Sika, the ‘forgotten reindeer’

The eagle-eyed amongst you, or those who have followed us on social media for a long time, might have noticed a reindeer named Sika popping up on our pages once or twice in the last few months, having never heard of her before. So where has she come from? Is she ‘new’?!

Sika in 2016

In fact, she’s not remotely new – actually she’s rather old. Sika was born in 2008 and has been here her whole life, but this winter there’s been a bit of a turnaround in her character, which has taken all of us rather by surprise. Let me explain…

In 2008 we named our calves after ‘horned and antlered animal species’, and the name we picked for Malawi’s wee female calf was Impala. But time passed and Malawi and Impala weren’t seen for ages, and whilst winter crept on and all the other calves came into the hill enclosure and got used to being handled and were halter-trained, there was still no sign of the two. Eventually, Malawi showed up but she was alone, with no sign on Impala. Frustrated, we wrote off Impala as one of the losses that year – not every calf makes it to adulthood sadly.

And then in January 2009, a report reached us of a reindeer calf alone at the far end of the Kincardine hills, at the edge of the Cairngorms but not in a spot that reindeer normally stray to. Off we went to investigate, and there was a wee calf – alone and very shy. Eventually she was captured with the aid of some makeshift fencing and a small group of tame adult reindeer acting as decoys – but who was she? Process of elimination led us to realise she must be Impala, separated from Malawi accidentally at some point and then lost by herself in an area she didn’t know. But as we had had to ‘seek her’ (geddit?), and the name Sika hadn’t been used in that year’s naming theme, ‘Impala’ fell by the wayside and ‘Sika’ joined the herd instead.

Sika in her younger days

Christmas is the time that our calves receive most of their formative handling, transforming from effectively wild animals to tame ones well used to being around people. But Sika had missed this window, and while we did initially halter-train her, she remained very wild still in character compared to others, and quickly became a reindeer that we didn’t even consider trying to put a halter on in adult life. She lived her life up on the Cairngorms, never being brought down to our Paddocks or moved across to our alternative winter grazing range as moving her just wasn’t an option. A ‘background’ reindeer – never noticed by visitors (and often barely by us!), just there in the herd but never really featuring much or making any great impact on any of our lives. She has never even had an adopter – one of the very few reindeer in the herd with this dubious accolade.

In the hill enclosure for the rut a couple of years back, with Caterpillar and Cottage following on

Over the years Sika produced a couple of calves, but in general we avoiding breeding her to some extent as breeding a wild streak into our herd is not ideal. Her calves, few and far between, also turned out rather shy too, although not as bad as Sika herself. The one anomaly was Bordeaux, her only female calf, who was born in 2019 and is an absolute sweetie! We have no idea really why she has turned out the way she has – she certainly didn’t get her trust in humans from her mum!

Bordeaux – Sika’s mini-me

In the last 3 or 4 years we have put a lot more effort in to training our reindeer to come and put their heads into a feed bag and allowing us to touch them, in order to make it easier to catch and halter them when necessary. All winter when we’ve walked out to the herd first thing in the morning, before putting feed down on the ground for them we have wandered around the shyer reindeer, offering a bit of bribery in return for any positive behaviour towards us. For most reindeer this has worked wonders, and some characters that we could never have considered catching in the past (or at least whilst out in a large open space) are now easily won over – Inca, Suidhe and Roule have been our particular success stories! But as for Sika… she was a reindeer that would never really make eye contact but just turn away whenever a herder optimistically proffered a bag.

Looking beautiful, but always keeping her distance…

Fast forward to January 2022, and I snorted ‘Hmphh. Good luck!’ at Andi as she tried to catch Sika’s attention with the feed bag once again. But something was different. Just for a second she looked, before turning away again. Andi is like a dog with a bone in these situations, and I know I can push her to keep at something by telling her it isn’t worth bothering about (god bless you, reverse psychology) and sure enough she kept persisting. I almost fell over in surprise when, 5 minutes later, Sika had got to the point where she was stretching her neck out towards the feed bag, although not yet bold enough to put her nose right in it. This behaviour persisted from day to day until finally she snatched a mouthful… and a light-bulb went on somewhere in her little brain!

Success! Andi’s smile says it all 😀

Now, Sika is one of the first reindeer over to us each morning, actively hunting down the feed bag and keeping a close eye on it until she’s offered a wee extra nibble. I love to look around at the herd, patiently hanging around waiting for us, catch her eye and rustle the bag a tiny bit… and see that head lift a bit, her eyes widen and a lick of the lips in anticipation! All her attention is on us the whole time – so different from the years of ignoring, or even actively avoiding – us.

At the front of the herd and leading them in for feed, earlier this winter

She is still quite jumpy around us however, and is definitely not a reindeer we’re about to try and actually catch and put a halter on, but at 14 years old there’s no need to. We are just enjoying finally getting to know her after a lifetime of obscurity! I can’t express enough how surprised we all are to find out that Sika is actually a lovely character, after all these years…

Shy reindeer sometimes need defending whilst they grab a mouthful from the pushier members of the herd – ironically this intruder is Malawi, Sika’s mum! Malawi is now the oldest reindeer in the entire herd, at 17 years old, and of the opinion that any feed bag is presumably therefore all for her.

Hen

A misty morning collecting the free-range reindeer

From when we close in January through until around the end of April, most of the reindeer here at Cairngorm will be out free-ranging. This is great for them as they get to roam wherever they please (mostly) and spend time in their natural habitat, where they are at their most comfortable. But it does mean that before every Hill Trip during this time, we must head up into the hills to find the herd.

Generally getting to the reindeer is a pretty simple process but getting them back to whichever site we are running the hill trip from can be more complicated – they don’t always want to follow us!

Around the beginning of April, we had a morning collecting reindeer that were a little more difficult than usual. The cloud was extremely low and thick, and they were in an area of the hills with almost no established paths, only a handful of trodden trails at best. It’s also not an area we go too all that much and there are very few proper landmarks to navigate by. All this is a way of saying that it was quite a difficult morning of reindeer herding!

Me and Fiona had to split up to cover more ground once we reached the last GPS point, but luckily….
….we stumbled right onto the reindeer!
It took them a little while to notice that we’d arrived, but we soon got them up and moving.
Very atmospheric, if a little worrying about losing sight of them all.
I was on sheepdog duty at the back of the herd.
Spot the reindeer!
Very curious Beanie suddenly materialised – I think I gave her a fright coming out of the cloud. Look at that face!
Beanie’s mum Gloriana hanging back a little more.
The herd making their way through a gully on their way towards the visit location.
Always interested, Beanie stops to check out some last remnants of snow.
Another familiar face appears through the fog. Holy Moley!
The home stretch, the herd crossing the final burn before reaching the site where we give them their breakfast before the morning visit.

Harry

A January day on the Cromdales

After the busy Christmas season the entire reindeer herd free-range, either here on the Cairngorms or on the Cromdales. The staff working at the Reindeer Centre take care and deal with any reindeer related antics on the Cairngorms. Meanwhile the reindeer free-ranging on the Cromdales are looked after predominantly by Tilly and the farm crew.

On the days when Tilly needs an extra pair of hands, the shout goes out and one of us herders drive around the hills to help out, never quite knowing what the day will involve until we’re there! I answered the call to help in early January, and what a great day I had! By the time I arrived Tilly had already been out to call in the reindeer. Thankfully reindeer are ruled by their stomachs, so the offer of a free meal was too tempting as Tilly had successfully managed to call almost all of the herd into the corral. Little did they know it happened to be routine temperature checking day…!

After a quick de-tour to help feed the pigs, five of us headed on to the Cromdales on quad bikes. Tilly, Colin S, volunteers Davey and Christine, plus myself. The small number of reindeer who hadn’t come to Tilly’s earlier call, clearly decided they were missing out as they were waiting for us when we arrived.  

Reindeer waiting in the corral after Tilly had called them down earlier that morning.

I’ve never been to Sweden, or any other reindeer herding nation, maybe it was just the blue sky, cold temperature and low sunlight, but it felt like I was somewhere further afield than the Cromdales! I can imagine the corral that Alan has built up on the hill would be little like the one Sami people might use. It’s more rustic than the enclosure on Cairngorm where we take our Hill Trips, but does it’s job perfectly.

There is a corridor which goes around the main corral so the five of us were able to gently push the reindeer out of the corral and into the corridor. This allowed us to open the external gate to the hill allowing the latecomers to enter, whilst not letting any suspicious reindeer out!

Reindeer patiently waiting in the corridor for their turn to meet the thermometer!
Tilly calling the latecomers in to the corral, whilst the others wait in the corridor.

We gently pushed the reindeer in batches along the corridor into a small pen at the end where we took the temperatures of all the reindeer, calling out their names to Christine who was armed with a list of the herd and a clipboard, checking everybody off and keeping us right. Once each batch of reindeer had a thermometer in the bottom and was sprayed between the legs with a treatment to prevent ticks from biting they were released back on to the hill. They can’t have had a bad experience as they didn’t dash for the high tops, rather they just milled around the outside waiting for the rest of the herd, and most importantly for their well-deserved dinner! It was a very fun way to spend a day and thankfully all the reindeer were fine and well.

Christine ready with her clipboard.
Scully on the left and Butter in the middle waiting for their turn – looking a bit suspicious!
Released back on to the hill after their quick health check!
They didn’t wander off to far as they knew they’d be rewarded with a tasty meal!
Colin S feeding the herd after everybody was checked and released back out on to the Cromdales.
Elvis, the oldest male in the herd at almost 16 years old, very used to routine temperature checks!

Ruth

2017 calves part 1: Kipling

Surprisingly I’ve been involved with working at the Reindeer Centre for over four years now. Time has certainly flown by and I would never have expected to be living at the Centre or even in the Highlands when I first began back in November 2017.

When I joined the team, the calves were already 6 months old and had been named under the theme of famous poets and authors. Back then they were still little fuzz balls on legs with small sticks for antlers and sometimes even then, a little mischievous. I quickly got to know them individually over a couple of weeks and eventually Kipling, Dr Seuss and Christie became my favourite reindeer calves. Over the four years I’ve had great joy watching them grow into the adults and characters that they have become now and I feel privileged to have known them all their lives up to this point. 

In this blog I will write a little about Kipling, look out for a future blog about Dr Seuss and Christie.

Joe and Kipling in winter 2020-21.

I can shamelessly say that Kipling is probably my favourite reindeer in the entire herd. Is it bad to have my favourite? Should I treat them all equally? Maybe, but over the years Kipling has been so much fun to work with and get to know. As a calf, I remember her looking slightly different to the others of her year. She was dark in colour but with an almost silvery sheen to her coat. Her mother, Hopscotch, is quite tame and rather greedy and this instantly rubbed off on her daughter. Kipling has certainly always enjoyed her food!

Kipling as 4 month old calf.

During the first 2 years of her life, I only worked at the Reindeer Centre through the winter time but would still visit at least once during the summer months and I remember seeing her on the free-range as a young female. By the time I would start work in October for the season, Kipling would be in our hill enclosure and it was during this time her obsession with food grew. Handfeed is certainly one of her favourite foods and she would inhale it out of the hands of our visitors before they could even take her picture. She also became extremely tame and friendly during this time and sometimes behaved more like a dog than a reindeer, brushing up against people and didn’t even mind being stroked. Through the coldest winter months when all the reindeer were free-ranging I would always make sure to give her a few extra handfuls of food to keep her happy. Some of the herders were not too pleased to see me do this as over time this has made her quite pushy when it comes to a food bag and has now lost all manners when it comes to waiting to be fed!

Kipling in September 2019, now 2 years old.

Kipling was so tame as a two year old that she even came on Christmas events with us. We visited Milngavie, Keswick, Bedford and Windsor while on tour and she was so ridiculous when on display in the pen, brushing up against the fence to say hello to people and telling off dogs when they came too close.

Herder Fiona and Kipling on tour.
Kipling on Christmas tour in Windsor.

At 3 years old Kipling became a mother and I was lucky enough to be the first person to see her after giving birth. In classic Kipling style, she was so food orientated that during her first year of being a mother she would pay more attention to what she could eat rather than keep her calf close by. I got to name the calf after the peas, seeds and beans theme that year and landed on the name Pip after my first family pet dog Pippin. Pip herself is more shy in nature than Kipling but has grown in confidence over the last year and is still close to her mother.

Joe, Kipling and new-born calf who was later named Pip – May 2020.
Kipling, her daughter Pip and her littler sister Juniper free-ranging in December 2021. An inseparable trio!

In more recent times Kipling has become a well known regular to visitors on our Hill Trips. She’s usually the first reindeer to come in and hand feed but has sometimes got a little too pushy in her greed and has been known to be a bit too boisterous for some. I feel that after all the extra food and attention I have given to Kipling over the years I have played my part in creating a food monster. But like people can be around their loved one, I look past this and only see the fun, friendly reindeer that I’ve become so fond of.

Kipling in September 2021. A standard photo of her – way too close to the camera for a nice shot!

Joe

It’s a wrap!

Holy Moley on Christmas Day morning.

Well, that is Christmas here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre done for another year and I have to say it has been A LOT busier than 2020 when COVID restrictions didn’t allow us to go about our usual business. Although it wasn’t as busy as the years before COVID-19 I think this year has been an eye opener for us and how we go forward in the future. The income we receive over the November/December period through Christmas events is something we once completely relied on to help support the reindeer herd and running costs for the rest of the year but nowadays we are busier than ever and as a result the income through the Centre now provides a bigger ratio than it once did, so I think a quieter Christmas tour in years to come could actually be better in the long run, concentrating more on what we have here at home. I’m not saying we won’t carry on with our Christmas tour completely, but I will look into downsizing, which it has naturally done this year anyway and it’s been very manageable.

We went through all the normal training with the reindeer through the October period. The 5-6 month old calves being trained to wear and walk on a head collar and the new young male Christmas reindeer being trained to wear harness and pull the sleigh. They all did great and I think gold stars in particular go to Christie’s calf Akubra, who I can only describe as a born Christmas reindeer and Frost, our 3 year old who pulled the sleigh like he’d done it his whole life, taking part in some huge events and taking it all in his stride. They make you so proud when out and about on tour its hard not to shout their praises from the roof tops!

A training session in Glenmore back in the autumn, coincidentally the 4 adult reindeer featured are our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day team!
3 year old Frost and 6 year old Scolty pulling the sleigh in Aviemore on Christmas Day.

I also have to sing the praises of all our wonderful reindeer herders including core employees, seasonal reindeer herders and volunteers. Without this ridiculously capable team of folk we would not be where we are today. It takes input from every single one of us to make it work so thank you to everyone! I have to mention one person in particular who I know won’t want me to make a fuss, but I am going to anyway, because she has been a total super star. Carol thank you so much for just being you. Your kind and caring nature not to mention a special way you have when talking to the public about reindeer is wonderful to watch and you are an asset to our already great team. I know the reindeer also bring a huge amount of joy to Carol as well so I think it works both ways.

Carol and 7 month old Akubra – the most chilled-out of all our calves this year!

We finished off Christmas with 6 events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The team of reindeer were quite a young bunch with the oldest being 6 years, but what a team they were! Scolty, Dr Seuss, Frost, Clouseau, Holy Moley and Akubra. Handlers over the two days consisted of Tilly, Fiona, Joe, Ben Hester, Ruth, Carol and Aurélien. Although icy and cold the weather was kind to us bringing bright blue skies and sunshine on Christmas day. The public were delighted to see the reindeer bringing huge smiles to both adults and kids… and herders of course. Carol was in charge of 7 month old Akubra all day and the two of them got on really well. Introducing him to lots of people delighted to see the reindeer over this festive time. Though Akubra was a little tired by the 4th event so he took a wee nap mid performance! What a dude! Aurélien and Holy Moley were on top form, although Holy Moley can sometimes be a little bossy with small children so Aurélien did a great job of anger management… she’s a wee toerag!

Aurélien and Holy Moley were a great double act.

At our second last event of Christmas day a couple of our youngest reindeer herders joined us and even mucked in helping to handle the reindeer. Oscar and Tilly (little Tilly, not big Tilly) were excellent in taking instruction when it came to leading and handling the reindeer… I see a couple of future reindeer herders in these two for sure! Newbie Christmas reindeer Frost and Clouseau both pulled the sleigh at three of the events each alongside role models Dr Seuss and Scolty. A-star team so bravo boys and girls… you all get an extra handful of lichen… the favourite food of a reindeer.

[Little] Tilly leading the reindeer and sleigh in Nethy Bridge.
Oscar and Holy Moley at the back of the sleigh doing a superb job.

So that is it for another year and when I thought at the beginning of November that the end was nowhere near in sight. Suddenly Christmas is over. I’d worried that the reindeer would forget what to do on events having had a year off but that was absolutely not the case. If anything it was the humans that needed reminding and reassuring that they knew what to do, the reindeer were fab.

Fiona

A summary of December 2021

Merry Christmas everyone. As you may well imagine, when you have a herd of reindeer, December is a busy time of the year. And this year has been no different. In this blog, I’ll provide a summary of what happens at the Reindeer Centre throughout December.

We’ve been having plenty of ‘Christmas Fun’ in the Paddocks and Exhibition area. This has taken place every December weekend as well as every day this past week in the build up to Christmas Day. Here we’ve had Santa Claus in his cosy, fire-lit grotto as well as arts and crafts, a special Christmas activity booklet for the kids to complete and plenty of herder talks out in the paddocks alongside the reindeer. We hope you’ve enjoyed chatting to us herders and seeing Santa!

The BBQ hut warm and cosy, ready for Father Christmas!
The main man himself! Delighted to have him join us every weekend in December.

The weather hasn’t always played ball with our plans. In fact, the start of December brought some pretty wild weather. We had over 10cm of snow. The reindeer were delighted and could often be seen dancing with joy, which can be seen in the video below. However, the Ski Road leading up to the car park had to be closed on occasion due to dangerous, icy conditions and a few Hill Trips were subsequently cancelled.

Reindeer dancing with joy in the snow!
Blizzard conditions led to several Hill Trips being cancelled earlier in the month.

The snow melted about halfway through the month due to a mild spell of weather and we now have just a bit of frost on the ground in all areas except the very tops of the mountains. The weather didn’t put you hardy folks off visiting though and we had lots of visitors wrapping up warm and braving the elements on our hill trips. In fact, the December weekend hill trips were all booked up before December even started!

December is also the busiest month for our adoption scheme. As such we’ve been wading through seemingly never-ending torrents of incoming adoptions. All the herders have gallantly pulled long shifts of office work and about a week before Christmas Day we managed to paddle through the swell and get through the backlog of adoptions. No adoption was waiting more than a couple of days after being received so we hope that you receive your packages in a timely manner. During the busiest times, herders were writing letters whilst on tour and we recruited help from Linda and Tina who have been fantastic at writing letters for us from their homes.

Fiona and Ruth writing letters on an event, whilst waiting for people to visit the reindeer.

One of the other events that happens over November and December is that a selection of trained reindeer may go out on tour around the nation. Events are often relatively local, however we reached as far south as Windsor this year and went as far away as Llanelli in South Wales. Training for the reindeer occurs throughout summer and really hots up during the autumn. The reindeer may be in a display pen or participating in a sleigh procession. It varies from event to event. The team and their herders will stay at overnight bases throughout the UK, and they will travel in big lorries with lots of space which means that the reindeer will often lie down on the straw when travelling or as some of you may have seen, they may also lie down when they’re in a pen. They like to relax whenever possible. Our calves have even had a bit of exposure to Christmas events and overall, they’ve been absolute champions.

One of our Christmas lorries on the road, containing two herders and six reindeer (usually 4 adult males and 2 calves).
Bond, Clouseau, Holy Moley, Trilby and Akubra lying down in a pen in Lancaster earlier this month.

Colin D (we have two Colins!) has clocked up the most miles of all of us herders and that’s good news for the rest of us as he produces the funniest videos. Here is Colin narrating Dr Seuss’ gardening skills. Stay tuned for more of Colin’s videos in a future blog/social media posts…

Colin Delap and Dr Seuss with a special Christmas offer…

We are still open as usual until the 6th of January 2022. The Centre will then close until the 12th of February, re-opening in time for the February half-term. The entire herd will soon be free-ranging either on the Cairngorms or the Cromdales, fingers crossed for another cold and snowy winter. Thank you for all our wonderful visitors, supporters, blog-readers, and adopters throughout 2021. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, from all the reindeer herders!

Ben

Storm Arwen

So last week the whole country had a bit of a blustery time with Storm Arwen crossing our paths. When we clocked mid week it was on its way we started putting plans in action for how to run one of our busiest weekends of the season with 6 teams of handlers and reindeer out and about on tour as far south as Oldham and as far north as Portree on Skye. And not to mention the day to day runnings at the Reindeer Centre itself.

Snowy roads for Colin S and Ruth’s team – a bit of sunshine in between the snow showers.

Firstly Banchory, near Aberdeen was due to have an event on the Friday night. But very sensibly made the decision two days before their event to postpone until the following week. Luckily weekdays for us aren’t so busy so we could accommodate with little fuss.

Next I had to think about my own team. Joe and I were heading to Yorkshire on Friday ready for events in the north of England on the Saturday and Sunday. Usually I’d get my reindeer off the hill that morning and hit the road but with the snow and wind forecast to come in mid-late morning I brought my team off the hill the day before, they then spent the night in the paddocks here at the Centre and we got away in good time, getting down country safe and sound.

Another team were spending the night at our farm base in Central Scotland ready for Milngavie the next day. When they’d usually leave late afternoon with only a two hour drive in normal conditions they also got away once their reindeer were off the hill on Friday morning. Our Perth event team were meant to go down Saturday morning but opted to also stay at our Central Scotland farm base as well… and it’s a good job they did because the snow came in thick and fast!!! The final three teams were all leaving from home on Saturday morning to get to Oban, Skye and Tain so just made sure they gave themselves plenty of time.

Lotti and Colin D, setting off to Oban with their team, picking up Lisette on route in Fort William.
Ben and Olly’s team + Mel and Leonie’s team on a morning walk after a night at the Gleneagles base.

The Oban team had to divert via Inverness due to closed roads but got there in time to visit a care home prior to their event which was a great hit amongst the residents bringing lots of Christmas cheer to those who couldn’t come and see the reindeer parade. A long day for the Skye team but they have a day off on Sunday to recover. And Tain had a superstar in their team… Holy Moley made an appearance and that went down very well indeed!

Also in Tain, were Hamish and LX who pulled the sleigh with Ruth leading them. During the parade the team got an mention over the microphone, the man announced that Hamish and Alex were pulling the sleigh! Now this to all us herders was rather funny as of course Hamish and Alex are also the names of two of my family members. Alex is my brother and his son is Hamish… So we all had a good chuckle imagining those two pulling the sleigh instead of the reindeer!

Colin D, Lotti and Lisette safely made it to the relatively tropical Oban with their team!
Colin S and Ruth made it to Tain, and had a wonderfully snowy parade! Here’s Holy Moley in the display pen lapping up the attention!
“Alex” (LX) and Hamish pulling the sleigh in Tain!

So, Saturday for the reindeer teams all went well despite the harsh wintery conditions. Although my parade in Oldham was cancelled we still managed to do a small arrival with Santa and sleigh and the folk of Oldham welcomed us with open arms for the 24th year visiting the Spindles Shopping Centre.

That was the news from all of us out and about on tour so I can’t properly relay the stories from home and the running of the Reindeer Centre. I know the hill trips had to be cancelled due to the hill road being closed as the mountain was storm-bound. Instead the herders trooped together and did paddock talks throughout the day hoping the disappointment wasn’t too much for those missing out on the hill trips… Though to be completely honest if there was a hill trip in those conditions you wouldn’t be able to hear, see or take much in as the wild winds and snow conditions would have been too epic! Some of the herders still had to go up onto the mountain to feed and check the reindeer but actually doing this in these conditions just reminds us how incredible these animals are. They have the most amazing coats to cope with such low temperatures. Facing the wind means they get amazing ice masks covering their foreheads and ice covering their antlers… It looks very cool! Hopefully for those of you who missed the hill trip will get another chance sometime soon, it was very unfortunate but we are at the mercy of the weather gods and when they call it off there is little we can do about it. The main thing is everyone stays safe in these conditions, the reindeer will be here for a long time and certainly ready for your return!

The team back at the centre feeding the reindeer on the hill, note the snow encrusted reindeer!

Fiona

The Bridge over the Allt Mor

Funny story…. For months Hen’s been meaning to write a blog about the new bridge en route to our hill enclosure, but eventually this autumn found herself too short of time and suggested to Andi that she wrote it instead, hence Andi’s recent blog. And then, displaying a woeful level of forgetfulness, Hen found the blog that SHE WROTE HERSELF, and had NO memory of writing…Wow. So, you might as well read this one too.

I often talk to people who came to visit years ago but can’t remember much about their walk to the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure, other than the fact ‘there was a big bridge’ over a river. Ah, we say knowingly, you mean Utsi bridge. It’s become an iconic part of our most common route on to the mountains to see the reindeer herd. (But it’s not the sole route we use, so if you read on and have no memory of a bridge, then you aren’t going mad – we probably just took you to meet the herd in a different location!)

Utsi’s bridge as it has been for many, many years.

The original Utsi bridge over the Allt Mor (the river which leads down to Loch Morlich) was built in the 60s, and consisted of not much more than telegraph poles with some planks on them, or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen that remain of it.

The very first bridge was a bit more ‘rustic’!

Bridge mark II was built in 1979 by the Army, and it’s this one, with it’s high-sided handrails, that is the one that most people will remember. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve crossed it, but being as between late April and early January it’s rare for a working day to pass without doing so at least twice (i.e. once in each direction), and often a lot more – it’s certainly a lot of times. I think my record was 9 or 10 trips up to the hill enclosure once whilst shuttling boardwalking material up there. I cursed the lack of vehicle access that day!

Many reindeer hooves have crossed the bridge over the years too. Obviously reindeer can, and do, cross the river directly a lot of the time, but the free-ranging herd will cross the bridge instead at times if making their way towards the enclosure of their own accord. Tell-tale droppings on the bridge give away their route!

Fiona, Sofia and Alan leading reindeer up to the hill enclosure in spring many years ago.

We lead reindeer to and from the enclosure over the bridge, and the most eventful time is always their very first time, usually at around 5 months old, learning to walk on a halter. Actually the bridge itself is no issue at this point – it’s getting on the bridge which can be really hard as there are steps up on to it.

After over 40 years, the second incarnation of Utsi bridge was starting to show signs of wear and tear, the central support starting to get more undermined each time the river was in spate, and eventually it became obvious that it needed to be replaced. We don’t own the land that the bridge is built on so this didn’t come down to us thankfully, although we did attend meetings with regards to how it would happen, and made sure that the plan was definitely to complete the new bridge fully before the old one was removed!

The new bridge under construction, already dwarfing the older one!

Work began in November 2020, but ground to a juddering halt with the second lockdown after Christmas, and even though construction was permitted to continue, the impassable road and deep snow conditions of January and February 2021 made any progress an impossibility. It was mid-April before the bridge was finally completed, just before we re-opened to the public in late April, so all of our visitors in 2021 have walked to the reindeer herd via Utsi bridge mark III. This version is quite considerably bigger, and makes quite a landmark, but I’m not yet as fond of it as I was the old one.

Tilly and Sherlock crossing the new bridge – with a bit more space for large antlers than the previous one!

We all kept pieces of the old bridge, so I have two of the uprights which once supported the handrails in my workshop at home. Maybe one day I’ll use them for gateposts somewhere! Alan and Tilly (owners of the reindeer herd) kept the four 30’ long steel girders that stretched the 60’ span of the river, which had to be helicoptered out from the site to the nearby car-park, and then collected via tractor and (large!) trailer! No doubt they will one day become part of one of Alan’s many sheds.

An old photo of Tilly on the second bridge when it was quite young, showing off the massive steel girders quite nicely!

So if you are visiting us, particularly in the summer and autumn months, have your camera ready for this iconic bridge in case you happen to be lucky enough to cross it en route to the reindeer herd. You’ll be following in the footprints of thousands of visitors, hundreds of reindeer and dozens of reindeer herders, spanning nearly 7 decades.

Hen

Summer mornings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flies around antlers.

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

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

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

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

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

Hen

Spy – the reindeer we’re all a bit scared of

A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.

Spy, whose reputation precedes her!

Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.

The way it normally works: Myself gently pushing Cheese and newborn Kiruna in the right direction across the hill enclosure a couple of years back.

Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.

The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.

With Nok, the calf who I’d failed entirely to get close to.

This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.

Not one of Spy’s calves (this is Angua’s calf Chickpea), but a quick cuddle is usually needed once all calf duties are done and everyone’s in the right place!

By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.

Spy in the nursery part of the enclosure a day after trying to kill us all this year, antler having fallen off in the meantime. Suddenly she doesn’t look quite so intimidating when not waving a large, spiky antler around!

Hen