It’s going to be a Sunny summer!

On the whole, calving season back in May went really well with between 25-30 calves born. There were a few, new, young mums in the group but also some of our older girls who have been there, done that when it comes to calving. At the end of May / beginning of June the whole lot went out onto the summer free range where that’ll be them now for the next few months hopefully getting the best of the summer grazing on the Cairngorms.

Some of the cows and calves heading out of the enclosure for the summer months.
The best start in life for our new additions is out on in the hills with their mums.

One calf who didn’t join them is Sunny. He was born on Friday 20th May and his mother was Rain. At 5-6 days old unfortunately we lost Rain. We suspect there was an internal infection, from calving, which she hid from us and as a result she passed away. This rarely happens but in this case we were left holding the baby! He came straight down here to our Centre where we could start the hand rearing process. We knew there was no other option at this stage and we have hand reared lots of reindeer calves in the past so were confident that although we wouldn’t do as good a job as Rain would have we would manage nonetheless.

Sunny’s first day adjusting to life at Reindeer House.

It’s been a good few weeks now and Sunny has become part of the Reindeer house family of humans, dogs and now baby reindeer! He joins us for dog walks, where we know it’ll be quiet and we won’t bump into other walkers with their dogs, he makes himself at home on our kitchen floor on the odd occasion when he comes into the house. His favourite spot is beside the washing machine. In fact he is so comfortable in ours and the dogs presence that he’s the ultimate ‘lazy boy’ and he pees while he is lying down! Needless to say we’re all quite used to mopping up after him now. It’s a good job we have an easy to clean floor and aren’t fazed by a bit of pee and poo!

Fast asleep by the washing machine – his favouite spot within Reindeer House.
He quickly made friends with herders and dogs. Our dogs are very good with him, and basically completely ignore him.
The two youngest members of our household – Sunny and Fraoch.
One of Sunny’s first walks with us.
Joining herders on a post-work walk. Good exercise for Sunny, and an opportunity to find nutritious grazing.
Sunny enjoying a paddle… he even went for a swim, calmly following us herders in as we went for a dip!

Every morning he gets in our reindeer van and joins the herders and dogs for the walk over to our enclosure. Getting some tasty grazing along the way it’s also very good exercise and socialising for him as he comes in with the main herd. The first time we took him up the reindeer on the hill acted like they had no idea what he was… Is he a dog?!?! They sniffed him and with sudden movements Sunny made they darted off, tail in the air worried he’d do them harm. Little did they know he was just a very young version of them. They are now accustomed to him and he mixes in just fine.

Sunny in the van on his way up to the enclosure for his morning exercise.
Sunny enjoying some tasty grazing on his daily walk to the enclosure.
Start ’em young! Sunny assisting Andi with harness training.
Stephanie, one of our volunteers, giving Sunny a bottle of milk.
Nom, nom, nom.
Sunny now spends his afternoons and evenings in with Paddock reindeer. Here we have Beastie, Druid, Jonne and Haricot keeping him company.
He still comes into the house most evenings, he may have grown a lot in the month we’ve been looking after him, but his favourite location in the house hasn’t changed.

So here you have it, Sunny our hand reared calf of 2022. We named him Sunny as his mother was called Rain and his brother is called Jimmy so for the Scottish folk out there you’ll know the saying ‘Sonny Jim’! We’ve just tweaked the spelling. I cannot predict the weather this summer but I know for sure that we will have a Sunny summer!

Bring on a Sunny summer!

Fiona

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

A typical day in the life of a reindeer herder

During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?” or “is doing the hill trips the best part of the job?”

During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?”

In this week’s blog I will chronologically outline a ‘typical’ day for a reindeer herder. However, it is worth noting that it’s almost impossible to predict how a day may take shape. The job tends to be incredibly variable and diverse. There are time-dependent jobs that may suddenly arise, such as moving reindeer from where they’re not meant to be to. For example, when they venture down from the mountains on to the road. There are also plenty of seasonal-dependent jobs, such as gardening or leading additional hill trips in the summer months. Or in the winter months you may need to clear footpaths to keep them free from snow and ice. Not to mention the early starts that occasionally occur. These tend to be in the calving season or on the epic days when reindeer need to be moved across the Cairngorms. It’s possible that you could be helping Tilly over at Wild Farm as well, transporting reindeer from the farm to the Cairngorms and vice versa, or helping with the other animals there. The list of possibilities is vast.

Nonetheless, the skeleton of a ‘typical’ reindeer herding day is as follows:

08:00 (summer) or 08:30 (winter): Work starts. Turn up and prepare to be greeted by the dogs.

How every morning starts – getting greeted by the dogs!

There typically may be anywhere between 4 and 7 herders working on a day, depending on the business of the season. Half of us will initially head up to feed the herd their breakfast whilst half of us will stay down at the Centre.

Those of us which stay down at the Centre will be responsible for feeding the paddock reindeer their breakfast, poo picking, cleaning the exhibition, answering emails and any phone calls, cleaning the shop and office, as well as opening the shop and checking in guests after 10am.

Flax lending a hand/hoof in the Paddocks.

The cohort of herders which head up the mountain to feed the herd will initially have to locate the herd. The difficulty of which can depend on weather conditions and whether the reindeer are free-roaming or in the hill enclosure. As I write this – at the end of February 2022 – it took Andi and I three hours to venture out in the snow to where the reindeer were located and then lead them closer to where the 11am hill trip would be.

Moving the free-range herd to a suitable location for a hill trip.

It is at this point in the day which we’re most likely to check the temperature of a reindeer – if we suspect illness – and administer any appropriate treatment. Before the morning feed is put down in a straight line (easier to count) with spaces of approximately 1m in between each pile (to try to stop fighting) there may be a spot of preferential feeding. The young calves are encouraged to come and feed out of the bags whilst one herder will circulate around the herd enticing the less tame reindeer to hand-feed. This preferential feeding is very important for the management of reindeer when they become ill. Catching reindeer can be a long ordeal but it’s important if a reindeer is ill that we can get close enough to help them, so by enticing them into the smaller hand-food bag throughout the year they hopefully won’t always associate the food bag with feeling rubbish. The preferential feeding also allows the young, growing calves to get a bit of extra food from the main bag as they are likely to be lower in the pecking order when it comes to feeding from the line and can get the sustenance they need to continue growing.

Morning feed – Joe putting out a long line of food ready to count the herd.
Routine temperature checks are often done in the morning, before our visitors arrive. Note Andi armed with the thermometer!
Preferential feeding – making sure the calves get some extra food!
Lotti offering the white bag of tasty snacks to our shyer reindeer.
Dixie getting some preferential feeding. Definitely not a shy girl, but at almost 16 she deserves spoiling!

11:00: Hill trip. This is the time when some of our herders are let loose to come and meet yourselves and serenade you with some interesting reindeer-related facts and some terrible reindeer-related jokes. This typically lasts for an hour and a half to two hours, depending on the weather.

Heading out to meet the reindeer on a free-range Hill Trip.

Those herders that don’t participate in the hill trip will be responsible for staying at the Centre and minding the shop, dealing with phone calls and emails, compiling adoption packs for our loyal adopters, mixing reindeer food or even, writing blogs.

A full office – renewals, letting writing, emails, writing the daily diary, generally looking busy…
Fiona and Lotti doing a mammoth food mix!

12:30 – 2: The herders stagger their lunches to ensure someone is always free to mind the shop. Shop visitors can often be caught commenting on the lovely smells coming from the kitchen.

The afternoon: Whilst the morning of a reindeer herder is fairly constant and predictable year-round, the afternoon can vary depending upon the time of year. From May to September there is an additional hill trip at 2:30. During these months the hill trips take place in our hill enclosure so the chance of seeing reindeer is almost definite, and the walk out to see them is shorter and less exposed to the elements. The reindeer herding day generally runs to 5pm, although in July and August we run a third daily tour at 3:30. So for a couple of months the day runs until 5:30.

Recently, we’ve also started been doing ‘Seasonal Herder Talks’ during the school holidays. This means throughout the afternoon one of the reindeer herders will be out in the paddocks talking to visitors about the reindeer and answering any questions.

“Winter Herder Talks” were trialed this February half-term – here’s Lotti with Marple.

Close: At about 4:45 the herders will start to perform the closing dance. This involves one of us cashing up the totals from the shop whilst another herder will head out to the woods located behind the paddock area and put food out for the paddock reindeer. Just before 5 o’clock the reindeer will be let through to the woods area whilst the herder closes and wipes down the exhibition area. The shop will also be shut and wiped down at 5pm. You can always tell it’s 5 o’clock as the dogs begin to stir. They become more energetic and boisterous as they realise the working day is ending and there is now a high chance of them heading out on a walk or run with at least one herder.

Approximately half of the reindeer herders live on-site at the Centre, whilst half of us journey in from the local area. Having some staff on-site means that on the very rare occasion where there is a reindeer emergency after hours, there is staff that can stick their capes on and come to the rescue.

Ben B

Reindeer House Dogs – Winter 2022

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.

Sookie enjoying a relaxed pace of life at Loch Morlich beach.

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.

Fiona with Tiree and newest resident Fraoch.

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!

Dug aka Mr Long Tongue.

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

Sookie, Fiona and wee Fraoch.
Tiree, Dug, Sookie and Ginger patiently waiting at the enclosure fence.

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.

2 mother-daughter pairs: Tilly and Fiona with Moskki and Tuva (not forgetting Tiree!)
Herders on top of Meall a Bhuachaille with Sookie and Elsie.
Ginger and Tiree – such posers!
Tiree and Ginger – posing again.
Tiree and Tip.
Skip always full of energy!

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.

Ruadh, Tiree and Mable.
Foss, Tiree and Sookie.
Tiree with her pal Mara.
Ruadh, Sam the Polar Bear, and Fraoch.
Tiree, Sookie and Moskki.

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!

Fiona and Joe with Tuva, Shadow, Moskki, Tiree, Ruadh and Sookie at the Cairngorm Dog Centre!

Fiona

Mountain Equipment

Joe, Fiona and Lotti modelling our new kit on their first outing!

If anyone is a regular viewer of our social media pages, you will have seen that there are days on the hill when the weather can be absolutely wild! Particularly during winter months, it can often be very cold and windy, with stormy blizzard conditions. Luckily this sort of weather doesn’t bother the reindeer in slightest, in fact winter is the reindeer’s favourite season. With thick winter coats, they don’t feel the cold until -35 degrees Celsius and have been known to survive down the extreme temperature of -72°C!

A blizzard is nothing for young Pumpkin!

Some people may think we herders are hardy folk but there is no way we could last even 5 minutes on a stormy winter’s day without the right clothing. Thankfully as of this year, Mountain Equipment have been kind enough to sell some of their best waterproofs to protect us against the elements at a seriously discounted rate. From now on we will be wearing their clothing during hill trips and filming. With all our old jackets starting to come to the end of their lives, it’s nice to wear something that actually keeps us dry again. Our old red jackets will be retired to the muckier jobs! Mountain Equipment is an outdoor brand based near Manchester and it’s nice to wear clothing which is made for the worst of the British weather. Keeping to tradition we’ve gone for red jackets to help us stand out on the hill, at the moment they are looking shiny and new but I suspect carrying dirty feedbags will put a stop to that, all of my own personal jackets have a reindeer food stain to them these days. We have gone for the Rupal jacket and Saltoro pants as our waterproof top and bottoms which have been great during the recent stormy weeks and we couldn’t recommend them enough. Here is a link to Mountain Equipment’s website to learn more about them: https://www.mountain-equipment.co.uk/

We think Dr Seuss approves of Ruth’s new jacket.
Andi and Lotti making sure the calves get a bit of extra feed whilst looking very fancy and bright!
Lotti and Andi again, with Witch. Just because it’s a lovely photo!

For now we are more than happy to put our new clothing to the test during the rest of the winter. Hopefully there will be plenty of snow forecast to keep reindeer and herders happy for the rest of the season.

Joe

Photo Blog: December 2021

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!

2nd of December – The unmistakable snozzle of Dr Seuss enjoying the fresh snow. The first half of the month was snowy and cold, great for the reindeer but unfortunately this meant we had to cancel some of our Hill Trips. Thankfully the majority were able to go ahead without complications.
3rd of December – Olly and I spying for the free-rangers in a winter wonderland. We watched the herd coming to our call from a couple of kilometers away! Note: stances might not be entirely natural. Photo by herder Sheena.
4th of December – Lotti and I went away for the weekend with this wonderful team of reindeer (Clouseau, Bond, Holy Moley, Trilby and Akubra) seen here having a snooze at the Langholm event.
5th of December – After a night at our Lockerbie base, we headed to Lancaster. Here’s Holy Moley trying to beat-up her own reflection whilst in the pen, much to the amusement of the crowd.
7th of December – the first day of our shiny new Mountain Equipment jackets here modeled by Joe and Lotti, whilst giving the calves some extra feed. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it!
7th of December – Witch having a big stretch after a snooze during Storm Barra! The ice cracked on her side as she stood up and moved – very cool!
8th of December – After one weekend looking dramatic in our paddocks for “Christmas Fun” Sherlock decided he’d had enough and cast his antlers! Here’s Ben modeling the impressive head gear. Soon after, Sherlock and the other young bulls were out free-ranging on the Cromdales.
9th of December – Cowboy, now 7 months old, already knows that tasty snacks are kept in white bags! What a cutie.
12th of December – Fiona and I had an event at a farm near Inverness. Good opportunity to write some adoption letters whilst waiting for people to visit the reindeer!
13th of December – Finding some peace and quiet away from the office by feeding the beautiful free-ranging herd! Note the lack of snow, there was a thaw halfway through the month but still chilly with frosts most mornings which means happy reindeer!
19th of December – Feeding the free-ranging herd again, lovely Sambar leading the herd in whilst busily chewing the cud.
20th of December – Tiree the dog having a snooze in the office, it’s all a bit much for her!
23rd of December – Herder Harry re-joined us again for December. Here he is being all cute surrounded by our cute but greedy calves.
24th of December – Another trip up the mountain to feed the free-rangers. Here’s Puzzle looking great!
26th of December – It was very windy and wild Boxing Day so we dropped down in to the woods to find some shelter on our Hill Trips.
31st of December – Some very snoozy reindeer after the last Hill Trip of 2021! What superstars they are.

Ruth

Summer mornings

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.

Typical scruffy summer reindeer! Butter, LX, Druid and Slioch (left to right)

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.

Spying with binoculars on a rather murky day.
Even when the herd is waiting for their breakfast in their usual spot, they can be difficult to spot from afar. But antlers give them away sooner or later!

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.

Injecting a long-acting general antibiotic – something every herder learns to do early on it their reindeer herding career.

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…

Temperature checking. Dr Seuss couldn’t give a stuff, as long as there’s a bag of bribery in it for him…
…and all good! A temperature of 38.3, as seen in this photo, is fine, the average being around 38.9 for a reindeer.

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.

Flies around antlers.

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.

Myself spraying Bond’s antlers – and getting a beady look in return!

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…

Me feeding the herd.
Andi counting the line to check the numbers match.

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!

Hen

The plague house

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!

The plague house!

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.

Andi feeding the reindeer one morning, whilst the Centre was closed.
Feed was mixed up by the staff at Reindeer House, but then left untouched for several days before we collected it, to reduce any risk.
Tests were taken daily by the rest of us throughout!

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.

Morning meetings, isolation style… One staff team still in pyjamas!
Most of the folks in Reindeer House completely lost their sense of taste temporarily, so much so that Fiona ate an olive (she HATES olives normally!!!)!

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…

Hen

Walter and Jesse the Soay Lambs

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.

A young Walter loved to suckle.

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.

Left to right: Zac, Andi, Abby (far), Hen (close) and Fiona. Sookie is the closest Collie, with Murdoch (Abby’s dog) saying hi to Walter and Jesse who were both a mix of social and curious.

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.

Guardians of the gate welcoming visitors to The “Reindeer” Centre.

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.

A Highland face-off. The interior decoration has not changed much at Reindeer House since this last photo was taken.

Ben

Reindeer Internationals!

International herders

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 on a snowy hill run

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.

Jan Knippenberg, back in the 80s

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.

Herders Lotti and Ollie, who are both part-Greek!
American Bobby a couple of winters ago
Kiwi Dave, completely surrounded by calves!

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!

International reindeer

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.

Myself with handsome Bovril, during my first week of reindeer herding!

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.

International visitors

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!

Manouk