There’s a poster that has been kicking around the Reindeer Centre for as long as I’ve known. It’s since been framed and we keep it in our shop area as it’s a rather sweet poster with some words of wisdom when it comes to reindeer herding.
In case the image is too small to read properly, the text is:
Shepherd thy herd closely when calving for thy calves are more precious than rubies.
Kill not thy healthy reindeer except they be in abundance or be castrated and castrate not thy young reindeer for they will grow slowly and fatten as quickly as thy bulls.
Husband thy pastures carefully that they not be over-grazed or destroyed by fires or trampling and never allow surplus reindeer to graze on winter lichen ranges.
Love thy reindeer as thy sons and daughters, protecting them from wolves and bears, and assuring them abundant food and water all the days of their lives.
Thou shalt not cause they reindeer great stress or make them to run swiftly for they will lose weight or overheat and die as surely as though smitten by thy sword.
Healthy reindeer grow fat and have many calves, whereas sickly and diseased reindeer bring only shame and an empty purse.
Seek solace for thy reindeer in cool breezes when hordes of mosquitos and warble flies haunt the summer ranges.
Suffer not thy old, thy sickly not thy castrated reindeer to endure another snowfall for these reindeer are unproductive and will not fatten further.
Attend to thy tablets carefully for the keeping of tally sheets and daily journals is the hallmark of a successful reindeer herder.
Honour thy pasturelands, its waters and all its creatures, large and small, for they are a family that has endured for centuries.
In reference to point 2, I’ll add that we don’t cull any of our herd at all – when they were reintroduced from Sweden in the 50s it would have been the intention to cull ‘extra’ males who weren’t needed for breeding, but the direction of the herd changed pretty quickly to being purely a tourist attraction. No reindeer burgers here!
And on point 9, a diary has been kept daily since the 50s, recording the movements of the herd and any interesting information, and this is something that we continue to this day. Of course now it’s on a computer rather than hand-written, but everything is religiously recorded, day in and day out.
Whilst the majority of our reindeer are docile, friendly and laid back, there is always an exception, so in this week’s blog I thought I’d introduce you to Pony…
Pony was born in our “Games and Pastimes” themed calving of 2011. It might not seem an obvious game, but it was a bit of a stretch, naming her after the My Little Pony craze. The broader picture is that her older brother from the Bugs and Beasties theme was named Horse, slightly ironically, in the hope that if we gave the calf a rather rubbish name then sod’s law would mean it had a long life, as mother Mawar was renowned for losing her calves at a young age. It seemed to have had the desired effect so we stuck with the animal theme for Pony, then later for her brother Goat (in the Cheese theme).
Pony is quite easy to pick out among the other normal coloured cows of the herd as she is missing the very tips of her ears. Sometimes if a reindeer is quite poorly as a calf they don’t maintain the blood supply to the extremities and the tip of, or occasionally the entire ear, can drop off. Whilst changing their appearance somewhat, it doesn’t seem to have any other negative impact on the reindeer.
Pony’s mother Mawar was a lovely sweet natured reindeer, but perhaps Pony has a chip on her shoulder from missing her ear tips, as she has always had a bit of attitude. Or perhaps it comes from further back in her family tree as her auntie Lulu isn’t averse to snorting and waving her antlers at people! Unfortunately I also found out that Pony can hold a grudge, and I inadvertently got myself on the wrong side of her in 2018.
It was May, and Pony was in our hill enclosure looking very pregnant and ready to calve. One day she had headed away from the herd, so myself and Kate made an early start the following morning, assuming she must have a new calf. And indeed she did, a very cute wee male, quite a distance from the main herd. We like to bring them in to a smaller “nursery” pen where we can keep an eye on the new mums and young calves, so Kate and I started following behind Pony and the calf, gently herding them in the right direction.
Reindeer calves are very capable but his wee legs got more and more tired, until eventually he lay down and didn’t want to walk any more. Normally at this point we would just carry the calf with mum following behind, but Pony already had a reputation for defending her calves, so I decided to try to pop Pony on a headcollar. She was a bit suspicious but hungry enough after giving birth to snatch a bite of feed from my bag, at which point I grabbed hold of her antler! Kate nipped in and we put on the headcollar. Pony was NOT impressed, and even less so when Kate picked up her calf, with me holding her back enough to not wallop Kate with those antlers!
We made our way in, by some miracle nobody died or got skewered on Pony’s antlers, and we released Pony and her new calf out with the rest of the new mothers. Sadly for me, Pony never forgave me for this perceived wrongdoing (though they were never more than 6 ft apart and the tired calf seemed relieved to be carried!). From that point on, I had to watch my back, as anytime I was anywhere near Pony’s calf she’d come after me, threatening me and snapping at me!
This love has persisted over the years, and when Pony had her next calf in 2020, a wee female, it fell to me to bring her in. Pony had calved much nearer this time, and shot off away from me, the wee toot scrabbling after, all going smoothly until they got to the gateway, which Pony went through, but her calf went straight into the fence. Shutting the gate behind Pony to prevent her spinning back round and beating me up, I was free to disentangle the calf. We named her Turtle, and she is a very sweet lass, though I’m waiting for the day her mother’s attitude comes through!
Pony’s hatred of me rose to another level in the autumn, when Pony managed to wedge a chunk of bone she was chewing on beneath her tongue, necessitating a visit from the vet and an operation to remove it. As I was one of the herders there (giving up my evening to wait for the vet to arrive…), Pony seems to have linked the pain and discomfort with somehow being my fault… I went to check she was ok the next morning and got chased for my efforts! What a reindeer!
For my part, I still like Pony, and this winter decided to try and win her round by offering her extra tasty treats from a bag. She cottoned on quickly and is quite willing to accept the offering, but it’s fairly daunting as she comes flying over with her ears back, and I hold the bag up partly as a shield! I think her lack of ear tips does make her look more angry than she actually is at times, but I’m still pretty cautious around her, doing my best not to tread on her toes, so to speak!
Just the other day, we were noticing that her oldest daughter, Suebi, who until this point has been a sweet natured lassie, seems to be getting more “opinionated” with age, so fingers crossed we’re not going to end up with another Pony on our hands!
The Cairngorms is unique within the UK in offering a sub-arctic ecosystem, which coupled with the wide expanses of mountainside, make it perfect for our reindeer. In most winters, we get weeks of snow cover on the mountains, but it’s less common to have such sustained cover as we’ve experienced this year. From Christmas through to mid February, the norm was snow, both on the hills and in the glens. Perfect for the reindeer, great for all of the snowsports enthusiasts who happen to live within reach of the mountains, but I have to confess the novelty of relentless snow began to wear… a little thin for me. I lost count how many times we cleared our drive at home of snow – all that snow shovelling definitely made up for the gyms being closed!
If you follow our social media accounts, you’ve probably enjoyed all those beautiful photos of reindeer in the snow under a bright blue sky, herders skiing out onto stunning mountains to cuddle reindeer, giving the impression that that is our every day experience. But alas, social media photos can be scheduled for the future. With the current situation, we’ve all just been working two/three days a week, keeping the essentials ticking over, which also means that we can work in separate households.
So every Friday and Saturday, Hen and me had our turn to feed the herd. As January rolled into February, with unerring precision, every day we were scheduled to work also appeared to be the scheduled day for a blizzard, a storm, or generally horrific weather. The reindeer were perfectly equipped, and with their appetites very reduced they would be a fair distance away, not fussed about seeking us out for food. Each time, we would drive up the ski road – a mission in itself as the snow was only cleared enough to allow Cairngorm Mountain’s essential staff access. We would wend our way up the closed road in our wee van, driving as far as we could, debating the safety of walking out to try to find the herd. And each time we would be forced to turn back.
Over the course of the next week, our colleagues would be gifted with better weather than us, and would catch up with the reindeer. More glorious photos for Facebook, then as we watched the forecast for our days, the harsh weather returned. The temperature plummeted to -19C, the Spey froze over. A second work “week” of seeing no reindeer, again foiled by the weather, the deep snow, and the distant reindeer. Now I know we can’t complain too much, when we have the privilege of getting to work with these awesome creatures, but by now we were starting to feel a little less like “Reindeer Herders” and a little more like office staff…
It was now nearly three weeks since we’d seen the herd ourselves, and with hope we looked at the forecast for our next Friday in – the thaw having finally started. Windy, still snowy, but not too bad… We loaded the van with feed, navigated the narrow cleared passage between the drifts (apparently the deepest for 40 years on the road in places), reached the car park and spied with binoculars.
Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.
Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Since Lotti and I have been working at the Reindeer Centre there has been two and a half pages of old English phrases hanging up in the office. It seems to have been there since time immemorial and no one is quite sure how or why it’s up there. We saw this as an opportunity!! Could we enhance our ‘olde’ vocabulary? Well, we were keen to give it a go…we challenged each other to fit in a single word from the list below on each Hill Trip that we did together. Here are some of the words, their definition (followed by their origin), followed by how Lotti and I used them in our tour.
Callipygian – having beautifully shaped buttocks (1640’s).
“Ben and I know all the males in here by name, so we can tell you their name if you have a favourite. Some of the Bulls are so big by now that we can almost identify them by their callipygian bottoms”
Groaking – to silently watch someone whilst they are eating, in the hopes of being invited to join them (unknown origin).
“You might see the Reindeer groaking each other when we put the line of feed on the ground”
Editor’s Note – Groaking is probably the only word in this list that has become part of normal, everyday speech over the years at Reindeer House. Mainly because Hen is regularly accused of it.
Sluberdegullion – a slovenly, slobbering person (1650’s).
“A lot of reindeer adaptations are centred around energy conservation. As you’ve seen, they like to walk on the boardwalk with you and this is all part of the energy conservation instinct: it’s easier than walking along uneven grassland. And here is a good example, none like to conserve energy more than our very own sluberdegullion, Svalbard.”
Curmering – a low rumbling sound produced by the bowels (1880’s).
“Reindeer tend not to make too much noise. However, they do make a noise when moving. In fact, listen out for a noise whilst we walk through the enclosure alongside them, and Lotti will tell you more about that sound soon. I’ll give you a clue, it’s not a curmering.”
Snoutfair – a good-looking person (1500s).
“We run an adoption scheme so you can actually adopt the handsome Dr. Seuss or the fiery Scully here. Alternatively, you could try to adopt Ben here if you think he’s looking particularly snoutfair”
Resistentialism – the seemingly malevolent behaviour displayed by inanimate objects (1940s).
“You might wonder what’s in these green bags at mine and Lotti’s feet. It’s essentially reindeer bribery! Reindeer love their food which is fortunate for us as reindeer herders. The reindeer certainly don’t think the bags have any resistentialism.”
Jargogles – to confuse, bamboozle (1690’s).
“It absolutely jargogles me how quickly the antlers grow on some of our big boys”
Quockerwodger – a wooden puppet, controlled by strings (1850’s).
“We don’t want to treat you as if you were quouckerwodgers, so you can leave when you want, just give Lotti or me a wave and be sure to shut the gates.”
Lunt – walking whilst smoking a pipe (1820’s).
“We will feed the reindeer soon, after which they’re likely to graze the grass or lounge about. Perhaps they’ll even siesta. I’m sure if they were human, they’d love to have a post-work lunt.”
Twattle – to gossip, or talk idly (1600’s).
“So, without further ado, we will head into the enclosure to meet the reindeer. We will gather around one last time when we’re in there to listen to some interesting ways that reindeer have adapted to their environment. Then you’ll have as much time as you’d like to be with the reindeer. So that we remain as one big group, if we could avoid any dawdling or twattling until we’ve gathered around one final time, then that would be great.”
Hugger mugger – to act in a secretive manner (1530’s).
“Cars that are this high up don’t expect to see a big handsome group like us crossing the road, so don’t act all hugger mugger about it, be sure to pick your right moment to cross”.
Cockalorum – a little man with a high opinion of himself (1710’s).
“All of our reindeer do have a name. They are actually named after a different theme every year. This reindeer here is called Bond. He’s a got a history of being a bit of a cockalorum, although he has been behaving better so far this year”
Crapulous – to feel ill because of excessive eating/drinking (1530’s).
“We’re on the last Hill Trip of the day so the Reindeer here are getting quite a lot of food this afternoon, but they’ll make light work of that. Hopefully they don’t feel too crapulous afterwards. But they are ruminants, so they often have a bit of grass or sedge for dessert once the mix has finished.”
Lethophobia – the fear of oblivion (1700’s).
“The reindeer here live in some of the harshest environment that the U.K. offers. In winter, the temperatures can reach as low as -20 degrees Celsius and the wind speed can exceed 100mph. However, this doesn’t trouble the reindeer too much, it hasn’t led to them developing any lethophobia. They are hardy animals who love the cold.”
Elflocks – tangled hair as if matted by elves (1590’s).
“The reindeer’s coats help keep them warm in the winter – reindeer have been known to survive down to very low temperatures when they have to. They do this by having thousands of hairs per square inch, all of which are hollow, making them great at trapping a base layer of heat next to their skin. As you can see the hair is currently lovely and sleek; it stays like this throughout winter and sheds in the summer. If you saw them in July it would look like they’ve got Elflocks.”
Curglaff – the shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water (Scots, 1800’s).
“Reindeer aren’t particularly tactile and some of them here today can be quite shy at times, so don’t be surprised if a reindeer looks curglaffed if you approached too far into their personal space.”
People who see our photos on social media without knowing much about us must wonder why some of our reindeer have such strange names. Where’s Dasher and Dancer? Prancer and Vixen? And Rudolph??? Where on earth have ‘Pavlova’, ‘Caterpillar’ and ‘Clouseau’ come from?!
We’ve been naming the reindeer on a theme each year since the early 70s. As well as making life a bit easier for us coming up with 15 – 30 brand new names each year (where would you start otherwise?!), it has a very practical application in that it helps us remember the individual age of each reindeer, based on their moniker. For farmers naming animals is often done using words starting with a certain letter of the alphabet each year, but different themes is our chosen method.
Up until the early 70s Mr Utsi named his reindeer mainly just with human names, both English and Swedish in origin. However, in 1971, the calves were instead given names of different trees, such as Spruce, Larch and Alder. In 1972 it was birds: Raven, Wren and Hawk. And Tit (teehee).
Themes need to be chosen to have enough ‘good’ names; those not too long, not too complicated, not double-barrelled and either unisex or enough names suitable for a rough 50:50 split of male and female names within the theme. This rules out some ideas pretty quickly.
Over the years however, all the ‘obvious’ themes have now been done. Rivers; Butterflies; Countries; Sweeties – we’ve been there and done that. We do our best to never reuse a name as each reindeer is their own character and we feel they deserve an individual name, but also because it can cause confusion on the database if there’s more than one of the same. We do accidentally slip up however – I’m well aware that both Juniper and Frost in the herd are not the first of their kind. I think Lady holds the record – the Lady that I knew when I first started here turned out to be Lady the Third when I looked closely at the database…
So now we have to think outside the box, hence our slightly off-the-wall themes of later years. This year the calves are named after ‘Seeds, Peas and Beans’. We did ‘Police and Detectives’ recently. And before that ‘Ancient Civilisations’.
To an extent we try not to use themes that are too commercial, hence ‘car makes’ or ‘football clubs’ aren’t options. Something else we don’t generally do, or not nowadays at least, is to allow other people to name reindeer in our herd. This is quite a popular request, and most often comes from people wishing to name a reindeer in memory of someone in their family who really loved visiting the reindeer, or had some special connection with the herd for one reason or another. While this would seem a lovely tribute, sadly reindeer don’t live forever and we don’t want people to be too invested in a certain reindeer, only for it to pass away unexpectedly. Sod’s law is a big factor here – allow someone to name a reindeer in this manner and you can almost guarantee it will be the one to pop it’s clogs a week later… However, we like to accommodate people if possible, so we have in the past, in exceptional circumstances, allowed someone else to choose the theme (from a shortlist). We did it this year in fact – ‘Seeds, Peas and Beans’ was chosen in memory of a gentleman to whom gardening had been a very important part of his life.
While all the staff here are involved in naming the calves each year, the Smith family, who own the reindeer herd, have the final say in all names. And themes they don’t like won’t make the grade. Hence don’t bother asking us if ‘Game of Thrones’ will ever be the theme – I can tell you right now that it won’t. I did make a bid for ‘Sean’ for this years’ theme (think about it) but sadly it was out-ruled.
Of course there end up being lots of exceptions to the rules and reindeer often end up with really random names, but I think some details of these can wait till a future blog (which I’ve now written!).
Other than the few reindeer still out free-ranging who I haven’t seen lately, I’ve otherwise managed to get nice ‘adopt’ photos of everyone in the herd in the last few weeks. These photos are to go on the certificates that go out to all the lovely people who support us by adopting a reindeer, and as autumn is when reindeer look at their best, it is therefore when I take all the photos.
I realise (after sitting down to write this) that I’ve actually written a blog about photos before (to be fair, that was 5 years ago and I have a rubbish memory at times…) but hey, what’s wrong with repetition?! But actually I thought I’d just show you some of the ‘outtake’ photos, ‘cos everyone likes to see photos of reindeer looking daft, don’t they?
Most photos that don’t make the grade are just because of open mouths or closed eyes:
But after my trip over to our farm last month to photograph the reindeer there, I realised that I’d mainly just taken photos of Olympic looking ridiculous!
Then there’s just the odd ones:
Reindeer often need encouragement to look alert for their photo, with ears pricked. This results in my photography assistant (Andi) doing a lot of dancing in the background while making a lot of noise, or sprinting back and forth shaking a feed bag…
And sometimes we resort to throwing things at the reindeer (well, nearby anyway) to get their attention!
Most of the time it seems, this is what the reindeer think of me and my camera!
During lockdown it seems that all the rage was quiz nights on Zoom. I was party to a couple of these and I have to confess I did quite enjoy them. However I wasn’t over enthusiastic about gazing into a computer screen of faces, all at slightly odd angles with various pictures, bookshelves and miscellanea in the background. I was also useless at all the questions about music, TV and films.
So with these thoughts in mind and once there was some relaxation of the lockdown rules I decided I would make up a ‘Tilly Quiz’ of my interests and we would all sit outside in household teams, suitably socially distanced, for a quiz afternoon. In fact it was a lovely sunny day and we ended up in the empty reindeer Paddocks beside the Centre.
It was great fun and I confess some of the questions were quite quirky and nobody got the answers, but there was a winning team (only by one point ) by the end and they chose a bottle of Kendricks gin for their first prize. A bottle of single malt Balvenie Double Wood was snapped up by the runners up.
Anyway that was a fun day for us herders during late lockdown once restrictions had started to lift, and it occured to me that some of the questions could form a blog for our website, since my 3 areas of interest are (strangely enough): Reindeer, The Natural World and The Great Outdoors .
So why not give the following quiz a go and see how many questions you can answer without instantly referring to Google. Indeed even Google may not come up with the answers!
Here goes with just some of the questions from my quiz that day:
1. An old term for a red deer stag?
2. Name the 3 species of Scottish heather and in what order do they flower?
3. The Scottish name for a woodlouse?
4. What is the colour of the following berries: Bearberry, Crowberry, Cowberry, Cloudberry and Blaeberry? They are all found in the Cairngorms.
5. Loch Morlich (in Glenmore where the Reindeer Centre is) is a glacial feature. What type?
6. Name the mythical creature of Ben Macdui? (Editor’s note: Tilly was very strict about us getting this name exactly right!)
7. In which coire in the Cairngorms does snow linger the longest? Indeed some years it doesn’t melt at all. (A ‘coire’ is a hollow in the mountainside formed by glaciation).
8. Name the UK’s only two insectivorous plants, both of which grow here in the Cairngorms?
9. Who was the first pure white reindeer to be born in the Cairngorm herd? (Pretty sure Google definitely won’t help with this one!)
10. What are the full titles and sub titles of my 3 books about reindeer?
11. In the foreword to ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd she describes the reindeer herd in Scotland ‘as no longer experimental but ………….’?
12. Name 3 other places (countries, islands or states), other than Scotland where reindeer have been introduced to in the past?
A few months ago, we found out that we had been nominated for an award for rural tourism at the Scottish Rural Awards ceremony being held mid-March at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. We still aren’t entirely sure who nominated us so if anyone can shed light on this please do. There were 13 awards altogether given out during the night. Some of the categories were Education, Conservation and the Environment, Artisan food and drink, agriculture and more… It was a black tie event so for those of you who know us, you’ll know that black tie isn’t something we do on a regular basis but we made an effort and myself, Tilly, Alex and Emily went down to Edinburgh for it.
Ex-herder Heather let us stay at her house in Edinburgh so it was all very easy. Tilly and I had our first experience of Uber Taxi’s… When in Rome and all! So we made our way to Dynamic Earth in our posh frocks and kilt to be greeted by many more posh frocks and kilts. There was even quite a few tartan trousers! We were certainly out of our comfort zone, considering that morning all four of us were up on either the Cromdale hills or the Cairngorms being blasted by the wind and feeding the reindeer… oh how things changed. Free champagne on arrival… ye-ha! Then we sat down at our tables as guest speaker and Scottish comedian Fred MacAulay opened the night. He certainly knew how to capture an audience. We then had our three-course meal, which was super and afterwards the awards commenced.
We weren’t really sure what to expect but with 150-200 people there, all in their glad rags making the most of a night out it was certainly a good atmosphere all round. The Rural Tourism award came up towards the end and so Fred called out all the finalists. Other business’s we were up against were – Isle of Aaron Distillers, Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, The Famous Grouse Experience, Luss Estates Company, Oban Winter Festival, The Enchanted Forest, Aaron The Island and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Logan. So after all the finalists were announced they came to the three who had won. Cairngorm Reindeer got the highly commended award, runners up were Oban Winter Festival and the winners were Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, so a representative for each went up onto stage to collect their award. Naturally Tilly was our representative so off she went with a big smile on her face to collect our award from Fred MacAulay. Fred also mentioned that many years ago he worked on Cairngorm Mountain and during that time came across the reindeer and that they enjoyed a bit of shieling pie!
This really is a great reflection on what the Cairngorm Reindeer and Wild Farm mean to Rural Scotland and this recognition means so much to all of us so thank you to whoever nominated us! I hope Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren, founders of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, are smiling from above and that we have done them proud.
Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!
Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.
The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.
Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.
He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.
He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.
A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.