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.
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…
Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!
Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.
In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.
In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.
The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.
The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.
I help take the Christmas decorations down.
In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.
Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.
After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.
Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.
Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.
It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.
One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.
The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.
The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.
It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.
At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.
The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.
In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.
I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.
The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.
There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.
There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!
It’s not been a very snowy winter at all, and nor was last winter either. While there’s been the odd decent fall every now and then, it’s generally all melted away quite quickly. Until, ironically, about 6 weeks ago, when winter finally made a proper appearance. Since then the mountains have been much whiter, and the skiing good… until our new and nasty acquaintance known as COVID-19 stopped play for the ski centre, and pretty much the rest of the world to be honest.
But thinking about snow reminded me of the incredible 2009-2010 winter, when it started snowing at the beginning of it and just didn’t stop. So here’s some photos of back in the days that we got ‘proper’ snow – all of 10 years ago!
Many of you may have seen this photo (above) before, in one of our calendars or on a Christmas card. But in front of this line of reindeer are herders Fiona and Mary, struggling through deep snow while the reindeer had the easy job behind. This was the day we moved them from the hill enclosure out to the ‘free-range’, having closed to the public at the end of the Christmas holidays. But before moving the reindeer themselves, we had to make a path ourselves – easier said than done in some places!
Back down at Reindeer House, it just didn’t stop snowing! Day after day there were several more inches of fresh white stuff each morning, and gradually everything disappeared.
But thankfully the reindeer coped just fine, and being as a lot of the deepest snow was during our closed spell in January and February, it didn’t matter and we had a ball playing in it most of the time.
On a wild Hill Trip in February we were fortunate to witness a special moment. Andrew passed his phone to Manouk during a brief break in the weather and asked her to to take some pictures. She was able to capture the moment his partner Jasmine, became his fiancé.
Thanks to Jasmine and Andrew for sharing their photos with us. Congratulations from everyone at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. Let us know if you want Olympic and Aztec at the wedding….
A couple of months ago there was a woman on our hill trip who wondered if we ever did sleigh rides with our reindeer. Apart from our parades around Christmas time, at which we use a sleigh for Santa to sit on, we don’t do any sleigh rides. It is simply not along the lines of what we want to use our reindeer for year round.
When I was in Norway before, there were companies that offered sleigh rides with reindeer. The owners of these reindeer seemed to be quite happy taking people along on sleigh rides and the reindeer, being rewarded with lichen, happily obliged. I couldn’t resist, so I gave it a go. It was quite fun, yet a lot slower than I had imagined, even though I had been involved with Christmas last year as well. The reindeer just take it slow and put up a pace you could easily keep up with on foot. Nonetheless, it’s quite calming and relaxing to be in your sleigh, being pulled by your reindeer. Reindeer seem to have a calming effect on people. This is something many people say on our hill trips, and something I’ve found as well from the first time I met them. So in Scotland it won’t be possible to go on a sleigh ride any time soon (unless you’re Santa and it’s Christmas time) but if you do it in Norway, Sweden or Finland, you’re up for a calming, relaxing ride, right through winter wonderland.
The weather here has been chilly but there really hasn’t been more than a sprinkling of the white stuff – maybe it’s all being saved up for February but it has to be the most snow-free January I’ve had up here. We had a few days with a dusting of snow on the ground on the hill, but with a mild day today much of it has melted. The reindeer don’t mind, and are enjoying the cool temperatures whilst having easy access to the grazing still.
There’s a forecast for more snow in the next week though, so we’ll wait and see!
This winter we have prolonged periods of cold snowy weather, as I write this the weather forecast predicts it’s not going to be above zero during the next two weeks! It’s pretty chilly for us herders even under our many layers, but for the reindeer it’s ideal (if a little mild!) and we have a big happy free-ranging herd.
On Hill Trips we often talk about how reindeer are adapted to Arctic and subarctic life by describing their thick winter coat, large hooves, beards, and their amazing clicking back feet. However, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and endearing adaptations of a reindeer is their beautifully soft velvet noses!
Out of the 40 odd species of deer in the world, reindeer (and Caribou) are the only deer which have hairy noses rather than shiny, moist ones. This prevents the build up of frost which would occur on a cold wet surface during exhalation; perhaps this is the reason why male polar explorers (and Scottish reindeer herders) often grow beards!
However, the most special part of a reindeer nose is actually on the inside. This blog will endeavour to delve under the cute furry exterior to hopefully show how truly remarkable a reindeer’s nose is…. as well as a good excuse to show lots of lovely fuzzy photos!
There is a complicated and highly specialised arrangement of cartilage, bone, fleshy bits, mucous membranes and blood vessels that make up their nasal passages. Together they form an extremely large surface area; the shape of which is often described as a ‘rolled scroll’ or sometimes a ‘seashell’. This specialised structure allows a reindeer’s nose to remain warm and retain moisture in freezing temperatures as well as allowing them to expel excess heat on warmer days.
A reindeer would soon be chilled if freezing air was to reach their lungs on every breath. To overcome this they have the fascinating ability to change the temperature of the air they inhale before it reaches the lungs, and vice versa. This is all thanks to their ingenious nasal structure, which works as a counter-current heat-exchange system.
For example, if the outside air temperature is -40⁰C, the temperature when the air reaches the reindeer’s lungs is about +38⁰C. In other words, they can change the temperature of the air an incredible 70-80⁰C in less than one second! Additionally, winter air tends to be cold and dry, especially for reindeer that live in higher latitudes. In order for the heated air not to be over dry when it reaches the lungs, a bit of moisture is released from the internal mucous membranes into the air when the reindeer inhales. Move over Rudolph with your shiny red nose, I think that is pretty magic!
On exhalation the opposite happens so a reindeer is able to cool its warm breath, in order to conserve as much body heat as possible. When breathing out they also conserve as much water vapour as possible; especially important when snow may be the only form of water they are able to get!
So when it’s cold in winter, us meagre humans can see our breath as we exhale. However, a reindeer standing at rest in sub-zero temperatures will have no visible breath steaming from their nostrils! That’s because air leaving a human nose is about 32⁰C and the water it contains condenses into visible water droplets as our warm breath meets the cold air. In a reindeer’s nose, warm air is cooled down by about 21⁰C before it is exhaled, saving the majority of the heat. The mucous membranes in the snout recover the moisture, enabling the water in the air to condense inside the nose which then trickles into special folds which direct it to the back of the nose and into the throat, meaning the reindeer exhales drier and partially cooled air.