A Reindeer Herder and Artist

Sheena counting reindeer. Lace is the dark reindeer with her head up and antlers visible.

My involvement  with the reindeer goes  back 30 years when Tilly and Alan were my neighbours and Alex and Fiona where still very wee.

I came up to the Highlands to work at Badaguish Outdoor Centre for people with additional needs before I was due to start a nursing degree . I never left – I fell in love with the mountains, and then a reindeer herder!! And now the reindeer.

Sheena catching up with the free rangers out in the hills.
Sheena bringing back Ochil and her calf Vanilla to the enclosure after they spent the summer free roaming.

My wonderful friendly golden retriever Rosie used to end up at Reindeer House after following any walker passing by my house down at Badaguish. Tilly would phone me and I would often end up there socialising, helping out, then for dinner and end up walking home with Rosie after a wee whisky or two!

 I eventually went  to university but not to study nursing. I did a Honors Fine Art degree in 2004.

Sheena drawing on the hill!

Over the years I have kept in touch with Tilly and the  reindeer, volunteering, an extras pair of hands or legs walking out onto the mountains to help herd in the girls for calving or just going up to spy the herd in the summer months on the mountain.

Several years ago,  I got a call to work with the team and use my artistic talents for ‘Christmas Fun’ (weekends in December when Santa visits the Paddocks). By this time Fiona was all grown up and coordinating all things Christmas and the herd on Cairngorm along with her mum and the team. Now I am just a regular part-timer in the team.

Sheena doing some harness training with the male reindeer.
Sheena and Choc-ice chilling out together.
Sheena driving the Christmas lorry!

So, when I am not a reindeer herder you might find me working in my studio at home as an artist, working on some colorful wild abstract paintings. These days I also work on some reindeer crafts, inspired from my trip to Jokkmokk, Sweden in 2020 with fellow reindeer herders Fiona, Joe, and Olly where we stayed with friend Sofia, Mikel Utsi’s great niece. Inspiration for art was everywhere. The snow, visiting herds of reindeer, northern lights, traditional cloths, and traditional food.

That part of Sweden is the capital of Sami culture in Sweden holding the Sami winter festival, which involve reindeer racing, reindeer parades, and all things Sami culture. And I had a wonderful time in the Sami Museum viewing the traditional arts on show. This was very much my inspiration for small reindeer art and crafts for the shop.

The Jokkmokk crew with borrowed dogs! Fiona, Sheena, Olly and Joe.
Jokkmokk winter market.
Beautiful Sami colours.
Some of Sheena’s wonderful things we sell in the shop!
Sheena’s lovely dogs – Ginger and her mum Elsie on top of our local hill.
Sheena and Oatcake!

Sheena

COVID calves

Our usual annual practice is the reindeer calves born that spring will join a Christmas team of adult reindeer and go out and about on tour joining in Christmas festivities across the country. This is the start of their training and handling with us which means when the male calves grow up and go on to join a team as an adult with potentially a different role to play (i.e. trained to harness and pulling the sleigh) then they have already seen what events are all about so it’s helpful for their training going forward.

Haricot as a new born in spring 2020.
Tiny new born Lupin in 2020 – hard to imagine him pulling a sleigh three years later!

Back in 2020 all the calves born that year didn’t take part in many Christmas events due to our lack of bookings off the back of the COVID pandemic. We knew further down the line that we would have to work harder on these reindeer. Now Christmas 2023 is well behind us, this was the first Christmas where the three year old males were trained to wear harness and pull the sleigh for the first time. We don’t use female reindeer at Christmas as they tend to be pregnant at that time of year and the males we do use are castrates (non-breeding).

So our Christmas reindeer class of 2023 consisted of – Adzuki, Lupin, Haricot, Hemp and Cicero. Although there were more from that year these were the main five boys who went out and about on tour and pulled the sleigh for their first year. While training here in Glenmore I would say they certainly didn’t all take to it like a duck to water. Some were stubborn, some a bit too forward, however, we definitely got to the point over a number of days where they were used to wearing the harness and pulling the sleigh. Some better than others. I’d say Hemp, Haricot and Lupin did really well, whereas Adzuki and Cicero took a little longer but still did great!

Haricot in trace around Glenmore – no problem with an empty sleigh in training!
Adzuki at the front in training and Hemp at the back.

So now we get to the third weekend in November and it was time for them to head out with a team of experienced Christmas reindeer and herders to go and do a proper Christmas event. Haricot headed to Tain, a town in the north of Scotland, with Joe, Aurelien and Colin. Hemp and Cicero went to the west coast taking part in two parades that day in Fort William and Oban with Lotti, Lisette and Colin (a different Colin) and Lupin and Adzuki both came to Elgin with Ruth and I where we had further assistance from two of our long-term volunteers.

Time to parade in Tain and Haricot steps up alongside super-duper Christmas reindeer Poirot. In their set-up area Joe puts their harness on. Great, Haricot didn’t bat an eye lid. Now time to pop him in sleigh with Poirot, again he wasn’t fazed. Pipe band get set-up ready to start the parade. Joe is at the front leading and ‘alright boys, walk on’… nothing. ‘Alright boys, walk on’… again, nothing. Haricot decided that an empty sleigh in training was much easier to pull than a sleigh with a heavy Santa on it. After a bit of encouragement Haricot was having none of it so they made the sensible decision to swap him for Aztec (another of our trained Christmas reindeer) and therefore Haricot just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, not pull it. The event went really well but maybe back to the drawing board on this one.

The team chilled out and enjoying their lunch before the parade in Tain. Haricot is the pale reindeer right at the back, Aztec is closest to camera who ended up being promoted to sleigh puller!

Now to the team on the west coast. Hemp actually went out on Christmas tour as a two year old, not pulling the sleigh but as a reindeer walking at the back so he has had a fair bit of exposure to these types of events. He pulled the sleigh alongside Frost and acted as though he’d done it his whole life. What a star! This was Cicero’s first time on an event so the team decided that he would be at the back of the sleigh to let him take it in and then aim to get him pulling the sleigh in Oban. The parade sets off following the pipe band with Frost and Hemp pulling and Cicero and Dr Seuss with the calves following behind the sleigh. Cicero thought by being at the back he was being left behind so was keen to go forward therefore Colin took his lead rope and walked him up front with the two reindeer pulling… Cicero thought this was much better and although it wasn’t how our usual parades looked with three reindeer at the front I don’t think anyone really noticed and Cicero was happy plodding along there.

A lovely photo in the Lochaber Times with Cicero looking very relaxed next to the sleigh while Hemp and Frost pull. Copyright Iain Ferguson, alba photos.
The team very chilled after the Fort William parade outside the Nevis Centre. Hemp closest to the camera with one antler.

Now to Oban which is an evening event so pretty dark. For this one the team popped Cicero in the front alongside Dr Seuss (an old hand when it comes to pulling the sleigh). Contrary to Haricot, I don’t think Dr Seuss did any of the pulling during this parade as Cicero did it all. Give him his due he wasn’t fazed by a weighty Santa. To make sure he didn’t pull too hard two handlers walked with him at the front easing him into the ways of pulling the sleigh. I think he could do with a bit more practice, mainly to learn that there are two reindeer and both should be pulling the sleigh equally…. cough cough, Dr Seuss!!!

Now onto Elgin where I was with Ruth and a couple of volunteers as well as newbies Lupin and Adzuki. We decide that Lupin could pull the sleigh and Adzuki would learn the ropes at the back. We set off, again following a pipe band. Lupin was a total star! Didn’t put a hoof wrong and pulled equally alongside pro Druid. Adzuki, however, like Cicero wasn’t for being left behind at the back of the sleigh and was keen to go forward. Each team makes there own decisions with how to manage their reindeer in the best way they think and it was correct for Cicero to be led forward but in my case I made a different decision as I wanted Adzuki to learn that actually being at the back of the sleigh was absolutely fine and there was no need for him to want to go forward. In my quick thinking I asked one of the volunteers to pass me a sneaky bag of lichen hidden Santa’s bag. With a tasty handful of lichen in my hand suddenly Adzuki was pretty delighted to be walking at the back of the sleigh. This got us through the parade wonderfully but I knew this wasn’t a solution long term. I mean we would have a very happy Adzuki but ultimately he had to learn that lichen wasn’t always going to be available.

The teams return to the hills after their events. Here’s a snowy Haricot after his day in Tain.

The teams came home after that weekend all with their own stories of their ‘COVID calves come adults’ and how it wasn’t quite as smooth sailing as other years. However, they were by no means put off, we just had to be canny with how we handled them and which events they went on. Every weekend they would join a team. Haricot pulled the sleigh at Aberfeldy the following weekend and this time we gave him some help by pushing the sleigh therefore all he had to do was walk at the front. ‘He was a total star’ as reported back by Ruth! Lupin was also in that team but as he pulled like a pro last time he went at the back this time and absolutely nailed it! Cicero the following weekend had a reindeer only event so no parade for him. This type of exposure is still really great though and goes towards his training. Adzuki came to a local event with myself and Mel. It was a short parade but already he was better than before… again the more exposure the better.

Haricot pulling the sleigh in Aberfeldy where he was a total star! Lupin at the back also doing a super job.
Adzuki pulling the sleigh like a pro in Lairg.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can be two of the busiest days of the year. There are three parades locally on Christmas Eve and they can be dark, busy and fast pace whereas Christmas day there are four parades and they are a bit more laid back and all in the light of day which is easier. With Haricot and Lupin taking to it better than Cicero and Adzuki we decided they would do Christmas Eve and that would leave Christmas Day to Cicero and Adzuki. All alongside some of our other trained Christmas reindeer of course. I cannot sing their praises more, all four boys were absolute superstars! With full sets of antlers they all looked beautiful in the front of the sleigh. They make us feel so proud!

The biggest reward is of course heading to winter free range which happens after Christmas. So to finish off the photos here is Adzuki, still with his enormous set of antlers in February while free ranging with the rest of the herd.

Adzuki enjoying roaming freely in the hills after his Christmas work.

Fiona

The whole herd in one day

It’s not often we see all of our reindeer in one day but on this occasion in February myself and Lotti between our two sites here on Cairngorm and Glenlivet we saw all of the reindeer.

It started with a trip to our enclosure. Over the February half term we have decided that due to how busy the area is and the disturbance form people and dogs for our reindeer free ranging that for the two weeks of half term that we would take a small herd into our enclosure to guarantee Hill Trips, rather than take a group of visitors a 40 minute walk out into the mountains only for the reindeer to have been chased away by hikers with dogs. We figured our female reindeer, who predominantly free range most of the year, it would be a small price for them to pay for two weeks. So Lotti and I headed up first thing for their morning feed and check. While we were up there the free ranging herd of cows and calves had also made their way in for an easy feed so that was all the reindeer on Cairngorm checked by 9.30am… We must be good herders 😉

Pavlova here on Cairngorm.

Once we came off the hill we had to do some vehicle swapping with our farm over at Glenlivet so Lotti and I headed over there to do just that. When we arrived they were busy splitting some red deer who were being relocated so Tilly suggested that we headed up onto the hill with a few bags of feed to see if we could find the reindeer on their winter grazing. Like Cairngorm, the reindeer on our Glenlivet site range the mountains which has particular good lichen heath, lichen being a reindeers favourite food!

Firstly, we wrapped up warm. One difference between Glenlivet and Cairngorm is we can access the hill by quad bike on Glenlivet whereas everything is done on foot here on Cairngorm. When walking we keep warm but when we’re on a quad bike it gets pretty chilly. So the two of us looked like Michelin Men… or Women! We arrived at the top of the track and immediately greeted by 20-30 reindeer. We gave the others a call the best we could in the high winds then I left Lotti to give the calves some preferential feeding while I went on a bit further on the quad to see if I could locate some more.

The herd out free roaming on our 2nd site.
Cottage and Silk.
Flax.
Jenga.
Vienna.

I gave a good call and from various different directions came a few reindeer here and a few reindeer there eventually equating to them all. I was most delighted to see Sunny of course. He was the hand reared male reindeer from 2022 and I definitely have a soft spot for him. He still comes over when I shout ‘calf, calf’! Winnie and Alba our two hand reared female calves form 2023 were delighted to see us… I say us, they were delighted to see the food!

Adzuki and Sherlock.

So all in all, Lotti and I saw the whole herd that day which does happen now and again but it is rare.

Fiona

Memorable reindeer: Lute

My chosen reindeer to write about this time is Lute, who was already a middle-aged female when I first started as a reindeer herder, back in 2007. She died quite a few years back now so the younger staff here won’t remember her at all. But I do, and writing these blogs is not only a nice way to get something written down about a reindeer who may otherwise gradually fade from the mists of memory, but also an enjoyable excursion for me in to my own memories.

January 2011
Lute with one of her calves, Ludo, displaying her typical squint stance. To add to the overall ‘odd’ look, she also had quite bulgy eyes!

Bit of a nuisance for a reindeer, come to think of it, as they normally conserve energy by their hind feet tracking right into the hoofprints left by their forefeet, saving energy when walking in snow for example. Perhaps Lute always made sure to walk in the middle of the herd where her hind hooves could follow someone else’s tracks? Despite her ‘disability’, Lute never really seemed to have any issue keeping up with the herd, so it had just become a quirk specific to her by the time I arrived on the scene. It did mean you could pick her out amongst the herd a couple of miles away through binoculars sometimes, making you look good in front of unsuspecting visitors/volunteers/new staff members when you said knowingly about the dots running down the hillside ‘ah yes, there’s Lute’.

Lute also stood out that first winter for me as she’d grown excellent, enormous antlers for a female reindeer. There must have been something in the water that year, as many of the females had incredible antlers, some despite also having a calf at foot (which normally saps their energy enough to reduce their antler growth). Most years, in the second half of her life anyway, she tended towards growing rather twisted, oddly-shaped antlers. Matching her twisted, odd gait!

Lute when I first knew her – her tall antlers contrasting nicely with Polo’s rounded ones, and Ring’s much smaller, simpler ones.

Good genetics ran in the family, it seems. Lute was one of 11 calves for her mum Ferrari, back in the days when we would let reindeer breed every year. Nowadays we tend to give them a year off from time to time. But Ferrari popped out calf after calf no bother, with Lute being the eighth. Lute herself went on to be a very productive cow too, also with 11 calves to her name, although not all of them survived to adulthood. When I started she had Bean at foot, and then in 2010 her calf Lace was the first newborn reindeer I ever saw. Lace is still with us today, now nearly 14, and has become a real leader amongst the herd. By this I actually mean ‘dominant and bossy’. She’s a much bolder character than her mum ever was – I don’t really remember Lute being anything other than gentle and mild, a real sweetheart.

Lute with Lace as a calf. Presumably mum Ferrari never taught her not to pee in the pool?

Lute bred some relatively shy offspring too, in particular Fada. But characteristics seem to skip generations sometimes, as Fada bred lovely calves usually, the standout being Hopscotch. Hopscotch is still with us today and is now the matriarch of a dynasty of reindeer, including Busby, Pip, Tub and Juniper among others. Quite a legacy for Lute’s family line!

Granddaughter Hopscotch and great-granddaughter Kipling.

Born in 2000, Lute (who was named in the ‘musical’ theme), lived to a good age, passing away out on the mountains in the autumn or early winter of 2013. Daughter Lace is a little older than that now herself, and another daughter, Wapiti, got to around 15 years old, so there are some good long-living genes running in the family still!

Hen

Oldest male and oldest female in our herd

Reindeer live about 12-14 years and anything over 10 years is doing well. The oldest reindeer in our herd is always changing, of course. The oldest reindeer we’ve ever had were two females called Trout and Tuna (guess the theme 😉) who got to 18, but they were beaten to the title by Lilac who reached 19 years old and then passed away the summer after. The oldest male we’ve ever had in our herd was Bagheera (17 years and 7 months), but Elvis – who we only lost last year – was extremely close to his record. These ages are exceptional though and we tend to find the average age for female reindeer is around 12-14 years old and males about 11-12 years old.

The oldest female we’ve ever had – Lilac in September 2017, then aged 18.
The oldest male we’ve ever had – Elvis in September 2022, then aged 16.

At the moment in our herd we have two males both turning 15 in May, Caesar and Parfa. Our oldest female is lovely Fern who will be 17 in May. Caesar and Parfa both joined our herd in 2011 when we imported a number of male reindeer from Sweden to address our genetics. Fern, however, was born into our herd on the 5th May 2007. Her mum was also a lovely-natured reindeer called Sequin who, like her daughter, got to an old age so there must be some good genetics there!

Although we didn’t breed from Caesar and Parfa for one reason or another they have both been with our herd for many years as castrated males. They spend most of the year either on the winter free range at our Glenlivet site or during the summer months they join the other old boys on our hill farm where we supplement their feed. They are too old to do Christmas events now but have taken part in some over the years. They have timid natures and like to give us a good run around sometimes. They both look very individual with their big white patchy faces though Parfa is a bit bigger in the body than Caesar. Caesar has never been a very big reindeer, but what he lacks in size he certainly makes up for in character!

Emily training Caesar to eat from a bucket in Sweden before his move to the Cairngorms.
Caesar in 2015 with a very fat bottom, clearly adjusted to life in Scotland well.
Parfa still in Sweden in 2011, with Emily behind, whilst being tamed and trained for his move to Scotland.
Parfa in September 2023 – looking good for an old boy!

Lovely, lovely Fern! What a cracking reindeer she is. She’s a daughter, mother, aunty, cousin… all of the above. She is Miss Reliable when out free ranging and if you need a nice friendly one to lead when moving the herd then she’s your gal! She is greedy but not pushy and she is beautiful. All in all, she’s a fab reindeer! But is she perfect?!?! Almost… over her younger years Fern took a liking to a part of the mountains which very much wasn’t our leased grazing land. Glenfeshie is pretty far away taking around 5-6 hours of walking over mountain ground or a 30 minute drive around the hill and walking for 1-2 hours from the other direction. Every autumn Fern would commandeer a small group of reindeer and this was where she decided to spend her autumns. We’d all role our eyes when we’d get a report of reindeer in Glenfeshie and could almost predict every time that Fern would be part of the group. She hasn’t done this as much over the past few years so maybe she’s learning slowly but surely. Currently she is part of our free range herd here on Cairngorm for the winter and a great talking point when we take our visitors out to see the reindeer as she looks amazing for her age. Now and again, she gets food stuck in her cheeks and she comes in looking like a hamster so maybe her teeth aren’t quite as good as they used to be. But we can’t fault her condition, she’s not skinny and has grown a beautiful set of antlers in 2023 which she still has in now in March.

Fern as a calf, next to her mum Sequin in 2007.
Fern in April 2008 at 11 months old.
Fern and her daughter Ladybird behind in January 2022.
Fern in February 2024 – 3 months off turning 17.
Fern’s bottom (closest to camera) being led away from one of her favourite hangouts and brought back home!!

So, there you have it. The three oldest reindeer in our herd at the moment – Fern, Caesar and Parfa.

Fiona

Why can’t I touch the reindeer?!

Reindeer have a hugely thick coat as they are designed to survive Arctic and sub-Arctic winters, and they are one of the only mammals to have hair covering every part of their body, even including their noses. So they look incredibly cuddly and visitors are usually desperate to stroke them. If you’ve been on one of our Hill Trips pre March 2020, you might remember being allowed to stroke them too, but now we have stopped this direct contact between visitor and reindeer. But why?

Reindeer and visitors mingling

First, some background information about reindeer’s behaviour to each other without influence of human presence. Reindeer are not a ‘tactile’ animal, despite their strong herding instinct. Because of their thick coat they have no need to huddle together for warmth at any point, so the only time you see direct contact between them – such as resting their heads on each other – is affection between mother and calf. Calves stay with their mums for a year only (usually), but after this that close bond is broken and direct contact stops.

Contact like this is only between mother and offspring in general. Although I’m not sure Sitini wanted her face cleaned by mum Hippo in this picture!

Living in an incredibly harsh environment also means it’s critical to establish a hierarchy, as reindeer need to be able to compete for food when winter is at it’s hardest – hence the presence of antlers on both males and females. Males are bigger in body size so they lose their antlers first, leaving the smaller females at the top of the pecking order through the winter months when food is at it’s scarcest, and when they are likely to be pregnant too. This means that the herds constantly establish dominance between each other, pushing each other around and chasing less dominant reindeer away from good grazing spots.

Come on a Hill Trip and look around you, and you’re unlikely to see any reindeer nuzzling each other, but it’s almost guaranteed you’ll see reindeer pushing each other around. So a reindeer touching another is generally an agressive action, with antlers – or front feet – used as weapons. The way I like to phrase it to visitors is that we are entering the reindeer’s natural territory, so we therefore play by their rules – touch is a negative thing so we aren’t going to do so.

The main way a reindeer ‘touches’ another – antlers first! Oatcake demonstrating a reindeer’s way of getting another to move on.
Another example of contact between two of the young reindeer, Darling and Elbe – it’s not friendly!

However, pre-covid, we didn’t have a hard-and-fast rule about not touching the reindeer. It was never something we encouraged, but not something we outright banned. As our reindeer are incredibly tame, many did actually tolerate a gentle stroke or pat, and the ones that didn’t had space to move away from visitors. However, some reindeer were well known for standing there looking beautiful and luring visitors in close, only to try and clobber them. This led to us having to have eyes in the back of our heads as guides, and I found myself frequently – often mid-sentence – having to suddenly holler across the hillside: ‘just stand back from that one!’ / ‘don’t try and touch him!’ / ‘oops, sorry about that… are you ok?’. I found this happening more and more too, as our visitor number increased considerably over recent years. Coupled with that, was people’s inability to read reindeer body language – which is perfectly understandable for those not used to being around animals. Generally a grumpy reindeer will warn visitors to keep their distance before going a step further and insisting that they do, but this is often lost in translation from reindeer to humans. Clear as day to those of us who are well-versed in reindeer, but not to all.

Lace. Looks like a supermodel with her glam dark coat and elegant tall antlers – but acts like a thug. To both other reindeer, and visitors, at times.

But covid brought about a change that, in hindsight, needed to happen anyway. For months no-one was allowed to touch anything – reindeer included – and we realised just how much more relaxed the herd were with the new ‘hands-off’ rule. The ‘background’ reindeer of the herd – shyer members who would normally keep themselves a good distance away – started wandering in amongst everyone, sometimes within arms reach, but safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be patted unexpectedly. Everyone was more relaxed and this included us as guides – since our rules changed I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to rescue an unsuspecting visitor from a reindeer who got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. I’m not going to lie – it does still happen sometimes as animals are always unpredictable, but with far less frequency.

Turtle’s reputation precedes her amongst herders – she’s not earned the nickname ‘Snapping Turtle’ for nothing!

So ‘hands-off’ was here to stay. Once covid guidelines relaxed enough we started allowing visitors to hand-feed the reindeer once again, albeit in a more controlled fashion and allowing one turn per person only. This generally keeps manners better amongst the greediest members of the herd, meaning they only barge around for a short time period before settling down, but it does allow one small bit of contact that visitors crave.

Okapi and Hippo – always enthusiastic hand-feeders!

As far as we know, folks who have visited both before and after seem happy with the changes, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the reindeer are more relaxed and that their welfare is utmost. And of course, reindeer don’t read the rulebooks so they sometimes choose to touch visitors themselves, which is fine – it’s on their terms. A visitor finding a furry nose suddenly sniffing them, whiskers tickling their skin, is a happy visitor indeed.

Wee visitor Oakley getting special attention from Aztec! Photo: Candice Bell

It’s perhaps important to add that whilst we don’t – and have never – patted or stroked reindeer unnecessarily, we do have to handle them ourselves, but we do so without ‘fussing’ them. We we need to be able to handle them for veterinary care, worming and vaccinations etc., and this needs to be as unstressful for the animals as possible so we do put work into each individual to make sure they are comfortable being handled in this way. We also need to be able to move reindeer from place to place, so every single animal in the herd is trained to walk on a halter at around 5-6 months old, and a lot of effort goes into getting them easy to catch and halter. If we can’t catch a reindeer we run the risk of not being able to catch them at a critical point, i.e. if ill. Nowadays pretty much all of our reindeer aged 7 or less are catchable with ease as we have put more work into this aspect of training in latter years; but there are admittedly still some wily old reindeer who have to be brought into a shed to get hold of them! Looking at you, Sika…

Still one of the wildest reindeer in the herd, even at 16! Click the link above to read another of Hen’s blog’s, this time about Sika herself.

More work goes into our male reindeer overall, as they help to keep our business afloat by taking part in Christmas parades and events, earning income that helps to pay for their grazing leases etc. But again this is all done in a sensitive way and we work as a partnership with them, and touch is – as ever – kept to the minimum; the reindeer know their job and we know ours, and any reindeer that isn’t comfortable with the situation just stays at home.

Topi demonstrating how totally relaxed he is, even when harnessed up to the sleigh in the centre of Edinburgh – taking his opportunity for a quick nap on my shoulder before a parade many years ago. Note he’s the one choosing to rest his head on my shoulder, I’m just holding on to the lead-ropes!

So hopefully that gives an overview of why we have stuck to the change we made to Hill Trips in 2020. Initially I was worried we’d have a huge negative backlash from visitors, but there never has been really, and whilst we do know how tempting it is to stroke them, we hugely appreciate everyone’s efforts in not doing so. As we say, if struggling to resist the urge, stick your hands in your pockets!

Hen

A broken ankle and a helicopter ride.

Anyone who has come to visit us will know that we have very strict clothing and footwear requirements. On a fair-weather day, this may sometimes seem slight overkill but when the conditions change, or something goes wrong requiring us to stay on the hill longer than usual, the extra layers are absolutely necessary.

A wild day feeding the reindeer (Getty images).

One such occasion happened in December. We had almost come to the end of a hill trip when one of our visitors approached me to ask if I could help her support her wife who had slipped and possibly sprained her ankle. At first they had hoped that between the three of us, we would be able to walk off the hill. When I reached her, it became quickly apparent that the pain was too great for her to walk of the hill even with us taking her weight, making it a very easy decision that we would call mountain rescue. The week before I had done my first aid training and our casualty’s wife was a doctor so hopefully, she was in good hands. While Ben got on the phone, I fetched our group shelter and Isla brought some layers to keep everybody warm. The reindeer, having not seen a group shelter before were very interested in the sudden appearance of a giant orange ‘bag of food’ and Ben and I had to chase them away to avoid any further injury.

Druid, Dr Seuss and Jelly were very interested in the group shelter.

We were very lucky, and the mountain rescue team were with us within an hour and a half. As they arrived there were fits of laughter from inside the group shelter as Ben was telling both the women not to worry, that we had pre-paid for the rescue by getting our kit off for a naked calendar the previous year, raising over four and a half grand for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Mountain Rescue teams are made up of volunteers, when a call comes in, they are all alerted and have to leave their jobs/ whatever else they may have been up to come out. Once the team has assembled, they then have to drive from the base and then walk out to find the casualty, all of this can take a good few hours. On this occasion they had already been alerted for another rescue so the first people to respond had gone to the other casualty and then the next people had come straight to us. The mountain rescue team were absolutely fantastic, they splinted her ankle, with some much-appreciated pain relief, and then lifted her onto a stretcher, ready to walk off the hill.

The whole time this was happening, we could hear a helicopter flying a little way south of where we were. It became apparent that the helicopter was meant for the original casualty who had been climbing in the Northern Corries but they were unable to land due to the weather. So as not to waste the flight, and to get our lovely visitor off the hill and to hospital as soon as possible, the helicopter came to us instead.

The herd walking down past us to the afternoon Hill Trip.
Helicopter landing in the hill enclosure.

By this point we’d been on the hill so long that the afternoon Hill Trip had arrived and was gathered a bit further down the hill. The reindeer have regularly seen helicopters in the distance, but we were unsure if one landing this close to the reindeer would spook them causing a rather abrupt end to the Hill Trip. On the contrary, the reindeer barely batted an eyelid, the visitors were all pretty interested though!

Helicopter with our next hill trip visitors and reindeer behind.

The woman with the broken ankle was lifted into the helicopter and as they flew off her wife told us ‘Once she’s out of hospital and her ankle is fixed, she’s going to absolutely love this, she loves helicopters’. The rest of us walked back down off the hill.

Helicopter flying away.

Accidents such as these are very rare, in fact at my first aid course the previous week I had smugly told the instructor that I hadn’t had to use any first aid since the previous course 3 years earlier. I clearly spoke too soon. In this case, our visitor slipped despite having the correct footwear, she was just very unlucky. All four of us ended up staying on the hill for a total of 4 hours, for the last 2 we weren’t moving. For me it was a very good reminder of why we have to be so strict with the footwear and clothing that our visitors wear, had our casualty not had enough layers, the situation could have become more serious very quickly.

Ruth and Andi all dressed up for a winter reindeer feed.

Lotti

Seasonal Volunteer to Seasonal Herder

Editor’s note: The lovely Hannah wrote this blog when she was here back in August 2023 but I have only just found it lurking in a folder on the computer. Sorry Hannah! Read Hannah’s first blog here about her time volunteering with us here: Hannah’s Volunteer Blog – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. And then try to imagine you’re reading this current one in the warm summer month of August!

The herd within the hill enclosure – August 2023.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since I was up on the hill – it always feels far too long! As usual I signed up for my now annual volunteering stint and was met with an even better offer to come and help for three weeks rather than one! Obviously, this was too good an opportunity to pass up and I quickly abandoned my long-suffering partner (and our impending house move) to come and stay at Reindeer House for the month!

A lot can change in a year – last July I was hand rearing Sunny, now one of our yearlings and a fully-fledged reindeer – antlers and all! My hand rearing days were not over, though – as we had two new calves to meet – Winnie and Alba! Being resident in Reindeer House means extra quality time with these two lovely girls, including late night feeds and mornings taking them up the hill. It’s been amazing watching them progress even over the past few weeks, gaining weight as they should and spotting some antlers beginning to appear.

Hannah and Sunny in July 2022.
Sunny all grown up in July 2023.
Winnie and Alba, our hand-reared calves in August 2023.

I’ve been lucky enough to come at a different point of the year which has included adventures with the free ranging females and tracking the discovery of new calves flourishing out on the hills. Having not had much time with our girls, being mostly a summer presence, it was great to finally put faces to the names of the lovely females I have heard so much about and meet some of their new arrivals.

Hannah on the right helping out with harness training with Andi and Hen – August 2023.
Hannah taking her very own Hill Trip and doing a totally superb job!
Meeting some of the free ranging cows.
Catching up with the calves who were born in May – here’s Holy Moley and calf who we later named Mississippi.

I count myself very lucky to have quadrupled my usual stint here and be a part of the team. Hopefully the next bit of time goes speedily, and I’ll be back out on the hill before I know it!

Hannah

Old lady Okapi

I’m lacking in inspiration, motivation and time to think of a new and so-far unused blog topic, so this week I’m going for the old tried-and-tested method – pick a reindeer and write about him/her.

This week’s subject is Okapi. I’ve known Okapi her entire life, and at 15 and a half years old, it’s a long life indeed. Whilst not right up there in my very, very top favourite reindeer, she’s always been in the upper echelons of the reindeer herd, and I reckon most other herders would agree – collectively amongst us, she’s held in extremely high affection.

Okapi was born in 2008, her mum Esme’s third calf. Esme was a lovely reindeer, and was actually the subject of our very first blog, back in 2015! I first met Okapi at a few months old, at which point she was easily distinguishable from the other 2008 calves by the silver hairs on her face, giving her the appearance of wearing war-paint.

Those silver hairs eventually spread across the rest of Okapi’s body, and although she is still want we would call ‘normal-coloured’, she’s a much greyer colour than many of the other reindeer in the same colour category. Coat colour runs in family lines – Esme was on the silvery side too, as were many other members of the family, most notably Okapi’s big brother Elvis. Elvis became a legendary reindeer in our herd, living to 17 and only passing away a few months ago.

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

Okapi has always been a ‘leader’ in the herd, a relatively dominant female and generally one of the first to start moving in the right direction when we call the herd from a distance, leading them towards us. Reindeer like this are worth their weight in gold to us as a lot of the winter season is spent bellowing towards specks on a distant hill, and wondering whether they are going to come to us or we are going to have to go to them… It needs a dominant reindeer to sigh, stand up and start moving to get the rest of the herd underway too.

As a youngster, out free-ranging up on the mountains.

We usually like to breed from our loveliest female reindeer multiple times, but Okapi had a bit of a hitch in this respect. She had two lovely calves, in 2012 and 2013, Murray and Oka. Murray had the best set of antlers that we’ve seen on a calf in our herd, and we were very excited for what he would grow into in the future. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he passed away at about a year old. Win some and lose some with animals, but this felt like a particularly hard loss.

Okapi with 8 month old Murray – look at those calf antlers!

Okapi’s second calf, Oka, was also lovely, but again didn’t survive long term – dying at about 2 years old. A huge shame, as a female she should have gone on to continue Okapi’s genetic line, but hey ho. Again these things happen, but it feels unfair for Okapi to have lost both her calves.

Oka

And that was that for Okapi’s motherhood career, as a few months after Oka’s birth she suffered a prolapse. This came completely out of the blue and we never knew what – if anything – triggered it, but the end result was that everything had to be pushed back into place more than once, and eventually permanent stitches were inserted by the vet to keep poor old Okapi’s bits where they should be. This meant no more calves for her – a real shame for a lovely 5 year old female in her prime.

Okapi’s classic pose – she’s a reindeer who almost always has her ears pricked. This is how I will remember her when she’s no longer with us.

But life as a permanently ‘single lady’ has meant Okapi has since been a lady of leisure, all her energy going into her own body each year, and quite possibly has contributed to her longevity. Almost every year she’s grown pretty big antlers, and it’s only really in the last couple of years she’s started to look ‘old’.

Never having calves at foot means that Okapi also spends a higher ratio of her time free-ranging out on the mountains, as there’s never really a reason for her to spend any length of time in our hill enclosure. She will come in now and then for a few days as all our reindeer need vaccinating a couple of times of year, or sometimes we’ll hold particularly friendly reindeer back in the enclosure so they can be part of a the group for filming, for example. But on average, I’d say Okapi spends 11.5 months a year out living a completely free lifestyle – pretty nice!

A life of luxury!

And finally, Okapi had one particular starring role – on the cover of our Naked Reindeer Herders charity calendar in 2023. But I don’t think too many people were looking at the reindeer, if I’m honest…

Okapi on the right,with Ochil, Ruth, Fiona, Marple and Lotti, left to right. What a line up!

Hen

How Isla became a reindeer herder…

The lovely Isla with one of her favourite reindeer – Busby!

The first time I met the reindeer here at Cairngorm, I was just four years old and a bridesmaid at my mum’s wedding. Mum, being as extravagant as she is, decided she wanted the reindeer to pull the sleigh for us from the service to the party venue. Once we were on the sleigh I was quickly alarmed about the health and safety, as there were no seatbelts on board. Four-year-old me obviously thinking the reindeer would be flying us there! As we were just setting off, I whispered to my cousin “hold on tight, we are about to take off” but was quickly relived and slightly disappointed when I realised the reindeer would just be walking us there.

Four year old Isla – closest to the camera holding on tightly to her cousin. The reindeer is Wallace.
The sleigh firmly attached to the ground, phew!
The happy couple off to the party.

After the wedding it then became a tradition to come and visit the reindeer before Christmas. Even adopting Elvis as a two-year-old boy and always loving getting my certificate through the post before Christmas. Elvis lived to be one of the oldest males in the herd, before sadly passing away this August at the impressive age of 17!

Elvis as a two year old bull in 2008 – the year Isla adopted him.

During the spring this year, just as I was leaving school. I went round to visit my ‘Fairy God Mother’ Sheena, one of the herders here at the Reindeer Center. After explaining to her that I wasn’t sure what to do after school and fancied a change she suggested I got in touch to see if I could work the summer here with the reindeer.

So, after a few back and forth emails (me not being the best at replying during my exams), we eventually arranged a trial day for me to come and meet some of the herders and the reindeer of course. I was pretty nervous but was instantly put at ease when greeted by Ruth and Lisette with big smiles on their faces. I was thrown right in at the deep end as my first task was going up the hill to help give one of the reindeer an injection as she had a sore foot. I quickly realised that having dogs and occasionally helping my granny muck out her horse maybe didn’t quite qualify as having experience working with animals! But I like to think I’m a quick learner. And was super eager to get stuck as I loved the idea of walking up the hills everyday to look after the herd.

Not a bad office!

After a successful trial day, I was then offered to come work the summer here at the Centre which I was super excited for! I started at the end of May, and the weather was amazing! Blue skies everyday for about a month, eventually this bubble did bust. And I then had the proper Scottish herder experience. But even in the rain I still couldn’t believe that it was my job to walk up hills and find reindeer. I even didn’t mind taking a reindeer’s temperature (let’s just say it doesn’t go in their mouths) if it meant I could spend the morning up the hill with the herd! Over the summer I learnt so many new skills and everyone was so patient with me helping me to learn about these beautiful animals.

When Isla first started it was weeks of sunshine and moulting reindeer.
It’s a tough job getting to know all the calves when they come back into the enclosure in the autumn, like wee Shannon here.
Isla this time not sitting on the sleigh but working alongside Druid and Haricot at the back of it this autumn.
Breeding bull Kernel this autumn,
Reindeer during the first decent snow of 2023.

When chatting in the office I let it slip about the reindeer being at mum’s wedding, Our resident Blog Queen Ruth was insistent that it would make the perfect Christmassy blog!

We also realised that Hen, another one of the herders here, was at the wedding as well leading the sleigh! Which is hilarious, looking back on the wedding photos we actually found one of her at the front of the sleigh! (Note from Hen: also a way to make her feel really, really old…)

The back of Hen’s head at the wedding!

I have had the best 7 months here at the Centre and have loved getting to know all the reindeer and the herders of course! I’m off for a new adventure in the New Year but I’m sure I’ll be back soon!! If they’ll have me 😉

Druid thinks Isla should definitely return!
Isla chilling out with Cicero.

Isla

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