October is a fun time of year as it’s when we train this year’s calves as well as harness training our young Christmas reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh. Halter training and handling the calves makes them much tamer and easier to handle for the rest of their lives so even if they don’t end up pulling Santa’s sleigh at least we can catch them if we ever need to when they are out in the hills…well, most of the time anyway, some are always wild…it’s in the genetics!
Luckily reindeer are very food orientated, aren’t we all! So stage one is to get their heads in a bucket full of tasty lichen, chocolate for reindeer!
Once the head is ‘inserted’ a sneaky manoeuvre gets the halter on with them barely noticing what’s happened!
Once the wee ones are caught we get ourselves a couple of steady old boys to come alongside and ‘teach’ the calves…this day it was Puddock and Parfa’s turn to be the companions. We have found that they are better behaved without their mums, like some children! So mum’s go back up the hill once they have accompanied the calves down to the ‘training centre’ and the big boys take over.
Lastly with heads snuggly back in buckets of lichen, halters are carefully removed! After 2 or 3 outings like this they will be pretty much halter trained. The key to winning them round is lots of tasty snacks and pockets full of lichen as you will have seen and a couple of old boys who can be a good influence!
Each year, September and October become stressful months for me. Although the crazily busy summer season has passed and some sense of normality is returning to the slightly frazzled reindeer herders (shortly to be removed by the onset of the Christmas season, however), autumn is the season of ‘adopt photos’. This is my responsibility (although frequently assisted by Alex and all the other herders that I’ve begged…), so I spend my time armed with a camera and a sense of hopefulness that maybe, just maybe, the sun might come out…
We have been running our Support Scheme for over 25 years now and right from the beginning adopters of our reindeer have received a certificate annually, along with a recent photo of ‘their’ reindeer. Added to the issue of there being about 150 reindeer in the herd, is the problem that they free-range on the mountains a lot of the time and there is never any guarantee that they’ll be in the right place when I need to get that elusive photo. Having been here for years now, I know the details of our adoption database well, and I frequently have a constant niggling worry that I know so-and-so’s adoption renewal form of a particular reindeer is going to crash onto our mat any day, and I STILL haven’t got ‘the photo’…
Reindeer don’t always lend themselves to being easy photo subjects. They spend a large part of the summer being incredibly scruffy as they moult their winter coat, and then part of the winter (ranging from one to several months) with no antlers, having cast their old set. Nobody really wants a photo of a bald reindeer (except, perhaps, adopters of Malawi, who actually is bald, having never grown an antler in her life). I need the weather to co-operate too as cameras and rain don’t mix well, as everyone knows, and this is often one of my main obstacles.
Reindeer look at their absolute best in September and October, with full grown antlers and fresh, thick winter coats. So, this is the season that I aim to get a complete set of photos of every single reindeer, to use for the majority of the next year. I then try and get ‘back-up’ photos in Jan/Feb, to use in the late summer to avoid any possible overlap of photos for the adopters whose renewals are due around that time. Older reindeer don’t change much in appearance from year to year (other than the moulting/antler issue), but the young ones do as they grow, so they usually need more regular photos too.
The natural stance of a relaxed reindeer doesn’t help either, heads down, ears out sideways, somewhat glazed look. If you receive a photo of your reindeer with its head up, ears pricked and an alert look, bear in mind that at the moment I pressed the shutter I probably had another herder dancing around nearby like a nutcase, barking like a dog, or throwing a feed bag in the air! In moments of desperation I have been known to throw the empty feedbag at the reindeer… Unfortunately (for me anyway), the tamest and friendliest reindeer are the most adopted ones, and are always the most difficult to generate a response from. Naming no names. Well, Puddock. Paintpot. Beastie… It’s a well-known and frustrating rule of mine that I always take the nicest photos of shy, un-adopted reindeer.
However, each photo is filed in our photo archive, so whether they have been used on a certificate or not, they still provide a visual record of a reindeer’s life through its various stages. But regardless, one of the highlights of my year (maybe I should try getting out more) is that glorious moment when I press ‘confirm’ on the online order in the autumn, and sit back knowing that in a few days 1000+ shiny photos will arrive and can be filed, awaiting the flood of adoptions over the coming months. Huge sigh of relief!
As some of you may know our female reindeer spend the vast majority of their year pootling about on the Cairngorms in theory not getting into trouble! There are but two times of year when we bring them into our hill enclosure and one of the most important is ready for the breeding season in October.
Our lovely ladies usually start turning up around mid August and us reindeer herders dutifully place them back on ridges day after day until we’re ready to bring them in. We like this time of year as it means we get to eat more cake… this year however we’ve had no cake! August came and went with barely a sighting of a female reindeer and then September arrived and we thought they’ll all turn up any day now (bearing in mind there are about 50 females and calves up on the mountains there) but again no sign. So off we trogged on several missions to see if we could track down some reindeer so the poor bulls, who’ve been ready for the rut for several weeks now, could see some ladies!
Things looked promising when I went on a wee jaunt up Meall a’ Bhuachaille behind the Reindeer Centre and found four cows and calves who we attempted to walk in. Things, however, did not go the plan and we had come to the conclusion that this year the cows have decided that as independent women they have the right to have a calf if and when they choose! We did however see an adder… who can spot it?
By now it was mid September and all was quiet on the reindeer front, every day we religiously checked the roads and spied at the mountains but nothing was seen. Today everything changed, myself and Andi checked the roads as normal and actually spied a reindeer… then a few more on the ski slopes of Cairngorm and the few turned into nine lovely ladies and calfies (eventually… they do so love making you call like an idiot when there’s an audience!). Andi and I often end up being completely unprepared and had no head collars so after a brief wait for the valiant Hen with a halter delivery we embarked on walking them in, pleased that we’d finally been able to get some cows in. It was soon to get even better! A phone call from Hen gave the news that another large group of girls had heard our calls and were enclosure bound too!
One and a half hours later we had 36 beautiful cows and calfies safely in the enclosure, 12 very happy bulls and finally reindeer herders who can justify eating cake again!
Being a reindeer herder for the summer has been a series of firsts for me: my first job, my first time living away from home and, of course, my first time herding reindeer! It’s been an amazing summer (bar the weather) and for this blog I will be writing about going straight from leaving school, to full time work, and my experiences being the newest and youngest reindeer herder. I have also included a lot of the photos I have managed to take of the reindeer on the hill.
I can remember my first day clearly. I had just arrived and was immediately given my first job: poo-picking in the paddocks. Having been handed a bucket and trowel, I was sent out to tackle the task. Although it may seem ridiculous now, this posed a serious problem: I had no idea what reindeer poo looked like! Being too embarrassed to go back and ask, I continued with the job hoping I was picking up the right stuff. I remember having doubts about being a herder at this point which were soon forgotten when I spent the rest of the day herding reindeer and running around the hills. It was on my first day that I also discovered a certain reindeer we now called Fergus (see our previous blog). Another herder and I were moving the reindeer up the enclosure when I noticed Fergus’ mother Foil wasn’t moving with the herd. I went over to investigate and discovered she had given birth to a tiny, fluffy calf! Sadly she died ten days later but I have been privileged to see Fergus grow up into the confident and slightly naughty reindeer he is today!
Being a naturally shy person, my first time taking a tour was quite nerve racking. I had spent the days before attempting to learn all the facts and information I could about reindeer, as on previous visits I had been unable to answer many questions I was asked. It went quite well I think, and since I have taken many more tours, been on several treks and even managed to learn all the names of the reindeer in the hill enclosure! I have grown to love many of the reindeer such as Duke and Bovril who both are sweet and very beautiful. However, some reindeer I am not so keen on… Macaroon (possibly the greediest reindeer ever), delights in kicking my legs whenever he sees me with the hand feed bag which has resulted in me getting many bruises! Minus this personality defect he is still a very sweet reindeer and I can honestly say I don’t dislike any of the herd.
Outside of work I have been living at Reindeer House. I am moving to Edinburgh for University in the next few days so the experience of living away from home will really help me with this. My spare time has been taken up by manically painting reindeer on rocks to sell in the shop. As I am going on to do a degree in geology, I feel I am justified by this ‘obsession’ with rocks which has proved to be quite a good wee business.
I have been extremely lucky to have worked with the reindeer and I would like to thank Tilly and Fiona Smith for giving me this incredible opportunity. I would also like to thank all the staff at the centre (in no particular order) Imogen, Abbey, Hen, Andi, Mel, Catriona and all the volunteers, you are all amazing! And lastly I would like to thank anyone who has been on my tours or is reading this blog.
Many of you may have already heard about our wee orphan reindeer, Fergus, who we have had the joy of hand rearing this summer. Sadly his mum died when he was just 10 days old but he got several very eager human mums instead, not least myself who has gone completely maternal over him, worrying about him on his first day up the hill (like it’s his first day at school!), texting when I’m away to make sure he has had his milk on time and collecting him fine lichens and bouquets of heather when I’m out on walks!
Fergus quickly adapted to life without his reindeer mum and was very tame from the start. He also befriended the dogs! Wolves are reindeer’s biggest natural predator so it’s an unusual relationship to say the least.
Fergus began his life down at the centre so that we could bottle feed him easily and he hung out with the reindeer in the paddocks, but right from the start Fergus was very happy wandering around the house and quick to seek out a comfy bed! He tried quite a few…
He soon discovered that dog beds were the best bet…
Fergus loves his milk and is always on the hunt for a possible udder! This involves butting us very violently at times and looking in some unusual places:
As soon as we could we began taking him up the mountain to spend the day with the herd, to teach him to be a proper reindeer. He loves his walk up the hill first thing and usually does a few wee skips of joy along the way.
He also likes his walks around Glenmore in the evenings; he gets some exercise and some tasty snacks along the way:
Recently Fergus went on his first half day trek as he needs to get fit for the time when he will go out free-ranging with the herd. He loved it and had a great time eating all the new plants he found along the way.
Fergus is a bit of a local celebrity and has been in two local papers; people come from far and wide to see him….
Fergus has been a great source of entertainment and joy to all of us. He is definitely in the “terrible twos” stage at the moment, always up to antics and eating and drinking things he is not supposed to:
Finally, now the rutting season is about to begin and all the boys are busy stripping their velvet and revealing their splendid antlers, we felt Fergus needed a helping hand as his antlers are just tiny wee ones right now…
But whilst these pictures may give you the impression that Fergus is a house pet, we have to assure you that the majority of his time is now spent with the herd on the mountains – he is a “big boy” now and will very soon spend all his time up there, enjoying the views and the natural life of a Cairngorm Reindeer.
Watch this space for more news on the adventures of Fergus!!!
Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal which naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in 9 countries; Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. Most importantly of course our small herd here in the Cairngorms!
There are roughly 30 different reindeer herding cultures (i.e. the Sami in Scandinavia) with up to four million reindeer! (A few more than our 150!). There is often an intimate relationship between herders and their reindeer as well as husbandry, which, wherever practiced is often almost identical.
Reindeer represent one of the only domesticated species with which humans still live to their terms and needs instead of making the reindeer adapt to ours. For example, popping a reindeer in a grassy field prevents them grazing and migrating normally, which is key to a healthy and happy (reindeer) life. Reindeer herding is socially and culturally extremely important as each ‘group’ of herding peoples have unique identities and cultures centring on their way of life with their reindeer. Economically reindeer are also very important as meat and other products make up these cultures’ livelihoods.
In the modern reindeer vernacular you’ll find two terms, ‘reindeer herding’ and ‘reindeer husbandry’ – herding is the much older concept which mainly refers to working with the reindeer whereas the ‘husbandry’ encompasses not only the reindeer but the entire herding industry: socio-economic issues, scientific research and management. As with many traditional occupations around the world the reindeer herding lifestyle is under threat from loss of pasture land, predators and of course climate change, which has an immediate effect on grazing.
As you may know, the Cairngorm herd are a family owned business and this is often true of reindeer herders across the globe where individual owners often work in co-operation with their families, neighbours or villages to care for their reindeer. There are around 100,000 reindeer herders in the circumpolar north today which is a lot more than our 7 full-time members of staff! Reindeer herding varies between different cultures and countries but the one thing which remains constant is the need for herds to migrate between summer and winter pastures. If you’ve visited us here in the summer you’ll know that at this time of year our female reindeer are up and away on the Cairngorm plateau where they find yummy alpine plants and relief from insects; they then return to lower more stable winter pastures where they find their favourite food: lichen.
Reindeer herding is not a 9-5 job but a way of life: here in the Cairngorms, our daily routine is dependent on where the reindeer are, the weather conditions, pasture land and the seasons. In fact, for the Sámi, their yearly calendar is entirely based upon what reindeer are doing during specific seasons. For example, early spring is known as Gijrra – The Season of Returning – winter is ending, snow is melting and the reindeer return to familiar calving grounds for May or Miessemannu – the calf month.
The lovely thing about reindeer herding is by working with these wonderful (sometimes ridiculous) creatures your work is not only focused by your own goals but it is truly dependent on the reindeer themselves and most importantly the natural world around you.
Since Minute terrified himself and the curlew chick a lot of water has quite literally ‘gone under the bridge’. About 4 weeks ago there was tremendous heavy rainfall in the Cairngorm Mountains which resulted in the River Avon (pronounced locally “A’an”) beside our Glenlivet farm rising 6 feet in just a matter of hours.
The source of the River Avon is Loch Avon at the back of Cairngorm Mountain, a long slender loch with a beautiful sandy beach and crystal clear water. It is not a popular beach for the family because to get to it you have to climb up on to the Cairngorm Plateau ( about 2,500 ft of climb ) followed by a similar drop down the other side.
The sudden rise in water levels caught out one fisherman on the river who had crossed onto one of the islands to improve his fishing chances. When the river rose so rapidly he hollered for help and luckily one of our neighbours realised the gravity of the situation and called mountain rescue. The first we knew about it was a mountain rescue helicopter arriving and plucking him off to safety.
Just a year ago a similar flood happened in August. Once again heavy rain in the Cairngorms brought havoc to many of the rivers and tributaries and the A’an got its fair share of water with the levels this time rising by about 12 feet. In a space of just 12 hours the heightened water washed trees and debris down and ‘ate away’ at the river bank near our farm before the bank finally gave way, washing 40 metres of the A’anside road downstream. It was six weeks before the road was repaired and re-opened.
If you look back in history there is the famously recorded “muckle spate” of August 2nd to 4th 1829 where heavy rain and thunderstorms in the Cairngorm produced floods which claimed 8 lives, numerous buildings and many cattle and sheep. It would seem that summertime is when these spates occur and it does make you wonder if two floods in the last two years says something about climate change and global warming.
Weather is extremely topical just now with record low temperatures being recorded here. The number of sunny days could almost be counted on one hand during July and there have been times at night when the temperature has dropped to nigh on zero. Not good for the farmer needing his crops to grow, but great for reindeer who struggle in the heat of the day and get frustrated by the buzzing insects that come out in force on warm sunny days.
So there is a silver lining in every cloud, whether it be rain, sun or overcast conditions, someone or something will benefit from the topsy turvy weather we seem to get these days.
We’re lucky to see some pretty awesome wildlife whilst looking after the reindeer on the mountains, but its less usual to see wildlife in our back porch. We were taken by surprise last week when we glanced out the back door and saw a rather worked up male sparrowhawk, who had somehow flown in then lost the door out… thankfully we were able to sneak past and open up the door for him to “escape”.
We were pretty delighted to see a sparrowhawk close up, as the normal view of them is them dashing over at top speed, and even happier to see him fly safely away!
Summer is well underway with Scottish schools off and English schools just breaking up and here at the Reindeer Centre we have certainly noticed the rise in visitor numbers. We now offer three guided tours onto the hill daily over the next two months with our additional 3.30pm tour on Monday – Fridays. Trekking has been running for a month now and already we have taken over 23 groups made up of 68 people of which two of them were hardy 5 and 6 year olds! It has all gone very smoothly and the reindeer have been absolute stars. On the whole we have been very lucky with the weather with only a couple of wet trekking days but if you come to Scotland to go trekking in the Cairngorm mountains you have to come with the frame of mind that you may experience all four seasons in one day!
The reindeer that have been trekking already this year are – Marley, Puddock, Caribou, Gnu, Topi, Paintpot, Oryx, Grunter, Strudel, Macaroon, Hornet, Beastie, Tanner, Spider, Hamish, Horse, Rummy, Domino, Origami, Monopoly, Bingo, Svalbard, Rubiks, Stenoa, Olympic, Second, Nutkins, Monty, Balmoral, Duke, Minute, Boris, Mo, Orkney, Ost, Drambuie, Jonne, Kota, Gandi, Bovril, Hook, Boxer, Gin, Max and Nutti. Grunter is used for our younger trekkers. He is what I’d describe as a bombproof reindeer. He is quite happy either at the front of the group or at the back. A wee Dutch lad who led him a couple of weeks ago headed off on his own route jumping all the puddles – I think him and Grunter covered almost twice as much ground than us!
They have all got their different characters, some love the attention and a good fuss while others are quite happy to plod along at the back at their own pace. Some reindeer are super cheeky and others know how to ‘take the mick’ out of trekkers who maybe aren’t so confident in their leading so what I always like to do to match up characters of reindeer to the characters of my trekkers and 90% of the time I get it right. I’ll let my previous trekkers work out how I see their characters compared to the reindeer they led 😉 The 10% I get wrong is my fall back excuse!
As well as our additional summer activities we are still doing our day to day work both out on the hill checking the free-ranging herd of cows and calves as well as here in our office putting adoption packs together, so naturally we need a few extra hands at this time of year and therefore employ more staff. Our latest member of the team has taken to the reindeer herding life very well indeed. She is super fit which is great when out in the hills and although still a bit shy with our visitors she is only young so confidence will come and by the end of summer I’m sure she will be on full form. Recently we have been showing her how to set up adoption packs as we have a great support network of adopters all over the world and each pack has its very own hand written letter because we really feel they deserve that personal touch. She does a great job and who knows we may even keep her on after the summer months if she continues to show hard work and commitment to the job in hand. Everybody, meet Tiree! She is my 10 month old Aussie Shepherd pup and is by far the best looking member of our team here…
Every year we reindeer herders have a little flutter into betting around calving time of year – the idea is to pick a reindeer you think is going to calve first and if your reindeer calves last you have to take an icy dip into Loch Morlich. As you can imagine this makes it all the more serious and some proper consideration should always go into picking your ‘bet’ reindeer. This year turned into a two handed contest between Abby and Hen, and it was never going to end well for one of them…
Abby: Last year (my first calving) I took all the advice on board, I learned about families who calve early, I checked out tummy size and I looked at udder size; and ended up with a female who calved pretty near the beginning.
You would think that after a year of reindeer herding I’d enter this year’s bet with a bit more wisdom and expertise: after all, I’ve got to know the reindeer pretty well now. However, I committed the cardinal sin, and chose a reindeer who I just really liked before weighing up the facts properly. A lovely four year old called Hopscotch, and indeed she was pretty rotund looking when I picked her but there was no sign of an udder, but I’d made my choice and had to stick by it.
Hen: Bets have to be in by the end of April, and this year I went with Lulu. I had dutifully peered between hind legs at udders, assessed general belly size, and considered previous calving patterns, and Lulu seemed like a pretty safe bet. Everyone else made sensible bets too, with the exception of Abby. We ripped her to shreds continuously as she was very obviously going to end up in the loch, and deserved to as well – Hopscotch (daft choice, ha!) was looking pretty slim compared to everyone else’s bets, who were waddling around huffing and puffing.
Abby: By the 30th of April it all kicked off and the calving storm began – one by one the females started popping and one by one my colleagues became safe from the dreaded swim. By mid-May most of the females had calved and all that was left from the bet was me with Hopscotch and Hen with Lulu. Lulu was the size of a barge with an udder to match, and was like the vision of doom every time I saw her up the hill. I began to think myself very foolish indeed and resigned myself to the fact that a very cold swim was coming my way as there was no way Hopscotch would calve before an old pro like Lulu!
However, much to my surprise on Monday the 18th of May Hopscotch was missing, I was all a-flutter and stoked thinking that I was free of the swim and off we headed to track down her and her new calfie. We were, however, a wee bit disappointed, finding her on the top of Silver Mount (which is a very popular calving spot) chillin’ like a villain. There would be no calf today it seemed. It’s very common for reindeer to go off and faff about for up to a week before they actually give birth and I resigned myself to fact once again that I’d probably end up in the water. However the next day the same thing happened, no Hopscotch, hopes were high until once again she was found and pootled back to the herd quite happily but by our afternoon visit she was once again gone… this was it I thought. If a female goes missing in the afternoon a herder will head up the hill at the ungodly hour of 5am to track her down and this is just what I did! Once again she was on Silver mount (a bit of a shock for my legs that early in the morning – this is why reindeer herders get through so many biscuits!), but she didn’t look quite right and upon taking her temperature I realised she had an acute case of ‘Man Flu’! She got a wee dose of antibiotics before I popped her in with the cows and calves. 10 yards later she went down and in my head my thoughts ran along the lines of ‘Oh my god, I’ve killed a reindeer!’ until she started huffing and puffing away… she seemed to be going into labour! I left her to it and waited with glee to meet a new calfie in the afternoon.
Hen: I had foolishly chosen this week to have a few days off, and was away from home too. A smug text message on the Monday told me that Hopscotch was away to calve, but frantic texts from me after that, trying to gauge what was happening, mostly seemed to go unanswered or got a cryptic reply that didn’t really tell me what was going on. I started to sweat. Surely I wasn’t going to be beaten by Abby?! Having been here for a year, she is still ‘new’ compared to me – I’ve been a reindeer herder for over seven years and have experienced a lot more calving seasons than Abby, I should have been able to sail through the bet with no problems! Towards the end of the week I started to doubt myself.
Abby: By Wednesday afternoon Hopscotch was acting completely normally and stuffing her face with glee and was most definitely not giving birth. At this point I felt it was all a bit cruel and gave up on the idea of no swim and as Thursday rolled around with still no sign of a calf I decided it was definite.
Hen: I arrived home from my days off to discover Hopscotch had had a temperature but nothing else, and all was back to normal up the hill. Huge relief, false alarm and all that, and I went back to teasing Abby relentlessly about when she was going swimming! I was stupidly overconfident once again that I was completely safe, Lulu must surely calve any minute, but reindeer have a nasty way of bringing you back down to earth and the ringing phone the following morning signalled the end for me… Andi’s voice sounded like she was stifling the giggles, informing me that she’d just found Hopscotch with her new-born male calf. Abby collapsed in relief and I cursed Lulu, Hopscotch, everyone else and to be honest, reindeer in general.
Being as it was about 8°C at this point, I was given until the end of June to swim. Loch Morlich is only a few hundred metres from Reindeer House, but at this time of year consists mainly of snow melt, and I am not someone to throw myself into cold water with abandon unless there’s a damn good reason.
Summer didn’t arrive right until the end of June in the Cairngorms this year, so I bided my time and kept an eye on the forecast. I left my swim right till the bitter end, on 30th June, and at least the dogs had the decency to come in with me, although everyone else stuck to paddling! I don’t appear to have hypothermia either. Or at least not yet. Maybe it’ll be slow onset hypothermia.
Lulu did eventually calve, far too late for Hen of course, completely unaware of everything that had been riding on her!