My first winter as a reindeer herder

This past year has been my first full year as a reindeer herder. Despite becoming a reindeer herder seven years ago in 2014 (remember then? simpler times!), I was very much a seasonal herder. I would arrive for a few months in the summer whilst either my university course was having a break, or in-between travels abroad.

Therefore, last winter was my first winter as a reindeer herder. And what a memorable winter it was! Firstly, it was lockdown, so it was very different to how things usually operate which was new and exciting whilst also being unpredictable and slightly chaotic. But also, there was the snow. So. Much. Snow. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a couple of videos and photos from the crazy weather, including this short clip of Joe and I leading the herd downstream in blizzard-like conditions at the start of February.

Pony and I trying not to sink!
Leading Feta and Diamond along the path on a snowy day

And it’s not just reindeer that we fed throughout the winter! Opportunistic snow buntings joined in most days too:

I am writing this at the start of May where we have had quite a bit of fresh snowfall over the past couple of weeks, so maybe we are not through all the snowy weather just yet. But I am sure it won’t be anywhere near as much as the volume of snow that fell this winter. Overall, it was a lovely first year as a reindeer herder, albeit very unusual as the whole country adapted to changing circumstances. Now I look forward to my next year and hopefully getting to see all the ‘normal’ activities such as Christmas events and parades.

Snowstorm armour!

Ben

Spartan, one of my favourites.

The reindeer I’ve chosen to talk about in this week’s blog is a reindeer who I like a lot. I met him when he was just hours old and he has now become one of the breeding bulls for the herd. His name is Spartan. He was born in 2016 and was named after that year’s naming theme of ‘lost civilizations’. This means he’s about 5 years old and is coming in to his prime. In this blog I’d like to talk a bit about Spartan’s journey from unassuming calf to sweet-natured breeding bull as well as his heritage and his offspring.

Spartan as a very young calf, with mum Bumble keeping an eye on him

During Spartan’s first year of life he was always an unassuming calf. He wasn’t exactly oozing in character and was a relatively quiet calf. He was always polite and never pushy, and he grew very simple antlers. However, as you can see from the photo below, his antlers are far from simple nowadays. They are one of the largest and most beautiful in the herd.

What a bonny lad!

From a personality point of view, Spartan really grew into himself over the years. He has a sweet, lovely nature, even during the rut. For those who don’t know, the rut is a period in autumn – about a month in duration – where reindeer come into season and the breeding occurs. Breeding bulls are known to alter their nature and become more territorial which can lead to these bulls being more scary and aggressive (hence why we don’t visit the breeding bulls on hill trips in October/November). However, Spartan remained well-behaved despite being swarmed by hormones. Compared to our other breeding bulls he is definitely on the well-behaved end of the spectrum. Perhaps this was due to his much-loved mother, Bumble, being incredibly sweet-natured and passing on those genes to her son. If you wanted to read more about Bumble, you can read a blog on her by clicking here.

Bumble – a monstrously greedy reindeer!!!

Spartan had his first experience of being a breeding bull in 2019 and is believed to be the father of 10 calves that were conceived that year and later born in 2020. However, the selection of Spartan as a breeding bull wasn’t an obvious selection. Each year we have to make the decision of which young adult male reindeer we want to pass on their genetics for the future of the herd, and which reindeer we want to castrate. This decision is made when the male reindeer is at least 3 years old and is integral in keeping the number of reindeer in our herd to a sustainable amount. Moreover, by controlling the breeding it means that we never have to cull any reindeer. When it came time to select which reindeer were to be castrated from the 2016 year we decided that we would keep 2 reindeer as breeding bulls that year. Roman was the first choice and after lengthy discussions, Spartan’s genes seemed to win out over other contenders such as Aztec and Celt. He kind of snuck through the castration net, so to speak.

Roman, in the foreground, grows amazing antlers!

Spartan comes from a blood line that had almost become lost within our herd. And now that he is one of our few breeding bulls, it means that the blood line has a new lease of life. Spartan’s father was the popular breeding bull Nutti who was imported as a calf from Sweden in December 2011. We imported a large amount of young male reindeer from Sweden around that time as we wanted to diversify the genetics in our herd and introduce more blood lines. Nutti unfortunately died in April 2018 whilst free-roaming in the Cromdale hills but as you can see from the photo below, his genetics live on in Spartan whose looks, and indeed nature resemble that of Nutti.

Nutti – explaining where Spartan’s face marking came from!

In 2019, almost immediately after the decision that he would become a breeding bull, Spartan was put into the rut and introduced to his own group of females that were coming into season. It turned out that the other breeding bull contenders were related to more of the eligible cows than Spartan. Therefore, we believe he is father to a group of 10 lovely calves (now yearlings) all of whom were named after ‘peas, seeds and beans’. The calves that we think are probably Spartan’s all appear to be very sweet natured and endearing. They are Cannellini, Lupin, Hemp, Chickpea, Mushy, Pinto, Edamame, Adzuki, Borlotti and Haricot. And with only a few exceptions, many of the calves have distinctive white face markings, just like Spartan. These are most notable on Pinto, Edamame, Hemp, Borlotti and Adzuki, the offspring of Morven,  Emmental, Addax, Clootie and Gazelle respectively.

Winner of the most interesting markings as a newborn calf – Hemp!

Although we didn’t use Spartan in autumn’s rut of 2020 he retains his ‘equipment’ and his name is being discussed as a potential breeding bull for this year’s rut. He is currently in great condition and is having a very peaceful year! In the early months of 2021 Spartan has been free-roaming on the Cromdale hills.

So there you have it! The story of Spartan – one of our friendliest breeding bulls.

Ben

Ben and Lotti’s old phrases challenge

Since Lotti and I have been working at the Reindeer Centre there has been two and a half pages of old English phrases hanging up in the office. It seems to have been there since time immemorial and no one is quite sure how or why it’s up there. We saw this as an opportunity!! Could we enhance our ‘olde’ vocabulary? Well, we were keen to give it a go…we challenged each other to fit in a single word from the list below on each Hill Trip that we did together. Here are some of the words, their definition (followed by their origin), followed by how Lotti and I used them in our tour.

Callipygian – having beautifully shaped buttocks (1640’s).

“Ben and I know all the males in here by name, so we can tell you their name if you have a favourite. Some of the Bulls are so big by now that we can almost identify them by their callipygian bottoms”

Groaking – to silently watch someone whilst they are eating, in the hopes of being invited to join them (unknown origin).

“You might see the Reindeer groaking each other when we put the line of feed on the ground”

Editor’s Note – Groaking is probably the only word in this list that has become part of normal, everyday speech over the years at Reindeer House. Mainly because Hen is regularly accused of it.

Sluberdegullion – a slovenly, slobbering person (1650’s).

“A lot of reindeer adaptations are centred around energy conservation. As you’ve seen, they like to walk on the boardwalk with you and this is all part of the energy conservation instinct: it’s easier than walking along uneven grassland. And here is a good example, none like to conserve energy more than our very own sluberdegullion, Svalbard.”

Svalbard leading his buddies Druid, Jonas and Stuc across the moorland, through deep vegetation and over rough, uneven ground. Energy-sapping and hard going… oh wait, the sluberdegullions are all walking on a boardwalk!

 

Curmering – a low rumbling sound produced by the bowels (1880’s).

“Reindeer tend not to make too much noise. However, they do make a noise when moving. In fact, listen out for a noise whilst we walk through the enclosure alongside them, and Lotti will tell you more about that sound soon. I’ll give you a clue, it’s not a curmering.”

Snoutfair – a good-looking person (1500s).

“We run an adoption scheme so you can actually adopt the handsome Dr. Seuss or the fiery Scully here. Alternatively, you could try to adopt Ben here if you think he’s looking particularly snoutfair”

Scully – what a snoutfair!

Resistentialism – the seemingly malevolent behaviour displayed by inanimate objects (1940s).

“You might wonder what’s in these green bags at mine and Lotti’s feet. It’s essentially reindeer bribery! Reindeer love their food which is fortunate for us as reindeer herders. The reindeer certainly don’t think the bags have any resistentialism.”

Jargogles – to confuse, bamboozle (1690’s).

“It absolutely jargogles me how quickly the antlers grow on some of our big boys”

Look how quickly your antlers have grown, Domino! Jargogling.

Quockerwodger – a wooden puppet, controlled by strings (1850’s).

“We don’t want to treat you as if you were quouckerwodgers, so you can leave when you want, just give Lotti or me a wave and be sure to shut the gates.”

Lunt – walking whilst smoking a pipe (1820’s).

“We will feed the reindeer soon, after which they’re likely to graze the grass or lounge about. Perhaps they’ll even siesta. I’m sure if they were human, they’d love to have a post-work lunt.”

Twattle – to gossip, or talk idly (1600’s).

“So, without further ado, we will head into the enclosure to meet the reindeer. We will gather around one last time when we’re in there to listen to some interesting ways that reindeer have adapted to their environment. Then you’ll have as much time as you’d like to be with the reindeer. So that we remain as one big group, if we could avoid any dawdling or twattling until we’ve gathered around one final time, then that would be great.”

Hugger mugger – to act in a secretive manner (1530’s).

“Cars that are this high up don’t expect to see a big handsome group like us crossing the road, so don’t act all hugger mugger about it, be sure to pick your right moment to cross”.

Cockalorum – a little man with a high opinion of himself (1710’s).

“All of our reindeer do have a name. They are actually named after a different theme every year. This reindeer here is called Bond. He’s a got a history of being a bit of a cockalorum, although he has been behaving better so far this year”

Bond – one of life’s cockalorums.

Crapulous – to feel ill because of excessive eating/drinking (1530’s).

“We’re on the last Hill Trip of the day so the Reindeer here are getting quite a lot of food this afternoon, but they’ll make light work of that. Hopefully they don’t feel too crapulous afterwards. But they are ruminants, so they often have a bit of grass or sedge for dessert once the mix has finished.”

Lethophobia – the fear of oblivion (1700’s).

“The reindeer here live in some of the harshest environment that the U.K. offers. In winter, the temperatures can reach as low as -20 degrees Celsius and the wind speed can exceed 100mph. However, this doesn’t trouble the reindeer too much, it hasn’t led to them developing any lethophobia. They are hardy animals who love the cold.”

Elflocks – tangled hair as if matted by elves (1590’s).

“The reindeer’s coats help keep them warm in the winter – reindeer have been known to survive down to very low temperatures when they have to. They do this by having thousands of hairs per square inch, all of which are hollow, making them great at trapping a base layer of heat next to their skin. As you can see the hair is currently lovely and sleek; it stays like this throughout winter and sheds in the summer. If you saw them in July it would look like they’ve got Elflocks.”

Fine elflocks…

Curglaff – the shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water (Scots, 1800’s).

“Reindeer aren’t particularly tactile and some of them here today can be quite shy at times, so don’t be surprised if a reindeer looks curglaffed if you approached too far into their personal space.”

The A-team of guides, should you want an education on words from hundreds of years ago!

Ben and Lotti

My time as a Reindeer Herder 2014 – now

I love Reindeer herding. And what’s not to love? Fantastic animals in a beautiful environment, surrounded by lovely people. But it wasn’t always this way for me. I came up for my first taste of herding in 2014. Now, a lot has changed in the world since 2014. But a lot has also changed in my personal life …I have qualified as a Physiotherapist, ran the Everest marathon and told many, MANY bad jokes (Editor’s note: Oh my god…the jokes…) . I have lived in multiple places in England since 2014, but this part of the world holds a special place in my heart. I love being up here.

Ost and friends back in 2014

Fortunately, since 2014, there has not been as much change in the splendour of the Reindeer Centre. The reindeer have obviously changed but the Centre itself remains as fantastic as ever. Recently I came across my photos of 2014 and thought this a good opportunity to show off some of my favourites:

Cows free-ranging up on the mountains

The opportunity to be a Reindeer Herder came about from a fellow Herder, Sally, and I’m very glad to be back. I’m not sure whether the future will take me down the Reindeer herding route, the Physio route or maybe a mixture of the two. However, I’d be surprised if it takes me away from this beautiful location with these beautiful animals and people in my life.

I hope to see you all, in good health and spirit, as soon as it is safe to do so.

Ben