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.
I know snow and ice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for our reindeer it definitely is! Reindeer are incredibly well adapted for arctic life, with thick coats to keep out the cold and large flat feet to stop them sinking in the snow.
And this winter was certainly a ‘proper’ one. Since the beginning of the year through to mid February we had sustained cold conditions in the Highlands and the mountains and hills were clothed in snow. We also saw considerable snowfall at lower levels, with both Reindeer House and my farm being white for many, many weeks.
Over at our second site for reindeer at Glenlivet we over-winter part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd out on the hill, just the same as on the Cairngorms. At this time of year the reindeer are grazing on ground lichens, their preferred winter diet and they will use their lovely big feet to dig down through the snow to the lichen below. Because of their thick insulating coats they do not seek any shelter and so in the worst of storms they remain on the tops of the ridges where the lichen grows best.
We do like to check the herd regularly though and so as often as we can we go out to see and feed them, although this was impossible for much of this winter due to the inaccessibility of the Cromdales in such deep snow. The reindeer never say no to extra food and when we call them down they come running. We don’t need to feed them much to satisfy them because the reindeer have a lower metabolic rate in the winter, so just a little bit of food is sufficient, and allows us to cast an eye over them to check all is well.
It’s a lovely sight watching the herd weave their way down through deep snow. They are past masters at conserving energy, which means they walk in each others footprints, to save working too hard. It often amuses me to consider which reindeer does the hard work at the front. Is it always the greedy ones that break track or do they ‘take turns?! I suspect it’s the greedy ones.
Once fed, they will drift away and settle on the higher ground in the snow for the night. A bed of snow is very comfortable for a reindeer.
The Cairngorms is unique within the UK in offering a sub-arctic ecosystem, which coupled with the wide expanses of mountainside, make it perfect for our reindeer. In most winters, we get weeks of snow cover on the mountains, but it’s less common to have such sustained cover as we’ve experienced this year. From Christmas through to mid February, the norm was snow, both on the hills and in the glens. Perfect for the reindeer, great for all of the snowsports enthusiasts who happen to live within reach of the mountains, but I have to confess the novelty of relentless snow began to wear… a little thin for me. I lost count how many times we cleared our drive at home of snow – all that snow shovelling definitely made up for the gyms being closed!
If you follow our social media accounts, you’ve probably enjoyed all those beautiful photos of reindeer in the snow under a bright blue sky, herders skiing out onto stunning mountains to cuddle reindeer, giving the impression that that is our every day experience. But alas, social media photos can be scheduled for the future. With the current situation, we’ve all just been working two/three days a week, keeping the essentials ticking over, which also means that we can work in separate households.
So every Friday and Saturday, Hen and me had our turn to feed the herd. As January rolled into February, with unerring precision, every day we were scheduled to work also appeared to be the scheduled day for a blizzard, a storm, or generally horrific weather. The reindeer were perfectly equipped, and with their appetites very reduced they would be a fair distance away, not fussed about seeking us out for food. Each time, we would drive up the ski road – a mission in itself as the snow was only cleared enough to allow Cairngorm Mountain’s essential staff access. We would wend our way up the closed road in our wee van, driving as far as we could, debating the safety of walking out to try to find the herd. And each time we would be forced to turn back.
Over the course of the next week, our colleagues would be gifted with better weather than us, and would catch up with the reindeer. More glorious photos for Facebook, then as we watched the forecast for our days, the harsh weather returned. The temperature plummeted to -19C, the Spey froze over. A second work “week” of seeing no reindeer, again foiled by the weather, the deep snow, and the distant reindeer. Now I know we can’t complain too much, when we have the privilege of getting to work with these awesome creatures, but by now we were starting to feel a little less like “Reindeer Herders” and a little more like office staff…
It was now nearly three weeks since we’d seen the herd ourselves, and with hope we looked at the forecast for our next Friday in – the thaw having finally started. Windy, still snowy, but not too bad… We loaded the van with feed, navigated the narrow cleared passage between the drifts (apparently the deepest for 40 years on the road in places), reached the car park and spied with binoculars.
Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.
Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!
Don’t you ever wish you could just lie down and take a snooze if things are taking too long?? With their thick coats, that’s exactly what reindeer do – everywhere can be a bed! Here’s some shots of them having a snooze in the snow a few weeks ago…
Back when everything felt much more ‘normal’ in February 2020 four of us from the Reindeer Centre went to the celebration of all things Sámi , the ‘Jokkmokk Winter Market’ in Arctic Sweden. It is held in the first weekend of February every year, and apart from world-class Sámi art, culture and handicraft, visitors are usually greeted by proper, cold winter weather.
Jokkmokk’s Market begins on the first Thursday of February every year. Situated just north of the Polar Circle and with a population a little over 2,000, the small town of Jokkmokk is a tranquil gem on the border of Laponia, the only combined nature and cultural heritage site in Scandinavia. Jokkmokk’s Market was first held in 1605, some 400 years ago, originally purely as a place to trade and meet. The Sámi people met to trade goods, to socialise, and possibly to get a bit tipsy too. At least they’d arrive in their party clothes! The market was created following a request from King Karl XI, who sought to exert control over trading in Lappmarken in order to collect taxes for the Kingdom. To make everything easier to control and run smoother, they organised the market during the coldest time of the year. People had to stay near the houses to keep warm. You might think this sounds like pure fiction, but the fact is that the Swedish state wanted to create a market for economic reasons – money was needed for all the wars the king was involved in down in Europe. And in that way, Jokkmokk got a market in the middle of the freezing cold.
At a quick glance, as you zigzag between stands selling sweets, t-shirts, knitted socks, doughnuts, there is little to differentiate the market here in Jokkmokk from just about any other market in Sweden. But if you look further than the muddle of seemingly pointless things you will find the genuine and the real. Much of the handicraft, art and jewellery are created in materials derived from the reindeer, such as hides and antlers. It’s an intriguing fusion of traditional Sámi styles and new, modern influences.
At Jokkmokk’s Market, there’s no mistaking that reindeer are a fundamental part of Sámi culture – they have been an integral part of Sámi life for thousands of years, from winter and summer pastures, from coastal regions to mountain terrain. Throughout history, reindeer have provided humans with food, clothing and materials for functional items, while in past times they were also used to transport everything imaginable between settlements.
For over 50 years, Per Kuhmunen has been walking his reindeer as a daily feature at Jokkmokk’s Market.
It’s not unusual for temperatures to plummet below the –30 degree mark. To get the most out of your market experience, it’s important to have the right clothing – multiple layers of warm materials such as wool, or other functional fabrics, covered by a heavy-duty down jacket, and a sturdy pair of winter boots. Add a fur cap and the warmest gloves you can find, and you’re all set!
Jokkmokk’s Market is an annual highlight, however, this year things have to work a little different and the Jokkmokk Market has to go online… Maybe a little warmer from your kitchen table or living room than walking the streets themselves, though I know I would still prefer to be there in person having experienced the amazing atmosphere this market has to offer, even with cold hands! Learn more by visiting the market’s website and have the opportunity to purchase items from the market – the next best thing to actually being able to visit!
Mikel Utsi, who re-introduced reindeer into Scotland in the 1950s, originally came from the Jokkmokk area and still to this day when we travel to northern Sweden we stay with his family who are always very welcoming. It helps too if we bring a good bottle of Scottish Whisky! I feel extremely lucky to have visited this market a few times now and I hope this year is the only time it will have to resort to going online as nothing beats being there in person!
Following the TV programme on Channel 4, ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas‘, we have been overwhelmed with lovely letters of support, incredibly generous donations and new ‘adopters’. It really has been a fantastic lifeline for us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and I can honestly say our lovely reindeer have touched the hearts of many, both at home and abroad.
The lovely letters we have received have been incredibly varied and while protecting people anonymity I thought it would be nice to share some of the contents of these letters.
A young lass from the Midlands sent a wonderful letter, written and illustrated by herself. Her attention to detail was amazing and I can’t resist sharing her lovely drawings with you.
If any of you budding young reindeer enthusiasts would like to also send in anything we would love to receive it. Getting letters through the post is always special and here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we would love to receive any works of art or prose! Our postal address and email address can be found on the Contact Us page of our website.
Quite a number of letters and cards came from people reminiscing about days gone by, maybe an occasion when they met the original owners of the herd, Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren. Although we have a considerable archive here at Reindeer House of the history of the herd, many of the stories recalled were new to me and so all the more interesting.
I smiled at the recollection of one couple who attended a talk given by Dr Lindgren and described her as ‘large’ (not fat) and very straight backed and a loud voice. Well I certainly chuckled at this description! Dr Lindgren indeed a very tall lady and the above description hits the nail on the head. I knew Dr Lindgren well in her latter years and I was terrified of her! She was so worldly, intelligent and dominant, but she was also kind and considerate when necessary. I would love to hear from anyone who knew her personally and has a story to tell – she was quite a character and had many different interests and skills, other than reindeer.
And then there was a lady who met Mr Utsi, in North Sweden, before the first reindeer came to Scotland in 1952. This was a lovely encounter, which was described in detail to us. Back in 1951, the lady who wrote to us went on a skiing expedition with her school to Swedish Lapland. Many of them had never skied before, but quickly got to grips with the sport and by all accounts had lifetime memories from their time there. While there they were taken to see a herd of reindeer and the owner Mikel Utsi told them that he was introducing his reindeer to Scotland! What a wonderful memory and I am so glad this lady was able to see the TV programme on Christmas Eve and see just how it is all those years later!
There was a strong common theme through the many letters we received with comments as follows:
‘ best viewing ever over the Festive season’
‘Thank you for adding ‘animal magic’ to a home alone Christmas’
‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas was absolutely brilliant and a stroke of genius – wonderful publicity, informing such a wide audience of all the great work you are doing for the community’
‘The programme brought back lovely memories of when we used to visit you in your early days’
So thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone you has been in touch to reminisce, donate and adopt reindeer. It has been a huge help to us and most importantly ‘put a smile on our faces’.
A lot of you may have already heard of Holy Moley, whether it be on one of our guided tours up here in the Highlands of Scotland, on our social media or most likely through the recent Channel 4 programme (‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’) where Holy Moley was the star reindeer! The programme takes you through her roller-coaster of a life so far but it didn’t actually explain why she was called Holy Moley in the first place so I’m going to take this opportunity to explain her name.
On the 25th April 2020 our first reindeer calf of the year was born. Lotti and myself headed out for about an hour’s hill walk to look for Galilee, a 6 year old very pregnant female reindeer who we spied from a distance through binoculars. On top of a hill called Silver Mount within our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, or Airgiod-meall in Gaelic, we found her and her new calf. This was Lotti’s first calving season with us, so her first reindeer calf. However, like Galilee I was an old hand at this time of year so was passing on advice on approaching and treating new born calves correctly to Lotti. Galilee couldn’t have been more chilled out with our presence, in fact she was pretty delighted we brought her a tasty feed after what had probably been an exhausting few hours! Lotti was absolutely ecstatic! A smile beamed from ear to ear which of course was infectious so the two of us were on cloud nine. We sprayed the newborn’s navel to stop any infection and popped a wee bit of insecticide on her back to prevent ticks from biting and causing problems for the wee girl then left her to get to know her mum. As she was the first calf we weren’t in a hurry to bring her in closer to the herd into the smaller fenced area which becomes a ‘nursery’ through the spring, but thought we would wait until another female had calved so they could come in together.
We caught up with them the next day to feed Galilee and check her calf was well. Galilee this time decided that with her calf being much more mobile, that she wasn’t sticking around so again we left her to it, with no urgent hurry to bring them in. Then on the 27th April myself, Andi, Lotti and Joe headed out to bring Galilee and calf (and now also Dante and her calf) into an enclosure a bit closer so we could keep an eye on them. Andi and Lotti concentrated on Dante and calf while Joe and I headed over to where we could see Galilee, assuming her calf was with her.
As we approached Galilee she didn’t move away from us, as you would expect a new mum to do. I got closer and closer and realised quite quickly that things weren’t normal. Galilee was grunting a lot. A call she would use to communicate with her 2 day old calf but I couldn’t hear or see her calf anywhere. Galilee was right in amongst a pile of boulders which didn’t cover a big area but she was pretty adamant to stay close to a certain area, sticking her nose into a section where the boulders had big gaps between. My heart sunk when I realised her calf must have fallen down in between the gaps somehow! Joe and I searched, treading carefully over the boulder field. After about 10 minutes (which felt like an hour) of searching we could then hear a very faint calf grunting back to her mother. This then confirmed whereabouts in the boulders she was, however she was so far down we couldn’t see her, let alone reach with our arms to get her out.
By this time we realised we needed more assistance – Joe and I alone weren’t strong enough to remove the very large and heavy stones. Olly was at the Centre so we called him to come up the hill with tools which could potentially act as leverage. We also called Lotti down from bringing in Dante for an extra pair of hands. By this point 15-20 minutes had passed and Galilee decided there was too much commotion for her to be sticking around so she went back and joined the main reindeer herd, leaving us to find her calf. After removing, with great effort, some very large boulders we got our first glimpse of the calf… she was about 5ft down, but alive! I managed to reach as far as I could and with the tips of my fingers I could feel her. With a bit of rummaging I got hold of her back legs and very gently pulled, cautious not to cause her any hurt or injury. In my first attempt to pull her out there was too much resistance, like something was stuck. I pushed her back down, moved her body around a bit more, hoping she would release whatever was stuck. I had to do all this by feel as she was so far below ground that we couldn’t see her. On my second attempt to pull her out she came much more easily, and once I could get a second hand on her I supported the rest of her body and head coming out the hole backwards.
The poor wee girl probably didn’t know what was going on and we have no idea how long she was down there. She had rubbed the hair from the knees on her front legs and also a patch on top of her head so with a few bald patches and a sore back leg I carried her the ½ mile across mountain ground back to her mum. While walking back she was nuzzling my armpit looking for some milk – she was obviously quite hungry. I popped her down in front of Galilee who without hesitation sniffed her and realised it was hers. I suspect the two of them immediately forgot the whole scenario, being animals I don’t suppose they think of the past or what just happened. But I will remember it for a long time yet. Having been cooped up in a hole for so long she was a bit staggery on her feet to begin with but the wee calf was absolutely fine.
Once it was all over and we could breathe a sigh of relief one of us used a phrase quite common amongst us herders… “Holy Moley, what a day!” And from there she got her nickname – ‘Holy Moley, the calf who fell down a hole’. It was never intended to be her name forever but inevitably that has happened. Most reindeer who end up with a nickname from a young age keep hold of it for the rest of their life – Grunter, Hippo, Paintpot and Hamish to name a few.
So there we have it, at two days old Holy Moley fell down a hole between boulders and without our assistance she would not be with us today. She’s had a pretty tough start to life as unfortunately we then lost Galilee, her mother, in the summer while the two of them were free-ranging in the Cairngorm Mountains. Holy Moley has managed to muscle through on her own by keeping herself with the herd, stealing milk from other females and I suspect by having a bit of fight in her she will go on to be a big strong female reindeer herself. She certainly didn’t give up in the hole and every time we catch up with her on the mountains she makes sure she’s first to get her head in a bag of feed… She knows we’ll look after her!
This year I was lucky enough to spend May looking after all the cows and calves during calving season, whilst most of the country was in lock-down. This was my first calving season and I found it really fascinating to watch how the behaviour of the reindeer changed once they had calved. Especially for the first-time mums who were acting purely on instinct, which amazed me how strong that is! There were a couple of things that I noticed a few of the mum’s doing in the hours and days after they had calved which I thought might be interesting to read about.
Licking their calf dry
The very first job of a reindeer once she has calved is to lick her calf dry. This year some of our calves were born in the snow so they want to get dry as quick as possible so that their fluffy calf coat can keep them warm. I was incredibly lucky to be able to watch Brie calve this year, I watched through binoculars as she carefully licked all the placenta off the calf, Cicero, until he looked like all the other calves I had seen at a couple of hours old – fluffy rather than slimy.
Eating the placenta
Being an arctic animal, every bit of nutrition reindeer can get is very important – placenta included. We found Ibex and her calf Flax when she was a couple of hours old, by which point Ibex was obviously feeling peckish. I can’t say that it looked particularly appetising to me but then I’m not a mother, nor a reindeer!
Licking their calf’s bum
To stimulate the calf suckling the mother must lick her calf’s bum. This all works in a cycle because the cow licking the calves’ bum stimulates the calf suckling and the more that the calf suckles the more milk that the cow will produce! All resulting in a good strong calf. It’s also very important to help keep the calf clean, their very first poo can be very sticky and a couple of the mums – mostly the ones who had had many calves before – didn’t do a very good job of licking their calves bottoms meaning we had to do it instead (cleaning it, not licking it….)! I can’t really believe how something so smelly can come out of something so sweet, so I guess I can’t really blame the cows. When the calf is really young the mum will also lift her leg so that the calf can suckle whilst lying down, here is Pagan demonstrating both very well with her calf Pumpkin!
Teaching the calves to walk
The last thing that I found really interesting was the way that the mums get their newborn calves to start walking. As a prey animal it is very important that the reindeer are up on their feet as soon as possible. But how do they go from an incredibly wobbly newborn calf to the agile calves who can easily outrun me? The answer is lots of careful training from their mums. From when Cicero was about 20 minutes old, Brie started to stand up and walk a few metres away and wait for her calf to take a few wobbly steps over. The calf would then lie down exhausted for a while before she did the same again. Eventually the steps become less and less wobbly as the calves grow stronger.
This year was the very first time I had work during calving season, as until now, calving season had always been exactly the same time as exam season. I can very easily say that calving season this year was the happiest month of my life so far, so it has been very difficult to think of just 5 highlights. But here we go, these are my five favourite memories from calving season this year.
Finding the first calf of the year
On Saturday the 25th of April, me and Fiona headed off around the enclosure to look for Galilee who was the first reindeer who had headed away from the herd to calve. It was much earlier in the year than the previous year, so I didn’t get my hopes up too much in case she was just ill or being a loner – Galilee can definitely be known to wander from the group. As me and Fi rounded the top of Silver Mount we caught a glimpse of Galilee, licking the ground. Fiona told me that this was a sure sign of her having calved, and as we got closer I could see the tiny calf on the ground. A new-born calf is barely recognisable compared to the calves I had seen previously in the summer and I can honestly say that Galilee’s calf is the most perfect thing I have ever seen. Galilee let us catch the calf and Fi show me how to treat the calf with an insecticide and some antibiotic spray on her navel. Galilee was very good but she clearly want us to leave her to bond with her calf uninterrupted. So we then fed Galilee and left them too it. The weather was even warm enough to cool off (and calm down from the excitement) with a quick dip in our own ‘private’ loch in the reindeer enclosure.
Watching Brie calving
My second favourite calving memory has got to be watching Brie calve. One morning Brie was missing from the herd, from spying through binoculars we saw her but couldn’t tell if she had calved yet or not so I headed out to go and check. Once I got closer I realised that she had legs actually coming out of her back end – she was midway through calving. I sat down a little way away from her and watched the whole thing through binoculars. I watched the calf take his very first, incredibly wobbly steps and have his first milk.
Finding Gloriana’s calf
Another favourite calving moment for me was finding Gloriana’s calf. Gloriana is an 8-year-old female who had previously never had a calf. I really fell in love with her during the 2015 rut. She was amongst a group of reindeer on Silver Mount however she was a bit of a loner from the group and used to sometimes follow me away from the herd once I had finished feeding them. Having never had a calf, we thought that she was infertile so imagine my delight when she started to develop an udder, the first sure sign that a reindeer is almost ready to calve. On one very wet and rainy day, Gloriana was missing from the herd. Andi and I headed out around the enclosure and found her on Silver Mount with a beautiful big male calf. Gloriana was a wee bit nervous but let us treat the calf with no problems. The next day however when we tried to bring Gloriana and her calf to a closer section of the enclosure, I couldn’t get anywhere near her. I think having a calf for the first time at 8 years old made her a bit of an overbearing mum, so it took us a couple of days to get near her again. She did eventually settle down and both her and her calf became more and more confident during the time they were in the enclosure.
Hanging out with an experienced mum
Okay so this calving favourite is not just one moment. A couple of times during calving I got to go out and find a cow and calf from a very tame and experienced mum. Usually once we find the calf we will catch it and treat it and then leave the cow and calf as soon as possible to make sure that we don’t upset the mum. However, some of the cows have had so many calves and are so used to people that they are perfectly happy to lie down with you and their new-born calf. The new-born calves are incredibly inquisitive and totally unafraid of humans. It is a really wonderful experience just hanging out with the new-born calves and their very relaxed mums.
Sending the calves onto the free-range for the summer.
My final favourite calving memory was letting the calves onto the free-range for the summer. We walked out of the enclosure with some of the cows on halters and the rest following towards the hills. Having spent every day of the last 6 weeks or so with the cows and then the calves, letting them go onto the free-range for the summer where we would likely see them every couple of weeks at the most was both sad and wonderful. Definitely sad to not be seeing them every day but also very wonderful to know that they would spend the next few months of their lives in the very best place for them, the mountains.