Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.
Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.
Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!
The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.
Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.
Throughout much of the western world, the creation story known is that of Adam and Eve, and perhaps this is the most well-known. The Sámi, however, believe that in the beginning there was only the Sun and the Earth. The Sun was the father, and the Earth the mother, and together they created a Son. The home of the Son of the Sun did not have any females, so he set out on a boat to the land of Giants to find a wife. There, he fell in love (or lust), with the daughter of the blind Giant King. With the help of the daughter, he won a game of finger pulling against her father and earned the right to marry her. They were then intimate, and then sailed away. However, they were pursued by her angry brothers who wanted her back. The couple defeated the brothers with her magical handkerchief and the Son’s hot rays, burning the men to death, essentially. They were married, and she soon gave birth to the ancestors of the Sámi, the Gállá-bártnit, who were hunting sons and passed their hunting knowledge down to the Sámi.
The Sun and the Earth also had a daughter, which the Sámi believe came to earth to live with the Sámi. She gave the Sámi their reindeer to herd, and looked after them. When she was on her deathbed, she talked about wanting to see her Father, the Sun, again, because the darkness was coming in and she worried for the Sámi people. The story of the Son is all about optimism for the future, whereas the poem about the Daughter is about uncertainty and the need to pray to ensure the future of the Sámi way of life.
The Evenkis of Russia and China believe that the earth was all water and was not inhabited by people, until a maiden with an eight legged reindeer created the land. All the people lived in heaven, and when she refused to marry an old man, she was cast out of heaven, because such refusal was a great sin to the people in heaven. Her late father had left her one reindeer, an eight legged beast who she took with her when she was banished. She cried and cried, and fell asleep on the reindeer as they flew to earth. When she woke up, she realised her reindeer was not flying, but falling. The reindeer spoke to her, telling her to pull out his fur and throw it into the ocean below. She did as was told and logs appeared. The reindeer landed on the biggest one. He told the girl to tie them together to make a raft, so she did. There they floated on the ocean of earth, fishing with hair from the reindeer’s neck made into nets and loops, until the reindeer grew old.
Realising he would soon die, he told the girl to kill him. She wept, not wanting to kill her only friend, but he warned that if she didn’t she too would die. The girl reluctantly did as the reindeer wished. She lay his skin on the water, and it became land. His fur became forests and his skull became mountains. His lice became wild reindeer and his broken bones turned into crackling thunder. Before she lay down to sleep that night, she placed his heart on her left side and his lungs on her right. His heart became a hero and his lungs a boy and a girl. His last breath became the wind.
I hope you’ve enjoyed having a read of these little stories and I hope I have told them well. If you know of any others, tell us in the comments below.
They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.
A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.
The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.
In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!
When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.
The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.
We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.
Exploring the meanings of unusual words and the Reindeer hoose Office wall…
To explain this rather dubious title, in our humble office here at reindeer house there is a list of rather obscure words stuck to our wall: things like Jargogles, Apricity and twattle. the latter meaning to gossip or talk idly – a lot of that goes on in our office to be sure!
Quite a few of these words we feel are quite apt for a few of our fluffy friends up on the hill so I’m going to introduce you to a few choice selections!
Snoutfair – A good looking person.
I feel this would obviously be quite apt for all the reindeer as they are such gorgeous beasts but Cheese obviously thinks very highly of themselves here!
Cockalorum – A little man with a high opinion of himself.
If there was ever a reindeer that fit this description it would be Mo, Mo is a cheeky little fella and at four years old he’s definitely one of the smallest males in the herd and he more than makes up for it in attitude!
Lethophobia – The fear of oblivion
So this is a tad dramatic but definitely applies to one of my favourite reindeer Shinty. Shinty is originally Swedish and was imported back in 2011. He’s a super sweetie (I think) but painfully shy and often looks apologetic for just turning up in the morning. If any reindeer were to fear oblivion it would be him!
Hugger mugger – To act in a secretive manner
To be honest this applies very well to the female reindeer during the winter months – at this time of year we have to find the reindeer every day and we do all of our visits out on the open hillside. The amount of times we’ve walked out for miles to then turn around and have an entire herd of reindeer smugly behind you is definite hugger muggery if you ask me!
Jollux – Slang for being a wee bit on the chubby side.
Without a doubt the Jollux of the herd is Magnus, the lovely magnus loves nothing more than chowing down – unfortunately it’s rather hard to put a reindeer on a diet as the hillsides are covered in lovely grazing. This also brings me onto another great word – Callipygian: to have beautifully shaped buttocks. Magnus most definitely gives Beyonce a run for her money!
The final word, one used almost daily here at Reindeer House is Groaking – To silently watch someone eating, hoping to be invited to join them. Every time lunch hour hits there’s some person with a fantastic looking lunch….
Recently via Twitter we were moved at the news of an anthrax outbreak in Western Siberia, the Yamalo-Nenets region, which has hospitalised over 90 reindeer herders and caused the deaths of almost 2,500 reindeer. The nomadic families herding reindeer across the area were evacuated or vaccinated – authorities are aiming to vaccinate over 40,000 reindeer. In the last few days, a 12-year old boy and his granny have both died.
It is thought that melting permafrost exposed the carcass of a long-dead reindeer, and dormant anthrax contained within it was exposed and became active. In cold temperatures the spores contained within the ground are capable of surviving up to 150 years; in warmer temperatures they morph into a more infectious state.
The melting of the permafrost is unusual, both in its location and its extent. Warming of the tundra this year has been unusually high, with temperatures of 35 degrees. Climate change is something you hear of more and more in reindeer literature and research around the world.
The habitats are changing – flora and fauna increase or decrease as ecosystems fluctuate due to climate, disease or human influence – for example, millions of hectares of birch forest are defoliated by outbreaks of moth now confined to northern latitudes due to climate; wildfires are more common as habitats’ defences weaken; lichens are reduced due to increased pressure on remaining areas and competition; more oil is piped out, disrupting migratory patterns; politics confine reindeer to particular boundaries; and as a way of life reindeer herding becomes more economically challenging.
In Yakutia, to the east of Yamalo-Nenets, there are around 200 burial grounds of cattle which died from anthrax. Perhaps hoping that they won’t be affected isn’t enough.
As a small Scottish reindeer ‘family,’ it is sobering to wonder about the slowly unfolding systemic impact on reindeer and herders around the world – but of course this is just a small part of a very large story, and we mustn’t lose sight of this larger picture that affects us all.
So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!
The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!
As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)
Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.
Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.
NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.
The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!
Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!
Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!
Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.
First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.
It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!
One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.
We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!
This is the third and final installment of Sonya’s blog about her week volunteering with us and the reindeer. Thanks so much again to Sonya for all of her hard work and we hope you have enjoyed reading all about what our volunteers and staff get up to on a daily basis!
(Here’s a handy link to the first and second parts of Sonya’s blog)
Day Five of an Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
I only worked a half day today and started at 2pm, it looked like it could be a dry day in Aviemore but by the time I got to Glenmore it was raining as usual. Fiona was making buttons out of slices of antler, to sell in the shop, first she saws the antler into tiny slices, a bit like you would a cucumber, I’m amazed she still has all her fingers. Then she thoroughly sands each tiny piece on both sides until it’s as smooth as glass, then drills two tiny holes in the centre so it can be sewn on.
I started by sorting out the hire wellington boots today, we try to keep them on racks in size order so that it’s easy to find a suitable pair to hire out to visitors. Bizarrely there are three odd boots, a size 5, 6 and 10 with no partner. We have all looked everywhere for the missing ones to no avail.
Only four people are booked on the 2:30 hill trip so Dave suggests I do some of the talking, He says its less intimidating if its a small group but I am just concerned they won’t hear me over the noisy, raging torrent of water at Utsi’s bridge where we pause for the history segment but they huddled close and it was fine. We had to take more feed up than usual today so Dave and I had a sack each and asked for a volunteer to carry the hand feed, which they were only too happy to do. When we put the feed down, only 28 reindeer arrived which means 10 are missing and two are separated in the sick pen because they have upset stomachs. This is probably because they have over eaten and gorged themselves on grass. One of the greedy grass eaters is Gandi so I am especially worried, Dave shakes his head when I express concern which I take to mean there is no hope for Gandi’s recovery, but Dave quickly reassures me that Gandi is likely to recover in 24 hours, just like we do when we have an upset stomach. Must be an antipodean thing, shaking your head when it’s not bad news, but the frequent misunderstandings keep us entertained. I think I am mostly to blame for these as I have often misunderstood foreign tourists, much to Dave’s entertainment. I don’t easily recognise accents but it seems a good conversation starter to ask people where they are from, the problem is they ask me the same question back and we try to answer each other too soon and it gets very confusing to the point where I thought a young couple were asking me if I was from Paris when really they were telling me that’s where they were from. I am learning it’s safer to just listen and nod, and not ask too many questions.
Day Six of a Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
Back to the early morning start today which was a struggle, but at least it wasn’t raining. Dave and I were on paddock duty i.e poop scooping, and we cleared up the shed where the paddock reindeer have sheltered while it’s been so wet, then we did some weeding before going on the 11.00 hill trip. I think I can say Dave and I have now got a well practised routine, I do the ‘welcome’ at the car park and the ‘history’ at Utsi Bridge and he does the ‘health and safety’ at the enclosure and the ‘reindeer characteristics’ at the herd. At feeding time today we were trying to get all the reindeer from the bottom corridor into the east enclosure and about 15 of them were well spread out and comfy in the bottom corridor so Dave suggested I go and get them so they don’t miss lunch. If I was better at it I suppose I should have been able to get them all in one go but they were so far apart I found it difficult to keep them all moving so I resorted to doing small groups of three or four at a time. I went up and down the hill in the bottom corridor many times and I think it was me who needed lunch more than the reindeer by the time I got them all. By the time I was able to bring up the rear with the last of the stragglers, the first visitors were leaving, but they all seemed to have had a good time so no worries. When I join Dave he tells me he thinks we only have 39 instead of the requisite 40 reindeer. I am seriously dismayed and set about my own count but they are moving around now as the food is mostly gone. It takes me two attempts but I count 40, twice, just to make sure.
In the afternoon I do the hill trip with Julia, the weather is glorious and we have a few small children in the group, I am leading the first part and Julia is bringing up the rear. I end up waiting ages at the bridge for the back end of the group to join us. Julia has really aching legs from running up a mountain yesterday. She cleverly disguises her slow progress by making it look like the small children are holding her up! But this photo reveals the truth, as she hobbled back down once the tourists had gone.
At the end of my penultimate day I’ve already had to say goodbye to Hen and Abby. It will be difficult to part company with everyone else tomorrow, when my placement comes to an end.
Day Seven of Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
Ah the last day…….awoke to a lovely morning and I thought you might like to see the tough commute I’ve had each morning, the traffic has been heavy as you can see and the views along this road can be distracting on a bright day, as you can see by the view of Loch Morlich below.
So my last morning began with a trip up the hill with Fiona and Dave to give the reindeer their breakfast. The sun was quite warm even though it was early in the day so the reindeer took a lot of rousing to make their way up the hill, they like to lounge around when it’s warm and it takes a lot of coaxing and shaking of the feed sack to get them going. Fiona asked me to put my half of the feed out to coax the other stragglers up so this is the first group lined up for breakfast.
Gandi seems to be poorly again because he doesn’t express any interest in breakfast and stays sitting at the gate far away. Upon closer inspection it turns out he has a very upset stomach. We try to usher him into the sick pen for Fiona to check his temperature but it’s risky getting too close behind him because his ‘issues’ are non-stop. The unflappable Dave accuses me of being squeamish and shoves Gandi onwards and upwards with little or no regard for his own hygiene. Gandi’s temperature is a little high but not dangerously so, Fiona thinks he’s just been gorging on too much grass again. I wondered why he does it if it makes him ill and Fiona thinks its because it tastes so nice. I guess it’s a bit like us having so much ice cream we get a headache or so much chocolate we feel sick, but we just can’t resist it. Well it seems Gandi has no will power, little sense and a weak constitution. “Sorry Gandi, does that sound harsh? You’re still my favourite but to be fair, you been poorly for more days than you’ve been well, this week”. Despite being so handsome, it’s certain he will be castrated this year. It’s uncertain if he ever did father any calves but if he did, they will be three years old this year and ready to start breeding themselves. Therefore, to avoid any possible in-breeding, Gandi’s new career path will involve being a Christmas reindeer, which I am sure he will excel at. I am a little sad he’ll never grow those lovely graceful silver antlers again so here’s one more photo of them as he munches on some lichen with Moose. For any fans of Moose, he’s fine and well, he’s just keeping Gandi company. Wherever possible, reindeer are never in a position where they do anything alone, it would just distress them more to feel like they were being singled out and not part of the herd.
After a few more busy hill trips throughout the morning, including one at 11:00 that I did completely alone, it was time for lunch and then manning the shop single-handedly for the first time. I’ve not really done much in the shop, beyond clean it, up to this point. But Dave and Julia are the only other herders working today and they really need to do the last hill trip of the day, in case Gandi needs an antibiotic injection.
Dave has christened me the retail queen due to my previous work and assumes I will be fine to just step in and run the shop. I am quick to point out that the tills I used were computerised and not quite like this one. After a quick lesson from Julia, they’re off and the shop is all mine. In case you shopped here on Sunday 19th June, I would like to apologise to any customers who had to wait while I wandered round the shop with a calculator checking the prices and adding up their purchases. In case I worked with you in the past, I would like to point out, in my defence, that there are no barcodes and this beautiful vintage till does not actually add up, nor work out the change! Several postcards, pens, souvenir bags and one expensive reindeer hide later, the day is suddenly over and after closing the paddocks for the last time, its time to go home. It’s been very hard work but the MOST rewarding time I have had, so immense thanks to the Reindeer Centre for this amazing experience and for being the subject of this blog, hope to see you again soon.
So as most, if not all of you know, Glenmore where we are based and the surrounding area is rich in wildlife, and it is always a delight to see other creatures on our walks to the reindeer, as well as the reindeer themselves. It’s been such lovely weather recently and we have seen and heard a wide array of birds and other creatures recently, so I thought you might like to know what to look and listen out for on your trip up to the reindeer in the spring and summer.
The village of Glenmore is surrounded by Caledonian pine forests. Our bird table in the garden attracts lots of little songbirds, including chaffinches, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, siskins, green finches and even crested tits, which are usually quite shy and we take as a sign that snow may be on the way. We get ducks, pigeons and dunnocks on the ground around the table, tidying up after their small friends and we even get woodpeckers on the peanut holder occasionally. We often have red squirrels visit our bird table too, and one in particular at the moment who looks very scruffy and has a broken looking tail
The path on our walk to the reindeer is lined by trees and there are many animals and birds which call the forest home. Most often seen are chaffinches, as they seem to be less shy than other birds. To borrow a phrase from Hen, the trees are “dripping in willow warblers”, which we always hear and sound familiar to chaffinches, but are more ‘flutey’. We also cross a river on the way to the enclosure which means we see birds associated with water. Just a few weeks ago we saw a dipper on the rocks, bobbing away looking for food. We also see grey wagtails, with their yellow bums, and pied wagtails too. Very lucky visitors can also get a glimpse of our ‘tame’ roe deer. Occasionally we see her just to the side of the path, or even in the car park. She doesn’t seem too bothered by us but we always try to keep quiet if she is around. The visitors get very excited that they’ve seen a deer even before getting to the enclosure!
Inside the enclosure, we encounter upland birds and often see red grouse, hearing them shout ‘go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back’ at us as they fly off. There are often curlews calling to each other, wood pigeon, crows, and cuckoos in the forests. If you’ve been on the visits, you’ll know that we are also plagued by ducks from Loch Morlich!
Ring ouzels, a migratory bird which breeds in the north of Scotland during summer, are often seen flying around too. They are fairly similar in size and shape to a blackbird, and look similar to them to except that they have a white collar on their chest. There are some black grouse too, but they are very shy and we only see them when we go up early in the morning. We have snipe in the enclosure, and I once almost stepped on a snipe nest when I was trekking last year!
We recently had some nesting wagtails in the shed in our hill enclosure. The fledglings were so cute and fluffy!
There are always a few roe deer in the enclosure and on our early morning jaunts to look for calving females we often hear them barking. We even seen red deer in the enclosure and Abby and Andi were super lucky to see an osprey flying over the enclosure. We have a few mountain hares running around and a couple of leverets always seem to be hanging around our shed area. We have toads, lizards, mice, weasels and lots and lots of midges too! And years ago Hen was walking along the boardwalk when she and a mole, of all things, passed each other – on the boardwalk!
Jack Ward’s fantastic photographs can be viewed at his Facebook page – Alba Wildlife
**Sidenote: Abby wanted me to call this blog “Oot and Aboot with Imogen” but I refused. This blogging business is much too serious for trivial blog titles, obviously.
For me the summer solstice always fell on June 21st and I never knew otherwise however apparently this year it was on the 20th… Something to do with being a leap year?!? Anyway to mark the occasion it’s always quite nice to do something, whether we get a group of folk together and have a game of rounders or go for a nice ‘summery’ walk. This year we decided to take a wander up into the Northern Coire’s – Coire an Lochain in particular! Looking up from Glenmore and Loch Morlich this is the furthest right Coire with a large patch of snow on the right hand side of it. Mid-summer here always seems to be fairly awful weather, I even recall wearing my waterproof ski trousers for this about 4-5 years ago and in true Scottish Highlands style this year was no different. However, it wasn’t raining so we were already up on other years!
So we set off up the path into the Coire and it took us about an hour of which we chit chatted the whole way, of course putting the world to rights! Right in the back of Coire An Lochain there is, as stated in its name, a wee loch. We arrived with bags filled with tea and cake (very important for us reindeer herders), my bagpipes and four fairly hyper dogs (3 of them being under the age of two). As we arrived into the Coire something caught my eye… 4 reindeer behind the loch. Straight away dogs were called in and put on a leads, just in case, and I scooted over towards them to see if I could see who it was. Malawi, one of our older females in the herd at the age of 11 now was leading them away from us and she was followed by Okapi and two younger females (who I didn’t get close enough to, to ID). A three year old and a two year old, I got that much! They obviously weren’t too keen on coming up to us as we had the dogs but they did stop in their tracks when I started calling them, it was just unfortunate I didn’t any food as a bit of bribery to come a bit closer, then I would have definitely worked out the other two. Malawi is easy to identify because she has never grown any antlers which is pretty unusual.
Like I said the reindeer didn’t hang around as they don’t like dogs so we got onto what was also very important after our walk in – tea, cake and a quick blast on the bagpipes. I’m not really in practice at the moment so any wee slip up with notes I blamed on the cold weather and my fingers weren’t working properly but they sounded pretty awesome in the Coire getting good acoustics bouncing off the head wall. At this time of year it is light until about midnight and light again in the morning round 3.30am. Such a lovely time of year which is why we try to make the most of it by being outside. It’s a bit different in the winter months when it isn’t light until 9am and dark by 3.30pm but it’s also nice to have that comparison throughout the year too. Of course in the far north and Scandinavia they have the midnight sun… I shall have to go and see that one year for sure!
Sonya, author of this blog, came up to us in June to volunteer with our beautiful reindeer. She has very kindly written us a blog about her experience, and we will be sharing it over the next few weeks. Thanks so much to Sonya for coming along and being so helpful, and we really hope to see you again in the not too distant future!
In June 2016 I arrived for my volunteer placement at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore with no previous experience of working with animals but lots of enthusiasm and affection for the reindeer I had visited as a tourist many times before. I had recently taken the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my 20 year career and had a whole summer to fill before starting university in September. I had no idea what to expect but was seeking solace and comfort in the remoteness of the fabulous Cairngorms and the company of the placid reindeer. I was blessed with a rare dry day on the first Monday and arrived promptly at 8am alongside fellow herders Imogen who has a zoology degree and big-bearded Dave who I later found out to be exceedingly well travelled and originally from New Zealand. By the way, it’s the beard that’s big, not Dave himself.
So after meeting a confusing muddle of strangely named dogs, I was introduced to Fiona who runs the Centre, and tasks were allocated for the morning. Can you guess what my first job was? That’s right …… reindeer poop scooping. Keen to carry out all necessary tasks enthusiastically, I wielded the bespoke pooper scooper and collected a remarkable bucketful of the stuff from the paddocks. A few of the herd are kept in the paddocks for two weeks at a time so they are more accessible to very young, old or less-able visitors who can’t manage the hill trip to see the whole herd. After scooping all the poop I could find, transferring the contents of the bucket to a sack was a trickier and less appealing task but the trusty Dave was on hand to show how it’s done without spilling too much. I confess from that moment on I found myself a pair of gloves for this task and many others, much to Dave’s derision, I suspect. But hey, you can take the girl out of Essex………
I had a full and detailed explanation from Dave on how to open up the exhibition ready for visitors and spent some time replenishing the children’s craft materials, I wish I was 5 years old again so that I could make paper chains or make an antler headband, and draw colourful pictures of my reindeer friends. However, with pencils sharpened, loan wellies sorted into sizes and the shop vacuumed, it was time to set off on the first hill trip. The tourists were very impressed with Dave’s authentic appearance of bushy beard and battered green hat and took several photos of him and the van before we even set off. I’m convinced I need to change my image, which currently consists of generic walking attire, so as to appeal to the tourists but I am stuck for inspiration, more of this later.
On the first hill trip the cheeky Svalbard is overly friendly and pushes and prods me repeatedly with his antlers and nose. The tourists mistake his behaviour for affection and there are many oohs and aahs and clicks of cameras, however it’s far more likely that he recognised the smell of food on the jacket I was borrowing from the Reindeer Centre.
I also learnt that my adoptee ‘Gandi’ is there somewhere, in amongst the swirling sea of moulting coats and velvet antlers that greeted us. Correction, they are greeting the sack of food, not us, and I have learnt they couldn’t care less about us or how the food gets there. Despite this pragmatic realisation, I am still deluding myself that Gandi recognised me, if he could talk he’d even remember my name, of course!
I am delighted and relieved to see him in such good health with a remarkably majestic pair of antlers. I feel inordinately proud that I chose such a worthy recipient of my sponsorship, for he is also a recent TV star in the BBC Scotland programme about the Highlands due to be shown across other BBC regions in Autumn 2016.
After lunch Dave teaches me how to mix the reindeer food, I was keen to get started as I love a piece of machinery and rather ingeniously, I thought, a cement mixer is used to mix the food. And when you realise the quantity of food they get through, you realise why it’s necessary to mechanise the process. There is little demand for a commercially available reindeer food, as this is the only large free-ranging herd in the UK, so I was shown the recipe and the shed full of ingredients. We started with sheep food containing corn and grains, then added extra barley, some starchy sugar beet, some fibrous malt pellets which are a waste product from the numerous nearby distilleries, added a sprinkle of a secret mineral supplement and four big handfuls of hay enriched with garlic and molasses. Well this was all fascinating for me and I was enjoying making this tasty treat until we ran out of grain. Dave despatched me to the shed to fetch more barley, all good so far. I located the barley and saw with some dismay how huge the new sack was. I should mention at this point that I only manage to measure five feet with my shoes on, and the heaviest thing I’d lifted in my previous job was a bottle of Chanel No 5! Battle with the barley sack commenced but I should have been grateful for small mercies as some of the other ingredients are much heavier.
By the time we had mixed about half a cubic metre of food, it was a relief to leave behind the previously fascinating cement mixer, and head up to the hill again on the 2:30pm trip. Dave encouraged me to carry the sack of food but I chickened out and took the lighter and smaller sack of hand feed. Poor Dave gets the bigger, heavier sack yet again, but gallantry isn’t completely dead in my world!
Near the end of the trip Dave gets a phone call, we’re a 20 min walk from the nearest road and goodness knows how far from the nearest dwelling but amazingly there’s a mobile signal in the reindeer enclosure. I can’t always get one of those in flat, overpopulated Essex. Anyway the phone call is to invite me to the reindeer shed to see some vaccinations taking place where I met the famous Tilly, Fiona’s mum and owner of the herd. The injection is to help prevent the potentially fatal red water fever that can kill a reindeer if not caught early enough. Imogen had previously told me that Tilly always comes to administer these injections as there is a tiny chance the reindeer will go into anaphylactic shock and she has the most experience to deal with that possibility. Despite their huge antlers and sharp hooves, I had never felt even remotely intimidated by reindeer before. But closed in a tiny shed with six of them circling round and round in an effort to escape the needle, it felt a bit like being caught up in a whirling dervish of hoof and hair and taught me a greater respect for the fact they are still wild animals even though they generously humour us with their presence and grace.
Tuesday starts with much excitement and anticipation when Fiona tells me I can join her and Hen on a harness training session. Hen is the longest serving herder based at Reindeer House other than Fiona and I found out she can recognise and name every single reindeer, as can most of the herders. However, if a pair of antlers are cast in the autumn, Hen knows which reindeer they belonged to as she recognises the distinct and unique form of each and every reindeer’s antlers even when they’re no longer on the animal. The Cairngorm reindeer participate in many Christmas events across the country and it’s important they keep practising with the halter and harness throughout the year so that Christmas is a relaxed affair with no anxiety. Another treat for me is that my adoptee Gandi is one of the reindeer coming along on the practice session because he and Elvis are experienced trekkers and will set a good example to Camus, Balmoral and Shinty. I hadn’t met the last three reindeer before and I’m pleased to say they all did very well with their training. Shinty was the most reluctant to get going and he gave Hen a thorough workout by making her tug him up the hill, but with Gandi encouraging him from behind, we were soon underway on our circuit.
So this is Hen on the left and me on the right with reindeer (from left to right) Elvis, Shinty, Gandi, Camus and Balmoral. It was to be the last glimpse of the sun for several days so I’m glad I took up Fiona’s offer to take a photo of me with the reindeer and I sent it to my ex-colleagues to illustrate the dramatic difference to my working day.
The rest of the day was spent on hill trips with tourists, becoming more familiar with the information we impart to the eager visitors. Many people meet a favourite reindeer on their visit, as I did with Gandi, and decide to adopt them. In between the trips we all work on the biannual newsletter as it’s time to send it out to all the reindeer adopters. This edition of the newsletter features many tales of the reindeer and activities and events at the centre. There are some hilarious stories about Fergus, a hand-reared calf who has turned out to be a very cheeky boy indeed, and sadly, there’s a moving obituary to Grunter, a much loved reindeer who was also hand-reared when he was a calf.
I’ve learnt the name of another member of the herd today, the endearing Blue, who was named in the year of cheeses 2013. He was born with a condition which means he is very pale, almost completely white and he’s also deaf. Many visitors think he is albino but Imogen explained to me that albinism means a complete lack of pigment, whereas Blue just has a reduced level of pigment which means he is Leucistic. His skin is very pink and prone to sunburn and any broken skin could lead to infection so he has bright yellow ‘summer cream’ on his face which is a mix of sunscreen and insecticide to keep the midges away. Blue has been a bit slow to come for food today and hasn’t hand fed from the tourists as much as normal so on one of my hill trips with Imogen, it’s necessary to take his temperature once the visitors are gone. I’ve seen this before and it involves luring them close with an irresistible bucket of lichen to get a halter on them, one person holds the head while the other person takes the temperature from the ‘other end’. Whilst Imogen does the ‘business’ she regales me with detailed advice about insertion of the thermometer, which angle is best, how long to leave it in, etc. I decide it’s time to manage her expectations and make it clear, I’m happy to learn the theory, but as far as practise goes, I think I’ll remain at the head end, thank you very much!
Today I also discussed with Imogen how I could possibly look less like a tourist when we take the visitors out. Her insightful but wildly impractical suggestion is that I should dress for conditions at least ten degrees warmer, so go up the hill in just a t-shirt when everyone else is in hats and jackets, and claim it’s a warm day. I fear this soft southerner might catch her death if she attempted that, so I bear it in mind but keep my multiple layers firmly in place.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!