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.
We’ve got a new Dutch reindeer herder! No, not me (Manouk), yet another one, we’re taking over 😉. From the start of May, Lisette has been part our team for 2 days a week. Having lived in Fort Bill for 5 years, experienced with sheep, shepherding and dealing with the public, we thought she’d make an excellent addition to the team. That now brings the team to 2 Dutchies, as I’m back doing Mondays again. This left Hen to wonder if there are more Dutch reindeer herders than Scottish ones, but we quickly realised that that wasn’t the case. The Scots are definitely out-Englished though!
Lisette and I are not the first Dutch herders in Scotland. Decades back, there was a Dutch ultra-runner, Jan Knippenberg, who would fly from the Netherlands to Inverness and continue on to run to the Cairngorms. When he ran the distance from Braemar police station to Aviemore police station through the Lairig Ghru (now known as the popular Lairig Ghru hill race), Mikel Utsi asked if he fancied helping him herd his reindeer from time to time. Knippenberg inspired current owner of the herd Alan Smith to get into (long-distance) running too, and thereby left his mark by starting an era of hill running reindeer herders. It won’t surprise you to read that both Lisette and myself are also hill runners (as are many herders in the team), Lisette often even crossing the finish line as the first lady! Read more on reindeer herders and hill running in my previous blogs, where I go over why reindeer herders run in the hills and about running from Scotland to the Netherlands.
Besides these Dutchies, we have a large variety of nationalities amongst our present and past teams of herders! Ben was born in Australia, though spent most of his life in the UK. We occasionally get American herder Bobby over and look forward to seeing him soon again when it’s possible. Ex-herder Dave is from New Zealand, his kiwi accent still present after years in the Highlands 😊. Both Olly and Lotti both are ¼ Greek, and this shows in them being slightly less pale than your average Brit and for Lotti in part of her last name too (Papastavrou). We’ve had way more but as it’s a relative newbie writing this blog (I’ve only been involved with the herd for 4 years), I won’t be able to mention them all.
There have also been many international volunteers too over the years, but the list is too long to go over everyone. Double thanks for coming over all the way from wherever you live to come and help us here!
Not all our reindeer are Scottish either! Most of you will know from visiting, BBC programmes, or reading about the herd that reindeer were reintroduced to the Cairngorms in the 50s, after having been extinct for +/- 1000 years. That means the origins of our herd lie in Sweden. To keep the gene pool diverse, we’ve introduced new bulls every few years too. At the moment we only have ten Swedish reindeer, none of which are still being used to breed from.
Amongst these ten Swedish boys, there are a few all-time favourites. We have the lovely ‘dark bull’ Bovril. Bovril is a favourite amongst (ex-)herders and a tv star as well! He featured in the BBC’s Four Seasons documentary, where he can be seen fighting a younger, light bull, trying to win the battle for the right to mate. Long after his tv premiere he could be seen striking a pose to visitors, I’m sure he knows he’s handsome.
Another well-known Swede is Matto, who is white in colour. This makes him stick out like a sore thumb when you’re looking for the herd on a hillside, making the life of a reindeer herder a lot easier! He’s also a firm favourite ‘Christmas reindeer,’ looking extra festive with a red harness and bells contrasting nicely with his white coat.
Amongst the many sad consequences of Covid19, was the fact that we’re hardly getting any international visitors anymore. We love the wide range of people we get, from all over the world. It’s always exciting to ask where people are from and realise that, at times, within one group of people, every continent (apart from maybe Antarctica) is represented! Herders have a habit of asking people where they’re from, and with Covid restrictions this may have sounded as if we were harassing you to check you weren’t breaking any rules. So sorry if we made you feel that way – and, honestly, we just love to hear where people are from!
We are so looking forward to getting people from overseas again (as well as British people of course 😊) – please do come and visit us once it’s allowed to do so!
This week’s blog is by Sarah Hobbs, a former reindeer herder here who now has a very different job! If you’re looking for a perfect activity to learn more about the local area while you’re here on holiday, then Strathspey Storywalksis for you! Enjoy a relaxed and leisurely potter while tasting some wild tea, and you’ll go away full of knowledge about the myths and legends of Aviemore and the surrounding area. Highly recommended!
We are all so fond of the reindeer that we might forget that they (and we!) live alongside giants, fairies, ghosts of cattle raiders, cleared townships, and remains of illicit whisky distilling…
In 2013 I randomly googled ‘reindeer in the UK’ while idly wondering about returning to Norway where I’d lived for a while, to work with deer during my holidays. It came as a surprise to discover a herd free-ranging the Cairngorms, and I immediately wrote an email enquiring about volunteering. A long train journey with Nan Shepherd’s wonderful book about the mountains and a warm welcome later, it never takes long to fall for the place! The reindeer are totally captivating, calming and totally belong there – it’s a very special feeling.
After several years of spending all my annual leave volunteering with the herd, I quit my lovely job and life in London and moved to Glenmore in early 2016, completely taken with the reindeer, the mountains, and the quiet openness and warmth of Highlands folk. I worked with the herd for a year, a full turn of the calendar, and it was amazing to be with and observe them so closely as they constantly change and grow.
Glenmore and Aviemore is now my home (why would I leave?!), so fast forward to lockdown 2020, when I set up Strathspey Storywalks, taking folk on ‘slow adventures’ in and around Aviemore to share the history, culture, nature, Gaelic heritage and of course stories that this area is full of.
After several years of spending all my annual leave volunteering with the herd, I quit everything and moved to Glenmore in early 2016, completely taken with the reindeer, the mountains, and the quiet openness and warmth of Highlands folk. Fast forward to lockdown 2020, and I set up Strathspey Storywalks, taking folk on ‘slow adventures’ in and around Aviemore to share the history, culture, nature, Gaelic heritage and of course stories that this area is full of.
I’m now doing a short mentoring program with a professional storyteller, through TRACS, Scotland’s national network for traditional arts and culture.
So, the next time you come and visit the reindeer, maybe you’ll pay a visit to Loch Morlich to try and spot Red Hand, a giant Highland warrior who patrols the beach, making sure people respect the beautiful surroundings and don’t take more than they need. Listen out for strange pipe music too – this might be Donald, King of the Fairies, who lives closeby. There are several stories of encounters with ghostly happenings and eerie music here.
Or you might wander to Lochan Uaine, the Green Lochan, beneath Robbers’ Hill on Rathad nam Mèirleach or the Thieves’ Road, where of course it’s said the fairies wash their clothes. The strange conical hill above the lochan is a Sìthean, or Fairy Hill, and there are many across the Highlands (just look at a map and it won’t be long before you spot one!) This ‘fairy hill’ however is where local folk set up an illicit still to distill whisky, and the archaeological remains are still there.
Glenmore, the Cairngorms and Strathspey are so rich in incredible stories, it’s a genuine pleasure to share them, and for all of you to continue sharing them for many years to come! If I’ve whetted your appetite for more, please feel free to follow Strathspey Storywalks on Facebook or Instagram.
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!
This past year has been my first full year as a reindeer herder. Despite becoming a reindeer herder seven years ago in 2014 (remember then? simpler times!), I was very much a seasonal herder. I would arrive for a few months in the summer whilst either my university course was having a break, or in-between travels abroad.
Therefore, last winter was my first winter as a reindeer herder. And what a memorable winter it was! Firstly, it was lockdown, so it was very different to how things usually operate which was new and exciting whilst also being unpredictable and slightly chaotic. But also, there was the snow. So. Much. Snow. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a couple of videos and photos from the crazy weather, including this short clip of Joe and I leading the herd downstream in blizzard-like conditions at the start of February.
And it’s not just reindeer that we fed throughout the winter! Opportunistic snow buntings joined in most days too:
I am writing this at the start of May where we have had quite a bit of fresh snowfall over the past couple of weeks, so maybe we are not through all the snowy weather just yet. But I am sure it won’t be anywhere near as much as the volume of snow that fell this winter. Overall, it was a lovely first year as a reindeer herder, albeit very unusual as the whole country adapted to changing circumstances. Now I look forward to my next year and hopefully getting to see all the ‘normal’ activities such as Christmas events and parades.
Every year we try and post a blog in May with lots of calf photos – because let’s be honest, it’s all any of you really want to see at this time of year!
We don’t, however, reveal which reindeer have calved at the moment, as we like to wait until after the June newsletter is sent out to our reindeer adopters before revealing who has become a mum. The reason for this is two-fold – the main one being so as not to spoil the surprise element for adopters of opening that envelope in June, and scanning down the calving list to find our whether ‘their’ reindeer has calved.
The second reason is that sadly not every calf born will survive, and reindeer are at their most vulnerable in their first few weeks of life. While we don’t shy away from the fact that reindeer don’t last for ever and do die, sometimes at a very young age, we also don’t want to upset anyone unnecessarily by allowing them to see photos of their adopted reindeer’s super-cute newborn online – only to find them suspiciously missing from the calving list in the newsletter a couple of weeks later. It would be unfair of us to upset those of a perhaps more delicate disposition with the realities of life if it can be easily avoided by not naming who is who, at least until the calves are past the most vulnerable month of their lives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the third (but maybe not last!) book I have written about reindeer. Published by The History Press, I was approached by them in the latter months of 2015 to ask if I would write another book about reindeer.
My immediate reaction was, “I’m not sure, there is only so much that can be written about reindeer!”, but after I had given it some thought I decided to agree. I don’t dispute I enjoy writing, I am passionate about reindeer and I have had many ‘busman’s holidays’ to reindeer places in the world. It would also be another way of promoting our unique herd of reindeer. So by the end of the year I was already putting pen to paper.
The History Press was looking to have the book on the shelves by Christmas 2016 and so I had to get my skates on. In fact as a person who likes a deadline I said I would have the draft ready by the end of March. And much to their surprise I did!
When we talked about the layout of the book the editor was keen to have the book illustrated, rather then include photographs. At first I was not so sure this was a good idea, reindeer are incredibly photogenic and of course live in some of the most iconic places in the world. However now in hindsight I am really pleased that it is illustrated with line-cut drawings and actually I think it may have made me more descriptive in my writing.
I start and finish the book in winter, the time of year that reindeer are without a doubt, in their element. It is the sort of book you can dip into for fun facts or entertaining stories, and a must for any reindeer enthusiasts, groupie or geek like myself!
Reindeer: An Arctic Life is still in print and if you fancy a copy then buying a signed copy (with personal dedication if you so wish) from us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre will help to support the herd far more than going to Amazon! You can buy it from our online shop ( along with lots of other reindeer related gifts ) or just ring the Reindeer Centre and speak to a friendly reindeer herder to you prefer to order things the old-fashioned way, or want a personalised dedication.
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!
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.
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’.
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.