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.
For the calves born in 2012 the theme was just ‘2012’ because so much happened that year. It was he Queen’s Jubilee year our 60th anniversary and also the London Olympics. So we had great fun coming up with diverse names to suit the theme and as one of the biggest calves of the year Balmoral was aptly named.
He was, however, a mistake! During the rut of 2011, when Balmoral was conceived, we attempted to restrict the number of cows breeding by leaving them out on the free-range without a bull. That all seemed fine until a young bull, Strudel, went missing in the hill enclosure and turned up a few weeks later on the free range having found ‘heaven’, i.e. lots of reindeer females – even more than your average breeding bull would manage in a season.
Fly was one of those cows left out but ended up in calf to Strudel. But we’re not complaining because there are now some great reindeer in the herd now as a result from that rutting season in 2011.
During the 35 plus years I have been with the reindeer there have been some iconic bull reindeer who have stood out amongst the rest of the herd. In the early 1980s it had been Troll: great name (from the children’s story Billy Goat’s Gruff – and yes there was a Trip and a Trap too) and an equally great reindeer. His son Gustav, a real gentleman among reindeer, took over from him in the late 80s and early 90s. Then we brought in a young bull from Whipsnade Zoo for new blood and that was Crackle, who featured in many photos, leaflets and articles about the herd. Indeed he was the reindeer on the front cover of the first book I wrote about reindeer, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’.
In 2003, a bull calf named Crann was born and by two years old he showed all the signs of being something special. As a mature breeding bull he grew huge antlers year after year, probably the biggest antlers that have ever been seen in the Cairngorm herd and right up until his last year he continued to grow amazing antlers for his age.
By 2015, Balmoral was the most promising young bull in the herd, growing huge antlers as a three year old. As a result, we decided to give him a shot as a breeding bull, allowing him to father some calves, rather than being castrated as most of the other three year old males are. In 2016 he looked incredible with even bigger antlers, and ended up being the main breeding bull that autumn, with many of the calves born last spring fathered by him. He’s well and truly spread his genes about! His son Burns, born May 2017, who is big, bold and boisterous may well follow in his footsteps and become a breeding bull in his own right in a couple of years.
I was inspired to write about Fly as the featured reindeer for this blog as I followed her back from the far end of the hill enclosure with her new-born male calf back in May 2014. Fly’s name has a tenuous connection to the 2007 theme of the colour green: the gardener’s worst nightmare, greenfly. We shortened her name to Fly.
As I followed her through the wooded slopes of Silver Mount Fly led me a tortuous route up and down the hill through deep heather and thick woodland. I’m not sure who she was testing, me or her calf. Her calf was amazing, struggling through the jungle of rank heather, scaling rough boulders and trying to keep up with his mum as she strode up the hill. I had to keep my wits about me as on a couple of occasions she appeared to completely vanish. Fly by name, fly by nature.
There are only a few breeding females in our herd that get the gold star for breeding success and Fly is up there with the best of them. She calved first as a two year old, a strapping female calf who we called Custard (can you guess the link?!). Custard calved for the first time in 2012 then in 2013 she had a beautiful female calf, Cream (clever with linking names eh), so Fly at the age of only five years old became a granny. In the world of reindeer grannies can go on to be mothers too for many years and since having custard Fly has gone on to produce six strapping males: Dragonfly, Domino, Balmoral, Anster, Hudson and Aonach.
Fly is coming up 11 now and having missed out on the rut last year she shouldn’t be calving this year. However, as she’s still one of the biggest and strongest females in the herd it’s possible she may well run in the rut with a male again this autumn if she stays in good health. Fly has maintained a remarkable record of being the first female to come to call every time Fiona has been out to bring in the free-rangers these last couple of months. She is never far from the front of the group when the other herders call the reindeer down but she is always first when Fiona calls!
As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…
Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.
Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.
While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.
From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.
But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.
Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…
We have a lot of very sweet reindeer. They come right up to me and stick their noses right into the feed bag I have just carried up the hill…. Bumble, for instance…. I cuddle Dr Seuss and scruff up his nose hairs. Reindeer are wonderful creatures. So powerful and hardy, standing into the gales, looking into the snow that flies across the hill, this is where they live. The likes of Bumble and Dr Seuss have lots of adopters. Everyone loves Bumble. So cheeky, so adorable.
Occasionally someone comes into the shop and asks to adopt a real wild reindeer, a rebel, one who knows no boundaries. I breathe a sigh of relief and start rattling of my favourites, because I prefer the less tame reindeer. I prefer the ones at the back that no one ever sees or the ones that elude even us herders. Tambourine, Enya, Wapiti, Chelsea, I say, these are my favourites. These reindeer have a different beauty. These reindeer laugh at us mere humans. These reindeer have few adopters. Who wants to adopt a reindeer that will wallop you, or walk away, if you go near it?
My favourite when I first arrived was Bega. A pale coloured male that was born on the free-range and a real struggle to train. My other favourite was Champagne, a flighty young female, with distinctive spear like antlers. Both Bega and Champagne died before their time.
I guess this is perhaps what makes the herd so wonderful and interesting – we have both tame and less tame reindeer!
So apparently a 2 day stint of volunteering at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre earns someone the dubious honour of writing a blog!!
We have been visiting the reindeer for 14 years or so now. On our first visit we fell in love with a gorgeous calf called Java, immediately sponsored him and the rest as they say is history! We currently adopt Sambar and Orkney for ourselves and a further 3 reindeer for family members at Christmas, Scrabble, Jaffa and Gazelle.
I have been up to reindeer house previously to volunteer, allegedly to help out, but probably cause as much of a hindrance! But I have never been in the snow, so when the opportunity came up this year I jumped at the chance. Although I was away for 4 days, I was only able to be at the centre for 2 days as coming up from Leeds I needed a day travelling at either end.
I arrived at 9am, as instructed, on a gorgeous, cold Tuesday morning to be met by the lovely Chris, Andi and Olly, who were only too keen to introduce me to the delights of being a volunteer reindeer herder. Apparently the most important job, and I really have no issue with this, is making tea! This however can only be done after clearing up the reindeer poo from the paddock area, followed by a quick guide of where all the necessary switches for the fab information displays are, oh and checking the videos are on, stationary filled up, water heater switched on and a general tidy up, and I thought I was kind of on holiday!! Thankfully there was an ‘idiots guide’ for all this, as the next day I ended up doing it on my own! Including bringing the reindeer out of the woods at the side of the paddock into the display area, thankfully, as any of you who have visited the herd will know, all you really have to do is show them some food and they will follow you anywhere!
All that done and tea made and drunk, I was lucky enough to go on the hill visit with Chris and Olly, leaving Andi holding the fort at reindeer house. It was a stunningly beautiful day and the reindeer behaved impeccably, although it had taken Alex some time to bring them down off the mountains, where they had been free ranging, to the enclosure on the hill. I have, as I said, visited a number of times before but have never seen so many people on a hill trip, it is all good for the centre as they obviously need to make money to look after the reindeer and this is such a lovely way to generate income.
When we got back off the hill there was time for a quick bite to eat at the café next door (well worth a visit) and then back to the hard work. My next job was to mix the reindeer feed. Oats, hay, beets, molasses and sheep feed….mmmm lovely. I do have to mention here that the hay is coated with garlic, apparently this helps protect the reindeer from biting insects in summer and is generally good for them. It is also very good at making your hands and clothes very smelly, I suspect I will not have to worry about vampires for some time to come!
I joined the other team members in the office after that. I really would love to have the view out of my office window that they are lucky enough to have there…wow! My suggestion of some form of office Winter Olympics fell on deaf ears, I’m sure chair ice hockey would have been a sure fire hit….think they were too busy though. It did open my eyes as to how much work goes into running the business. Andi has just re-done the website, and a great job she has made of it. Chris was arranging all the Adoption requests that were coming in online and Olly was hammering lots of nails into the wall…think he just likes making a noise! All the day to day stuff does take a lot of time and then there are the reindeer to be looked after too, a herders work is never done.
On my drive back to my accommodation at the end of the day, I joined the steady stream of traffic coming off the mountain from a day skiing. As we were approaching Loch Morlich, everyone was braking and pulling into the side of the road, being the nosey person I am, I followed. I was rewarded with the most amazing sunset over the mountains and loch, absolutely incredible.
Day 2 of my visit was a bit chaotic in the morning. Chris and Olly had gone to bring the herd down from the mountain for the visitors to see in the enclosure, which left poor Dave alone with me at the centre. While he was dealing with everyone in the shop wanting to book on the tour, I opened up the enclosure, following my idiots guide to the letter…no one complained, so I think I did it right. Reindeer were in the right place at the right time anyway! The herd on the mountains, however, were not so obliging this morning and really took a lot of persuasion to move, the hill visit had to be delayed until 12, but no one seemed to mind and it was all worth it in the end.
I did the hill tour with Dave and Chris. It is interesting to look on and see how the different herders give such great tours, but in a different way to each other, they say the same thing but put their own take on it. Dave had to cope with one or 2 interesting questions from a few of the children on the visit and was very patient when one youngster kept putting him right on his pronunciation of ‘lichen’, he is a New Zealander so deserves a bit of stick (Fiona originally wrote ‘slack’ but we think he deserves some stick for it!). When it was time to come down off the hill, we were obviously last out of the paddock, but as there was a bit of a queue in front of us, and we were all hungry, alternative methods of getting down the snowy valley sides were explored. Dave and Chris just ran down the side to the bottom near the river, I’m not sure they actually expected me, a middle aged Yorkshire woman to follow them….but of course I did. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was that their legs are considerably longer and younger than mine, so although I managed to run about 5 steps straight down, I ended up on my backside for the rest of it…my own version of the luge afterall! It was great fun until I was aware the river was fast approaching but thankfully managed to stop in time!
The rest of the day was less of an adrenalin rush thankfully! I was in the office having a fuss with the dogs and generally chilling out until it was time to leave.
I had such a wonderful time in my 2 days there, I will always be grateful to the herders, firstly for letting me spend time there but also for their patience, time and guidance. They are a great group of people and do an amazing job, giving us all the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in their natural environment. Thanks guys!