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!
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’?!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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…
From when we close in January through until around the end of April, most of the reindeer here at Cairngorm will be out free-ranging. This is great for them as they get to roam wherever they please (mostly) and spend time in their natural habitat, where they are at their most comfortable. But it does mean that before every Hill Trip during this time, we must head up into the hills to find the herd.
Generally getting to the reindeer is a pretty simple process but getting them back to whichever site we are running the hill trip from can be more complicated – they don’t always want to follow us!
Around the beginning of April, we had a morning collecting reindeer that were a little more difficult than usual. The cloud was extremely low and thick, and they were in an area of the hills with almost no established paths, only a handful of trodden trails at best. It’s also not an area we go too all that much and there are very few proper landmarks to navigate by. All this is a way of saying that it was quite a difficult morning of reindeer herding!
This winter there seems to have been a lot of dogs both resident and visiting Reindeer House. Starting with the long-term residents and dogs you’ll all know well we have Sookie and Tiree. Sookie will be 15 this year. She still gets out and about joining us on walks and slow (Fiona) runs around Glenmore. She even manages to get up our local hill Meall a Bhuachaille. It’s around 5.5km with a 450m accent. She picks and chooses the days she wants to join us. If we leave with a lot of other dogs or it looks like we are going to be walking too fast for her then she sometimes turns around about 100m into the walk and comes home. We’ve left it up to her nowadays and she probably joins us around 50% of the time. If it’s too hot that day she also chooses to stay back. Otherwise, her day mainly consists of sleeping, which if I was 15 years old (105 in human years) I’d be doing exactly the same.
Tiree is my (Fiona’s) dog, though Joe may try to claim her! She joined our team in 2014 and is 7 years old now. Being one of the most energetic ones of the household she needs lots of exercise. Unfortunately she is a bit reactive so if someone is going for a walk/run which is in a busy area she has to stay home but without a doubt will get out later on with someone after work or if folk are doing a quieter walk. She’s a fantastic hill dog and makes sure her hill crew are together, often joining the person who is furthest back in the group. She joins in our ski, run and biking adventures. She’s even pretty good at swimming! As she lives outside she has a very thick coat on her and LOVES the winter and snow so she is in her element just now.
Another resident at Reindeer House just now is Dug. He belongs to herder Ben H and what a great addition he has been to the dog team. He’s 9 year’s old and with such a lovely, friendly nature he wouldn’t say boo to a ghost! With an overshot jaw and an unusually long tongue he often has his tongue sticking out uncontrollably which only adds to his lovely character! A few of the herders refer to him as Mr Long Tongue, or the Anteater. Joining us in November for the winter season, Ben and Dug have fallen for the area and will now be sticking around for the next year at least!
Newest arrival to Reindeer House is Fraoch (Gaelic for Heather) belonging to Joe and Fiona. She is a Border Collie pup, born in November 2021 so still very young! Although the other dogs grumble at her she has fitted in wonderfully and although Tiree would deny it just now I’m sure the two of them will be as thick as thieves in a few months…. Or maybe years? Lol
We then have the regular visitors through herders visiting and working. Tilly has her two border terrors… I mean terriers, Moskki and Tuva, who are totally devoted to her. Sheena also has a mother and daughter combo in her golden retrievers, Elsie and Ginger. Tip is Alex and Emily’s dog who pops in now and again, she is a New Zealand Huntaway and very loyal, though has a very, very loud voice. I think it’s getting louder as she gets older. Maybe her hearing is going and she needs to go into more effort to be heard! Mel took on Skip, a collie x Australian Kelpie, in 2021. The two of them are a perfect match with their energy levels and seem to have endless amount of it as they always seem to be out running, skiing or biking. With her first few months being brought up with Alex, Emily and Tip she knows Reindeer House well and fits in great. Ben B often takes Mable to work with him who is a lovely golden lab. Though I think if she had a watch she’d be clock watching for when Ben takes her home at night. I think Reindeer House is just a bit too overwhelming and prefers the quiet, less chaotic life with Ben and Jess at home. Saying that she’s easily won over with a tasty biscuit or decent walk.
As well as all these regulars we have friends visiting who tend to come with their dog in toe including Mara, Foss and Ruadh. Also this winter friends from down south were staying for a few days and they had an enormous Golden Retriever called Sam who I think it’s safe to say he was actually a Polar Bear, not a dog! Dennis also came to visit who belongs to ex-herder Ryan. Dennis is actually one of Moskki’s pups from 2019 so it’s always nice to see him and he’s very similar to his mum. Seasonal herder Sally pops up from the lakes now and again and brings Midge her 4.5 year old collie with her.
So as you can see it’s more of a Dog Centre than Reindeer Centre. All the dogs get on just fine, with the inevitable grumble here and there, but that’s mainly from Tiree as she’s the unsociable one. But no fighting, that’s the main thing. Fraoch is getting on just fine with them all and learning fast how to socialise with them individually.
Enjoy all the lovely dog photos taken over the years of this motley crew! Herders and dogs!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
At the end of November 2021 the UK was battered by Storm Arwen. It hit us on a very busy weekend with various teams heading off on Christmas tour – Fiona wrote a blog about that which can be found here. We’ve now had many more storms and lots of snowfall this winter, but I thought that I would share some photos of the reindeer and reindeer herders in the snow taken during the first major wintery weekend of the season…
In the winter months, all of our adult male reindeer plus some of our cows roam free on the Cromdale mountains. Tilly and the farm crew take care of their day-to-day feeding but occasionally one of us herders from the Glenmore base will pop over to help. Here is a random selection of photos from one of my recent visits:
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
Throughout the year The Reindeer Centre has its core staff with a mix of full time and part time Reindeer Herders. Many of you will know us well, so we’ve got – Fiona, Hen, Andi, Lotti, Ben B, Ruth, Olly, Sheena and Lisette. We also have our hill farm contingent consisting of Alan, Tilly, Derek and Colin. We are here all year round seeing the reindeer (and other animals on the farm) through the different seasons, however we cannot manage all the work ourselves… that would be impossible!
Editor’s note (Ruth): not every herder features in the photos, please do not be offended if I’ve missed any of you lovely herders out! Check out this page on the website for more info and photos about who we all are: Who’s who – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd
So we call upon seasonal staff who dot in and out throughout the year to help out. The parts of the year that can be busy are: February half term, Easter holidays then of course right through the summer with schools breaking up in Scotland first and English schools going back at the beginning of September. Although we aren’t so busy with tourists through September it is the start of our rutting season so we are busy with reindeer management. At this time of year we are carrying a lot of feed up the hill so it’s a reindeer herders work out! We usually have around 4 different groups of reindeer in various enclosures either running with a bull or the herd of Christmas reindeer and females we aren’t breeding from so plenty to keep us on our toes. Its busy through October half term just before we gear up in preparation for Christmas and our own Christmas tour which runs through November and December. We can all breath a big sigh of relief in January when we take a month off and close the doors to the public. We do however keep the office and reindeer management ticking over amongst the core staff.
Seasonal staff that worked throughout these busy periods in 2021 consisted of – Joe, Nell, Harry, Kate, Mel, Izzy, Colin D, Ben H, Dave, Manouk and Leonie. We even roped in ex reindeer herders Jack and Eve for a busy weekend in December… Once a reindeer herder, always a reindeer herder!
If you’ve been up to visit us in 2021 you’ll have no doubt bumped into a few of these herders both core and seasonal along the way. We are very lucky with our team here at the Reindeer Centre. Everyone works well together, is great with the public and of course fab with the reindeer. Every day we are learning more when it comes to reindeer management but we all take it in our stride and everyone mucks in which is the important thing
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.