As you will probably know by now, we have put together a Naked Reindeer Herders 2023 Calendar!
The photo belonging to each month, was taken on, or very close to, that month in 2021 or 2022 so the reindeer look appropriate to the seasons throughout the calendar. Joe had the difficult job of being photographer. It really was a hard task and I think he’s done an awesome job. He had to contend with many challenges including the weather, figuring out 13 different poses, directing the reindeer, generally being around to take the pics (he’s a busy guy and works away quite a lot), and the biggest challenge of all… directing the herders who mostly try to avoid cameras, even when fully clothed.
Oh and Joe (aka “Mr September”) also had another big challenge. He had to face a rutting bull for his photo so he definitely wins the bravery award!
This wee blog shows what went on behind the scenes at two of the naked calendar photo shoots… July and our cover picture.
Each year, as calving season looms, we reindeer herders have a sweep stake. We place our bets on which reindeer will calve first. Or rather more importantly, try to bet upon which reindeer won’t calve last.
I say ‘bet’…what I really mean is we try to combine luck and science to each predict a reindeer. The herder whose reindeer gives birth last then has to do a punishment. The punishment was historically swim in Loch Morlich. However, this task became obsolete as a punishment a few years ago when it became apparent that most herders regularly braved the cold waters as a leisure activity.
So, the current ‘punishment’ is to bake a cake for the calf naming evening in September. It is on this evening in September that we pick a theme and subsequent names for the recently born reindeer. It’s hungry work, so cake is always greatly appreciated. In fact, in 2009 the cakes were so appreciated that we had a whole naming theme dedicated to ‘cakes, puddings and biscuits’.
We’re in the last week of April as I write this blog and it’s a stage in the year where some of the pregnant females are MASSIVE. We’ll be expecting the first calf in the coming days and each of us will keep a keen eye on who calves throughout the month. I mentioned science as a prediction method in my first paragraph. Some herders like to research when a reindeer stripped the velvet on their antlers in the previous year, some herders like to look at if the reindeer are already growing their new antlers, and some herders like to inspect how big a reindeer’s udder is, all as a sign of their readiness to calve. If a reindeer strips their velvet early it can be an indicator that they come into season earlier. If a reindeer is already growing their new antlers it can be a sign that they are using more of their nutrients for themselves and not sharing them with a foetus.
This makes it all sound very technical actually. I think most of us just tend to pick one of our favourite reindeer. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to take a risk as well. Add to the drama. However, herders have been known in the past to make a risky prediction and the reindeer to not be pregnant at all. Just fat!
Some reindeer are so dependable to calve first that they’re off-bounds. Christie was first last year. And it was Pagan the year before that who always seems to be there or thereabouts. This year Tilly has chosen Ladybird who looks rotund. Ladybird, that is. I’ve chosen first time calver (I hope), Texel. My baking skills aren’t up to much so let’s hope Texel pulls through to reduce the risk of a salmonella outbreak up here.
I can’t help but smile when I see a reindeer yawn. They have the most wonderful facial expressions, produce the best sounds, and have the wobbliest of chins. I always try to capture the moment on camera but I’m usually way too slow and miss the moment. Over the past year I’ve been compiling a folder of my best reindeer yawns ready to produce a blog one day. Despite reindeer herding being my full time job, at the rate I’m going it would probably take several years before I’ve captured a decent amount of silly pictures and videos.
Sooo… I mentioned my blog idea to Hen and Andi recently whist *working very hard* in the office. Of course, they came to my rescue and more or less instantly produced many glorious pictures of yawning reindeer to bolster my collection.
So here goes, in no order or for any great reason other than hopefully making people smile. Enjoy!
Reindeer don’t eat carrots, and other myths to ruin your new year… 😉
Myth 1 – Reindeer are made up
It seems silly when you work with them every day, but it is easy to forget that for a lot of people the only reindeer they know of fly around the world in a single night, so perhaps its not that surprising that they assume they aren’t real.
I’m glad to be able to confirm that reindeer are in fact real and are great fun to work with.
Myth 2 – Reindeer eat carrots
Recent surveys have suggested that British people leave out around 3,000 tonnes of carrots for Rudolph to eat every Christmas Eve. But we aren’t sure where this tradition stems from as they do not grow in sub-Arctic habitats, and reindeer physically can’t eat carrots. Their lack of top teeth prevents them from chewing them down into a digestible size.
The food of choice for most reindeer is lichen, a fungi-algi symbiote, that grows here in the Cairngorm mountains and keeps the herd healthy. We also use it to help entice our reindeer during handling, or sometimes just give it out as a treat!
Myth 3 – Reindeer can fly
This one really goes hand in hand with Myth 1, but I am still yet to see one fly.
I do hear things are different on Christmas Eve though…?
Myth 4 – Antler points correlate with age
Antlers do tend to increase in size (and therefore often the number of points) with age, however this doesn’t necessarily align with exact ages in years. Also, over the course of their lives, the antlers are susceptible to change. For example, a cow’s antlers tend to be smaller any year she has a calf, a more senior reindeer tends to grow a smaller set, and damage or breaks in antlers can change the growth pattern permanently.
Myth 5 – Who pulls the sleigh at Christmas
This is an interesting one because the fact that some reindeer keep their antlers through winter leads to confusion about who might be pulling the sleigh. Many people’s first assumption is that it is all boys, due to the antlers. However, the fact that bulls will drop their heavier antlers before winter sets in has led many people to believe that sleigh teams are led by female reindeer (who tend to keep their antlers until the end of winter). While we may take female yearlings and calves out with the sleigh, the reindeer we have pulling the sleigh are castrated males. This is due to their laid-back nature, but also, they tend to hold their antlers longer than entire bulls. Additionally, mature female reindeer could be pregnant at Christmas time.
Castrates have long played an important role in reindeer herding culture. They tend to be more docile and better for training than bulls or cows, and in herds of thousands of reindeer a well-trained castrate male can be used as a ‘decoy’ to influence the movement of the herd in a desired direction.
Myth 6 – Antlers are made of wood
While the various textures and colours of antlers throughout their life cycle can often make them look wooden, fully grown antlers are formed of bone. They grow throughout the summer months, while covered in a thin layer of skin and a fur called velvet, and then in autumn the skin will be shed, and the bone shows through. At this point there is no more feeling in the antler, as the blood supply has fully stopped – which is the reason the skin sheds. The reindeer often look quite dramatic at this point, as residual blood can make for a scary looking reindeer! But after a rainy day or two the antlers will look lovely and clean.
Merry Christmas everyone. As you may well imagine, when you have a herd of reindeer, December is a busy time of the year. And this year has been no different. In this blog, I’ll provide a summary of what happens at the Reindeer Centre throughout December.
We’ve been having plenty of ‘Christmas Fun’ in the Paddocks and Exhibition area. This has taken place every December weekend as well as every day this past week in the build up to Christmas Day. Here we’ve had Santa Claus in his cosy, fire-lit grotto as well as arts and crafts, a special Christmas activity booklet for the kids to complete and plenty of herder talks out in the paddocks alongside the reindeer. We hope you’ve enjoyed chatting to us herders and seeing Santa!
The weather hasn’t always played ball with our plans. In fact, the start of December brought some pretty wild weather. We had over 10cm of snow. The reindeer were delighted and could often be seen dancing with joy, which can be seen in the video below. However, the Ski Road leading up to the car park had to be closed on occasion due to dangerous, icy conditions and a few Hill Trips were subsequently cancelled.
The snow melted about halfway through the month due to a mild spell of weather and we now have just a bit of frost on the ground in all areas except the very tops of the mountains. The weather didn’t put you hardy folks off visiting though and we had lots of visitors wrapping up warm and braving the elements on our hill trips. In fact, the December weekend hill trips were all booked up before December even started!
December is also the busiest month for our adoption scheme. As such we’ve been wading through seemingly never-ending torrents of incoming adoptions. All the herders have gallantly pulled long shifts of office work and about a week before Christmas Day we managed to paddle through the swell and get through the backlog of adoptions. No adoption was waiting more than a couple of days after being received so we hope that you receive your packages in a timely manner. During the busiest times, herders were writing letters whilst on tour and we recruited help from Linda and Tina who have been fantastic at writing letters for us from their homes.
One of the other events that happens over November and December is that a selection of trained reindeer may go out on tour around the nation. Events are often relatively local, however we reached as far south as Windsor this year and went as far away as Llanelli in South Wales. Training for the reindeer occurs throughout summer and really hots up during the autumn. The reindeer may be in a display pen or participating in a sleigh procession. It varies from event to event. The team and their herders will stay at overnight bases throughout the UK, and they will travel in big lorries with lots of space which means that the reindeer will often lie down on the straw when travelling or as some of you may have seen, they may also lie down when they’re in a pen. They like to relax whenever possible. Our calves have even had a bit of exposure to Christmas events and overall, they’ve been absolute champions.
Colin D (we have two Colins!) has clocked up the most miles of all of us herders and that’s good news for the rest of us as he produces the funniest videos. Here is Colin narrating Dr Seuss’ gardening skills. Stay tuned for more of Colin’s videos in a future blog/social media posts…
We are still open as usual until the 6th of January 2022. The Centre will then close until the 12th of February, re-opening in time for the February half-term. The entire herd will soon be free-ranging either on the Cairngorms or the Cromdales, fingers crossed for another cold and snowy winter. Thank you for all our wonderful visitors, supporters, blog-readers, and adopters throughout 2021. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, from all the reindeer herders!
Back in the summer of 2014, it was not just reindeer that us herders looked after. We had the responsibility of caring for Walter and Jesse. Two Soay sheep that had been left by their mothers.
Walter was the first to come to Reindeer House after Tilly, owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, noticed him deserted in one of the fields at her farm on the Glenlivet estate (https://www.wildfarming.co.uk/). Tilly and Alan have a range of animals at Wild Farm, including Soay Sheep, and rather than let them face life without a mother at just a few days old, Tilly decided that Reindeer House would be a good place to help nurse first Walter, and later Jesse, back to health before re-joining the flock.
The names may well sound familiar to the adult readers. That is because looking after these two lambs came just after the period that we at Reindeer House were watching the television series ‘Breaking Bad’.
Fiona, Hen, Andi, and I were living at Reindeer House. With Zac and Abby also working here at the time. During summer we would often eat lunch ‘al fresco’, basking in the sun that illuminated the front garden, but we would share our garden with Walter and Jesse.
Walter and Jesse were only with us for a short time before they re-joined the flock, but they left a big impression on both us and the visitors. In fact, Walter and Jesse used to greet visitors to the paddock as their outdoor space was located by the paddock door. They even came with their own sign in their garden that read: “These are not Reindeer Calves”. Just in case any confusion occurred.
It was obviously a great responsibility looking after these lambs in their most vulnerable months. Feeding occurred every few hours throughout the day and the night. This involved plenty of ‘night shifts’ where a member of the household would wake up, boil the kettle, mix the milk with nutritional supplement and warm it up before a tasty bottle feed occurred. However, Fiona, Hen, Andi, and I were not the only Reindeer House residents. We had the dogs. The late Misty and evergreen Sookie who did not know what to make of their new housemates at first. It didn’t take them long to get on famously.
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.