not to let the ropes fall on the ground, they still have a very distinct smell of urea’. There were some additional contributions too – both Andi and I cite Tilly’s washing powder as the second smell that instantly brings Christmas to mind, from our red jumpers that we wear at events. Fiona added damp lorry cabs and Joe included mince pies. Along with ropes smelling of reindeer pee. None of this ‘winter spices’ Christmas nonsense.
FAVOURITE FOOD ON CHRISTMAS DAY: I was just being nosy, to be honest. Fiona: ‘The soup and sandwiches from Nethy Hotel – we feel like we’ve earned them [Nethy Hotel provide lunch for us during our last events of the year on Christmas Day]! Who doesn’t like free food! Plus a variety of meat from our farm.’ Generally somewhat carnivorous, Tilly surprised me with ‘sprouts’ (but roasted in the oven). For Lotti and Ruth it was the roast tatties, and the same for me too (as long as gravy and redcurrant jelly are liberally applied). For Andi it was pigs in blankets, and Joe, anything involving smoked salmon.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT OF CHRISTMAS (PAST OR PRESENT): This was a bit of an unfair question really, but I couldn’t think of a different way to phrase it. Most memorable moments of our Christmas seasons tend to be those when everything goes tits-up, most of which aren’t necessarily things we’re going to brag about! So this is the slightly sanitized version of ‘most memorable – and publishable – moment of Christmas’ Fiona: ‘Oh god. There’s so many – probably, to go back a few years, the Harrods event in London. All the other attractions would disappear at the end and we were always left to make our own way back to the lorry with 6 reindeer, past all the people going about their day to day business. Waiting for the green man at zebra crossing s!’
For Andi the memory wasn’t necessarily a specific one, rather one that happens from time to time at events: ‘The best experience from parades is walking with the reindeer following a pipe band, with them all walking in time. It gives me chills every time.’ I know this feeling well too.
Pen escapes featured highly for Ruth and Joe… ‘Aztec effortlessly leaping the pen fence at Gleneagles in pursuit of food…’. ‘All the reindeer jumping out the pen once! They were very easy to catch and return though – with a big bag of lichen!’. And continuing with the theme of errant reindeer, Lotti came up with a classic from a few years back: ‘Probably when me and Mel tried to let four calves follow the adults up the hill to the enclosure in the dark to re-join the herd, and promptly lost them into the darkness…’.
Memory I wish I’d seen the most belonged to Tilly: ‘When we didn’t have a Santa for the parade on Christmas Eve at Newtonmore and I was the substitute…’. For myself, I have so many, many memories. Some good, some bad. But an affecting one which will stay with me forever is one I’ve written about in the past in a previous blog, so won’t repeat again here.
And finally, REINDEER YOU’D CHOOSE IF SANTA NEEDED A RUDOLPH REPLACEMENT?I guess this could be rather similar to favourite reindeer to work with at Christmas, but not necessarily. Sometimes favourites are those with naughty streaks, and presumably Santa would need a pretty reliable reindeer on loan if Rudolph is side-lined? Lotti agreed: ‘I would say that Frost would be a good Rudolph replacement, as he’s an excellent sleigh-puller, and in summer he does sometimes get a slightly sunburnt nose, giving it a red tinge!’. I agree with the reliability being very important – Origami would be my choice. He is pretty professional for Christmas events – he knows his job and gets on with it.
Likewise Tilly: ‘Well it would need to be a reindeer who is confident and happy to be at the front leading the way, so I think Aztec, with a ‘carrot’/lichen dangling in front of his nose!’. Another vote for Aztec came from Ruth: ‘I would send Aztec as he’s the most nimble – see my answer for the previous question! Or maybe Dr Seuss? Although I wouldn’t want Santa to steal Dr Seuss, so maybe not…’. Segueing neatly on to Andi: ‘Dr Seuss – he’s distinctive, charismatic, can hold his own in a new group of reindeer, and has a pink nose – perhaps it would glow with a little help from Santa…’.
Fiona reckoned Santa might prefer a certain type of reindeer, like a ‘hand-reared one, like Grunter or Sunny. They are happy with human company and happier being by themselves if need be.’. Joe hummed and harred a bit. ‘…umm. Kind of before my time, but Topi was amazing. Olympic is far too lazy… Scolty! He’d do a solid job.’
So there we go. My overall impression from writing these two blogs is that it’s impossible to give straightforward answers to any questions involving Christmas, even though everyone valiantly tried. I still only wrote down a very small section of what was said though, as many answers were nonpunishable!
Whilst we’re all still recovering from another busy Christmas season, I took it upon myself to accost some of my colleagues with some Christmas themed questions: There’s a limit to how fast I can type, so I didn’t manage to get down everything – some of the answers were very long, with lots of umming and ahhing! But you’ll get the gist. My chosen interviewees were Tilly (herd owner), her daughter Fiona (manager), and long-term employees Andi, Lotti, Ruth and Joe.
First up – FAVOURITE REINDEER TO WORK WITH AT CHRISTMAS(PAST OR PRESENT): I thought I was starting with an easy question, but apparently not, as lots of people had to come back to it later on once they’d had a think.
Andi’s response came after a short pause ‘At Christmas?… Nutkins. He wasn’t easy and you had to think carefully about which reindeer you paired him with, and which events would suit him, but he was such a fun reindeer.’ I’d like to add in here that Nutkins was, a lot of the time, a nutcase. A lovely reindeer, but undeniably a nutcase. He was one of those unpredictable characters – you never knew whether he was going to behave like a kid on a sugar high, or be utterly chilled. He played Russian roulette with us at every event.
No pause for thought for Tilly though, her answer was quick! ‘Mystery, who was so loyal that he didn’t even need to be led, he just wandered along at the back at his own pace’.
Scolty’s, somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), name came up several times, amongst other deliberations. Lotti: ‘Scolty. He’s very good at both the back and the front of the sleigh, and is an excellent role model for the calves’. Fiona: Scolty. Because he’s not too tame and he’s not too wild! He’s a thinker… like Dragonfly. Or maybe Dragonfly?’. Joe: ‘Probably Olympic. Or Baffin was good. Or Scolty. Well technically Kipling would be in there too, even though she’s a female. She has done some events as an adult though!’
Ruth’s answer, when caught off guard, appeared to not be what she thought she would say… ‘The first reindeer to pop into my head, which was a surprise to me, was Poirot! He was just phenomenal this Christmas, and didn’t put a hoof wrong.’ And for myself, the answer would be Topi I think. He was a total professional at events and parades, bombproof, and would always fall asleep on our shoulders when waiting for the off at the start of a parade. I’m sad he’s no longer with us, he was one of the special ones.
FAVOURITE EVENT? For those of us that have been around for years, this is a hard question as we’ve literally been to hundreds. Tilly has over 30 years of events under her belt! Some stand out whilst others – it must be said – all merge into one another after a while. On that note… Lotti: ‘I can’t remember which I’ve done! It’s all a blur!’
Andi: ‘Cowbridge in Wales [Editor’s note: we only go as far south as Manchester area these days, but Cowbridge (in South Wales) was a long-running event before that change]. An enormous but brilliantly organised event with all the police dressed as elves really took the biscuit!’ I also liked some of the biggest events like Cowbridge the best, where we were just a small cog in a large wheel. One of my other favourites was Wells [again, not one we do these days], where we followed a choir singing carols, which is far more festive than loud Christmas music blaring out. I also like Banff, as we usually got a full Christmas dinner at the end before leaving.
For Joe, it’s the smaller events nearer the day itself: ‘I really like the Christmas Eve events [Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore]. Everyone is festive and happy, in good spirits!’.
Fiona and Tilly had – completely independently – identical answers. ‘The Duke of Gordon Hotel – it’s the last one.’ Predictable – by the end of the season they are knackered and ready to put away the harness till the following year! Tilly did add ‘Yee haa, back home for yummy dinner and lots of alcohol afterwards’ too! And as for Ruth’s favourite event? Got a least favourite one… that count?’. I’ll not elaborate.
FAVOURITE CALF BORN IN 2022? This was met with squeals of horror at the prospect of having to choose! I refused to let anyone cop out with ‘all of them’ though. Nuii was a front-runner, ‘The cutest, pint-sized perfection of a calf!’ (Andi) and Lotti had a particular reason for choosing her: ‘Since I thought she was still-born at first, but then she was fine. But oh goodness! SO difficult! They are all very lovely!’
Ruth was horrified at such a question. ‘Oh Hen, this is mean! [loooong silence] I’ll go with Lolly, since Lotti and I were the ones to bring her in from the free-range… although… Zoom’. Another vote for Zoom came from Tilly ‘A great wee success story and the best friend of Sunny’. Sunny is the calf we hand-reared in 2022, and living at Reindeer House, Fiona was responsible for him a fair bit of the time. I had no need to ask her who her favourite calf was (but I did anyway). ‘Ummm… Wafer. Only joking!’. Another predictable answer came from Joe: ‘Tub. Did you guess that?!’ (Tub’s mum is Joe’s favourite reindeer, Kipling).
This proved a hard question for myself though. As I’ve managed to effectively retire from attending Christmas events these days, instead remaining at Reindeer House, it means I didn’t work quite as closely with some of the calves as others did. It was Choc-ice to start with, as I was so delighted that Cheer had actually had a calf and that he was tame in comparison to her (Cheer is a very shy reindeer) – but he’s turned into a real brute and his little pointy antlers have been responsible for bruises on my backside over the last few months, so I’ve gone off him…
More to follow in a future blog!
Many years ago, a reindeer herder made a Badge. This Badge was pink, and he wore it with pride. In time he decided to pass it on to another herder, who had done a Worthy Thing that day (what the Worthy Thing actually was has since been lost in the mists of time). However, that herder then took it upon themselves to pass it on once again, to another Worthy Person, and so it is that the Pink Badge of Worthiness came into being.
Or something along those lines anyway. The badge maker at Reindeer House was a very good investment of ours, many years back, and has churned out thousands of the things over the years for kids visiting the Paddocks and having a go at a quiz (we use different quizzes through the year and not all have a badge to make on them, before you get your knickers in a knot about why your family didn’t get the option of badges on a visit…). We have, of course, made plenty of badges for ourselves too, and this is how the pink badge started off – it was made from a bright pink post-it note upon which one of us had drawn a smiley face.
I can’t quite remember the full details of exactly how the tradition of passing on the badge came about, but the essence of it is exactly as I’ve written at the start of this blog. The owner of the badge can hold on to it (usually pinning it on their t-shirt/jumper) for as long as they want, and when they feel someone else has gone above and beyond the call of duty, they award them the badge. And then the next person continues, and so on. There are no real rules, no limit on how long you can have it, or how many times; the badge is an item of supreme simplicity.
As I write this the current holder is Ruth, awarded it for managing to get our ancient and decrepit Landrover into 4WD mode on a early morning reindeer retrieval mission! The badge itself is currently in it’s second incarnation, after one too many accidental trips through the washing machine; but I’m not even too sure where Pink Badge 2 came from, as it’s not the size our own badge-maker produces. We’re also not colour blind – we’re well aware that this model is not pink! But in the best tradition the name endures regardless.
At times the badge has been lost, or forgotten about, or unearthed months later on an old jumper in the back of a cupboard. Sometimes it’s just been found on the office pinboard, and no-one has appeared to know how it got there, or who was responsible. Our boss Tilly got it once, but was banned from taking it home with her as we were worried that once it disappeared into the depths of her farmhouse it would never, ever be seen again!
Fiona wishes me to point out that for the first five years she was only ever awarded it once a year, at the end of December, after organising (and surviving) the Christmas tour season, traditionally the busiest time of the year. I myself have been given it for a range of activities, most of which I can’t remember now, but the most memorable was the time I was given it for managing to not throw a printer through the office window. You may laugh, but deep down everyone reading this knows the deep-rooted and boiling fury a malfunctioning printer can incite – what does ‘general error’ even mean?! – so really I feel it was justified. I have had a hate-hate relationship with every single printer that has ever lived in the Reindeer House office.
Later that same day, however, Andi managed to extract a section of old fencing wire that had somehow become entangled around the antlers of one of our biggest breeding bulls, Kota, and this was right in the middle of the rutting season when he had morphed from a gentle giant to a raging testosterone-fueled beast. To this day I am therefore still the record-holder for the shortest ownership of the badge.
A lot of the other reasons for receival have been forgotten over the years, but have often included epic catches of ‘wilder’ reindeer, or memorable displays of herding. Olly received it last year for a stupendous and skillful effort of getting Rain and her newborn calf Jimmy into the right area of the hill enclosure after she had led Nell and myself on a merry (and ultimately unsuccessful) dance the previous day until a good two hours after we should have finished work. Then there was an interesting episode last Christmas when Sherlock got his antlers caught in the fairy lights of our Paddock shelter, and Joe spent about 45 minutes de-tangling him – again no mean feat with an enormous bull. One antler had come off already, but much to Joe’s annoyance when finally freed, Sherlock wandered out the shed, shook his head and the other promptly fell off! It’s completely normal for a bull to cast his antlers at this time of year, but 45 minutes earlier would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.
So if you visit us and notice a herder with the Pink Badge pinned to their shirt, then note that this is a Worthy Person, and should therefore be due the utmost respect. Or maybe it’s just me, and I’ve refrained from throwing another misbehaving electronic item through a window.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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/
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…