Normally I write these sort of blogs about reindeer who are long since passed, but Lulu was a bit of a favourite of mine so despite dying relatively recently, she’s getting special treatment.
Born in 2006, Lulu was one of the very few reindeer in the herd alive until recently who were here when I first started, back in 2007. She was just a yearling at that point, but even at that stage her reputation preceded her and we called her ‘ASBO Lulu’ on a regular basis, due to her habit of occasionally nailing visitors with her small (but still sharp) antlers. I remember having to split her off from the main herd in the enclosure every morning, to keep a nice tall fence between her and any unsuspecting people.
Going back to 2006, Lulu was orphaned at about 6 months old, her mother Nugget passing away whilst Lulu was away with one of the Christmas teams at some festive events down south. Having to fend for herself from a relatively young age presumably helped to hone her tenacious character. Lulu was 18 months old when I first knew her, so I sadly don’t remember Nugget.
Lulu grew into a very distinctive reindeer, light coloured with a particularly pale forehead, and small, neat antlers with lots of points. A pair of these are on the wall in my house still. Although she never grew particularly huge antlers, throughout her life she was unpredictable with them, and you could never trust her not to go for a visitor. It was never outright aggression – just done for fun. I heard tales from multiple walkers over the years who had bumped into a group of free-ranging reindeer and told me of a white one who kept ‘attacking’ them. Ah, you met Lulu, then.
I’ve just looked at Lulu’s calving record, to remind myself of who she had. Incredibly, all of the 8 calves she had over the course of her lifetime were male, an unsurpassed record in the herd surely. She didn’t have the best success as a young mum, with her first couple of calves not making it past a few months old. Then came LX though, born in 2012, and he’s still with us in the herd today. Born light brown with a white forehead, he turned white and looked very similar to Lulu, albeit in male form.
Pure white Blue was next, and then Lulu fancied a change in colour and had a jet black calf the following year! Her moment of calving glory however, was the birth of the first live twins in the herd, in 2018. Named Starsky and Hutch, we had great fun with these guys through the summer months, and all the visitors loved meeting them in the hill enclosure on the tours. Sadly neither survived long term, leading us to make the decision that if and when we had live twins born again we would hand-rear one of them and leave mum to cope with only one – a decision that had to kick into action this spring with Suebi’s twins.
12 years old when Starsky and Hutch were born, we decided that that was it for Lulu and it was time to retire from motherhood and enjoy life as an old lady with no hangers-on. That she did, still periodically nailing visitors from time to time – even just last winter we had to move her to join a part of the herd elsewhere away from the tours after she did her best to annihilate a somewhat surprised lady! 16 and a half and still disreputable – what a gal. For context, the average age for a female reindeer is around 13 – to be clouted by a 16 year old reindeer is akin to being beaten up by an ancient granny wielding her zimmer.
Lulu was very healthy all of her life – bar a brief but nasty illness in 2018 when we thought we’d lose her – but this year she started to show her age and she was found out on the mountains having passed away in the late summer. 17 is an excellent age, so Lulu had a great innings and outlived all but two of her compatriots from the 2006 calving, as well as most of her offspring. Her and her bad behaviour have been a constant throughout my time here, so amongst the herders I’ll miss her particularly I think.
Reindeer identification is definitely one of the most challenging aspects of the work here at the Reindeer Centre. Of course there are a few individual reindeer that are very distinctive and easy to spot like Sherlock with those enormous antlers and Dr Suess with his with white nose. I’m also pretty confident telling apart the two white yearling males (99 and Mr Whippy) as long as they’re not too far away!
I’ve been taking as many opportunities as I can to try to get to know who’s who for the less obvious members of the herd. During the summer months while I’m here, the hill enclosure is home to a lovely smaller herd made up of some of the bulls. It’s a good time to try to learn a few reindeer while they’re part of a smaller group and I can see them most days.
The ear tags on the reindeer are colour coded depending on the year they are born, for example last years calves all have red ear tags (I was lucky enough to be volunteering the day they were tagged!). As a rule, I tend to look for any distinguishing features first like coat colour, markings, antler shape and size, and body size. After that, I’ll try to spot what colour the ear tag is. Some of the older reindeer are easier because there are fewer to choose from with that year’s colour ear tag.
As well as the more obvious physical features, its been really helpful to speak to the other herders to get hints and tips on how they remember who’s who. For example, Sheena pointed out that Poirot’s antlers come out straight from his forehead like two fingers or the number “11” and his number is “211”. Isla told me how she remembers Arta’s name because the pattern on his nose looks like artwork and Mollie told me that Cicero has the biggest of the silvery coloured antlers.
This week I learned that Merida, Dr. Suess’ mum, also has a lovely white face and I was able to spot my personal favourite, Beanie, thanks to her lovely speckly nose and the fact that she was with a group of two cows with their calves.
However, often, just when I get the hang of this ID game, things start to change. The boys summer coats don’t really last more that a few weeks it seems so no sooner was I was feeling very confident identifying Lupin and Kernel with their beautiful dark summer coats they’re both already growing their winter coats! We’re also bringing some of the girls into the enclosure which is adding ever more complexity to the task. My ID skills are definitely a work in progress and I’m loving taking every opportunity to watch the herd and learn who everybody is.
During the summer months it’s a good time of year to work on our reindeer handling for both reindeer and herders. With a fair few new faces this summer with seasonal staff picking up a few weeks here and there it’s not just good practice for the reindeer but really important that us herders know the best way to approach, put on halters, putting on harness and generally knowing how to act and move around the reindeer in close proximity.
First of all we pick which reindeer will go through the ropes that morning then we split them off into a separate enclosure at their morning feed and bring them up to our shed on the hill. This is where we do all our handling, whether it’s taking temperatures, tending to unwell reindeer or doing a bit training where the reindeer have a halter on and wear a bit of harness. From our shed we can walk out into a quiet enclosure so they get a feel for wearing the harness while walking. Within the group of chosen reindeer there is always an ‘old boy’ who has done lots of training before so already knows the drill and therefore gives off the right vibes. We stand any newbies next to him so they have a calming influence. As well as being the role model to younger reindeer our older trained reindeer are good ones for new staff to learn how to put harness on as they don’t fuss or move around making it a lot easier to explain and learn. Some of our older boys who are trained are: Aztec, Dr Seuss, Poirot, Sherlock, Frost, Clouseau and Athens. We then train anything who is 1, 2 or 3 years old next to them. The 2 and 3 year old have of course done this for the past few years so it tends to be the yearlings who are a bit more twitchy doing it for their first summer. Of course as 5-6 month old calves they went out and about at Christmas so its not completely new to them.
Once we put some harness on we walk them out into another enclosure to get used to it. Our two hand reared calves Winnie and Alba sometime join us for this little excursion each morning so they can get a bit of extra hill grazing. Being the size of a medium dog sometimes the young trainee reindeer forget that the calves are actually reindeer and decide to unnecessarily have a brief panic, before realising how silly they are worrying about a little reindeer calf… or two. It’s quite funny watching them work it out. The old boys are pretty savvy to the calves and just ignore them.
Working closely and being able to handle our reindeer is really important for them and us. As many of you know we run a Christmas tour through November and December so any extra handling prepares our reindeer for some of that work they do. We also handle our reindeer should they need any treatment, vaccines or antibiotics and the more used to this they are the less stressful the situation for both animal and human. Some take to it quicker than others, like us they all have their individual personalities and characters. We change our handling sometimes depending which reindeer it is you’re working with. It’s really important we know our reindeer so if there is one ‘off colour’ then it’s picked up quickly and dealt with.
Here are some photos of us training our reindeer in the summer and also in the autumn time when we are getting ready for our Christmas tour.
We thought it was about time you had an update on our hand reared calves of this year. Back in May, off the back of our calving season, we were left hand rearing two female calves. Last year we raised Sunny, a male calf who lost his mum at only a few days old and this year Alba joined us when she was 3 days old and Winne when she was 10 days old. The two of them are thick as thieves and are always together. They spend the day time up on the hill getting exercise and grazing and also learning to be in amongst the herd and in the evenings they are back down here at the Centre with the paddock reindeer. The reason we bring them off the hill is because they are still getting bottles of milk so this makes it a lot easier for us to do.
Alba is a twin. Her and her brother were born on the 13th of May 2023 and their mother is Suebi, a 7 year old mature female. We had twins born back in 2018 from Lulu. That was the first time we had twins born alive and with no prior experience we decided to try and leave Lulu with both of them to raise herself. So Lulu spent the summer in our mountain enclosure so we could help her out instead of free ranging with the other cows and calves. Although smaller than normal calves their age both the twins seemed to be doing just fine. However, for what felt like no reason whatsoever we lost one of them at 4 months old and the other one at 5 months old. We don’t know why, maybe reindeer just aren’t meant to raise twins? So, we decided back then if we were to have twins again then we’d need to change something and potentially take one away from the mother leaving her with one to rear herself while we hand reared the other. Alba was the smaller and weaker one of the two born this year. We helped both calves out for the first few days making sure they were getting milk from Suebi then it got to day three and the time had come for us to take one away and leave her with the bigger and stronger calf. Suebi was completely unfazed and satisfied she had a calf. I don’t think the maternal instinct goes as far as counting to two which was lucky for us! We took Alba off the hill and for her first 3.5 days she lived with us and the dogs in the house as she was too small to be with other reindeer at this point.
After a few days Winnie came on the scene and the two of them teamed up as our hand reared duo of 2023. Winne’s story is a little different. It was mid-May and she was with her mum for about 10 days before one morning she came in with the herd and mum wasn’t with her. This is very strange because if mum wasn’t feeling well and lay down usually the calf would always stay with her so for the calf to be in without mum was really unusual. Maybe she had an accident or if she did become ill it’s been far too long now that we can only assume she passed away. Obviously we immediately looked for her on the day she went missing, however, our mountain enclosure with is 1200 acres (the equivalent of 1200 football pitches). This is made up of heathery mountain ground, peat hags, lots of trees, bog and thick juniper so it is like finding a needle in a haystack sometimes. It got to the afternoon of the day she went missing and we had to give Winnie some milk or she would have starved. We also had to take her off the hill that night as she would not be able to stay with the herd without a mum so down she came and both her and Alba teamed up.
We laugh as incidents or problems only ever occur when there is something else happening for us herders or when the long term herders are away on holiday. And true to form this all happened during the wedding of two herders so we were already on minimal staff with the long termers away celebrating. The staff that were working that day came up trumps big time to deal with everything though! I did pop back and help out and also pass on advice over the phone but it was the folk on the ground that held the fort and did a bloody good job of it too considering the complications. Also, as it was a herders wedding we of course had the ceilidh to go to that night. While we were all at the party in the evening, who else had to come along… Alba and Winnie, of course! So into our wee livestock truck they went, along with their bottles of milk ready to warm up mid-ceilidh. Then come 8pm, dressed up in my glad rags, off I went to feed the calves. The scene of walking through a wedding party, in a frock, holding two bottles of milk to go and feed the calves should of looked unusual but nobody batted an eyelid. I was definitely in amongst like-minded people!
So now we are well into the summer, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster having two calves to hand rear. For herders living at Reindeer House there is a further responsibility with two extra feeds after working hours so Cameron, Kate, EK, Fran, Hannah and myself have all been doing this. When we hand reared Sunny last year he spent a lot of time hanging out with us in Reindeer House but as there are two calves this year they don’t come in so much. Cameron has certainly adopted the two girls this year having done most of the looking after so when he went away for a week’s holiday in July he had to trust us we would do a good job!
Obviously we’d prefer not to hand rear reindeer calves, however, sometimes there is no option. Sunny is now a year old and I still call out to him in the mornings ‘calf, calf!’ and he even grunts back to me sometimes. This may be a trait which carries on through his life but it certainly gives us a good laugh. Alba and Winnie this year I can already see are going to be naughty little girls. Both coming from quite independent, head strong mothers I think we’ve got out future work cut out with them so watch this space!
I remember when we found Gazelle and Adzuki just after he was born how relaxed they both were. At the time Gazelle was twelve years old and had had many calves before so she was completely comfortable for us to hang out with her and her new-born calf. (Provided that we had brought her some food, which of course we had)!
Adzuki is now one of the biggest of his age group. Adzuki was always fairly shy so we have spent quite a lot of time, and bribery, getting him used to us. It helps that he is from a greedy family! Adzuki grew a wonderful set of antlers as a two year old and after a winter free ranging he’s currently back in our enclosure and has grown a whole new set once again – even bigger!
Haricot was Ryvita’s last calf, and when he was born he was really wee. In fact as we waved the cows and calves off onto the free-range for the summer, I wasn’t totally convinced that we’d see him again. But we did, in fact by the end of the summer he looked totally great and was just as fat as any of the other calves. Ryvita however was looking a wee bit underweight, potentially due to having done such a fantastic job of raising Haricot, so we gave her some extra food all autumn. And of course, if Ryvita got extra food, so did Haricot! As a result, by Christmas, he was like a little barrel!!
Haricot’s extra food that first autumn certainly stood him in good stead and he’s now a very handsome young reindeer. Here he is below with half brother Adzuki, you can certainly see the family resemblance!
Now Butter came as a bit of surprise. His mum, Gloriana, had never calved (despite running with a bull each year) until the age of 8 when Butter was born! We found Butter on a super soggy day and he had big floppy ears. Butter spent all summer free-ranging and we didn’t see him much and then one day at the end of the summer Gloriana came running into the enclosure with no calf. She was grunting away and still had an udder full of milk suggesting that she’d only recently lost Butter, so we sent her back out to search for him. We didn’t see either of them for quite a while and then one morning, Gloriana showed up with Butter in tow. He was looking fairly skinny so we decided to name him Butter, after a butter bean, in the hope that he would grow to be ‘fat as butter’!!
Sure enough, fast forward almost three years and Butter is doing very well. He also got lots of preferential feeding that first autumn and as a result has done just as well as the rest of his age group! He is incredibly tame and can be pretty cheeky sometimes but it’s hard not to be fond of that white nose!
Lupin was Marple’s first calf and when he was born he was really small; we wondered if maybe he was a little bit premature. But Marple did a great job, she took motherhood all into her stride and after the first few wobbly days he was charging around the enclosure after her! When they were free-ranging that summer and we headed up to find them Lupin would always come marching over to see us! He was one of the tamest and boldest free-ranging calves that I have seen!
Lupin is now a very handsome young reindeer. He’s not as tall as some of the others but he’s in great condition and grew a fantastic set of antlers both last year and this year. He’s not lost his confidence either, he’s very bold with both humans and reindeer, in fact I think last autumn he got fairly full of himself and was strutting around as if he was one of the big breeding bulls! Lupin had a wee sister born last year who we named Viennetta, and another (as yet unnamed) sister this year. Viennetta could not be more different from him as a calf. She’s very pale with a white nose and was one of the largest calves of last year!
I had the great delight of finding Cicero’s mum, Brie, when she was mid-way through calving. I found a spot far enough away to not bother her and watched the whole process through binoculars. When I found her the calf’s front legs were already out and it didn’t take long for her to calve completely. It was totally amazing then to watch the first 20 minutes or so of Cicero’s life. First he was licked dry, then he had his first milk and then fairly soon afterward he took his first steps!
As Cicero has grown up he has certainly taken more after his dad (Houdini) then his mum (Brie). Brie is the smallest of all our fully grown reindeer and Cicero is the tallest of all the reindeer his age, I think he over took her in height by about a year old.
When Jelly was a couple of days old we noticed that he wasn’t suckling properly, after closer examination of Jenga, his mum, we realised that she had passed all of her afterbirth. Both the passing of her placenta and the production of milk are associated with the hormone oxytocin which is released as the reindeer is calving. After chatting to our vet we ended up giving Jenga a dose of oxytocin and kept a close eye on them for a couple of days to make sure he was suckling properly. After a couple of days they were happy and he was getting plenty of milk from mum, by the end of the summer he was in great form, one of the biggest calves.
Not much as changed since then, Jelly is still one of the biggest of the 2020 bulls, definitely with the biggest neck of all of them – what a chunk! Jelly can be a little dopey at times and this reminds me of that tiny wee calf wobbling about to get milk.
When Hemp was wee he was a beautiful slate grey colour with a white nose, much like his dad, Spartan. Whilst Spartan’s characteristics were showing up in many of the calves that year, note the white noses of Adzuki, Haricot, Borlotti and Chickpea, the family resemblance is strongest in Hemp.
Hemp has grown up into a lovely friendly young reindeer which is no surprise as he comes from a very tame family, on both his mum and his dad’s side. He’s incredibly greedy (which comes from his mother) and can be a little stubborn at times (which comes from his father).
At the time, it really does seem like it will last forever. When you head to work and it’s dark, then the sun sets again at 3.30pm and you’re heading home in the dark. But it must be my favorite season, you experience such varying weather conditions, and it gives you such an appreciation of what the reindeer endure out on the free range. So, I thought I would do a blog of my favorite wintery pictures and tell some tales from the free range.
One trip that will forever stay in my memory was a morning in April when Ruth and I went out on to the free range to move the herd for the 11am Hill Trip. There had been snow the night before and it was so windy! Once on the hill we weren’t entirely sure whether it was still snowing, or whether the wind was whipping the snow up off the ground and into our eyes. Either way, we both were wishing that we had brought along goggles to wear. We trudged along, having a rough idea of where the reindeer were and finally stumbled across them. The amount of snow and lack of visibility meant that the reindeer were very well camouflaged, so it took me basically tripping over them to finally notice them. I wish I had noted down the wind speed for that day but to give you some insight, the day before had a mountain gust of 91mph.
On another trip to collect the herd for the 11am Hill Trip later in April that included myself and Ben Hester, we came across a stark contrast in the weather from the Ski Center car park and in the Northern Corries, where the herd were that morning. At the Ski Center we were eluded into the false belief that we wouldn’t need much in the way of layers as it was a beautiful sunny morning but due to the nature of the hills, we decided to take something waterproof just in case. As we continued up into the Corries, the weather began to take a turn. The cloud came in, the wind kicked up and we were pelted with icy rain. It was a good thing that we were only collecting the herd and moving them down to a lower spot as the weather would have made an uncomfortable Hill Trip!
But for every couple of bad weather days, we get exceptionally beautiful days to make up for the lack of daylight hours and hard going weather…
Other days we get great shows of the clouds through the mountains, I always love to see how clouds hug the landscape…
And to be honest, it’s not all doom and gloom when the sun sets early as we get to experience beautiful sunsets…
Sometimes you can head out in cloudy conditions and by the time you have found the herd the cloud has lifted, and you have the most fantastic view…
Overall, I love the winter seasons, you get to experience so many extremes when it comes to weather and even though most plants have died back, you still get such a variety of colour within the environment. More importantly, we (as herders) talk frequently about the adaptations that reindeer have to help them survive in a sub-artic environment, so it is thrilling to actually experience the elements like they do!
Bingo is one of our older Christmas reindeer now at the age of 12 years old. He has always been a pretty, what’s the polite way of saying it, aloof reindeer. He’s not timid, cos he has plenty of confidence but he’s certainly had his moments over the years where he falls into the category of being very head strong or independent. Lets just say when working with him out on the open hill some swear words may have been passed amongst herders when trying to herd Bingo!
The days of bringing the herd down from our winter grazing at Glenlivet usually involved a few of us on foot pushing the herd down to our corral on the hill ready to bring them back to our hill farm for the summer. Without fail for years Bingo would always double back and for anyone who has tried to chase a four-legged animal, flat out going up hill you’ll know it’s a losing battle. On the odd occasion we did either turn him, or he decided to go in with the herd (this was rare), he was first to be brought off the hill to avoid the risk of him somehow finding his way out!
As I said earlier he’s one of our Christmas reindeer. This means he’s trained to harness and pull the sleigh and to be fair to him he’s a total pro. Having done some pretty big events over the years including the very prestigious Windsor Castle he doesn’t put a foot wrong and being so handsome he of course looks great too. When I had him in my team Christmas 2019 my team mate, Joe, had to do lots of sweet talking and bribery with Bingo. For whatever reason Bingo took a dislike to Joe. Whenever we had to go about our normal handling of catching, loading, putting on harness Bingo always showed his antlers to Joe. Never me, I could walk up to him and he’s act like a well behaved dog and not put a foot wrong but he did not like Joe. Joe would find himself trying to win him over… extra lichen treats and giving him lots of personal space but more often than none he’d just find Bingo poking him with his antlers… Needless to say I found it very amusing! So much so that when Bingo cast his antlers before Christmas 2019 on Christmas Day I said to Joe I had a present for him but he had to close his eyes. Then I proceeded to poke him with Bingos antlers, this was Joe’s special Christmas present for Joe and now Joe has them mounted in his room, never to forget the wonderful friendship the two of them had…
However, I think Bingo has slightly mellowed over the years. Maybe running in the opposite direction every time we want to bring the herd in has worn thin and is maybe just a bit exhausting now in his older years. A couple months ago when we brought the free range herd into out hill corral for some annual management we were handling reindeer and low and behold Bingo come down to the corral of his own accord. I got myself a small bag of feed and halter and open the gate. He comes waltzing in, head in the bag of feed and I pop his halter on… Does that mean we no longer have to chase him around the hill side anymore, I do hope so.
I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Bingo. As lovely as it is having a well behaved Christmas reindeer who never puts a foot wrong and always obliges when we’re doing any handling there is something about a challenge and Bingo has certainly provided us with a challenge over the years. He’s got a spark to him which I love and he didn’t poke me with his antlers so maybe we have a mutual agreement between the two of us? Who knows…
Emm is one of our wonderful regular volunteers, and has written many blogs for us in the past. You can find out more about Emm by reading one of her previous blogs here: how reindeer herding changes me.
I was up volunteering with the herd at the beginning of October for 12 days last year. It was really great fun as always.
I got to meet Sunny the hand-reared reindeer calf. He was born in May and his mum Rain had died when he was 6 days old. He was 5 months old when I met him in the kitchen at Reindeer House. He slept down at the Reindeer Centre in the Paddocks with the other reindeer at night and in the daytime he went up to the hill enclosure to spend the day with the reindeer in there. His mode of transport was mainly in the back of the reindeer van where there was some food for him to eat. Sometimes Sunny travelled up with the dogs in the morning. He had 3 bottles of warm goat milk a day; one was first thing in the morning, one was on the 11am hill trip and the 3rd one was either on the afternoon hill trip or when he got back down to the Reindeer Centre for the night.
When we walked him to the hill enclosure and down to the carpark, it was funny to see the hill walkers surprised faces. Some wanted to stop and chat to us too. At the end of the afternoon Hill Trip, Sunny would be often found waiting at the gate waiting to come off the hill knowing he was going to go back down to the Paddocks for the night. One time when Sunny came back to the Reindeer Centre, he was in the outdoor area where the reindeer feed and hand feed are kept and he kept trying to get to it so I had to guard the feed whilst his milk was being made for him. Lol. One day on a Hill Trip, Sunny was so chilled out and lay down. He let people sit down next to him and have photos with him. On my second to last day the decision that Sunny was old enough to stay with the rest of the reindeer in the hill enclosure was made. That day, we found him as usual after the afternoon visit waiting at the gate to come off the hill and it was so hard leaving him up there. When we walked away he looked at us and started walking up and down by the gate and fence grunting wondering why we were going without him. He however did very well spending the first night up in the hill enclosure and got used to spending his nights up there.
The Calf Found On It’s Own
One day, a man phoned up The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre saying there was a reindeer calf who was on its own and was following him whilst he was out walking in a nearby area. Andi and Lotti took Clouseau and Olympic to the man’s location to see if they could catch the calf. They managed to catch him and identify him as Zoom. Zoom’s mum was nowhere to be seen and they hadn’t seen her for while. They took Clouseau, Olympic and Zoom back to the Reindeer Centre and put them in the Paddocks. Lotti and I took Zoom on his first ever walk with Clouseau and Athens with Zoom in the middle of the 2 older reindeer to make a “calf sandwich.” The older reindeer are good role models for the calves and they make the calves feel calm. Also reindeer love to stay as a group as they are a herd animal. We walked to Glenmore Visitor Centre and back to the Reindeer Centre. We had to wait for a bin lorry but the reindeer were all really good and waited patiently. Over the next few days, Zoom got attached to Clouseau and followed him around lots even when they went into the hill enclosure. In the hill enclosure Zoom got confident and was feeding out of the feed bag and hung around with us herders and the visitors.
The Special 70th Adopters Weekend
Whilst I was up, it was the special 70th Adopters Weekend where the reindeer herd was celebrating 70 years of the reindeer being in Scotland. The Saturday was based at the Reindeer Centre in the day and at Glenmore Lodge in the evening and the Sunday was based at Tilly’s farm in the day. Lots of reindeer adopters from all over came to this special weekend.
On the Saturday people could go on the hill to see the reindeer. There were 2 Hill Trips and an ‘open hill’. The open hill trip is where people could make their way up to the reindeer on their own to spend time with their reindeer. I helped on the open hill trip based in the hill enclosure with the reindeer welcoming adopters and talking to them. There were sleigh training sessions throughout the day and I helped out with one with reindeer Dr Seuss, Spider, Clouseau and Rubiks. I wore a reindeer herders’ Christmas jumper and we stopped halfway, whilst on route, and the adopters got to sit in the sleigh for a photo. I got to sit in the sleigh with my mum for a photo and also had a photo with me at the front of the sleigh and mum at the back of the sleigh. Near the end, I got to lead the sleigh pulled by 2 reindeer with 2 reindeer at the back which was very exciting.
There were activities people could do down at the centre. There was guess the weight of Sunny the reindeer calf, a silent auction for Holy Moley’s antler, lasso a reindeer’s antlers, make their own reindeer adopters badge and a memory board where adopters could write down their memories or put photos on. There was also tea, coffee, cake and biscuits and a Cairngorm Gin stall. People could walk to Utsi’s hut in their own time and explore it.
At the end, we tidied things away and put things in Tilly’s van ready for the Tilly’s farm the next day. On the Saturday evening, Tilly did a reindeer talk at Glenmore Lodge. She did 2 sittings. There was a 5:30pm one and a 6:30pm one. Tilly did a very good talk with lots of lovely photos and a lovely video.
On Sunday, Fiona and Lotti and me took Spider, Olympic, Anster, Rubiks and Sunny to Tilly’s farm. Tiree and Fraoch the dogs travelled with us in Brenda the lorry cab. We stopped off near some woods near Tilly’s farm to get some lichen lollipops (sticks covered in lichen) in the woods so the adopters could give the reindeer some at Tilly’s farm. We put Spider, Olympic, Anster, Rubiks and Sunny with the rest of the older male reindeer in Tilly’s garden at her farm. Adopters could walk amongst the reindeer and give them the lichen lollipops.
Tilly did farm walks around her farm for the adopters to see the Soay sheep, the pigs, the Belted Galloway cows, the 2 hand-reared Belted Galloway calves, the Red deer and her other animals. The walks ended going into an enclosure to see the young reindeer bulls where people could walk amongst them. There was a BBQ, some handmade soup, tea, coffee, cake and biscuits. Whilst setting up, I had to guard the cake and biscuits from the chickens who were roaming around, lol. There were also some items from The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre shop in a gazebo. There were some activities from the Saturday too. At the end the day, we started putting the reindeer from Tilly’s garden to a big barn. I led Olympic and Hamish. Sunny and some other reindeer went back to the Reindeer Centre in Brenda. Moskki, one of Tilly’s dogs jumped onto Tilly’s quad bike and looked like she was driving it.
Free-range Reindeer Turn Up
One of the days when we got to the hill enclosure gate for the afternoon Hill Trip visitors, a group of 20 reindeer who had been free-ranging on the mountain were waiting by the gate. Cameron and I continued with the visit whilst Sheena, Shona and Stuart led them into the hill enclosure through another gate so they could check on them. A calf was running back and forth along the fence as it had to get use to going through a gate, eventually it got through. In the group was Morven and her calf called Mochi which was amazing because a few weeks before, Morven had turned up without Mochi. She still had an udder so the herders knew she still must have her calf so they sent her away to go and find her calf. Hey Presto, Morven had found her calf came back together so we were all very happy. What amazing mums they are. Andi and Lotti came up to check on the group of free-range reindeer and put 10 reindeer back out onto the free-range and keeping 10, including Morven and her calf Mochi, in the hill enclosure.
Every morning, as most of you know, two herders head out to gather the reindeer in and bring them closer for our Hill Trip at 11am. This requires dropping our bags of feed off on route somewhere closer to where we plan to end up with the herd then anything from a 10 minute walk to a 1.5 hour walk out, depending on where the herd are. Most often we have a section of uphill just to really make us work hard and get a sweat on. Most of it is pathless so winter time can be a time of year where reindeer herders can get quite fit! Or that’s what we tell ourselves…
Once we’ve located the herd, usually far in the distance, first of all we will call them in the hope they will come running. However, this isn’t always the case so off we trot and we walk all the way out to them. When we reach them they are usually all lying down looking very relaxed. It almost feels a bit rude asking them to go to the effort to move location. However many people have bought their ticket and want to visit them. Plus they never really complain when they get a big bag of tasty food after their walk in. At this point there are two herders and two different jobs. One herder leads at the front and the other keep them moving from the back. So here is the role of each herder:
You set of with a small bag of feed slung over your shoulder and a halter, just in case you need extra bribery by putting one of the reindeer on a halter to lead as encouragement for the rest of the herd to follow. We don’t often have to put one on the halter, but we’ve got it just in case!
Some of the herd are always first to follow. Okapi, Lace and Sika are three older girls who accompany the front herder. On occasions while letting the rest of the herd catch up these front girls would get an extra handful of feed, much to their delight! Hopscotch and family (Kipling, Juniper, Tub and Fab) are also front runners… ruled by their stomachs.
While leading the herd down inevitably you try to take the easiest route. Not too steep, not too rough but it doesn’t matter how much you think you’ve picked the best line, the reindeer always prove you wrong by taking a slightly different one. Lets face it, they do know the hills better than us. It’s always fairly amusing being the front person when it’s a foggy day. You have to pick the best line trying not to lose your herd or your colleague at the same time. There is lots of calling, or reindeer chat/encouragement which translates to ‘follow me girls’. Shaking the bag of feed, offering handfuls, zig zagging our way down the hill in front of the herd. You do get a good opportunity for photos but it’s a fine line to keep the herd moving and getting a good photo so we cant hang around too much.
On the whole reindeer prefer to follow uphill as opposed to downhill so we are quite canny with our route choices but there are certain points of bringing them in which we know are pinch points so once we’ve got them past that we know they’ll come no bother. Then, once you’ve reached your destination there is a big bag of feed waiting for you which was left prior by us prior to walking out.
So that’s the front herder job, now for the herder following at the back.
Once you’ve reach the herd and font herder starts with the encouragement and trying to get the herd to follow its now the job for the back herder to keep up the momentum from behind. To begin with the reindeer are feeling pretty relaxed and a bit lazy so a bit of clapping, woosh woosh noises and generally pushing those back few reindeer usually gets them going. We don’t need to push them hard, just keep them going so often you act like a sheepdog zig zagging left to right. Like the trend at the front, there are also reindeer who are always at the back of the herd. Gloriana with her 2022 calf Rocket as well as her 2021 calf Beanie are usually ones at the back for us to keep moving.
Once you’re 10-15 minutes into starting the reindeer tend to follow quite nicely then the back herder can just enjoy hanging out with them, pootling (technical term) in slowly behind. This is also a nice time to get photos but you are more likely to get photos of reindeer bottoms at this point, which isn’t all bad, they do have very beautiful bottoms!
I think on the whole herders prefer being at the back. There is less pressure on route choice and you’re not spending your whole time trying to encourage the reindeer, instead you just get to walk alongside them as they follow. Inevitably some herders end up at the front more than others and this is usually down to experience and knowing the lie of the land, route choice the way the reindeer like to walk and the fine line between going too slowly so the reindeer just graze more and getting far enough ahead to keep up momentum. As a front herder you spend less time with the reindeer themselves so obviously we all like being at the back.
At the beginning of winter and bringing reindeer in for hill trips I’m happy to do the front as we’re all a bit rusty having not done it for a year and I’m pretty confident with route choices having done it for so long. Equally I’m happy for others to learn from me. But come March onwards we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to know which way to go and I like to take my turn at the back.
A few years back I replied to an email from a lady who had visited Glenmore from the USA back in 1969, and had been put up for the night in Reindeer House by Mikel Utsi. She remembered meeting a pure white reindeer in the pen behind the house (what is now the Paddocks), and from our herd records I could tell this must have been Snowflake, one of the first ‘leucistic’ reindeer in the Cairngorm herd.
We corresponded a bit and Sharon, who is an author and public speaker, then came back to visit Scotland again that summer, returning to the Reindeer Centre once more, and has stayed in touch since through becoming an adopter (picking a descendant of Snowflake as her adoptee!). Her unexpected encounter with a reindeer back in the 60s sparked a life-long interest , and she has gone on to write a book about her early travels and her time since spent amongst reindeer herders all over the world. She wrote a wee blog for us too a couple of years back too.
In 2019 Sharon gave lectures on reindeer on Viking ocean cruises, using a mixture of photos she has taken and ones we have provided, and in 2022 the lecture was recorded for Viking TV. And here it is!