As Ben and Fiona have explained in previous blogs (click here, and here to read), we had a busy December with events and parades up and down the country, as well as a busy Centre here in Glenmore with fully-booked Hill Trips and Christmas Fun paddock slots! Plus hundreds of adoption packs to make up and post out, alongside all the usual office antics.
For this week’s blog, I’ve collated a series of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what went on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
A while ago I wrote a blog about how Reindeer House managed to cope with its temporary hitch back in the summer, when its resident staff caught Covid. I mentioned then that Andi and I (who live outside of Reindeer House and managed to stay unaffected) were responsible throughout for the 8am morning check of the herd on the hill, so I thought I’d perhaps explain a little more about what we do in the mornings, before visitors arrive, in another blog. So I have put fingers to keyboard and here we are.
Throughout the whole summer we run the guided Hill Trips up to meet the reindeer in our hill enclosure at 11am and 2.30pm, but the herd are actually fed 3 times a day. By doing the first feed bright and early, it gives us time to check everything is shipshape and ready for the day, allowing us to then concentrate on making sure our visitors have as good a visit as possible, with us safe in the knowledge that all the reindeer are happy and healthy.
Usually 2 or 3 of us will head up early doors, and in the summer there is usually only one group of reindeer in the enclosure to deal with. By comparison right now as I’m writing this (early October), there are reindeer in 5 separate areas of the enclosure, all needing checking and feeding at least twice daily! One group only is much more straightforward and seems like a distant dream right now.
The very first job of the day, before heading to the hill enclosure, is to drive up to the ski centre to check none of the free-ranging reindeer are nearby. Right in the middle of summer this would be unusual, but they do sometimes surprise us, so it’s always worth a check! A convenient layby also gives us a bird’s eye view of much of the enclosure, so we have a quick scan over it too.
The hill enclosure is around 1200 acres in size; about 2km in length. The nearest end of it consists of several smaller areas, and our first job of the day is to bring the herd through to the nearest area, the ‘bottom corridor’, and to see if everyone walks through cheerfully and willingly. A reindeer who is off colour will lose their appetite and is quite likely to trail through a distance after the others, less enthusiastic about the prospect of breakfast, so that is the first clue of someone feeling under the weather.
If we are suspicious any reindeer is not quite themselves, the first thing we do then is to check their temperature – so it pays not to be the last reindeer through the gate, otherwise there could be a thermometer up your bum before you know what’s happening! However, a high temperature indicates a tick-borne fever, and a shot of antibiotics is the next step, which should nip any infection in the bud.
Once every week or so in the summer we’ll get the whole herd up to our shed and work our way through the whole herd, checking temperatures, as some reindeer are very good at not showing any symptoms at all even when they have a roaring fever. This type of fairly intensive routine monitoring isn’t necessary in the winter months as there are no ticks about then, but the warmer weather brings them out and so reindeer do get very used to regular violations of their dignity…
Something else that needs doing regularly of a summer’s morning, even daily at times, is fly-spraying. Like with any animal, flies will buzz around the reindeer on sunny days, and whilst they don’t generally cause any real problem, they drive the reindeer mad at times. No-one likes having flies buzzing round their face! With the reindeer, the flies tend to aim for the antlers, clustering around the soft growing tips where the blood supply is richest. If a tiny nick in the velvet skin is made, the flies will feed on the blood and this brings with it the risk of infection.
So we spray the antlers to help keep the flies off, using a DEET-based spray that is designed for horses. But unfortunately we can’t wipe the spray on with a cloth as reindeer hate their antlers being touched whilst they are growing (and also it would take forever to do 40-odd reindeer this way!), so we have to just spray it on, accepting that – from a financial point of view at least – an upsettingly large percentage of it is lost or misses it’s target. Reindeer very rarely stand quietly to have their antlers sprayed, either doing their best to pull away from us, or rushing around in circles if contained in the shed. But there’s no way around it – antlers need spraying and it’s better for the herd to be rather flustered for a few minutes each morning than spend the day charging around to get away from the flies.
On an average summer’s morning, at this point it’s breakfast time! Just like on the Hill Trips, we tip the bag of feed out into small piles in a big long line, count to check every reindeer is present and correct, and make sure every is eating enthusiastically. And then – just as importantly – head back down to the Reindeer Centre and stick the kettle on…
This first couple of hours of the morning is also when we do any ‘movement’ of reindeer if needed, such as letting reindeer out to free-range on the mountains outside the enclosure, or swapping over the reindeer in the Paddocks with those up in the hill enclosure. We also regularly poo-pick the nearer areas of the enclosure where the reindeer congregate, or do maintenance jobs on the fencing and boardwalks. I suspect people sometimes wonder why we don’t open any earlier than 10am, but these couple of hours are sacred to us – the time flies by all too quickly and we’re still often left scrabbling around trying to get finished and back to the Centre in time to open on schedule!
Back in July, the dreaded Covid-19 eventually struck down Reindeer House. With around 6 staff living in Reindeer House at any one time, it seemed almost inevitable that it would get us at some point – regardless of how careful everyone was being – and to be honest we’re all amazed that we made it as far as July 2021. Although I admit the 8.30pm phone call from Fiona (“Hen? Bad news…”) still came as a bit of a surprise to me at the time.
Around half the staff, myself and Andi included, don’t live onsite, so only half of the staff were affected. But Reindeer House is quite small with not much space for all its residents to keep away from each other, so once one person in the house caught the virus, everyone else went down like dominoes, one by one. Poor Joe resisted the longest, valiantly testing negative day after day for a full week, so by the point he had finally succumbed and done his 10 day stint, the poor lad had been isolating for 17 days!
Although we closed to the public completely for one day, everyone spent that one day working out how we could possibly continue working to some extent, and actually it all worked out rather well, with two ‘teams’ of staff – the plague-ridden Reindeer House lot dealing with all the office work, while the healthy outsiders dealt with the reindeer on the hill and the guided tours, with no crossover whatsoever. What a blessing to have a business where the main ‘thing’ is all outside, with no need for visitors to come anywhere near Reindeer House at all! While obviously it would have been an unwelcome financial hit to have had to cancel all the Hill Trips for the 2.5 week period, it would have also been terrible to have had to disappoint so many people who were already booked in and champing at the bit to see the reindeer, and this thought did spur us on too to find a way to make this still possible.
We settled into a steady pattern. Andi and I would arrive first thing in the morning and head up on to the hill to check and feed the reindeer herd, making sure everyone was present and correct, applying fly-spray to their antlers if necessary, and giving them their first feed of the day. Then back down to Reindeer House, where we’d have a morning ‘meeting’ over the garden fence. Reindeer House’s plaguey residents would come trotting out into the garden as soon as they saw us through the windows (People! People to talk to! Social interaction!) and thankfully for pretty much the entire time the Centre was closed, the weather was glorious and we could have a good catch up before we headed home. For Andi and I the working day was finished by 10.30am.
Most days, before we headed home, other ‘outside’ (i.e. healthy!) staff would arrive, tag-team style, have a gossip, and then would head up to the carpark ready to meet the morning’s visitors, who had all been emailed a map of where to meet instead of arriving at Reindeer House. And then the same again in the afternoon for the second Hill Trip. It all seemed to work quite well, and (for me anyway), made for a rather relaxing 2.5 weeks… Thanks to the weather playing ball and all our visitors coping very well with the last-minute change to the way their Hill Trip would work, it wasn’t too much of a hiccup. Writing this in the middle of a hectic autumn, with 3 times the number of reindeer in the hill enclosure that there was in July (due to the rutting season) and to-do lists coming out of my ears – I’m very glad it all happened in the summer and not right now! I am very aware however that we (as in the world in general) aren’t out of the woods yet and perhaps it’ll all happen again to us here at Reindeer House, but if so let’s hope it’s not anytime soon…
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.