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

Reindeer herders come craftsmen/craftswomen!

As well as being highly qualified reindeer herders… (a qualification that takes years of course 😉 ) quite a few of us herders have our own wee side-lines which we either do as a hobby or to get an extra bit of pocket money each month selling our goods online or through our reindeer shop.

Olly has been part of the reindeer herding family for over 5½ years now, since he was 17. Although he is one of the youngest herders he is by far the most practical when it comes to handyman, maintenance and craftmanship work and the list goes on! He has fixed many a thing at Reindeer House and constantly gets roped in to help with projects including woodwork and building. As well as being a reindeer herder he has worked for a bushcraft company, teaching groups of kids the skill set and more ‘simple’ life when it comes to living and embracing the outdoors… away from the hustle and bustle of normal life!

Olly with a handmade stool

Throughout 2020 Olly has established his own company, Corvus, doing everything from putting up shelving to building sheds, whittling spoons and his latest venture of hand carving beautiful wooden cups. Each one turns out different due to the nature of the wood and working with the grain. He now has his own social media following and Etsy shop which is proving to be extremely popular. During winter/spring last year when the whole country went into lockdown, Olly lost work with the bushcraft company due to restrictions not allowing it to go ahead and has really made the most of what could have been a very long year – instead he has broadened his skill set and kept Reindeer House up to scratch in maintenance… Thanks Olly!

A carved Sami-style cup

See links below for keeping in the loop and what’s for sale through Corvus.

Corvus: Facebook page and Etsy page

I’ve (Fiona) been crafting with reindeer antler for over ten years now. I guess I’ve been inspired by the beautiful handicrafts made by the Sami people throughout Scandinavia having visited there in the past – their craft is a whole new level but having been self taught through trial and error I’ve worked out what sells and along the way got to work with a really great product. The best sellers are of course the necklaces, bracelets, keyrings and earrings I sell through our reindeer shop. These are affordable and don’t take too long to make. Pairing reindeer antler with colourful wooden beads it makes for a unique present or souvenir. I then took it a step further and now I do antler/wood handles for knives, bottle openers, cheese knives etc. This has been fun working out and having Sami friends to quiz along the way means I’m getting the best of the best advice!

One of my knives with an antler and curly birch handle

I’ve made cake knives for friends weddings and even reindeer antler rings. I don’t have a company as such but call myself Antler Crafts. It’s a great way to switch off, especially if it’s a bad weather day, I can tinker around in the workshop and my bedroom making bits and bobs from the reindeer antler.

Antler Crafts: Facebook page

And a cheese slice!

Andi has been in the reindeer herding scene now for well over ten years and full time since 2011, but has a very different hobby to Olly and I who work with wood and reindeer antler. Andi has self taught herself the art of taxidermy.

Not sure Andi would have her hand under those talons if this Buzzard was still alive!

Whenever she, or someone else (usually other reindeer herders) finds an animal or bird which has recently died through natural causes, we pop them in the freezer ready for Andi to work on. She is self taught in building manikins and tanning skins to restore these beautiful animals. Although we appreciate it is not everybody’s cup of tea there is certainly enough interest for her to keep up this unusual hobby. Seeing some of these animals up close through taxidermy may sometimes be the only way you can really appreciate their colouring or structure as in the wild they are often they are seen in a split second and you may never know it’s true beauty.

A brace of beautiful brown hares.

You can follow her on social media and she also has an online Etsy shop you can check out.

Andi’s Taxidermy: Facebook page and Etsy page

Manouk worked with us for a couple of years from 2018-2020 and still lives locally. I was always very jealous of her artistic skills and beautiful drawings.

Some of Manouk’s beautiful cards

Over the last couple of years she has been sketching landscape and mountain scenes as well as her day to day subjects such as the friendly local sheep in nearby fields. She has turned her art into gift cards and sells them online. Check out her Etsy shop and get yourself some lovely cards.

Manouk’s Etsy page

Sheena is definitely the most artistic of us all… even though she would try and say otherwise!

Sheena busy at work!

She has a real eye for colour and shape and you can be midway through a conversation and she’ll whip out her sketch book and pencil and start sketching the surroundings. We’ve been to many music festivals over the years and while everyone is taking photos there is Sheena with pencil and paper capturing the moment in a very different way. She is so encouraging to anyone who wants to give it a go, giving them sound advice but at the same time making sure they create something from their own mind, not hers.

Art pieces on recycled wooden boards, plus a couple of prints

Sheena’s ptarmigan and mountain hares in our shop window

She paints on wooden plaques and canvas as well as making clay animals and selling them through our reindeer shop. Mind you it only makes it to the shop if another reindeer herder doesn’t buy it first! Sheena doesn’t have any social media pages or online shop, but some of her items are always available in our shop here at the Centre, and can occasionally be found in our online shop too.

Small canvases

Joe has been a seasonal herder now for over 3 years and when he’s not working here he’s usually a mountain guide so knows the hills throughout Britain very well. More recently he’s got into photography, buying himself a fancy pants camera! He’s got a great eye when it comes to capturing a moment or scene – this was always very apparent on the photos he took on his phone so now he has the high tech equipment the photos are even more mind blowing. So with his love for being in the mountains coupled with his knowledge and fitness to take him to some incredible places in the outdoors I suspect there are going to be some pretty amazing photos to come out of it. We will definitely rope him in to get some good reindeer shots, so watch this space – particularly for our upcoming 2022 calendar perhaps!

Well chuffed with his new toy!

Loch Ness Leather is a company ran by a reindeer herder from back in the day, Heather Hanshaw. I don’t want to call her an ex reindeer herder cos you never really know when these ex herders dip their toe back into the odd bit of herding… Both Heather’s parents have always worked with leather and created businesses from it and Heather has now taken on that role and has built the most amazing company and products to go with it.

Heather hard at work (well mostly!) and some of her beautiful products

Some of you already have a keyring she has made as these have been going out in adoptions packs since last May for all adoption renewals (about which she wrote a blogfor us about last summer). She knows the rule for our shop – if it’s got a reindeer on it then we’ll sell it – so now we also have whisky hip flasks and dram sets available online.  Living locally to us, we can easily catch up on her latest products; usually done during a dog walk or once the chaos of COVID is over lots of lovely social times, dinner and drinks! While checking out her website see if you can recognise those fancy models she got to advertise her products.  😉 Lol!

Fancy models! Well, reindeer herders in disguise… Hats and bags all made by Loch Ness Leather. Photo copyright: Catriona Parmenter

Loch Ness Leather: Facebook page and website

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

When good photos go wrong…

Other than the few reindeer still out free-ranging who I haven’t seen lately, I’ve otherwise managed to get nice ‘adopt’ photos of everyone in the herd in the last few weeks. These photos are to go on the certificates that go out to all the lovely people who support us by adopting a reindeer, and as autumn is when reindeer look at their best, it is therefore when I take all the photos.

I realise (after sitting down to write this) that I’ve actually written a blog about photos before (to be fair, that was 5 years ago and I have a rubbish memory at times…) but hey, what’s wrong with repetition?! But actually I thought I’d just show you some of the ‘outtake’ photos, ‘cos everyone likes to see photos of reindeer looking daft, don’t they?

Most photos that don’t make the grade are just because of open mouths or closed eyes:

Beastie

Camembert

 

A classic of Merida from a couple of years ago!

But after my trip over to our farm last month to photograph the reindeer there, I realised that I’d mainly just taken photos of Olympic looking ridiculous!

Possibly my favourite…

Then there’s just the odd ones:

Morven looking like she’s just remembered something she’d rather forget…

Looking attractive, Athens!

Background? Check. Good light? Check. Camera in focus? Check. Dr Seuss looking handsome and majestic? Che… oh. No.

Reindeer often need encouragement to look alert for their photo, with ears pricked. This results in my photography assistant (Andi) doing a lot of dancing in the background while making a lot of noise, or sprinting back and forth shaking a feed bag…

…resulting in photos like this, where there’s been crossed wires about which reindeer I’m actually trying to photograph at the time…

And sometimes we resort to throwing things at the reindeer (well, nearby anyway) to get their attention!

Horse many years ago, steadfastly ignoring us.

Most of the time it seems, this is what the reindeer think of me and my camera!

Russia many years ago

Hen