Meeting Snowflake – one of the first white reindeer

This week’s blog is by Sharon Hudgins, and tells of a very memorable stay in a stone house in the Cairngorms, many years ago… As ever, if you also have a memorable story that you think might make a nice blog, please email it over to us! We love to publish contributions from others if we can.

I discovered the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in 2017, while doing research for a book I’m writing about the Scottish Highlands. I should really say “re-discovered” the Reindeer Centre, because, to my surprise, research revealed that I’d actually been there once before, nearly half a century earlier.

In 1969, as a young American university student on my first trip abroad, I traveled by train around England and Scotland with my college roommate. Early in the trip, our route took us to Aviemore in the Cairngorms, because my roommate was an avid skier. We rode the ski lift up to the ski area, but that second week of May there was no snow suitable for skiing. It was just cold and sleeting on top of the mountain, cold and raining when we got back down to the bottom.

We needed to find a bed-and-breakfast where we could stay for the night and dry out our wet clothes. But it was already 6 p.m., and we had no idea where to go. That area wasn’t as developed for tourism as it is now. We finally found a tiny grocery store and asked the lady behind the counter if she knew a B&B where we might stay. She didn’t—but she asked the people standing in line, waiting to pay for their groceries, if any of them knew someone who could take us in for the night.

A man at the back of the line said we could stay at his place. We normally wouldn’t have accepted such an offer from a strange man. But we were soaking wet and didn’t seem to have any other options. Besides, everyone in the store seemed to know him, so it seemed like a pretty safe bet.

Reindeer House as it was back in the 60s

When we arrived at his grey stone house, we were surprised to find that his wife was an American. She seated us in front of the blazing fire in the sitting room, fed us a hot supper there, and chatted with us about our travels in Britain and our studies in the U.S., before fixing up two beds for us to sleep in that night.

The fireplace where we warmed up that evening

But the most memorable part of that chance encounter in the Cairngorms happened the next morning. After we’d eaten a hearty Scottish breakfast, the man took us out to the paddock behind the house to meet his reindeer—including a pure white reindeer which he said was the only white reindeer in Britain. I thought it was really cool to have reindeer in your backyard—especially a white one—and I never forgot that unusual experience.

Fast forward to 2017, when I was planning a journey around the Scottish Highlands to gather material for my book, retracing the exact route I had taken on that first trip in 1969. While researching “Aviemore” on the Internet, I came across a map showing the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in that area. And I wondered if there was some connection with the reindeer owners I’d met there nearly 50 years before.

Through emails with Hen, one of the Centre’s herders, I discovered that the couple who had taken us in on that rainy night were Mikel Utsi, who had first introduced free-ranging reindeer to Scotland in 1952, and his wife Dr. Ethel Lindgren, who was also a reindeer expert.

Mikel Utsi
Dr Ethel Lindgren

I also learned that the white reindeer I had met in 1969 was named Snowflake, the first pure white reindeer born in the herd – and her distinctive white descendants are still part of the herd today.

Snowflake was just one year old when I met her.

When my husband and I visited the Reindeer Centre in the summer of 2017, I was delighted to see the same stone house where I’d once stayed overnight, with its reindeer paddock still out back. Although our travel schedule precluded a hike up into the hills to see the main herd, we did get to visit some of the reindeer kept inside the fencing behind the house. And I also stocked up on reindeer books and souvenirs in the Centre’s gift shop—which was originally the room where I’d dried out in front of the Utsi-Lindgren’s fireplace.

The stone house where I stayed in 1969.
My husband and I meeting the (very scruffy moulting!) reindeer in 2017.

My husband and I are also happy to have become supporters of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre by adopting two reindeer, LX and Mozzarella, direct descendants of that beautiful white Snowflake that I’d met so long ago, when she was only one year old. Whenever it’s safe to travel again, we look forward to visiting the herd up on the hills, meeting “our” two reindeer, and letting them know that once I’d even met their great-great-great-great-etc. grandmother, too.

My adoptees Mozzarella and LX

Sharon Hudgins is an American author who has written books about Siberia and Spain. She is now working on a memoir about the Scottish Highlands. See www.sharonhudgins.com

 

Reindeer in Space? Not quite!

One of our adopters has brought it to our attention that the reindeer made an appearance in the Eagle comic, right back in December 1953, a mere 19 months after they first arrived in Scotland. He was kind enough to send us some scans and write a little bit for this week’s blog, so let me hand you over to John this week:
Published between 1950 to 1969, Britain’s Eagle comic was the creation of the Reverend Marcus Morris, an Anglican vicar, and Frank Hampson, who created its now world-famous space hero, ‘Dan Dare’. Alongside the famous space pilot, the weekly comic mixed a variety of other adventure and humour strips, and offered a range of features to appeal to its audience of largely teenage boys. (Publisher Hulton Press also published GIRL, for girls, and Swift and Robin, for younger readers, in similar formats).
Part of Eagle’s cover – dated 24th December 1953
Unusually, the comic had an editorial budget well in excess of what might be expected in comparison for a similar title today, and was able to commission a variety of articles – and send their in-house writing team (and freelancers) to all four corners of Britain to cover stories. Reporter Macdonald Hastings (who would go on to become a word-famous war correspondent) filed reports from far-flung parts of the world under the title of Eagle Special Correspondent reportedly making around £5000 pounds a year by 1952.
For Eagle’s 1953 Christmas issue, he was dispatched to the Cairngorms, to visit the Rothiemurchus Forest Reindeer Reserve, where he met Mr Nicolaus Labba the Laplander, who introduced Mr Hastings to some of the herd and offered some thoughts on the future of the project.
N.B. Scans of the whole pages won’t show up on our blog here big enough to read, so we’ve chopped up the article into separate sections so it can (hopefully!) be read easily enough:
So, yes, it’s true – the Cairngorm Reindeer really did rub shoulders with Dan Dare!
Eagle merged with another comic, Lion, in 1969 which in turn lasted until 1974.
John 
N.B. To add some more context, Nicolaus  Labba was a cousin of Mikel Utsi, the man who first brought the reindeer back to Scotland from Sweden in 1952, arriving with Mr Utsi in 1952 and spending the next few years as his assistant. 
Nicolaus Labba and Mikel Utsi, 29th May 1952 – the day the reindeer first arrived in the Cairngorms after their journey from Sweden and subsequent quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo.
Labba with Sarek in Feb 1953.
With Sam in August 1953, the calf who’s photo made it into the Eagle a few months later!

More information about Nicolaus Labba and the history of our herd here in Scotland can be found in our book Hoofprints, available here on our website. 

The Mystical Landscape of the Reindeer: A Collection of Poetry

It’s just a couple of weeks after the shortest day of the year as I write this (6hrs and 35 minutes of daylight up here) and the weather has certainly been wild and wintry, with deep snow and thick ice across the lochs. With short days and extreme weather come additional seasonal immigrants, such as snow bunting from Scandinavia, and some of the animals in new disguises, with ptarmigan and mountain hares changing their colours to suit the elements. The wind turns harshly abrasive, carrying tiny pieces of ice, freezing rain, or thick blizzards, and the nights open up to all the phases of the moon or the open milky way. It’s like the mountains find themselves in a whole new dimension. 

Recently I’ve discovered that poetry can be a great way of condensing a particular feeling, season, or place, and it’s truly delightful when a poem seems so relevant to a Hill Trip, day out with the free-range reindeer, or view of the Cairngorms and the Strathnethy from up on the hill.  Here I have gathered some of my favourites which I hope can bring those of our supporters who haven’t been able to visit (I’ve said it a lot, but what a strange year…) back into the feeling of a day on the hill with the reindeer. Some of my photos from this winter are included too!

Spy and friends in the middle of winter. Ryvoan Bothy is just beyond the gap in the hills in the photo here, down to the right of Meall a’ Bhuachaille

The first poem which comes to mind is the Ryvoan Bothy poem, one which anyone who has visited Ryvoan Bothy, a couple of miles away from us, has probably seen pinned inside the door. Many of our visitors in the summer also take the gorgeous walk up to the “Green Lochan” or An Lochan Uaine so I imagine a lot of the places mentioned in this will be familiar to many.

Ryvoan Bothy Poem:
I shall leave tonight from Euston by the seven-thirty train, 
And from Perth in the early morning I shall see the hills again.
From the top of Ben Macdhui I shall watch the gathering storm, 
And see the crisp snow lying at the back of Cairngorm. 
I shall feel the mist from Bhrotain and the pass by Lairig Ghru 
To look on dark Loch Einich from the heights of Sgoran Dubh.
From the broken Barns of Bynack I shall see the sunrise gleam
On the forehead of Ben Rinnes and Strathspey awake from dream.
And again in the dusk of evening I shall find once more alone 
The dark water of the Green Loch, and the pass beyond Ryvoan. 
For tonight I leave from Euston and leave the world behind; 
Who has the hills as a lover, will find them wondrous kind.

The Green Lochan © VisitScotland

The poet and writer whose work is most famously connected to the Cairngorms is Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981). The first woman to feature on a Scottish banknote, she was a student and then lecturer at Aberdeen University in English Literature, the part of her life which she enjoyed alongside hill walking, through which she extensively explored the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain, her last published book is an awesome and personal, although at no point self-absorbed, memoir to her days on the Cairngorm plateau. Although a lot of her work is in plain English, I think her work is pretty unique for preserving Doric (the strong dialect in the North East of Scotland) so well, and so beautifully.

Loch Avon – Nan Shepherd
Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie!
Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I.
Bricht though yer deepmaist pit may be,
Ye’ll haunt me till the day I dee.
Bricht, an’ bricht, an’ bricht as air,
Ye’ll haunt me noo for evermair.

Nan Shepherd graces one of our £5 notes here in Scotland

Writing with equal admiration about their homeland are the Eveny, the reindeer herders of Siberia. Considering reindeer are so intrinsic to their culture that they both feature in their creation story and provide a livelihood, it’s not surprising that many of their songs and poems mention reindeer. Very little of this has been recorded though, however, in Reindeer People; Living With Animals And Spirits in Siberia (Piers Vitebsky) this song is translated and shows the deep connection which the Eveny have with their animals and the land. 

I have come from afar,
I have not beheld you for so long,
With all my heart I love you,
My Homeland! 

The Autumn leaves fall,
My voice echoes far,
My song is about you, my homeland,
Birthplace of my ancestors

If the reindeer do not come,
If the herd turns away,
If the reindeer do not come,
There will be no more Eveny!

It is difficult to source the lyrics or lines of poems and songs by minority cultures and people (which are the reindeer herders of the north) such as the Eveny or Sami, due to the suppression which these groups have faced, and also the fact that many of the poems are part of an oral tradition, passed on over time but not recorded. An exploration of Sami poetry, a lot of it related to the reindeer can be found here.

One of my favourite photos from the winter! Camembert on the ski road.

Over on the North American continent, the caribou (which are genetically the same species as reindeer: Rangifer tarandus) have a different relationship with people because they’re not herded or domestic, instead living wildly and sometimes being hunted. Richard Kelly Kemick captures the full seasonality of their lives in his book, Caribou Run which follows the year as the animal. I find this one intriguing:

The Love Poem as Caribou – Richard Kelly Kemick
It’s hard to imagine. As doves, yes,
or even vultures. But there’s nothing of a ballad
in the hard weight of antlers. You can’t cut
into an ode, stripping its skin to bones cabled
with muscle, or search its creased face for something
you can almost explain. And a sonnet has never
made me see myself inadequate beneath
the bright light of evolution’s long apprenticeship,
acutely aware of the many failings of my own form.
But maybe it’s in how a love poem will cross
a body of water without being about to see
the other side. Or maybe it’s in the deep prints
left in the drifts, that speak of how hard
it must have been to move on from here.

His poem “Antlers” can also be found here.

Crowdie with Gloriana and her calf Butter

On the same continent, Mary Oliver is a poet who has spent a lot of time observing nature, and in her writing brings the reader on a quiet walk with her.

The Poet Dreams of the Mountain – Mary Oliver
Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts.
I want to climb some old gray mountain, slowly, taking
the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping
under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks.
I want to see how many stars are still in the sky
that we have smothered for years now, a century at least.
I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all,
and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know.
All that urgency! Not what the earth is about!
How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only.
I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts.
In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.

And lastly, heading back home to Scotland and the Scots words and phrases, our rewilding landscapes, and great, airy glens we will finish with a poem which couldn’t possibly be more relevant. This one is in the first few pages of the book Hoofprints, a book which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Reindeer in the Cairngorms. It proclaims the “Reindeer Council of the United kingdom is proceeding with the experiment of importing reindeer to Scotland” – Punch magazine, August 1951. Look out for the hints of hunting, these refer to the plan that once the reindeer would be established in Scotland, they would contribute meat to the post-war rationing. Thankfully, after giving the animals names and getting to know them, our herd has always been kept for it’s own environmental and educational value to the Cairngorms.

Stag party
O Lords of misty moor and ben!
O monarchs of the mountain glen!
Crowned with your proudly branching span
Surveys your kingdom while you can.

Where Affrie’s corried glen divides,
In Atholl’s furthest forest rides,
Amid the firs that fringe Loch Shin
Will feed the herds that fed the Finn. 

Their splayed and hairy hooves will pound,
Your ancient Highland stamping ground
And Stalkers (snug in hats with flaps)
WIll hunt the quarry of the Lapps.

Will later landseers art portray
Proud Scandinavian stags at bay,
And (taxidermic’ly prepared)
Will foreign heads delight the laird?

Will other antlers grace the walls
As hatstands in suburban halls-
Sad pointers to the fact that you
Have yielded to the Caribou?

Shall reindeer, blue of flesh and blood,
Reign where the ruling red deer stood,
Or will one more invasion fail
And wiser councils yet prevail?

Nell

Why is that reindeer called (insert weird name here)?!

A few months ago I wrote a blog about how we choose the names for the individual reindeer in the herd, and the themes we use each year. I mentioned, however, that there are always exceptions to the rule, so I thought I’d explain a few of the odder names in the herd, which don’t fit their theme. Most names do fit – even in a rather vague roundabout manner – but sometimes they just don’t at all!

First up, Hamish. Hamish was born in 2010, the product of his mother Rusa’s teenage pregnancy. Teenage in reindeer years that is, at 2 years old. Reindeer generally don’t have their first calf until 3 year olds, but some will calve as 2 year olds occasionally, especially if they are of decent body size already during the preceding rut, triggering them to come into season. Rusa was one such female, but unfortunately Hamish was also a large calf, and he got stuck being born. This resulted in a bit of assistance needed from us, and then a course of penicillin for Rusa, which interrupted her milk flow. We therefore bottle-fed Hamish for the first 2 or 3 weeks of his life, and any calf who we work so closely with at such a young age either requires naming, or ends up with a questionable nickname that sticks (a la Holy Moley!). In Hamish’s case we hadn’t already chosen the theme for the year, so just decided we’d choose a nice, strong Scottish name. And Hamish went on to grow into a nice, strong Scottish reindeer!

How many reindeer herders does is take to work out whether a calf is suckling or not?! Hamish at a few hours old.

Svalbard next. While we’ve used both ‘Scottish islands’ and ‘foreign countries’ as themes, we haven’t technically done ‘foreign islands’. So where does his name come from? In fact, he was originally named Meccano, in the Games and Pastimes year. But at around 3 months old he was orphaned, and while he did obviously survive, it will have been a struggle, stealing milk from other females but never quite getting enough (this was while out free-ranging, so we weren’t around to help). As a result when we came across him a month or so later his growth had been stunted a bit, and he was very pot-bellied – a sign of inadequate nutrition.

On the Norwegian-owned island of Svalbard there is a subspecies of reindeer (imaginatively called Svalbard reindeer). Without any need to migrate anywhere, over time Svalbard reindeer have evolved shorter legs and a dumpy appearance, and Meccano resembled a Svalbard calf. Never one to like diversion from a neat list of themed names, I tried in vain to call him Meccano but eventually gave up. ‘The Svalbard calf’ had become ‘Svalbard’. Oh well. It does suit him.

And then there’s Stenoa. He was born in 2012 when our theme was ‘Things that happened in 2012’ (being as quite a lot of things did that year – the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee and most importantly, our 60th anniversary). Most of that year of reindeer have names with rather tenuous links to the theme, but Stenoa’s is probably the most obscure. Taking part in the Thames flotilla for the Jubilee was the Smith Family onboard the boat Stenoa, which belonged to Tilly’s dad and was given her name from the first name initials of Tilly, her three siblings and parents.

Handsome Stenoa as a young bull

Every now and then we import some reindeer from Sweden, bringing them into our herd to bring in fresh bloodlines and to therefore reduce the risk of us inbreeding within the herd. There are currently about a dozen ‘Swedes’ in the herd, and while most have Swedish names, some don’t. In 2011, when they arrived to join our reindeer, we were all allowed to name one each, with Alex (out in Sweden with the reindeer while they were in quarantine), named the others – mostly after people they were bought from. So we have Bovril, Houdini and Spike still amongst the more traditional names… ‘My’ reindeer was named Gin (read into that what you will…) but sadly isn’t with us anymore.

Spike – whose antlers have developed over the years to suit his name quite well!

Other than Holy Moley (explained in Fiona’s recent blog), the only calf who doesn’t quite fit last year’s Seeds, Peas and Beans’ theme is Juniper. On the day we named the class of 2020, Tilly’s long-time favourite (and ancient) Belted Galloway cow, Balcorrach Juniper, died, and her one request was that we name a calf in her honour. No point arguing with the boss! And juniper plants do have seeds I guess.

Juniper

There’s been plenty more in the past (Paintpot for example, born with one black leg which looked like he’d stepped in a pot of paint) but I think that’s the main ones covered in today’s herd. But no doubt others will come along in time, and the cycle of constantly explaining a reindeer’s odd name to visitors on a Hill Trip will continue.

Hen

Jokkmokk Winter Market

 

Back when everything felt much more ‘normal’ in February 2020 four of us from the Reindeer Centre went to the celebration of all things Sámi , the ‘Jokkmokk Winter Market’ in Arctic Sweden. It is held in the first weekend of February every year, and apart from world-class Sámi art, culture and handicraft, visitors are usually greeted by proper, cold winter weather.

Olly, Joe and myself at the market last year

Jokkmokk’s Market begins on the first Thursday of February every year. Situated just north of the Polar Circle and with a population a little over 2,000, the small town of Jokkmokk is a tranquil gem on the border of Laponia, the only combined nature and cultural heritage site in Scandinavia. Jokkmokk’s Market was first held in 1605, some 400 years ago, originally purely as a place to trade and meet. The Sámi people met to trade goods, to socialise, and possibly to get a bit tipsy too. At least they’d arrive in their party clothes! The market was created following a request from King Karl XI, who sought to exert control over trading in Lappmarken in order to collect taxes for the Kingdom. To make everything easier to control and run smoother, they organised the market during the coldest time of the year. People had to stay near the houses to keep warm. You might think this sounds like pure fiction, but the fact is that the Swedish state wanted to create a market for economic reasons – money was needed for all the wars the king was involved in down in Europe. And in that way, Jokkmokk got a market in the middle of the freezing cold.

Joe admiring Sámi knives at a stall
Plenty of reindeer antlers for sale!

At a quick glance, as you zigzag between stands selling sweets, t-shirts, knitted socks, doughnuts, there is little to differentiate the market here in Jokkmokk from just about any other market in Sweden. But if you look further than the muddle of seemingly pointless things you will find the genuine and the real. Much of the handicraft, art and jewellery are created in materials derived from the reindeer, such as hides and antlers. It’s an intriguing fusion of traditional Sámi styles and new, modern influences.

Reindeer racing always draws a big crowd

At Jokkmokk’s Market, there’s no mistaking that reindeer are a fundamental part of Sámi culture – they have been an integral part of Sámi life for thousands of years, from winter and summer pastures, from coastal regions to mountain terrain. Throughout history, reindeer have provided humans with food, clothing and materials for functional items, while in past times they were also used to transport everything imaginable between settlements.

For over 50 years, Per Kuhmunen has been walking his reindeer as a daily feature at Jokkmokk’s Market.

It’s not unusual for temperatures to plummet below the –30 degree mark. To get the most out of your market experience, it’s important to have the right clothing – multiple layers of warm materials such as wool, or other functional fabrics, covered by a heavy-duty down jacket, and a sturdy pair of winter boots. Add a fur cap and the warmest gloves you can find, and you’re all set!

Frosty beard men!

Jokkmokk’s Market is an annual highlight, however, this year things have to work a little different and the Jokkmokk Market has to go online… Maybe a little warmer from your kitchen table or living room than walking the streets themselves, though I know I would still prefer to be there in person having experienced the amazing atmosphere this market has to offer, even with cold hands! Learn more by visiting the market’s website and have the opportunity to purchase items from the market – the next best thing to actually being able to visit!

Beautifully carved antler crafts
Colourful gloves
Reindeer wear incredibly colourful harnesses

Mikel Utsi, who re-introduced reindeer into Scotland in the 1950s, originally came from the Jokkmokk area and still to this day when we travel to northern Sweden we stay with his family who are always very welcoming. It helps too if we bring a good bottle of Scottish Whisky! I feel extremely lucky to have visited this market a few times now and I hope this year is the only time it will have to resort to going online as nothing beats being there in person!

John Utsi, Mikel Utsi’s nephew, and his daughter Sofia at my brother Alex’s wedding back in 2013. Both are wearing traditional Sámi dress.

Fiona

Thank you all!

Following the TV programme on Channel 4, ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas‘, we have been overwhelmed with lovely letters of support, incredibly generous donations and new ‘adopters’. It really has been a fantastic lifeline for us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and I can honestly say our lovely reindeer have touched the hearts of many, both at home and abroad.

TV stars Dr Seuss and Holy Moley at the Strathspey Railway event. Photo: Justin Purefoy/Maramedia

The lovely letters we have received have been incredibly varied and while protecting people anonymity I thought it would be nice to share some of the contents of these letters.

A young lass from the Midlands sent a wonderful letter, written and illustrated by herself. Her attention to detail was amazing and I can’t resist sharing her lovely drawings with you.

If any of you budding young reindeer enthusiasts would like to also send in anything we would love to receive it. Getting letters through the post is always special and here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we would love to receive any works of art or prose! Our postal address and email address can be found on the Contact Us page of our website.

Quite a number of letters and cards came from people reminiscing about days gone by, maybe an occasion when they met the original owners of the herd, Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren. Although we have a considerable archive here at Reindeer House of the history of the herd, many of the stories recalled were new to me and so all the more interesting.

I smiled at the recollection of one couple who attended a talk given by Dr Lindgren and described her as ‘large’ (not fat) and very straight backed and a loud voice. Well I certainly chuckled at this description! Dr Lindgren indeed a very tall lady and the above description hits the nail on the head. I knew Dr Lindgren well in her latter years and I was terrified of her! She was so worldly, intelligent and dominant, but she was also kind and considerate when necessary. I would love to hear from anyone who knew her personally and has a story to tell – she was quite a character and had many different interests and skills, other than reindeer.

And then there was a lady who met Mr Utsi, in North Sweden, before the first reindeer came to Scotland in 1952. This was a lovely encounter, which was described in detail to us. Back in 1951, the lady who wrote to us went on a skiing expedition with her school to Swedish Lapland.  Many of them had never skied before, but quickly got to grips with the sport and by all accounts had lifetime memories from their time there. While there they were taken to see a herd of reindeer and the owner Mikel Utsi told them that he was introducing his reindeer to Scotland! What a wonderful memory and I am so glad this lady was able to see the TV programme on Christmas Eve and see just how it is all those years later!

There was a strong common theme through the many letters we received with comments as follows:

best viewing ever over the Festive season

Thank you for adding ‘animal magic’ to a home alone Christmas

A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas was absolutely brilliant and a stroke of genius – wonderful publicity, informing such a wide audience of all the great work you are doing for the community

The programme brought back lovely memories of when we used to visit you in your early days

So thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone you has been in touch to reminisce, donate and adopt reindeer. It has been a huge help to us and most importantly ‘put a smile on our faces’.

Tilly feeding young bull Sherlock. Photo: Justin Purefoy/Maramedia

Tilly

Velvet Antlers, Velvet Nose

This was my first attempt at writing a book about reindeer. Approached by the reputable publisher Hodder and Stoughton in 1994, the editor had heard me speaking on Radio 4 and thought my ramblings had the potential for a book.

It was, to say the least, a particularly busy time in our lives, with 2 children under the age of 6, a herd of reindeer we were trying to make a living from and a second site to where we not only had moved part of the herd, but were beginning to look at how we would farm the lower ground.

So we were stretched to the limits. Indeed the introduction to the book begins with ‘I must be crazy, definitely off my head, to agree to write a book. My day is already full and chaotic.’

But as the saying goes “ If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

The text of the book is interspersed with pages of photos, including this classic of Alex on my back as a toddler!

I would describe Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses as written ‘from the heart’. The highs and lows of caring for such a special herd of reindeer. The stories of extraordinary people who dedicated their lives to successfully re-introducing them. And a crazy family called The Smith’s, who have carried on the legacy.

Alex, Tilly, Fiona and Alan back in the day. Look at those fresh faces!

From those early days of Alan and I becoming the proud owners of such a wonderful herd, the Cairngorm reindeer continue to go from strength to strength because of the dedication of the next generation. And this dedication has particularly shone through during these difficult times with the Coronavirus pandemic. Months of being closed, but with animals still to care for and hard choices to made.

Now we have opened partially it feels like a very long road ahead though with many of our normal income revenues needed; to feed reindeer, pay herders and the ability to ‘live’ normally looking like they are going to be curtailed for a long time to come.

The opening chapter of Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses describes an incident at Christmas time when I took reindeer to a local playgroup in Aviemore. The memory is etched in my brain forever when the heavy door swung back prematurely knocking the poor reindeer Larch’s antler off! It was a one-off and occasions like this are part of the steep learning curve but re-reading it this morning reminded me of the pleasure people get from seeing reindeer at Christmas (hopefully not with an antler dropping off) and how this November and December will almost certainly be very different.

Crowds like this seem like a distant memory right now!

Training male reindeer to harness and going out and about at Christmas time doing street parades, displays and events is a really important source of income for the herd and bring a huge amount of pleasure to the general public and reindeer supporters each year. Sadly I suspect this will not happen as normal this year, for all the obvious reasons, lack of money in the high street, the importance of not attracting crowds and of course not wanting to inadvertently spread the virus or put our own herders at risk of it. So interesting times ahead.

As I write the Paddocks beside The Reindeer Centre remain closed and Hill Trips are limited by pre-booking only to remain small enough to observe social distancing rules. Luckily we have an extremely generous following of adopters, who help to support the herd by adopting a reindeer. This has been and continues to be a massive lifeline for us and I would like to thank you all from the ‘bottom of my heart’ for your amazing support.

Tilly

‘Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’ is long since out of print, but old copies can often be found online for purchase. Tilly’s latest book, ‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ is available, along with a couple of other books about the herd, via our website

The Curious History of Reindeer in Iceland

At the beginning of February I took a trip to Iceland in winter conditions and learned about the fascinating history of reindeer on this island country in the North Atlantic. Although I did not spot any reindeer, the history of the animals their interesting story is worth sharing nonetheless.

Icelandic reindeer

Similarly to the reindeer here in the Cairngorms, reindeer in Iceland were introduced from another part of the world. However, unlike Scotland reindeer in Iceland were never native to the country at all. All land mammals in Iceland aside from the arctic fox were introduced to the country over the course of its natural history. Reindeer are the largest amongst all of them. In the late 1700s reindeer from Norway were brought to Iceland because the king believed that the reindeer would be a perfect match to the cold, harsh conditions. Being that farming was the most common trade in Iceland, it was assumed that all of the farmers would then take up reindeer herding.

The reindeer were brought to four different regions in Iceland: the South, Southwest, North, and East. And right from the start this venture was a complete failure. Within the first few years the majority of reindeer in Iceland had died off. The harsh volcanic landscape proved difficult to maintain the food resources necessary for the animals to survive. To this day, the only surviving group is in East Iceland where the habitat is more suitable to the needs of the reindeer and food resources are abundant.

Hen’s photo of reindeer in East Iceland, back in 2007.
The stark volcanic landscape of Northern Iceland

Those reindeer continued to thrive though and herding them never took off at all leaving an estimated 6-7000 wild reindeer roaming about the Eastern Fjords. The Ministry of Agriculture found that ‘reindeer farming’ would not be viable given the amount of resources compared to the large population of wild reindeer. Ultimately the decision was made to not begin any sort of commercial reindeer farming.

Our Cairngorm reindeer free ranging on a beautiful February day.

Just like in Scotland, the reindeer in Iceland do not have any natural predators to control their population. So each year the government issues 1200-1300 permits to hunt reindeer as a means to prevent overpopulation which would collapse an already fragile ecosystem. Where as here in the Cairngorms, the numbers of reindeer are much smaller which allow us to control the population through selective breeding each Autumn. As a result of this, when the snow begins to melt in the spring we are looking forward to another wonderful calving season, just around the corner.

Bobby

Reindeer and boats

During this year’s Christmas tour we ended up taking the reindeer on boats a couple of different times. The reindeer visited Northern Ireland, Orkney and the Isle of Lewis. I was lucky enough to go with them to Stornoway on Lewis and this got me thinking about the journey taken by the first 8 reindeer in the Cairngorm reindeer herd from Sweden with Mikel Utsi in 1952.

View from the ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway

The reindeer were reintroduced to Scotland by a couple called Dr Ethel Lindgren and Mikel Utsi. Dr Lindgren was an American anthropologist whose speciality was reindeer herding people. She travelled much of the arctic studying different indigenous reindeer herders including the Sami. Whilst Dr Lindgren was with the Sami she met, and later married a reindeer herder named Mikel Utsi. For their honeymoon Dr Lindgren and Mikel Utsi came over to the Cairngorms and immediately recognised the artic habitat here as perfect for reindeer. Upon finding out that reindeer had become extinct in Scotland they decided to bring the reindeer back. In 1952 the first group of reindeer came over from Sweden, this is where boats now come into the story. The group consisted of 8 reindeer, 2 bulls, 5 cows and a castrate male named Sarek. Interestingly the boat they travelled to Scotland on was called the S.S. Sarek. The crossing from the north of Sweden to Glasgow was a fairly rough one and the reindeer were at sea for four days travelling 700 miles. Once the reindeer arrived they were quarantined at Edinburgh zoo before finally making it to the Cairngorms.

Mikel Utsi (right) and Sarek.

Once the first group of reindeer had settled in, Utsi and Lindgren brought another consignment of reindeer over later on in 1952. By 1954 they had finally procured a lease of silver mount, the hill at the far end of the reindeer enclosure, from forestry commission. This allowed more reindeer to be brought over from Sweden in 1954 and 1955.

Bulls Fritzen and Ruski in April 1955

The herd has grown in number steadily since the fifties until it reached 150, which is the number we are now maintaining. Throughout that time a few more consignments of reindeer have come over from Sweden to introduce new bloodlines into the herd. 68 years on the reindeer still happily roam the Cairngorms, at the moment every single reindeer is free-roaming for the winter.

Lotti

Reindeer as a Species

On our kids quiz in the Paddocks is the question ‘Name a sub-species of reindeer’, and I notice it’s often the one that people get stuck at (despite the fact that the answers are there on the display boards). I’ve realised over the years however, that this is often down to a basis lack of understanding of a percentage of the population of the concept of species and sub-species, rather than anything else. So therefore, allow me to explain.

As a zoology student (all too many years ago, so bear with me if my science is rusty!), the classification of all organic species using a system of ‘taxonomic rank’ was drilled into us. The system still in use today was founded by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 16th Century and brought order and clarity to the then chaotic and disorganised way of naming and categorizing all types of life. No wonder I loved learning about taxonomy – lists and organisation? My kinda thing.

Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778)

The Linnaean system breaks down all living things into 7 major kingdoms, animals being one and plants another, and then each kingdom is broken down further, into different phyla. Then phyla are broken down once more to the next level, which is class, and the system carries on through order; family, genus and finally species. So reindeer can be categorized as such:

Kingdom: Animalia (Common name: Animals)

Phylum: Chordata (Chordates  – meaning ‘possessing a nerve cord’)

Class: Mammalia (Mammals)

Order: Arteriodactyla (Even-toed hooved mammals)

Family: Cervidae (the Deer family)

Genus: Rangifer

Species: tarandus

 

Biological classification chart

The two part ‘binomial’ name Rangifer tarandus is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘Latin name’, and every species in the world has one. You will be familiar with ours as Homo sapiens, and like humans, reindeer are the only species within their genus, Rangifer. A regular question from visitors is ‘So….how are reindeer different from deer?’ Bizarrely, it can be quite hard explaining to people that reindeer are deer. My usual analogy is to get people to think about lions and tigers. Both obviously cats, so therefore members of the cat family (‘Felidae’), but at the same time both clearly different species from each other. So while reindeer are a member of the deer family, they are a different species from other types of deer. For example, moose, red deer and muntjac – all clearly distinguishable in looks from one another, but crucially also genetically different.

But then, as with most things, it all gets a little more complicated. Not content with 7 major divisions, scientists introduced sub-divisions in order to break down everything further. So now there are, among others, sub-classes, sub-families, sub-genera etc. Arghh! While Rangifer has no sub-genus, there are some subspecies to contend with, and this is the relevant info that we hope people will track down in our Paddocks. All seven subspecies of reindeer and caribou are all still Rangifer tarandus, so effectively all genetically the same animal, but a subspecies is shown by adding a third name after the binomial. Just to clarify too, reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. The differences are also geographical, in that reindeer are found in Europe and Asia, while caribou are found in North America and Greenland.

So back to our seven subspecies. We have:

Eurasian Tundra reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus): Open-ground dwelling subspecies, which the majority of all domesticated reindeer belong to, including ours.

Our big bull Crann, a ‘tundra reindeer’

Eurasian Forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus): Boreal forest dwelling subspecies, typically taller than tundra reindeer.

Forest reindeer

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus): Smallest subspecies, endemic to the arctic archipelago of the Svalbard islands. Short legged!

Svalbard reindeer

Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus): Migratory subspecies of open ground. The most similar of the caribous to our tundra reindeer.

Barren-ground caribou

North American woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou): Largest caribou subspecies, often darker in colour. As the name suggests, they live in forests, and generally don’t migrate.

Woodland caribou Copyright Paul Sutherland

Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi): Smallest of the caribou subspecies.

Peary Caribou Copyright Trent University 

Alaskan or Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti): Migratory subspecies most closely resembling the barren-ground caribou, and named after the Porcupine river, which runs through much of their range. The longest migrating land mammal on Earth.

Porcupine caribou

There have been two other subspecies in the past but these have now died out – the East Greenland Caribou and the Queen Charlotte Island Caribou.

So there you go, a brief taxonomy lesson, and congratulations to anyone who has stuck with me, as well as apologies for some slight over-simplifications for any scientists amongst you. Hopefully you’ll have all learnt something though – I’m a big believer of sneaking in educational blogs among the pretty pictures and funny stories we often post! And if it’s all too much and you’d just prefer something a bit more light-hearted, head off and google pictures of Svalbard reindeer. You’ll not be disappointed.

Hen