Stinky Boys

Roman with his cows

By the time you read this, the rut will be underway here at Cairngorm, with our chosen breeding bulls split with selected unrelated females, to make sure we know who the parents of each calf are. While the bulls tend to be fairly relaxed and laid back for most of the year, as September comes to an end and the cows come into season, they start to “rut”, strutting around, posturing and rounding up their females, and challenging any other bull they see. Reindeer bulls don’t “roar” like some deer species (including the iconic Scottish red deer stag), instead they grunt. But one of the most noticeable changes for me is their smell.

Kota in 2020, grunting to his cows

Now, I don’t claim to have a particularly good sense of smell, but in general reindeer are fairly unsmelly creatures. However, a rutting bull is a different matter, and already, as I write in mid-September, our boys are getting stinky. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell – very musky and, well, masculine I suppose. One of the main reasons they smell so strong is that they begin deliberately peeing on their hindlegs. This always seemed a bit odd until I did my research and realised that reindeer, like all deer, have scent glands on the inside of their hocks, the tarsal glands. This gland produces an oily secretion, and when the natural bacteria on this area combines with pheromones in the urine, that distinctive scent is produced. Apparently every reindeer has a unique, individual scent, due to their own winning combination of bacteria, though I definitely don’t have a sensitive enough nose to be able to tell!

Nutti, illustrating the position of the tarsal gland
Roman peeing on his legs to increase his allure

Why do they feel the urge to be so stinky?? Well, part of it must be as a statement of dominance – when I, as a mere human, can smell a bull from 100 metres away, the other reindeer must be able to smell them from… 800 metres?… a mile?? This must act as a deterrent to a weaker bull, and quite possibly as an attractant to a female in season – they definitely come looking for bulls when they’re ready.

Feeding the big bulls last year, just before the rut – they were already stinky!

We have a vague theory among us herders that the female herders notice the scent of the rutting bulls more than the male herders do. Quite what that means, I have no idea – perhaps the smell is designed more as an attractant to cows than a deterrent to bulls after all (not that any of us lassies have said that we actually like the smell!). Either that or the men amongst us are less sensitive when it comes to body odour!

Andi

My first winter as a reindeer herder

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.

Pony and I trying not to sink!

Leading Feta and Diamond along the path on a snowy day

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.

Snowstorm armour!

Ben

Calving 2021

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.

So, moving on, please enjoy the photos below!

Calves of many colours!

Ditches are a lot bigger when you’re only wee!

Gerrof mum!

Hen

Winter wonderland

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.

Sometimes skis were the only option for moving about on the Cromdales!

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.

Tilly

 

Long time, no reindeer

It’s been a bit snowy here in the Cairngorms this winter.

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!

There’s a loch there somewhere! Loch Morlich froze solid enough that some people skied right across it.

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.

Our path off the car park blocked by a 10 ft drift. No reindeer today then…

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.

The main ski road.

A passage cleared through drifts higher than the van.

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…

Our wee van excelled itself at being a snow van. That’s the main ski road that we’re stopped on…

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.

Hen sights the reindeer just above the snow drift

Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.

Call and they shall come (possibly)

Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!

Wild weather but happy herders with hungry Holy Moley

Andi

Snowy snoozes

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…

Old lass Fonn and young Lima

Hi Lima!

Kernel, Cicero and his mum Brie

Wee Chickpea

Emmental with her calf Edamame

Butter with his mum Gloriana

Addax and her calf Hemp

Haricot

Emmental and her calf Edamame

Christie

Guardians of the bag – Pumpkin, Ärta and Heinz, with Holy Moley lying down

Andi

Jokkmokk Winter Market

 

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.

Olly, Joe and myself at the market last year

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.

Joe admiring Sámi knives at a stall

Plenty of reindeer antlers for sale!

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.

Reindeer racing always draws a big crowd

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!

Frosty beard men!

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!

Beautifully carved antler crafts

Colourful gloves

Reindeer wear incredibly colourful harnesses

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!

John Utsi, Mikel Utsi’s nephew, and his daughter Sofia at my brother Alex’s wedding back in 2013. Both are wearing traditional Sámi dress.

Fiona

Thank you all!

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.

TV stars Dr Seuss and Holy Moley at the Strathspey Railway event. Photo: Justin Purefoy/Maramedia

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’.

Tilly feeding young bull Sherlock. Photo: Justin Purefoy/Maramedia

Tilly

How Holy Moley got her name!

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.

Huge excitement!

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.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t stop to take any photos during the rescue, but here’s a different boulder field to give you an idea of the type of terrain. Bonus point for spotting the ptarmigan!

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.

Back at the nearer end of the hill enclosure and reunited with her mum – but complete with bald patch on her head and rather bumpy knees!

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.

With mum Galilee (right) on the summer free-range – Holy Moley’s missing calf coat on her head still making her easy to pick out amongst the other calves.

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!

Holy Moley in September, complete (once again) with bald patch, this time after the vet had to remove her badly broken antler!

Fiona

The wonderful (and slightly disgusting) life of a reindeer mum

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.

Lotti