May! What a month! Calving began on Sunday the 29th of April and was done by Sunday the 14th of May. A two week, action-packed blur. After the first few calves were born we were expecting a bit of a lull, but nope, they just kept on coming. As well as many experienced cows we’ve had eight first-time-mums and all are doing a super job and have taken to motherhood very well. On the whole everything went well, however, calving season sadly does tend to bring some sad moments as well as lots of highs. In addition to looking after the new-borns, we’ve also been running two Hill Trips a day and the Paddocks and Exhibition have been popular with holiday-makers so looking back this month has been a bit of a whirlwind!
This month’s photo selection is biased towards the cute calves but I’m sure that’s what we all want to see anyway. Just a reminder – we won’t reveal the names of the new mothers until after we’ve let our adopters know in the June newsletter so I’ve tried to be deliberately vague. Enjoy… !
Okapi is one of my favourite reindeer, and I think one of the prettiest reindeer in the herd. So, I often find my self taking a photo of her. Sometimes I manage to get a very lovely photo of her looking beautiful. More often though, before I have managed to take the photo she’s come so close that the photo ends up just of her nose! I’m not sure if she thinks my phone is food or if she just really wants a nostril shot. I thought in this week’s blog I would share various Okapi noses over the seasons, plus the occasional successful photo to show how bonnie the rest of her face is. Enjoy!
It’s the last blog of the month and so time for another photo dump! March has been a relatively quiet month, with the Paddocks shut and fewer visitors around, but it’s still felt very busy for us herders! Generally only four members of staff work each day throughout March. The mornings are taken up by two herders heading out to find and move the free ranging herd, and the other two herders lead the Hill Trip at 11am. So, by the time we’ve all had lunch the afternoons seem to totally fly by. We also had some very snowy and wintery weather in the middle of the month, making our lives a little more interesting and keeping us on our toes! Hopefully, we’ve managed to tick off all the important jobs in time for the Easter Holidays which kick off on the 1st of April.
It’s the last blog of the month, so here we have a selection of photos I’ve taken during February. The early part of the month was all about crossing jobs off the to-do list ready for us to re-open to the public on the 11th of February for the busy half-term holidays. The second part of the month has been all about locating the reindeer and moving the herd into a suitable position for our Hill Trips each morning, the Hill Trips themselves, and afternoon talks in the Paddocks. Plus all the usual shop and office work. As always, the holidays are over in a blur, but here are some photos of our beautiful reindeer, giving a small taster of February for you all.
A final point – if you are wondering where all the young bulls and Christmas reindeer are in the photos, they spend the winter free ranging in a different herd that Tilly and other colleagues at the farm mostly look after. I’ve not been to visit them myself this month hence why it’s just photos of our beautiful girls and some male calves that you’ll find in this month’s blog.
This year I will endeavor to make the last blog of the month a photo blog with a collection of pictures taken over the month. So here’s some highlights from January! A month when the Centre shuts and we crack on with lots of office work and general maintenance tasks such as painting the Exhibition floor and oiling the Christmas harness. But inevitably, I don’t take any photos of that stuff, so instead it’s just lots of lovely pics of reindeer!
For this week’s blog, I’ve uploaded a heap of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what goes on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
I have been a reindeer adopter for 10 years and it all started because my brother adopted the lovely Topi as a Xmas present for my sister-in-law. On reading the wonderful welcome pack, I decided I needed to visit the herd. So, the following summer found me up in the Cairngorms on a fantastic trek leading the great Grunter. I was hooked!
Over the years I’ve visited 2 or 3 times a year- thoroughly enjoyable each time. Not only were the reindeer and the setting up in the Cairngorms superb but so were the dedicated group of people who ensure the safety and care of these wonderful creatures. I had promised myself that the first thing I would do when I retired was volunteer at the Reindeer Centre to see behind the scenes and play all be it a small part in this venture.
My first volunteer week
So being accepted September 2019 saw my promise fulfilled – a whole week with the reindeer and of course these wonderful herders. As well as being so very excited, I was a bit apprehensive – not doing the right thing, being more of a hindrance than help. However, I was made so welcome and my help much appreciated no matter what that I soon relaxed. I knew from my own work that supporting volunteers is quite a commitment so all praise to the great team of herders one and all.
Spending twice a day up in the hills was just all I had hoped it would be – don’t think I have the words to do it justice. Getting to share my enthusiasm for the herd and the work done to support them was a privilege. Over the week I learned so much from each of the herders that I grew in confidence in talking to the visitors.
By the end of the week I had developed a whole range of skills – cleaning wellies and scooping poo high on the list! I was also fitter though that may seem ridiculous as I stumbled, fell and broke my wrist (yes, I am THAT volunteer!!) I have high praise for the health services in Aviemore and the care and concern of the herders. Not daunted although I couldn’t sadly go up the hills for the rest of my week, I was able to chat to people who visited the paddocks, make lots of cups of tea and help out in the office (at least I hope it was viewed as help!) I also mastered the art of washing wellies with one hand!
The pandemic put a hold on another opportunity to volunteer – yes, I was going to be welcomed back!
May 2022 – the return
May 2022 was my next chance for a week for all things reindeer. I deliberately wanted to be part of the calving season as my September 2019 stint saw the start of the rut. The May week was a wet one – I don’t think I got out of the wet weather gear and grew to bless wellies. No matter the weather it is always worthwhile going up the hills. The scenery is stunning and atmospheric and of course the welcome from the reindeer makes it all complete.
As there had been over a 2-year gap to my volunteering, although I had been a visitor when I could, I was a bit concerned that I would have forgotten everything. No worries, it came rushing back with updates and new things filling the gaps. It was like meeting a new herd as a whole new group of reindeer had been born and grown up as well as saying goodbye to some favourites.
It was a wonderful experience to see the new born. The mothers were very protective initially keeping their distance from us with their calves. When the time was right they joined us with the wee calf at their heels. I think the oldest calves were about 3 or 4 weeks old and to see them also grow in confidence over the week to where they tentatively came up to check you out was quite a privilege. At one point I was “helping” with temperature checks and watching the protective behaviour of the mothers whether new hands or experienced was quite something – and very noisy in a small space! Honking like geese was my comment!
My skill set also grew. No welly washing is required anymore but I added making up the feed – good cardiovascular workout. If it was possible to make this week even more special I was lucky enough to be at the Centre on the actual day of the 70th anniversary of reindeer arriving at Cairngorm. Cake was very welcome coming down off the hills. I think visitors also enjoyed the extra surprise of treats at the Centre as well!
As in 2019 it was sad to say goodbye when the week ended. For a long time afterwards looking at the clock I would be thinking “they’ll be going up on the hill visit” On a lovely day weatherwise I just wanted to be there. The place and experiences get under your skin.
So it was with great pleasure I visited again in October for the Adopters Weekend. The 5-month gap had brought much change to the calves I had seen in May and it was like starting again getting to know them. It was great to see the adults again – hello Beanie always reliable to arrive to greet us particularly when food was involved! It was great day (it didn’t rain!) talking all things reindeer and Tilly’s evening talk humorous and informative was a great way to end the day. Sad again to say goodbye, however there are the Xmas events to look forward to.
I can’t believe 10 years have passed since I read that welcome pack – thank you, big brother! Here’s to the next 10 and beyond.
Late summer/autumn is always a very exciting time of the year for a reindeer herder. It’s when we start seeing the cows and calves more regularly after they’ve spent the summer free ranging in the hills.
Each morning we drive up the ski road to Cairngorm Base Station and have a spy for any free ranging reindeer. One morning in mid-September Fiona, Sheena and myself were checking the roads when we spotted a small herd of reindeer. Exciting! Even from a distance we instantly knew there was a calf in the group, and we knew she had to belong to a lovely female called Ochil.
Ochil had a white (leucistic) calf back in May, and even though we had three white calves born this year, the other two were already safely in the enclosure with their mums so it just had to be her – our ID skills of calves from over a hundred metres away are not usually that good!
Fiona dropped Sheena and I off to try to get the small herd into the enclosure, whilst she headed back down the hill to carry on with feeding the herd in the enclosure. Mission on!
As we got closer to the herd we were able to identify them all. Three cows (Ochil, Vienna and Roule) and their lovely calves, plus a yearling female called Beanie. I’d not seen any of these reindeer since we let them out to free range back in June, so it was lovely to see them again. They all looked great! The enclosure was about 1.5km away from where we were, across a ridge, over a road, across a burn and up a hill affectionately known by the herders as “Killer Hill”. You can see how our mission unfolded in the following photographs….
Each year, as calving season looms, we reindeer herders have a sweep stake. We place our bets on which reindeer will calve first. Or rather more importantly, try to bet upon which reindeer won’t calve last.
I say ‘bet’…what I really mean is we try to combine luck and science to each predict a reindeer. The herder whose reindeer gives birth last then has to do a punishment. The punishment was historically swim in Loch Morlich. However, this task became obsolete as a punishment a few years ago when it became apparent that most herders regularly braved the cold waters as a leisure activity.
So, the current ‘punishment’ is to bake a cake for the calf naming evening in September. It is on this evening in September that we pick a theme and subsequent names for the recently born reindeer. It’s hungry work, so cake is always greatly appreciated. In fact, in 2009 the cakes were so appreciated that we had a whole naming theme dedicated to ‘cakes, puddings and biscuits’.
We’re in the last week of April as I write this blog and it’s a stage in the year where some of the pregnant females are MASSIVE. We’ll be expecting the first calf in the coming days and each of us will keep a keen eye on who calves throughout the month. I mentioned science as a prediction method in my first paragraph. Some herders like to research when a reindeer stripped the velvet on their antlers in the previous year, some herders like to look at if the reindeer are already growing their new antlers, and some herders like to inspect how big a reindeer’s udder is, all as a sign of their readiness to calve. If a reindeer strips their velvet early it can be an indicator that they come into season earlier. If a reindeer is already growing their new antlers it can be a sign that they are using more of their nutrients for themselves and not sharing them with a foetus.
This makes it all sound very technical actually. I think most of us just tend to pick one of our favourite reindeer. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to take a risk as well. Add to the drama. However, herders have been known in the past to make a risky prediction and the reindeer to not be pregnant at all. Just fat!
Some reindeer are so dependable to calve first that they’re off-bounds. Christie was first last year. And it was Pagan the year before that who always seems to be there or thereabouts. This year Tilly has chosen Ladybird who looks rotund. Ladybird, that is. I’ve chosen first time calver (I hope), Texel. My baking skills aren’t up to much so let’s hope Texel pulls through to reduce the risk of a salmonella outbreak up here.