At this time of year the reindeer look really scruffy and it’s all down to their thick light coloured winter coat falling away to reveal a short dark summer coat underneath.
There’s many an adjective I could use to describe them, moth-eaten, scruffy, hairy, shabby and when taking to people to see the reindeer at this time of year I always apologise in advance for their appearance.
This recent long dry, windless, hot spell we have been experiencing here in the Highlands of Scotland actually hasn’t helped the process, because it’s really wind and rain that speeds up the process of moulting. Once ready to truly moult the winter coat comes off in handfuls
It’s a long process because while the new summer coat grows in underneath there are two layers of winter coat to fall off at the same time. This close up of Anster’s shoulder shows quite nicely the ‘three’ coats. To the left the thick light coloured winter ‘top coat’ . Then the slightly darker and shorter winter ‘undercoat’. And then finally the new very short and dark summer coat.
It occurs to me that there must be an awful lot happening in the skin of a reindeer at this time of year! The two winter coats cannot start moulting until the new summer coat is growing, so while old hair follicles are falling out new ones are being created. Very complicated!
And so I couldn’t resist this little rhyme!
The moult of a reindeer is a complicated affair
With old coats making way for lots of new hair
The process can sometimes take many a week
With the full summer coat making them look so sleek
Bingo is one of our older Christmas reindeer now at the age of 12 years old. He has always been a pretty, what’s the polite way of saying it, aloof reindeer. He’s not timid, cos he has plenty of confidence but he’s certainly had his moments over the years where he falls into the category of being very head strong or independent. Lets just say when working with him out on the open hill some swear words may have been passed amongst herders when trying to herd Bingo!
The days of bringing the herd down from our winter grazing at Glenlivet usually involved a few of us on foot pushing the herd down to our corral on the hill ready to bring them back to our hill farm for the summer. Without fail for years Bingo would always double back and for anyone who has tried to chase a four-legged animal, flat out going up hill you’ll know it’s a losing battle. On the odd occasion we did either turn him, or he decided to go in with the herd (this was rare), he was first to be brought off the hill to avoid the risk of him somehow finding his way out!
As I said earlier he’s one of our Christmas reindeer. This means he’s trained to harness and pull the sleigh and to be fair to him he’s a total pro. Having done some pretty big events over the years including the very prestigious Windsor Castle he doesn’t put a foot wrong and being so handsome he of course looks great too. When I had him in my team Christmas 2019 my team mate, Joe, had to do lots of sweet talking and bribery with Bingo. For whatever reason Bingo took a dislike to Joe. Whenever we had to go about our normal handling of catching, loading, putting on harness Bingo always showed his antlers to Joe. Never me, I could walk up to him and he’s act like a well behaved dog and not put a foot wrong but he did not like Joe. Joe would find himself trying to win him over… extra lichen treats and giving him lots of personal space but more often than none he’d just find Bingo poking him with his antlers… Needless to say I found it very amusing! So much so that when Bingo cast his antlers before Christmas 2019 on Christmas Day I said to Joe I had a present for him but he had to close his eyes. Then I proceeded to poke him with Bingos antlers, this was Joe’s special Christmas present for Joe and now Joe has them mounted in his room, never to forget the wonderful friendship the two of them had…
However, I think Bingo has slightly mellowed over the years. Maybe running in the opposite direction every time we want to bring the herd in has worn thin and is maybe just a bit exhausting now in his older years. A couple months ago when we brought the free range herd into out hill corral for some annual management we were handling reindeer and low and behold Bingo come down to the corral of his own accord. I got myself a small bag of feed and halter and open the gate. He comes waltzing in, head in the bag of feed and I pop his halter on… Does that mean we no longer have to chase him around the hill side anymore, I do hope so.
I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Bingo. As lovely as it is having a well behaved Christmas reindeer who never puts a foot wrong and always obliges when we’re doing any handling there is something about a challenge and Bingo has certainly provided us with a challenge over the years. He’s got a spark to him which I love and he didn’t poke me with his antlers so maybe we have a mutual agreement between the two of us? Who knows…
Here’s the second part of Beth’s blog about volunteering with the reindeer over the years, and what it means to her. The first part can be found here.
One of the earliest memories I have of volunteering up in Aviemore is being sat in the back of the van in the summer with a small calf between my legs we were bringing back down the hillside for the evening (Editor’s note – this was a hand-reared reindeer calf who was at this point spending his nights in the paddocks beside the Reindeer Centre, and his days up on the mountain with the main herd in the enclosure. We don’t routinely transport reindeer up and down the hill in the back of our van!!!). He was so small, but I remember walking him down the hillside and when we got in the van he laid his head on my lap. It’s such a small thing but it meant so much. These amazing animals and I was lucky enough to be able to help and look after them!
When I say the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd have a lot to answer for, I mean it. When I turned 16 I landed myself a job at Stockeld Park, near my home in Yorkshire, which is one of the many locations the Cairngorm reindeer have a reindeer parade at Christmas time. It is because of the reindeer that I got myself the job. A few years prior to getting the job one of the managers told my dad that when I was of the age to be able to work I was to fill an application out and they’d have me working on their team like a shot. And so I did. 21st May 2015 I was at Stockeld Park picking my uniform up. On my first shift there a few weeks later I walked into the shop where I would be working and a poster was behind the counter with my face on it from the previous Christmas event. I was known for a while as “reindeer girl” as most the staff first knew me for helping out at the Christmas events! That name lasted with me till I left a few years later.
I could go on and on about the memories I have made volunteering. But I won’t bore you all! Just two more memories that have given me so much happiness -one of them I was able to bring experience from my care work background into the day I spent with a family doing a half-day reindeer trek (which doesn’t run any more). I can’t remember the year but I remember going out early on a hill trek with a family with a young boy. They had adopted a reindeer in the past and all were excited to do the hill trek. It was a glorious day. The sun was out and it was warm. The young boy had autism and was very shy at first. It took a while to encourage him to take the rope and lead the reindeer on the walk. When he did it was like talking to a new boy. He was full of smiles and was so happy. I remember after the trek a reindeer called Lego, who he had been leading, laid down in the long grass. I’d turned away to talk to some of the other people and when I turned to see the young boy he was laid down cuddled into Lego. It was an amazing thing to see. It was like seeing a boy and his dog. They were so peaceful and seemed in their own world, and it melted my heart and made my day to see this young boy so happy.
When I was in my second year of sixth form it was mandatory to do a week’s worth of work experience during the summer after. Most people in my class chose to go work in a coffee shop or wherever their parents worked. Nope. Not me. I hopped in the car (which gave my family an excuse for a weekend away) and got myself up to Aviemore. I stayed in the Youth Hostel a few minutes away from the Reindeer Centre. That week I cooked for myself (may have burnt a meal or two…), I went for plenty of walks nearby where I was and most importantly spent five days working alongside the staff at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. I loved every moment of it !
I can also remember the day we went up on the hill trip and me and Imogen who was working there at the time went hunting for Pokemon on the way back down the van on what used to be a big craze back then on the Pokemon Go app! That’s also the same day Hen had asked me to help check a reindeer’s temperature… another new experience I had never done before!
This was the week that I was pushed the most. I had so much fun and I was also tested on my knowledge of the reindeer. Fiona had mentioned to me on the first day that by the end of the week she was wanting me to lead a hill trip from start to finish. Now I panicked. But eventually, on my last day, I took a small group of visitors up to see the reindeer. After I had done that I was so proud of myself. I have never had the most confidence. In school I would shy away, wouldn’t even put my hand up to ask a question to the teacher. But whenever someone asked me to stand up and talk about reindeer, it was like I was a new person. I could give a speech on the information I knew and then would be able to answer questions people had to ask. I will never be more grateful to a bunch of people then I am to those I have worked with at the
Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. They have helped me come so far in life and are part of the reason who I am today.
Getting back on topic, that same week I helped out in the office, cleaned the paddocks, cleaned the visitors centre, helped in the shop and on my evenings I spent a lot of them walking and being at one with the beautiful area Glenmore is. I can remember on one of the nights Fiona had invited us to join in with their “Come dine with me” evening. That day me and another volunteer, Blyth, had helped prep some of the food they would be cooking that night. It was just lovely. I felt so involved and learnt so many skills that week. I remember sitting on the train and not wanting to go home.
I have also helped at a fair few Christmas events, mainly Stockeld Park and Beverley. Beverley by far has to be my favourite. It’s so busy and feels so festive. I used to love answering questions people had and talking to the children about Christmas and the magic of the reindeer. I remember one year helping harness the reindeer ready for the event and one of the reindeer lifted his head and bashed his antlers in to my head, bad timing on someone’s behalf and the next day I remember going to school the next day with a bruise going
from the top of my head down to my chin on the left hand side… it was bragging rights and gave me an excuse to chat all about the reindeer event!
Now I feel I have gone on long enough. And it’s time to wrap up this journey I have brought you on and the memories I have shared. I have met some amazing friends over the past 19 years. Who would’ve thought one reindeer called Biscuit could have brought us a friendship with a lovely lady called Carola who lives over in Holland, and from there many friendships grew. We then found more “reindeer crazy” people like us and started a Reindeer Groupies Page” on Facebook. We’ve had many meetings through the years and have made many memories. I will forever be grateful to everyone up at Reindeer House. You all hold a special place in my heart and I so hope that in October 2020 I will be back up, starting a new chapter of memories by bringing my partner and his daughter up to see the reindeer and hopefully sharing the magic and love I have in my heart with them for these lovely creatures.
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!