Romford Retailer becomes a Cairngorm Reindeer Herder

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!

Day One

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.

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Svalbard

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!

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Visitors admire Gandi

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.

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Preparing the feed

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.

Day Two

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.

training

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!

Blue

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Blue having a wee lie down

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.

Sonya

Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!

My, how you’ve grown!

Some of you may already know this female reindeer, Ryvita. If you don’t then she is a 7 year old mature female who has a lovely nature and, like most the other reindeer in the herd, is super greedy! Over the past three years she has had her daughter Cheese by her side as she hasn’t calved since she had her in 2013, so the two of them are inseparable. Not sure what will happen if Ryvita has a calf this year… Poor Cheese! However this blog is not about the relationship between Ryvita and Cheese, it is about antler growth. Over the past month I have been taking photos of Ryvita to show you all how fast reindeer antler grows. Antler is in fact the fastest growing animal tissue in the world.

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Ryvita in 2011

I started taking my photos on the 17th April 2016 and took the last one on the 22nd of May 2016 and in that time I reckon her antlers have grown a good 8-10 inches and also a 4-5 inch front point, so it really is phenomenal. We think Ryvita is still due to calve so she’s also growing her calf inside her, and is doing a fantastic job of both. The photos speak for themselves so I hope you enjoy them. Note that we had snow, then a lovely sunny spell, then another good dump of snow again… Got to love an unpredictable Scottish spring!

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Ryvita on the 17th of April, just beginning her antler growth
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One week later, the 24th of April, in beautiful sunshine
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A few days later, the 28th of April, and we have snow!
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Bit of a damp day, May 2nd.
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Ryvita on the 8th of May, I think she’s bored of being our model!
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Sleepy Ryvita, May 17th
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And finally, Ryvita on the 22nd of May

Ryvita’s antlers will continue to grow until the onset of autumn, so hopefully she gets lots  to eat and she will hopefully grow a rather lovely set of antlers.

Here’s a quick side by side comparison of 17th April to 17th May, just one month of growth:

Fiona

Rounding up Winter

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Fiona and Feta having a one to one

So as it’s almost summer and I’m having a bit of a phone clear out of all the photos and thought who would most enjoy all my winter reindeer ones… everyone online! It was only 6 months ago I managed to upgrade my trusty old button phone to a smart one so I’ve been making the most of having a camera to hand most of the time.

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The girls walking behind each other to save energy

 

We have had a right mix of weather over the past few months but regardless what it is doing out there we have to go out and locate the herd every morning. This is one good reason I never look at a weather forecast cos I either get excited that there is going to be good weather and it disappoints or I see it’s due to be bad weather so then I don’t look forward to getting a drenching so best just to look out the window on the day and dress appropriately! At least this way there is no expectations.

 

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Mel leading the herd in for breakfast

The girls (reindeer) have been pretty well behaved and we have found them most of the time. I say most because lets face it there is going to be the odd day the hill is storm bound or just too foggy to even begin to find them. We have experienced every terrain under foot from deep snow, mud and ice but to be honest the snow is the easiest one to walk through as we create a lovely packed path that both us and the reindeer use… unless you are the first one to break that path after a fresh dumping in which case a deep thigh high walk out it is!

 

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Abby and the reindeer on a gloriously sunny winter’s morning

They always go through the same pattern every year and they come to a call from far away through January and February but then through March they seem to get quite lazy and expect us to go to them so the walks become further and a little more frustrating, however, when you do get them back to the right place there is a much bigger sense of achievement. Plus it keeps us fit and if the weather is good then there is no better office!

 

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Lace having a stretch, overlooking Loch Morlich

Anyway there is no need for me to say anything else so enjoy my photos of the reindeer this winter.

Fiona

 

 

Dressed for Winter

‘There is no such thing as bad weather, merely unsuitable clothing’. It’s a great phrase this and one that is on display in the Reindeer Centre, to warn people to be well prepared for the hill visit to the reindeer (even in summer sometimes!).

In the animal kingdom, a number of the arctic animals change their coats in winter and in the case of reindeer they not only grow thicker coats but also their coats turn lighter in colour, in some cases pure white.

Reindeer on snow
Reindeer snoozing comfortably in the snow – Lilac (right) is currently our oldest reindeer at nearly 17 years old

The change in colour is associated with shortening day length and there are obvious benefits from being white or very light coloured when it comes to camouflage in snow. But it is also the case that white hair is more insulating than dark hair. White hair lacks pigmentation and nothing replaces this, leaving pockets of air, a very good insulator. So I suppose that means that when the reindeer grow their winter coats they have more airy hair! Indeed the reindeer never cease to amaze me, on the coldest of days, they are high up in the snow, on the exposed ridges, lying around, resting, ruminating and I suspect positively enjoying the weather which we shelter from in our warm houses.

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White reindeer – this photo was taken back in 2008 of male reindeer Harry, Minto and Bajaan

In the herd we do have a few reindeer who are actually pure white: Blondie, Lego and Blue to name just three of them. Knowing that white hair has more insulation does that mean they have the warmest coats? They certainly always look very comfortable in the snow.

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A mountain hare in its winter coat, spotted whilst I was completing my 146th munro!

Over the last few weeks I have regularly seen mountain hares, which live in a similar habitat to our reindeer but are also quite widespread across many of the Scottish hills. They too turn white in winter and like the reindeer have relatively large feet which act as snowshoes making running seem effortless as they hurry across snowfields.

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Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta). Photo by Boaworm [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two other animals found in Scotland that also turn white: the ptarmigan, an arctic grouse that is found in many of the Scottish mountains above 2,000 – 2,500ft, and the stoat, which depending on how far north it lives also turns white, when it is then called stoat in ermine.

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Stoat in ermine – white with a black tail tip. Photo by Steven Hint [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like the reindeer and mountain hare, the reason the ptarmigan plumage turns white is for camouflage and warmth but I do sometimes wonder about the stoat in ermine. Although I have seen them in snow around the farm, all too often there is not a flake of snow to be found and they ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. But they are a very clever predator, predating mainly on rabbits. They are incredibly quick, will catch and kill prey 10 times bigger than themselves and appear to be completely fearless. They are sometimes thought to ‘hypnotise’ their prey, maybe the white coat and black tip to their tail somehow confuses the rabbit!

Tilly

There’s no such thing as bad weather

Britain's Only Reindeer Herd Prepare For Christmas
Eve feeding the herd in a blizzard (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“There’s no such thing as bad weather… only unsuitable clothing…”

This is very much the mantra us reindeer herders live by and there are unfortunately even days here in the Cairngorms where our beautiful “office” on the mountains leaks and gets a wee bit blustery. This is never more emphasized than during the winter months here where weather conditions are some of the most beautiful and the most extreme.

We often start our mornings here at 8am vaguely unaware of exactly what the weather is going to bring, Reindeer House is fortuitously sheltered at the foot of the Cairngorms and it’s often not until we venture above the tree line that the true extent of the weather hits us.

If the ski road remains open and the reindeer are there we dutifully head out onto the hills even if this means battling 80 mph gusts and freezing temperatures… winds so strong herder Hen’s car was relieved of its undercover last winter! (we love it really!).

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It quite often looks a wee bit of a comedy show, us herders trying to walk in a straight line (people must think us perpetually drunk!). Annoyingly, the reindeer often look completely unfazed be it wind, icy temperatures and deep deep snow, quite often as we lumber through the drifts they use us as the snow plough for making them a path, following cheerfully in our footsteps even though they’re the Arctic animal!

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Making a path for the herd through the snow (Photo by Tony Dilger)

This brings us to clothing, again the reindeer come annoying pre-prepared for the weather with thick insulating, water repelling coats and built-in snow shoes; us on the other hand live for woollen thermals, multiple jumpers and cosy hats and are most definitely never far from a pair of waterproofs! Woe betide the reindeer herder who doesn’t have a spare set of clothes! On the other hand, I personally often find myself far too prepared in the summer months when even in the sunshine I never quite trust that Scotland won’t throw snow at me!

Working in the Cairngorms year round is definitely a different challenge to some of the more indoor based jobs I’ve held but as long as I have my mittens and spare socks I’m super happy to battle whatever the weather throws at us!

Abby

A (very) short history of herding

Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal which naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in 9 countries; Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. Most importantly of course our small herd here in the Cairngorms!

Eve feeds the herd in a winter storm
Herder Eve feeds the Cairngorm herd in a winter storm (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

There are roughly 30 different reindeer herding cultures (i.e. the Sami in Scandinavia) with up to four million reindeer! (A few more than our 150!). There is often an intimate relationship between herders and their reindeer as well as husbandry, which, wherever practiced is often almost identical.

Reindeer represent one of the only domesticated species with which humans still live to their terms and needs instead of making the reindeer adapt to ours. For example, popping a reindeer in a grassy field prevents them grazing and migrating normally, which is key to a healthy and happy (reindeer) life. Reindeer herding is socially and culturally extremely important as each ‘group’ of herding peoples have unique identities and cultures centring on their way of life with their reindeer. Economically reindeer are also very important as meat and other products make up these cultures’ livelihoods.

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Herd of hundreds of caribou

In the modern reindeer vernacular you’ll find two terms, ‘reindeer herding’ and ‘reindeer husbandry’ – herding is the much older concept which mainly refers to working with the reindeer whereas the ‘husbandry’ encompasses not only the reindeer but the entire herding industry: socio-economic issues, scientific research and management. As with many traditional occupations around the world the reindeer herding lifestyle is under threat from loss of pasture land, predators and of course climate change, which has an immediate effect on grazing.

As you may know, the Cairngorm herd are a family owned business and this is often true of reindeer herders across the globe where individual owners often work in co-operation with their families, neighbours or villages to care for their reindeer. There are around 100,000 reindeer herders in the circumpolar north today which is a lot more than our 7 full-time members of staff! Reindeer herding varies between different cultures and countries but the one thing which remains constant is the need for herds to migrate between summer and winter pastures. If you’ve visited us here in the summer you’ll know that at this time of year our female reindeer are up and away on the Cairngorm plateau where they find yummy alpine plants and relief from insects; they then return to lower more stable winter pastures where they find their favourite food: lichen.

Reindeer pulling a sleigh
Reindeer pulling a sleigh in Russia (Photo by Elen Schorova, used under CC 2.0)

Reindeer herding is not a 9-5 job but a way of life: here in the Cairngorms, our daily routine is dependent on where the reindeer are, the weather conditions, pasture land and the seasons. In fact, for the Sámi, their yearly calendar is entirely based upon what reindeer are doing during specific seasons. For example, early spring is known as Gijrra – The Season of Returning – winter is ending, snow is melting and the reindeer return to familiar calving grounds for May or Miessemannu – the calf month.

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Herder Vicky hanging out with old boy Comet

The lovely thing about reindeer herding is by working with these wonderful (sometimes ridiculous) creatures your work is not only focused by your own goals but it is truly dependent on the reindeer themselves and most importantly the natural world around you.

Abby