Well, we all know what is meant by ‘social distancing’ now after 3 months of lockdown and continued measures for the foreseeable future.
Here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we will be applying the government guidelines to both protect ourselves and our visitors when we re-open next week.
Luckily for us we have helpers, the reindeer themselves, as you can see from the photo above, reindeer are very good at slipping in between groups when we are heading out on to the hill for feed time. The perfect animal to social distance with!
With our own little helpers I decided to ‘measure’ the length of an average-sized adult male reindeer from nose to tail (Beastie ticked all the boxes here) and that comes out on average at 1.8 metres (give or take a little!). And if he (or she) puts her head down the antlers add a little bit more! Ideal for helping people keep the right distance apart when walking along the boardwalk in the hill enclosure.
In fact reindeer as a social herding animal are a very good example of how social distancing can be achieved. Unlike many social animals, reindeer do respect a modicum of social distance. They don’t huddle together; they like their space when they lie down and if another reindeer encroaches into their grazing area, they push them away, with antlers (if they are bony) or feet if their antlers are still growing.
The only close contact between reindeer is usually between close relations, ie a cow and calf. Indeed this close relationship can extend through into their adult lives particularly among females. However last winter that close bond became apparent between an old female and her grown up son. When 9 year old Rubiks joined the Cairngorm herd in January 2020 he ‘found’ his 16 year old mother Fonn and they have been inseparable ever since!
Unfortunately the downside to social distancing for ourselves and our visitors will be that the normal hand feeding that takes place out on the open hillside will not happen. Not only will our visitors be disappointed, but the reindeer will be too. I can think of many of the friendly male reindeer like Olympic, Dr Suess and Aztec who will be extremely confused by the lack of yummy food from everyone!
However a visit to the reindeer will still be an amazing experience (hopefully at least!), with our lovely herd in their natural environment out on the mountainside. Experienced reindeer herders to guide you, answer questions and feed the reindeer, while you all get the opportunity to take photos and enjoy the moment with these gentle creatures.
Hello everyone! First of all, let me introduce myself for those who have not have met me.
I’m Heather, and I used to be a Reindeer Herder. I like to think I still am really. As we always say, it’s like being a King or Queen of Narnia, once a Reindeer Herder, always a Reindeer Herder!
So, my Reindeer herding career began way back in 1998, when the ‘Sweeties’ year of reindeer were born. I first went to the Centre for work experience from the local High school, and when I arrived for my week’s experience in September, the calves had just been named. Some of you will remember Eclair, Polo and Malteser, to name a few!
As the years rolled by, I worked at the Reindeer Centre off and on for roughly 15 years, in my school and university holidays. And once I graduated from Edinburgh University, with a degree in Geography (using the reindeer as my subject for my 4th year dissertation!), I headed back full time.
After the Reindeer Centre, I worked in a couple of other jobs, before deciding it was time to head into the family business of leather working. My Mum and Dad have been leather workers since before I came along, and while I always helped them in the workshop as a child, it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I really started learning the craft. I now have my own workshop in Carrbridge, not so far from the Reindeer Centre and would now call myself a full time Leathersmith. I run my own business, Loch Ness Leather, and make belts, handbags and hats, along with smaller accessories.
But how is that relevant to the Reindeer Centre now? Well, those who support the herd by adopting a reindeer, will know that each year when you re-adopt your reindeer, you get a lovely pack in the post including amongst other things, a hand written letter, and a selection of gifts. Well, this year, I am in charge of one of those gifts! I have been commissioned to make leather keyrings which will be going into the adoption packs. Each one is made by hand, by myself, in my workshop in Carrbridge. Luckily my workshop is in my garden, so I have been able to carry on working safely during the current situation. And it’s just been a case of handing over a new batch each time the herders pop by with a Wild Farm meat delivery for us!
Each keyring is made of natural vegetable tanned leather. I cut the leather to shape, emboss it with the reindeer design, and then dye it by hand. Layering up the colours to make each one – they’re all very individual! A rivet is then used to attach the ring, and it’s ready to go. And all made within 12 miles of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre.
This year is a tough time for us all, I personally usually sell my wares at Highland Games and other events across Scotland through the summer. However, they have all been cancelled this year, understandably, so I have been focusing on selling online. If you would like to see more of my work, please do visit my website, www.lochnessleather.co.uk. Or of course, you can follow me on Facebook or Instagram. As a thank you for supporting myself, and the Reindeer of course!, I would like to offer you a 10% discount across the whole of my website. To be sent the code for this, please click here to sign up for my newsletter.
You can also keep a look out for more Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and Loch Ness Leather collaborations in the Reindeer Centre online shop, coming soon and throughout the year!
I hope you all enjoy your adoption packs this year!
Thank you all and Stay Safe! Heather Hanshaw (Past Reindeer Herder)
N.B. Because of the way our adoption scheme gifts work, only those re-adopting a reindeer from now until April next year will receive one of Heather’s keyrings with their pack. Adoptions purchased for the first time in this period will receive different gifts. However, if you don’t want to miss out on a keyring, please feel free to get in touch with Heather directly via her website to purchase one!
Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…
7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!
7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!
8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!
9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!
Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…
10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.
The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.
11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.
1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).
1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!
3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!
5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!