I love Reindeer herding. And what’s not to love? Fantastic animals in a beautiful environment, surrounded by lovely people. But it wasn’t always this way for me. I came up for my first taste of herding in 2014. Now, a lot has changed in the world since 2014. But a lot has also changed in my personal life …I have qualified as a Physiotherapist, ran the Everest marathon and told many, MANY bad jokes (Editor’s note: Oh my god…the jokes…) . I have lived in multiple places in England since 2014, but this part of the world holds a special place in my heart. I love being up here.
Fortunately, since 2014, there has not been as much change in the splendour of the Reindeer Centre. The reindeer have obviously changed but the Centre itself remains as fantastic as ever. Recently I came across my photos of 2014 and thought this a good opportunity to show off some of my favourites:
The opportunity to be a Reindeer Herder came about from a fellow Herder, Sally, and I’m very glad to be back. I’m not sure whether the future will take me down the Reindeer herding route, the Physio route or maybe a mixture of the two. However, I’d be surprised if it takes me away from this beautiful location with these beautiful animals and people in my life.
I hope to see you all, in good health and spirit, as soon as it is safe to do so.
Emm volunteers with us several times a year usually, and has been doing so for years now. Here’s her story of working in the summer and autumn seasons! Her recent blog about the winter and spring can be found here.
In summer I have been up in both July and August. The visitors are meeting the male reindeer in the hill enclosure. The female reindeer and the calves are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains.
The reindeer’s antlers have done the majority of their growth and the velvet is getting ready to strip away at the end of August. The reindeer are looking smart in their dark summer coats.
The weather can be hot in the summer. The flies bother the reindeer by flying noisily around them, sometimes the reindeer rush around to try to get away from the flies which tend to sit on their antlers as they can sense the blood supply in their growing antlers. We spray the reindeer’s antlers with citronella spray to protect them from the flies. Midges are also a problem in the summer for both reindeer and humans.
In one part of the enclosure, the reindeer have access to a shed for shade. One time when we got up there with the visitors, the reindeer were nowhere in sight. All 41 of them had gone into the small shed. The shed doesn’t look like it can fit 41 reindeer in but it is does, it is like a Doctor Who’s Tardis. One Hill Trip, I was herding them out of the shed, I realised that I hadn’t seen Blue – I found him in a small part of the shed asleep. Blue, who was deaf, didn’t hear his reindeer friends move on. The reason Blue was deaf is because he was leucistic (pure white with blue eyes). Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation. Leucistic reindeer are camouflaged in the snow.
There are three Hill Trips a day (during the week) in the hill enclosure and last year we did ‘Summer Fun’ in the Paddocks which involved feeling the weight of antlers, feeling the weight of a feed sack, Paddock reindeer talks and much more fun (N.B. This will return in 2021!). Reindeer House is busier as the seasonal summer staff are working as there is a lot going on with three Hill Trips a day and Summer Fun in the Paddocks.
One of the jobs in the summer is to water the garden as it is hot.
Last July, Olympic would stand by the gate like he was guarding it and wouldn’t let visitors out of hill enclosure. I kept having to go over to him and move him on.
In the Autumn, I normally come in October half term. The scenery is changing with leaves changing colour and leaves falling off the trees.
The reindeer’s winter coat is growing and most of the velvet has stripped off revealing the hard bone antler underneath.
It is the rutting and breeding season. Normally in different areas of the hill enclosure there is a bull with his girls. My two favourite breeding bulls are Houdini and Kota as they have massive magnificent antlers. When we feed the breeding bulls with their girls we have to be careful as they can be protective over their girls. We don’t take the visitors in with the bulls and their girls.
We do one Hill Trip a day in the hill enclosure. Normally in the afternoons we do sleigh training with the ‘Christmas reindeer’. We put the harnesses on them and harness them up to the sleigh. The reindeer pull the sleigh around Glenmore (where the Reindeer Centre is based). They even go on the road. It is so funny to see people’s faces when they drive past reindeer pulling a sleigh.
We also get to handle the calves to get them used to people. We sometimes take them on a walk around Glenmore in the morning.
I am busy learning the calves names and if I hadn’t been up in May, I am learning which calf belongs to who and meeting all of them. The calves are also getting their new ear tags.
One year, I was lucky enough to help out at a early Christmas parade at the very start of November which was very special. It was at The Cairngorm Mountain. We wore red Christmas jumpers and woolly hats with reindeer on them. The reindeer team were Mo, Spike, Sooty, Aonach and calves Morse and Poirot. Mo and Spike pulled the sleigh with Santa in it. It was so wet and so windy. The wind was 60 miles per hour. Santa was holding his hat on in the sleigh. Not many people turned up. We had to tie things on to the pen railings otherwise they would have flown away.
One of the other jobs in the autumn is to sweep up the leaves. At 4 o’clock it is starting to get dark. So we put the Paddock light on in the Paddocks so the visitors can still see the reindeer. When we put the reindeer to ‘bed’ in the woods and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
My 2 Favourite Seasons
I have two favourite seasons which are autumn and spring.
In the autumn, I love doing the Christmas sleigh training, helping the calves get used to being handled, learning the calves names and seeing the reindeer with their newly formed antlers.
In the spring, I love seeing the newly born calves, seeing the reindeer being mums and hearing the grunts between mum and calf.
Well, we all know what is meant by ‘social distancing’ now after 3 months of lockdown and continued measures for the foreseeable future.
Here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we will be applying the government guidelines to both protect ourselves and our visitors when we re-open next week.
Luckily for us we have helpers, the reindeer themselves, as you can see from the photo above, reindeer are very good at slipping in between groups when we are heading out on to the hill for feed time. The perfect animal to social distance with!
With our own little helpers I decided to ‘measure’ the length of an average-sized adult male reindeer from nose to tail (Beastie ticked all the boxes here) and that comes out on average at 1.8 metres (give or take a little!). And if he (or she) puts her head down the antlers add a little bit more! Ideal for helping people keep the right distance apart when walking along the boardwalk in the hill enclosure.
In fact reindeer as a social herding animal are a very good example of how social distancing can be achieved. Unlike many social animals, reindeer do respect a modicum of social distance. They don’t huddle together; they like their space when they lie down and if another reindeer encroaches into their grazing area, they push them away, with antlers (if they are bony) or feet if their antlers are still growing.
The only close contact between reindeer is usually between close relations, ie a cow and calf. Indeed this close relationship can extend through into their adult lives particularly among females. However last winter that close bond became apparent between an old female and her grown up son. When 9 year old Rubiks joined the Cairngorm herd in January 2020 he ‘found’ his 16 year old mother Fonn and they have been inseparable ever since!
Unfortunately the downside to social distancing for ourselves and our visitors will be that the normal hand feeding that takes place out on the open hillside will not happen. Not only will our visitors be disappointed, but the reindeer will be too. I can think of many of the friendly male reindeer like Olympic, Dr Suess and Aztec who will be extremely confused by the lack of yummy food from everyone!
However a visit to the reindeer will still be an amazing experience (hopefully at least!), with our lovely herd in their natural environment out on the mountainside. Experienced reindeer herders to guide you, answer questions and feed the reindeer, while you all get the opportunity to take photos and enjoy the moment with these gentle creatures.
Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!
Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.
In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.
In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.
The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.
The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.
I help take the Christmas decorations down.
In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.
Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.
After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.
Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.
Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.
It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.
One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.
The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.
The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.
It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.
At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.
The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.
In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.
I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.
The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.
There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.
There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!
Before we went into lockdown I had one last day of fun catching up with with our boys and girls free-ranging on the Cromdale Hills. The ‘Christmas Reindeer’ (males who are trained to harness) are generally fairly lazy and don’t stray too far but every now and again the females, accompanied by the young bulls, wander off a bit further away than we like.
I headed off into the hills with Tip, herd owner Tilly’s son Alex’s (and his wife Emily’s) dog, to help them find their way back to where they should be. By walking into the hills towards the reindeer and making her bark it is usually sufficient to get the reindeer to head swiftly back in the opposite direction. As the Cromdale Hills form a vaguely straight rounded ridgeline the reindeer – usually – head in the right direction easily enough. Once within a few hundred metres of the reindeer they spotted Tip and myself before promptly turning round and making there way back in the other direction.
With Part 1 of our job done Tip and I made our way back to the van and headed off to the farm. Tip’s work for the day was done, but not for me. Back up onto the Cromdales, this time powered by a quad bike to carry the feed. I caught up with all the reindeer, some of which I hadn’t seen in about five months, giving them some food to reinforce which part of the hills are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ to be on. It’s always good to catch up with them. They all seemed in good health and a few antlers starting to grow amongst the bulls. Roman looks to have got a bit of a head start on the other boys!
One day last summer I was leading Okapi and Ryvita from the Cas flats to the reindeer enclosure. I was just about to cross the burn that is crossed by Utsi bridge further down the hill when with one misplaced step I found myself thigh deep in bog. What followed consisted of much giggling (from both me and the reindeer), a serious struggle to get my leg out and a very wet arm having had to reach down into the bog to retrieve my welly. As a squelched my way to the reindeer enclosure I started thinking about the different plants that grow in a bog, especially the indicator plants that could have helped me avoid my rather soggy fate.
Sphagnum moss is probably the most important plant to look out for. Also known as peat mosses, this group of plants can retain an incredible amount of water (up to 26 times their dry weight). It is so absorbent that it was even used by native North American babies in nappies. This means that standing on this bright green moss (notice it behind me in my bog selfie) will almost always leave you in a similar predicament as I was in. Sphagnum mosses have two types of cells that make up the plant; small living cells and large dead cells. It is the dead cells which have a large water holding capacity. (Disclaimer: if you have no interest in biochemistry then please skip the next sentence or two) Sphagnum mosses are very good at out competing the surrounding plants by carrying out a process called cation exchange, in which nutrients such as potassium and magnesium are taken up and hydrogen ions are released. The increase in concentration of hydrogen ions in the surrounding environment is responsible for making it more acidic and stopping other species from growing there. The acidic conditions along with the layering of the sphagnum produces the peat that we see on the mountains.
Bog cotton is a good indicator of a boggy area as its seed head stick up above the ground and warn you of the wet area beneath. Its white cotton-like seed heads can often be seen bobbing in the wind. Unlike regular cotton, bog cotton cannot be weaved into fabric, however in northern Europe it has been used to produce paper, pillows, candle wicks and wound dressings.
For those of you who have been on the hill trip, you may have seen the yellow spiky flowers of the bog asphodel plant. The Latin name for bog asphodel means ‘bone-breaker’ due to the belief that when sheep eat it then develop brittle bones. However it is more likely that it is correlation rather than causation as sheep eating a low calcium diet are prone to bone weakness and bog asphodel grows in calcium deficient soil. Our reindeer however have no problem getting calcium, as displayed by the wonderful antlers that they grow each year.
Sundew and butterwort
The most vicious of all the plants I have described are these two carnivorous plants. They both survive the harsh environment that they live in by catching insects to eat. Sundew catches insects by sensing their movement and elongating the cells on one edge of the leaf and retracting the cells on the other surface of the leaf causing the leaf to curl around the unsuspecting fly. Butterwort uses a different hunting method, the insects stick to its sticky glandular leaves and are then digested by the plant. If you ask me, the plants up on the hill are not working nearly hard enough to catch the midges this summer.
When I think back over the reindeer that have been part of the herd over the years, one which sticks in my mind is Scout. This is probably in part because he was on my “team” the first time I went off on Christmas tour. It was back in 2010, and as I headed off for my first two-week festive reindeer experience with Fiona, those six reindeer made a bit of an impact: experienced old boys Shekel and Shock (or Shockel and Sheck as we sometimes called them if we hadn’t had enough coffee!); Scout and Hughie, our younger Christmas reindeer; and calves Lace and Gnat. When you’re working, living and travelling with the same team for a fortnight you get to know their quirks rather well!
Born in our “Green theme” year, Scout was a big reindeer (so big in fact that we castrated him at 2 years old instead of at 3), one of the tallest in the herd, and a fine looking fellow. He grew some beautiful sets of antlers, with lots of “fingers” coming off them. He was generally also holding almost too much condition, with a generous sized belly, and with this excess of energy he often had bobbles of extra velvet on his antlers, something we only tend to see in our larger (wider!) males.
My main memory of Scout from that Christmas tour is when we arrived at an event in London, set out the feed bowls ready for their breakfast, and Fiona hopped in to the truck through the (human-sized) side door, assuming I would latch it behind her. I meanwhile assumed she was going to latch it herself from the inside (the hazards of having been on tour long enough to stop communicating about everything and make presumptions). Alas, the door didn’t get secured at all and the next thing we knew Scout had squeezed his antlers and ample belly through, bounded down and of course made a beeline for his breakfast! At least he was easy to catch!
I also have a vivid memory from a more recent Christmas of taking part in an incredibly busy parade in England, and looking back from where I was leading the front two reindeer – Scout was one of the reindeer following on at the back and he was utterly at ease, chewing the cud as we pottered along, not batting an eyelid at the noise, lights, marching band, fake snow and bubble machines that we were passing. Reindeer really are incredible animals.
Scout was a dependable fellow out on tour, whether at the back or front of the sleigh, and was a friendly face at home on the hill, though he did have a grumpy streak at times, doubtless inherited from his father Sirkas, who certainly could have an attitude problem! Most of the time though he was lovely to be around, a bit cheeky and playful, and steady as a rock. His brothers included dark coloured Rummy, squinty-nosed Boris and the infamous Fergus. Scout’s grandmother, Fionn, lived to the ripe old age of 16, and her sister was Lilac, the reindeer who holds our record for longevity at 19. Unfortunately Scout didn’t live to quite such an age, but there are still many of his family alive, including two of our other biggest reindeer, Fly and Paintpot, who share the same father.
For the previous few months we have been joined by a new reindeer herder called Kate who helped us out over the busy calving period. Kate was so brilliant to have around we asked her to stay a little longer until some of our regular summer staff returned through June and July. We expect to have her back at some point in the near future, but for now she has headed off to enjoy some summer wanderings. Before she left Kate wrote some lovely short stories about her time herewith some excellent drawings. Keep an eye out over summer for the next installments of her stories. Hopefully we can have Kate back here at Reindeer House in the autumn!
First day on the job – Lost in the fog
During the first hour as a reindeer herder I had managed to become a very soggy, panting mess who was lost in the fog somewhere on windy ridge with not the foggiest where the herd had gone. I remembered thinking to myself; this has gone terribly wrong- I’m not even going to make it through the first day!
It was mid-April and there were still patches of snow on the hills. My first sighting of the reindeer was brilliant, the whole free range of females were running towards us as we walked over a brow of a hill. It was an amazing sight, and one I won’t forget in a hurry, the reindeer looked beautiful and majestic in full winter white coats and impressive antlers. I was marvelling at what a lovely greeting we got, but Mel pointed out they probably came our way being spooked by something from the opposite direction. Then off we went, it was Mel leading the herd to the lower levels and me bringing u the rear, but unlike the agile reindeer that excitedly skip, gliding over the snow patches I ran behind panting and sank straight into a snow hole (Vicar of Dibley style). Up on my feet again I was wondering how on earth I was to keep up with these four legged creatures when 5 of them decided to go in the opposite direction. Standing in the middle of the groups, I thought I can’t lose reindeer on my first mission and went gallivanting after the strays. Of course being a herd animal , it really says it all , and the wanderers then did a full circle galloping off to join the rest, leaving myself lost in the fog. Luckily it wasn’t long until I found the herd again and the rest of the first day went more smoothly.
An incredibly important part of the life of a Cairngorm reindeer is its time free-ranging. For the male reindeer their time to free-range is the cold winter months, where they happily roam the Cromdale hills keeping out of mischief. The life of a female Cairngorm reindeer is even wilder, with almost the entire year spent free-ranging the mountains apart from time in the enclosure during calving and rutting.
When the reindeer are free-ranging there are no fences holding them in, and they are able to walk anywhere they chose however they are only meant to be on some of the land. If they venture off our land in search of a tasty bit of lichen we move them back to where they are meant to be. This often involves a day walking in the mountains looking for reindeer and sometimes moving them to a better location. There are a number of ways to move a herd of reindeer. For those of you who have been on our hill trips you will know how keenly they follow a bag of food; however they will only follow food so far. Another good technique is to lead a few of the reindeer on halters and hope that the rest of the herd follow. A week or so ago Fiona came across a group of naughty females reindeer just off our land, she was unable to move the group on her own so we waited for a day clear enough to move them.
On a clear day last week sometime (well mostly clear above the mountains at least) Fi, Tilly, Chris and I headed up to move a group of the free-ranging females from the tops of the northern corries further down the mountains. We headed up in pairs up two separate ridges to maximise ground coverage with the plan to join together when we found reindeer.
Chris and Tilly headed up Cairn Gorm and soon spotted the group of reindeer. So Fi and I headed towards them with Chris catching us up on route. We reached the group of reindeer just in time as the clouds covered us. We decided the distance we wanted to move them was too large to persuade them with a bag of food so instead decided to halter a few of them. Having caught the ten most willing reindeer we headed down to meet Tilly who was coming up from below. We then walked with the reindeer for about an hour till we found the right spot to leave them with a bit of food each in the hope that they will now stay in that area. Tilly went out walking a few days later and didn’t see any reindeer where they weren’t meant to be so it seems our mission was a success.
Spending a day in the hills is always one of my favourite things to do, but when it involves interacting with the reindeer in their environment it really is a pretty special experience. A day like this has got to be one of the highlights of being a reindeer herder.
After 66 years of reindeer herding in Scotland we have had a first. On the 8th May 2018 we had live twins born!
30 years ago we had twins, one was stillborn and the other survived for 12 hours. Since then we have had two sets (2008 and 2015) but both were stillborn so you can imagine our shock when we found them both alive and well.
Their mother Lulu is one of our older females in the herd, at 12 years, and she is taking everything in her stride and not batting an eyelid at the two little bundles following her. She loves them both and lets them feed, however we are giving her a helping hand by offering them a top-up of bottled milk as we feel she hasn’t got enough to sustain two. They spent their first two weeks up in our mountain enclosure where they were born and we have been going out first thing in the morning and last thing at night every day since to make sure they were getting enough milk. They were being supported to suckle from Lulu in their first few days but now they are growing well and coming on leaps and bounds, and feeding themselves.
We of course must remain realistic as this is extremely rare with only one other known case of twins being born in the world: in Finland in 2010. We will do our best by both them and Lulu, making sure she gets extra feed, browse and attention. Summer time is crucial for keeping an eye on reindeer with biting insects causing illnesses which the twins will be more susceptible to so their first six months are going to be a rocky road, however we feel they have rallied through their first two weeks so this amazing news can go public.