Sika, the ‘forgotten reindeer’

The eagle-eyed amongst you, or those who have followed us on social media for a long time, might have noticed a reindeer named Sika popping up on our pages once or twice in the last few months, having never heard of her before. So where has she come from? Is she ‘new’?!

Sika in 2016

In fact, she’s not remotely new – actually she’s rather old. Sika was born in 2008 and has been here her whole life, but this winter there’s been a bit of a turnaround in her character, which has taken all of us rather by surprise. Let me explain…

In 2008 we named our calves after ‘horned and antlered animal species’, and the name we picked for Malawi’s wee female calf was Impala. But time passed and Malawi and Impala weren’t seen for ages, and whilst winter crept on and all the other calves came into the hill enclosure and got used to being handled and were halter-trained, there was still no sign of the two. Eventually, Malawi showed up but she was alone, with no sign on Impala. Frustrated, we wrote off Impala as one of the losses that year – not every calf makes it to adulthood sadly.

And then in January 2009, a report reached us of a reindeer calf alone at the far end of the Kincardine hills, at the edge of the Cairngorms but not in a spot that reindeer normally stray to. Off we went to investigate, and there was a wee calf – alone and very shy. Eventually she was captured with the aid of some makeshift fencing and a small group of tame adult reindeer acting as decoys – but who was she? Process of elimination led us to realise she must be Impala, separated from Malawi accidentally at some point and then lost by herself in an area she didn’t know. But as we had had to ‘seek her’ (geddit?), and the name Sika hadn’t been used in that year’s naming theme, ‘Impala’ fell by the wayside and ‘Sika’ joined the herd instead.

Sika in her younger days

Christmas is the time that our calves receive most of their formative handling, transforming from effectively wild animals to tame ones well used to being around people. But Sika had missed this window, and while we did initially halter-train her, she remained very wild still in character compared to others, and quickly became a reindeer that we didn’t even consider trying to put a halter on in adult life. She lived her life up on the Cairngorms, never being brought down to our Paddocks or moved across to our alternative winter grazing range as moving her just wasn’t an option. A ‘background’ reindeer – never noticed by visitors (and often barely by us!), just there in the herd but never really featuring much or making any great impact on any of our lives. She has never even had an adopter – one of the very few reindeer in the herd with this dubious accolade.

In the hill enclosure for the rut a couple of years back, with Caterpillar and Cottage following on

Over the years Sika produced a couple of calves, but in general we avoiding breeding her to some extent as breeding a wild streak into our herd is not ideal. Her calves, few and far between, also turned out rather shy too, although not as bad as Sika herself. The one anomaly was Bordeaux, her only female calf, who was born in 2019 and is an absolute sweetie! We have no idea really why she has turned out the way she has – she certainly didn’t get her trust in humans from her mum!

Bordeaux – Sika’s mini-me

In the last 3 or 4 years we have put a lot more effort in to training our reindeer to come and put their heads into a feed bag and allowing us to touch them, in order to make it easier to catch and halter them when necessary. All winter when we’ve walked out to the herd first thing in the morning, before putting feed down on the ground for them we have wandered around the shyer reindeer, offering a bit of bribery in return for any positive behaviour towards us. For most reindeer this has worked wonders, and some characters that we could never have considered catching in the past (or at least whilst out in a large open space) are now easily won over – Inca, Suidhe and Roule have been our particular success stories! But as for Sika… she was a reindeer that would never really make eye contact but just turn away whenever a herder optimistically proffered a bag.

Looking beautiful, but always keeping her distance…

Fast forward to January 2022, and I snorted ‘Hmphh. Good luck!’ at Andi as she tried to catch Sika’s attention with the feed bag once again. But something was different. Just for a second she looked, before turning away again. Andi is like a dog with a bone in these situations, and I know I can push her to keep at something by telling her it isn’t worth bothering about (god bless you, reverse psychology) and sure enough she kept persisting. I almost fell over in surprise when, 5 minutes later, Sika had got to the point where she was stretching her neck out towards the feed bag, although not yet bold enough to put her nose right in it. This behaviour persisted from day to day until finally she snatched a mouthful… and a light-bulb went on somewhere in her little brain!

Success! Andi’s smile says it all 😀

Now, Sika is one of the first reindeer over to us each morning, actively hunting down the feed bag and keeping a close eye on it until she’s offered a wee extra nibble. I love to look around at the herd, patiently hanging around waiting for us, catch her eye and rustle the bag a tiny bit… and see that head lift a bit, her eyes widen and a lick of the lips in anticipation! All her attention is on us the whole time – so different from the years of ignoring, or even actively avoiding – us.

At the front of the herd and leading them in for feed, earlier this winter

She is still quite jumpy around us however, and is definitely not a reindeer we’re about to try and actually catch and put a halter on, but at 14 years old there’s no need to. We are just enjoying finally getting to know her after a lifetime of obscurity! I can’t express enough how surprised we all are to find out that Sika is actually a lovely character, after all these years…

Shy reindeer sometimes need defending whilst they grab a mouthful from the pushier members of the herd – ironically this intruder is Malawi, Sika’s mum! Malawi is now the oldest reindeer in the entire herd, at 17 years old, and of the opinion that any feed bag is presumably therefore all for her.

Hen

Houdini

Houdini is 11 years old now. He joined our herd when we brought reindeer over here from Sweden in 2011 as a way to boost the genetics in our own herd. At the time he was a calf and the way he got his name was during his time in Sweden while my brother Alex was there training them ready for their journey over to Scotland. On a number of occasions when Alex would head to the corral in the morning all the reindeer were securely inside the fencing… except for one. After a good bit of persuasion with food he’d coax that calf back in to join the herd in the corral. The weird thing was he couldn’t work out where he was getting out… and that is how he got his name, Houdini! He must have eventually watched him and worked it out because Houdini did come over to Scotland and didn’t remain in Sweden.

Houdini in Sweden in 2011.
Houdini in the Cairngorms!
Teenage Houdini – August 2013.

For his first few years with us he was too young to breed but with a quiet and greedy nature we soon realised that he’d be a good one to use as a main breeding bull in the future. His antlers were always a good size but never had much shapeliness to them. As a bull he was an interesting character. Sometimes when bulls are quite tame when they rut they can see us as part of their herd and in the rutting season this meant fending us off from trying to steal his females! Not that we actually wanted his females but he wasn’t to know that. So feeding him and his hareem had to be done with caution. Other bulls such as Kota, and Spartan never gave us a second look… nature of the beast I guess, they are all very different. Houdini over the years fathered many calves, including Olmec, Texel, Holy Moley, Jelly etc… Like their dad, as well as mums influence too, they all have a very sweet nature.

Houdini in September 2019 – ready for the rut.

In 2020 Houdini was 9 years old and we’d used him as a main breeding bull for a few years so we decided to give him a break now. This meant he had a visit from the vet to be gelded so Houdini will live out his life in our herd as a Christmas reindeer. We couldn’t possibly have a herd full of bulls or going into the rutting season would be complete chaos and very difficult to manage. We would risk relatives breeding with one another so we must geld reindeer that we don’t want to breed from. This would happen at the youngest of 3 years old, or like Houdini at the age of 9. It is our Christmas reindeer that would take part in events and are trained to harness and pull the sleigh.

As Houdini was already a good age we did train him to wear harness and pull the sleigh but the reality of him actually doing many events are pretty slim. As a big reindeer who has had a lot of stress on his body over the years with rutting he also needs to take it easy. We trained him at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore and he did really well. For a big, old boy who hasn’t done anything like that before he was great. With our normal Christmas tour not happening in 2020 due to COVID we did a few local events. Houdini joined the team that did a local hotel on Christmas day but he just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, nothing too tasking. In 2021 he went through the training again and he joined my team and for the first time since he came into Scotland, he came south of the border to the north of England.

Houdini, closest to camera, leaving the hill enclosure to visit England!

We were doing an event at Stockeld Park in Yorkshire. It was a two day event so both days we turned up for 11am into a huge grassy pen and did a parade around their enchanted forest at 3pm. The parade loop went around their cross country ski route and passed lit-up animals, ogres, Little Red Riding Hood’s house, a wicked witch riding on her sleigh as well as a lake with fountains and a few enormous lit-up unicorns with fairies dancing on top… I know I couldn’t quite take it all in either! We set off on our first out of four loops in total we were going to be doing that weekend, two each day. I thought it was a bit much to ask Houdini to pull the sleigh on the first day as it was his first event and discovering unicorns on his first ever event should be done while walking at the back of the sleigh and not having to concentrate on the sleigh as well. So he joined myself at the back of the sleigh with Anster, Beret and Beanie. Frost and Celt were pulling it with Lotti leading. As we enter the enchanted forest it was great seeing Houdini take it in but not reacting. Each lit-up animal we passed he’d stare at, but by the fourth round on day two he barely even gave each display the time of day, even the huge unicorns.

Houdini at the back of the sleigh – observing the craziness of his first proper Christmas event!
Houdini’s lovely bottom on the left – doing a fantastic job at the back of the sleigh!

After the weekend we headed north again and before he knew it he was back on the hill with the herd. I wonder if he spread his knowledge of unicorns in Yorkshire onto the other reindeer? Houdini was an absolute star! He took everything in his stride and over the years has brought so much to our herd, we are very proud of him. He might do the odd local event now but leave the ones further afield to the younger reindeer. Stockeld was perfect for him as a big comfortable grassy pen was good on his older joints. It’s a bit like me, when we stay at farm bases across the country now I need a comfy bed at night or I wake up a bit stiff!

Houdini (in the middle) enjoying a snooze with his team mates at Stockeld – November 2022.

Fiona

2017 Calves part 2: Dr Seuss and Christie

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about Kipling, one of the reindeer born in 2017 (click here to read the first installment). This week I will write about two more reindeer born in that year and given names belonging to the theme famous authors and poets.

Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was the first calf I ever got to know due to his unmistakable white face passed down from his mother Merida. From a young age he was full of cheek and character and also had a large appetite for food. As a little dumpy chubster he was probably the reindeer I gave the most fuss to during my first winter in the form of food and cuddles, although the latter I enjoyed more than him. Reindeer aren’t ones for being fussed but it was hard to resist for this little man.

Dr Seuss and his mum Merida in September 2017 – both with very distinctive face markings.
Joe (with flowing long locks!) and Dr Seuss.
Dr Seuss in February 2018.

Being a male, Dr Seuss went through his 1st and 2nd year in true teenage fashion, spending most of his time at the farm and tussling the other young bulls his age during the autumn. In the summer months he would be in our hill enclosure fattening up and meeting visitors. He’s always loved his food and will never let an opportunity go a miss if he spots the white handfeed bag.

Teenage Dr Seuss in September 2019.

At 3 years old and fully grown Dr Seuss was trained to become one of our Christmas reindeer and pull the sleigh on events. Being so relaxed and friendly by this point he took to it very well and looked super impressive with his distinctive large, wide antlers. He was so good, he also featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘A Baby Reindeer’s first Christmas’ as one of the stars of the show pulling Santa’s sleigh with a team which included his fellow co-star and reindeer celebrity, Holy Moley. Since then Dr Seuss has featured in a couple of other film or photography events but I don’t believe I am allowed to reveal them just yet. Dr Seuss is one of our friendliest and still most distinctive reindeer, he’s a lovely lad who all herders have taken a strong liking too. From a small round calf he’s now a whopping size with a huge backside that’s important fat reserves for the winter. That’s my excuse for him anyway.

Dr Seuss pulling the sleigh in November 2021 in the middle of Bradford – what a star!
Back on the snowy hills in December 2021, after a weekend away on sleigh-pulling duty!

Christie

Caddis and Christie as a young calf.
Christie aged 4 months old – checkout those antlers! She certainly takes after her mum.

From a young age Christie has always been a very pretty reindeer with her white spotted face and legs. Her mother Caddis was a true great of our reindeer herd and it was actually her who caught my attention when I first started getting to know the herd. At the time Caddis was more or less the matriarch of the herd, she was one of the biggest females in both size of body and antlers and for as long as I knew her, always seemed to produce the biggest calf each year. With all her majesty though, she never seemed too pushy with the other reindeer and was very tame. As a young female Christie never left her side until eventually Caddis had another calf, now known as Sherlock, a year later and Christie was naturally pushed away. Unlike her mother, Christie in nature is a lot shyer. As a yearling she spent almost a whole year free- ranging and although I rarely saw her I was always interested to see how she was getting on. Unfortunately Caddis sadly passed away before Christie was 2 years old and as her last female calf, I wanted Christie to one day take after her mother and become as big and strong as she was. As a two year old Christie did spent more time in the enclosure during the winter when I moved to the Reindeer Centre. Like Kipling I would often try to give her a little extra feed and handling to encourage her to be more tame but she’s never quite become completely relaxed around people. I do see her sometimes handfeed from visitors and stand in and amongst groups of people more but not as regularly as our tame or greedier reindeer. I’ve began to enjoy this characteristic about Christie though, I know she’ll never be like her mum was with regards to how she acted around people but with a little encouragement Christie will still accept your presence and a tasty handful of food. This year I was so excited to see Christie become a mum and give birth to her first healthy calf. A surprisingly dark male called Akubra, who we named after our hat themed year. Like Caddis once did, Christie has produced the largest calf of the year and has also grown an incredible set of antlers for a mother. It’s really nice to see that Christie has taken after her mother in this way and has carried on the legacy of family genetics. I still think the best of Christie is yet to come and although she may not be the tamest of reindeer, I’ll keep doing my best give her that extra bit of food during the coming winter months and see if she grows in confidence as time goes on.

Looking fabulous free-ranging in August 2020.
Christie and her young calf that we later named Akubra – May 2021.
Joe and Christie – March 2022.

Joe

Elvis – the oldest male reindeer in the herd

Elvis strutting his stuff – September 2017.

Elvis will be 16 this year, born on the 7th May 2006. His mother was Esme who was a really sweet natured female in our herd, who also lived to a grand age. Although he is a beautiful ‘Christmas reindeer’ Elvis was a real ugly duckling when he was a youngster. He’s now got old man status and is well and truly retired from any duties, but in his prime he has been out and about on our Christmas tour, greeted our many visitors on the mountain annually and won the heart of many through our adoption scheme.

Esme and Elvis as a calf.
Malawi, Wham and Elvis.
Elvis as a teenager in September 2008.

I remember taking Elvis out on tour over a number of years and he was always a great role model to the younger, less experienced reindeer. He has visited Harrods in London, towns as far south as Cornwall and of course done many other events in Scotland, England and Wales. He grew a lovely set of antlers every year and still to this day amazes us with a great set of antler annually, even at his age!

Elvis on Christmas tour in 2016.
Fiona, Eve, Oryx and Elvis, with Judi Dench!

He comes from quite a small family and there are no longer any breeding females left in his immediate family line. Okapi, his sister is just like her mum and brother by having a sweet nature and of course like most reindeer is very greedy. She spends all her time on Cairngorm, unlike Elvis who spends all of his time at our Glenlivet site either free range on the Cromdale hills over winter or down at our hill farm during the summer months. Okapi has to remain here as quite a few years ago she had an injury which meant she was unable to breed ever again, however, being so tame and friendly she is a great leader of the herd and often when we bring them in from free ranging in the mountains she helps us herders to do this by following very willingly!

Handsome Elvis – September 2011.
Okapi, Elvis’s sister, in November 2018.

Over the past year Elvis has started to look his age… and fairly so! When getting up from lying down he is that little bit stiffer than he would have been a couple of year ago. The stiffness doesn’t last for too long but I’m sure many of you can relate to this when getting out of bed in the morning. We have put him up onto the Cromdale Hills again for the winter season with the rest of the herd and will catch up with them a few times throughout the week for a feed and check over. Elvis, a few times now, hasn’t shown up immediately when the herd call down off the top ridge, however, him and Bovril (another old boy in the herd) eventually come wandering down at their own pace so we’ve learnt to save a bit back now so the other greedy reindeer don’t eat it all!

Elvis free-ranging on the Cromdales – January 2022.

It will be a sad day when we don’t have Elvis around anymore but he has been a great ambassador to the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and I’ve known him from my late teens and right through my 20’s and 30’s so he will be a reindeer that I will chat about in years to come so his spirit will definitely live on!

Fiona

2017 calves part 1: Kipling

Surprisingly I’ve been involved with working at the Reindeer Centre for over four years now. Time has certainly flown by and I would never have expected to be living at the Centre or even in the Highlands when I first began back in November 2017.

When I joined the team, the calves were already 6 months old and had been named under the theme of famous poets and authors. Back then they were still little fuzz balls on legs with small sticks for antlers and sometimes even then, a little mischievous. I quickly got to know them individually over a couple of weeks and eventually Kipling, Dr Seuss and Christie became my favourite reindeer calves. Over the four years I’ve had great joy watching them grow into the adults and characters that they have become now and I feel privileged to have known them all their lives up to this point. 

In this blog I will write a little about Kipling, look out for a future blog about Dr Seuss and Christie.

Joe and Kipling in winter 2020-21.

I can shamelessly say that Kipling is probably my favourite reindeer in the entire herd. Is it bad to have my favourite? Should I treat them all equally? Maybe, but over the years Kipling has been so much fun to work with and get to know. As a calf, I remember her looking slightly different to the others of her year. She was dark in colour but with an almost silvery sheen to her coat. Her mother, Hopscotch, is quite tame and rather greedy and this instantly rubbed off on her daughter. Kipling has certainly always enjoyed her food!

Kipling as 4 month old calf.

During the first 2 years of her life, I only worked at the Reindeer Centre through the winter time but would still visit at least once during the summer months and I remember seeing her on the free-range as a young female. By the time I would start work in October for the season, Kipling would be in our hill enclosure and it was during this time her obsession with food grew. Handfeed is certainly one of her favourite foods and she would inhale it out of the hands of our visitors before they could even take her picture. She also became extremely tame and friendly during this time and sometimes behaved more like a dog than a reindeer, brushing up against people and didn’t even mind being stroked. Through the coldest winter months when all the reindeer were free-ranging I would always make sure to give her a few extra handfuls of food to keep her happy. Some of the herders were not too pleased to see me do this as over time this has made her quite pushy when it comes to a food bag and has now lost all manners when it comes to waiting to be fed!

Kipling in September 2019, now 2 years old.

Kipling was so tame as a two year old that she even came on Christmas events with us. We visited Milngavie, Keswick, Bedford and Windsor while on tour and she was so ridiculous when on display in the pen, brushing up against the fence to say hello to people and telling off dogs when they came too close.

Herder Fiona and Kipling on tour.
Kipling on Christmas tour in Windsor.

At 3 years old Kipling became a mother and I was lucky enough to be the first person to see her after giving birth. In classic Kipling style, she was so food orientated that during her first year of being a mother she would pay more attention to what she could eat rather than keep her calf close by. I got to name the calf after the peas, seeds and beans theme that year and landed on the name Pip after my first family pet dog Pippin. Pip herself is more shy in nature than Kipling but has grown in confidence over the last year and is still close to her mother.

Joe, Kipling and new-born calf who was later named Pip – May 2020.
Kipling, her daughter Pip and her littler sister Juniper free-ranging in December 2021. An inseparable trio!

In more recent times Kipling has become a well known regular to visitors on our Hill Trips. She’s usually the first reindeer to come in and hand feed but has sometimes got a little too pushy in her greed and has been known to be a bit too boisterous for some. I feel that after all the extra food and attention I have given to Kipling over the years I have played my part in creating a food monster. But like people can be around their loved one, I look past this and only see the fun, friendly reindeer that I’ve become so fond of.

Kipling in September 2021. A standard photo of her – way too close to the camera for a nice shot!

Joe

Elvis

Elvis is now 15 years old and our oldest male reindeer in the herd so it’s about time he gets some recognition. As a youngster he was a real ugly duckling. In fact I remember when we had a visit from some Sami (indigenous reindeer herders of Scandinavia) people back in 2007, they pointed at Elvis and said he was ‘bad stock’. His winter coat was very scruffy/mottled and being a teenager at the time he was tall and lanky so probably didn’t look like he was in good condition.

From L to R: Malawi (now our oldest reindeer in the whole herd at 16), Wham and Elvis

Boy did he prove them wrong as he went on to become a big and beautiful reindeer putting on good condition and growing lovely big antlers annually. For about 7-8 years he was one of our trusty go to Christmas reindeer during our Christmas tour in November and December each year. He visited the likes of Harrods in London taking part in their Christmas parade, Windsor Castle, even just our local schools and nurseries. He was always such a good role model to the younger, less experienced reindeer so us herders loved having him in our team. With such an iconic name he was popular with our visitors and the public on Christmas parades.

Two year old Elvis (in 2008) in our hill enclosure
Handsome Elvis in 2011
Elvis in September 2015, now an old pro on Christmas tour!

His mum, Esme, was a very lovely reindeer. She lived to a grand age and was always one of the first down for an easy feed when us herders were up on the mountain. His sister, Okapi, is still with us and she is 13 years old. He’s not from a very big family and Okapi doesn’t breed anymore so they are the last two in that line.

Mum Esme and Elvis, as a calf

Elvis is well and truly retired now, and quite rightly so. He spends his winters with the herd free range on the Cromdale Hills where the lichen heath is fantastic. Come spring he is at our hill farm near Glenlivet where they go out to the hill each night and have access to a food filled shed during the day… life is pretty good for a farm reindeer! Recently he came over here to the Reindeer Centre to spend time in our paddock area for a few days while an adopter was visiting but at his age I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend too long in there so we were quick to put him back to the farm. He’s been there, done that. There is no need for him to perform to the crowds anymore, he can leave that to the younger reindeer.

Elvis looking fantatsic in September 2017

So we don’t know how much longer Elvis will be with us but his condition and antler growth this year is no different to the last few years. He can be a bit slower in the mornings, or a bit stiff when he gets up from lying down but that’s just like me and I’m only 34! For now though we will keep giving him extra lichen treats and keep him alongside the rest of the herd where he is happiest.

Fiona

My Little Pony

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, aged 2 months

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.

With mum Mawar (left), before the tips of Pony’s ears fell off (which is very noticeable in the first photo at the top of this blog)

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!

Pony and wee calf

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!

The queen of ‘resting b*tch face’!

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!

With Turtle at less than 24 hours old, Pony having just done her best to nail me…

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!

In the half-dark, waiting for the sedative to wear off…
…after this old bit of bone was removed from her mouth, having been impaled into the underside of her tongue!

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!

Pony in the company of her daughter Suebi, aged 2

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!

Andi

Spartan, one of my favourites.

The reindeer I’ve chosen to talk about in this week’s blog is a reindeer who I like a lot. I met him when he was just hours old and he has now become one of the breeding bulls for the herd. His name is Spartan. He was born in 2016 and was named after that year’s naming theme of ‘lost civilizations’. This means he’s about 5 years old and is coming in to his prime. In this blog I’d like to talk a bit about Spartan’s journey from unassuming calf to sweet-natured breeding bull as well as his heritage and his offspring.

Spartan as a very young calf, with mum Bumble keeping an eye on him

During Spartan’s first year of life he was always an unassuming calf. He wasn’t exactly oozing in character and was a relatively quiet calf. He was always polite and never pushy, and he grew very simple antlers. However, as you can see from the photo below, his antlers are far from simple nowadays. They are one of the largest and most beautiful in the herd.

What a bonny lad!

From a personality point of view, Spartan really grew into himself over the years. He has a sweet, lovely nature, even during the rut. For those who don’t know, the rut is a period in autumn – about a month in duration – where reindeer come into season and the breeding occurs. Breeding bulls are known to alter their nature and become more territorial which can lead to these bulls being more scary and aggressive (hence why we don’t visit the breeding bulls on hill trips in October/November). However, Spartan remained well-behaved despite being swarmed by hormones. Compared to our other breeding bulls he is definitely on the well-behaved end of the spectrum. Perhaps this was due to his much-loved mother, Bumble, being incredibly sweet-natured and passing on those genes to her son. If you wanted to read more about Bumble, you can read a blog on her by clicking here.

Bumble – a monstrously greedy reindeer!!!

Spartan had his first experience of being a breeding bull in 2019 and is believed to be the father of 10 calves that were conceived that year and later born in 2020. However, the selection of Spartan as a breeding bull wasn’t an obvious selection. Each year we have to make the decision of which young adult male reindeer we want to pass on their genetics for the future of the herd, and which reindeer we want to castrate. This decision is made when the male reindeer is at least 3 years old and is integral in keeping the number of reindeer in our herd to a sustainable amount. Moreover, by controlling the breeding it means that we never have to cull any reindeer. When it came time to select which reindeer were to be castrated from the 2016 year we decided that we would keep 2 reindeer as breeding bulls that year. Roman was the first choice and after lengthy discussions, Spartan’s genes seemed to win out over other contenders such as Aztec and Celt. He kind of snuck through the castration net, so to speak.

Roman, in the foreground, grows amazing antlers!

Spartan comes from a blood line that had almost become lost within our herd. And now that he is one of our few breeding bulls, it means that the blood line has a new lease of life. Spartan’s father was the popular breeding bull Nutti who was imported as a calf from Sweden in December 2011. We imported a large amount of young male reindeer from Sweden around that time as we wanted to diversify the genetics in our herd and introduce more blood lines. Nutti unfortunately died in April 2018 whilst free-roaming in the Cromdale hills but as you can see from the photo below, his genetics live on in Spartan whose looks, and indeed nature resemble that of Nutti.

Nutti – explaining where Spartan’s face marking came from!

In 2019, almost immediately after the decision that he would become a breeding bull, Spartan was put into the rut and introduced to his own group of females that were coming into season. It turned out that the other breeding bull contenders were related to more of the eligible cows than Spartan. Therefore, we believe he is father to a group of 10 lovely calves (now yearlings) all of whom were named after ‘peas, seeds and beans’. The calves that we think are probably Spartan’s all appear to be very sweet natured and endearing. They are Cannellini, Lupin, Hemp, Chickpea, Mushy, Pinto, Edamame, Adzuki, Borlotti and Haricot. And with only a few exceptions, many of the calves have distinctive white face markings, just like Spartan. These are most notable on Pinto, Edamame, Hemp, Borlotti and Adzuki, the offspring of Morven,  Emmental, Addax, Clootie and Gazelle respectively.

Winner of the most interesting markings as a newborn calf – Hemp!

Although we didn’t use Spartan in autumn’s rut of 2020 he retains his ‘equipment’ and his name is being discussed as a potential breeding bull for this year’s rut. He is currently in great condition and is having a very peaceful year! In the early months of 2021 Spartan has been free-roaming on the Cromdale hills.

So there you have it! The story of Spartan – one of our friendliest breeding bulls.

Ben

Fonn: An obituary

We lost one of our old girls a few weeks back, Fonn. She was a really sweet character in the herd and got to the grand age of 17, only one month off her 18th birthday. Considering anything over 10 years old is doing well this meant she did really well! Although the last few years she was starting to look her age she continued to stay in good condition, giving us no cause for concern. This was helped by us letting her get her head in the bag of feed of course!

Fonn in her heyday

As a youngster she had her fair share of calves of which her son Rubiks and daughter Merida are still going strong. Her oldest daughter Joni we lost in 2020 to old age, however Joni also had a few calves over the years so it’s a good sized family. She has 5 grandchildren currently in the herd – Bourbon, Jenga, Jute, Dr Seuss and Ärta. She also has one great grandson, Jelly. I wont get into cousins and second cousins cos I’ll be here all day.

With daughter Merida, back in 2012

In the past 7 years Fonn hasn’t had a calf and as a result lived to a grand age. She was always super reliable when bringing the herd in for feeding time and if we ever needed to catch a reindeer out to walk on a halter as a lure for the others to follow then Fonn was a good one to do this. Last year she re-formed a very sweet bond with her 9 year old son, Rubiks. The two of them remained side by side for 7 months through winter, spring and summer 2020 which considering they’d spent no time together in the years previous to that was quite amazing they remembered each other. Dr Seuss, her 4 year old grandson has turned into one of the most recognisable characters in the herd not only through looks with his big antlers, white face and dark body but he also featured as one of the main reindeer in last year’s TV show ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’.

Rubiks licking Fonn’s face, back in January 2020

Always friendly to visitors!

Many reindeer come and go throughout the years and although they are all great characters some leave a slightly bigger hole in your heart than others and Fonn was certainly one of them. Of course it is sad, however the sadness is outweighed by knowing she had such a fantastic life up here in the Cairngorm Mountains. She has succession through her wonderful family which is a mix of Christmas reindeer, females and young bulls so the line will go on and she can be proud of what’s to come.

The last ‘adopt’ photo of Fonn (photo taken for her adoption certificates), looking old but still very well last autumn.

Fiona

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