Spy – the reindeer we’re all a bit scared of

A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.

Spy, whose reputation precedes her!

Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.

The way it normally works: Myself gently pushing Cheese and newborn Kiruna in the right direction across the hill enclosure a couple of years back.

Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.

The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.

With Nok, the calf who I’d failed entirely to get close to.

This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.

Not one of Spy’s calves (this is Angua’s calf Chickpea), but a quick cuddle is usually needed once all calf duties are done and everyone’s in the right place!

By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.

Spy in the nursery part of the enclosure a day after trying to kill us all this year, antler having fallen off in the meantime. Suddenly she doesn’t look quite so intimidating when not waving a large, spiky antler around!

Hen

The difficulties of reindeer location at calving time

Most of the time our reindeer give birth in our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, not requiring any assistance or shelter whatsoever. Calves are born with a thick, waterproof calf coat, so anything the Scottish weather throws at them is not an issue. Our enclosure can be segmented into several different areas, so what we do is to have the herd of pregnant females in the main, largest, bit, and create a ‘nursery’ in a smaller area, known as the ‘Bottom Corridor’ (as opposed to the ‘Top Corridor’, unsurprisingly further up the hill). Pre-natal and ante-natal, if you will.

Cows and their calves in the Bottom Corridor ‘nursery’

When a cow is ready to calve she will generally head away from the herd, wanting her own space and peace and quiet. This may be a few hours before calving or it may be a couple of days, depending on the individual. We always count the reindeer each time we feed them, so can work out if a cow has suddenly gone AWOL; and will then head out round the enclosure to track them down (usually the following morning). However, 1200 acres is the size of 1200 football pitches, part of it heavily wooded, and finding a lone reindeer can be a real mission. If they are out in the open somewhere then generally it’s not too hard to track them down, but if they disappear into the depths of the woods then it’s much harder.

A photo to give you an idea of the rough size of the enclosure – the boundary fence goes right around behind the mountain in the centre of the picture, Silver Mount, and right down into the forest at the right.
A closer view of Silver Mount in the enclosure, and Black Loch which is hidden from view from most of the enclosure.

This calving season in particular felt like the reindeer were running rings around us, with hardly any of the cows being easy to find. In fact the very first cow who headed away from the herd to calve wasn’t found until two days later, and most of the following few reindeer calved down in the woods too, necessitating long searches, sometimes fruitless and sometimes fruitful.

Let me make this clear too, we’re not talking a pleasant stroll along nice easy footpaths. The forest in the enclosure is proper Caledonian pine forest, complete with a dense understory of juniper, blaeberry and heather, and VERY boggy. Oh, and some of it is extremely steep. And there’s no proper paths, only narrow, muddy deer tracks (made by the reindeer, but also wild red and roe deer). Several hours of trawling through the forest is utterly exhausting, and if emerging eventually empty handed with boots squelching, also utterly demoralising.

A tiny proportion of the enclosure woods…
The enclosure encompasses a large area of Caledonian pine forest, complete with dense understory of juniper and blaeberry – ideal for concealing reindeer!
Dense birch woodland in the enclosure too – a reindeer’s eye view!

In 2020, thankfully the reindeer were kind to us during the calving season, as it fell right in the middle of the first lockdown and most staff were furloughed. Reindeer calved mostly out in the open, were found quickly and easily, and brought through to the bottom corridor ‘nursery’ with little hassle. This year however… Sika was the first reindeer to head away from the herd to calve, but it was two days later by the time we found her. And in fact that’s not even really true, we didn’t actually find her at all – she joined up with another cow who had calved by that point and we found both together, Sika’s calf at least 48 hours old by that point.

Pagan was the hardest of the lot – it wasn’t until the fourth day of searching before she was eventually located – tucked into the forest in a hidden spot. I was on my day off and very glad to receive a message to say she’d been found – it had been long enough that I had started to think she must have died giving birth. Normally reindeer won’t stay in the spot where they calved for longer than a couple of days, re-joining the herd of their own volition and making finding them eventually more straight-forward. Heading out to the woods with the prospect of several hours of searching ahead, after several days when you think you may actually be looking for a body rather than a newborn calf, is no-one’s idea of fun. But in this case, Pagan was completely fine, and probably rather smug that she’d managed to waste many, many hours of our time over four days!

A rubbish photo as it’s really zoomed in – but my moment of triumph this calving season was seeing Feta’s head pop up out the deep heather, after a couple of hours of plodding back and forth through the forest…
…who promptly tried to lead her calf away from me, but the wee one didn’t make it up this bank, being only a few hours old and not yet wobble-free!

At least it was a small calving this year, so the continual trudging around the enclosure only went on for so long. And the reindeer appeared to finally take pity on us as a couple of the later ones to calve did so in a much more open, agreeable area where they were plainly visible. In fact first time mum Blyton calved right beside the Bottom Corridor fence, right beside the cows and calves, and did so right before we did a Facebook Live video (https://www.facebook.com/182577928433967/videos/517342392958642), meaning she could be seen in the background throughout, and making Andi’s life nice and easy as all she had to do was pop over the fence once the camera stopped rolling to check out the new arrival!

Hen

How Holy Moley got her name!

A lot of you may have already heard of Holy Moley, whether it be on one of our guided tours up here in the Highlands of Scotland, on our social media or most likely through the recent Channel 4 programme (‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’) where Holy Moley was the star reindeer! The programme takes you through her roller-coaster of a life so far but it didn’t actually explain why she was called Holy Moley in the first place so I’m going to take this opportunity to explain her name.

On the 25th April 2020 our first reindeer calf of the year was born. Lotti and myself headed out for about an hour’s hill walk to look for Galilee, a 6 year old very pregnant female reindeer who we spied from a distance through binoculars. On top of a hill called Silver Mount within our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, or Airgiod-meall in Gaelic,  we found her and her new calf. This was Lotti’s first calving season with us, so her first reindeer calf. However, like Galilee I was an old hand at this time of year so was passing on advice on approaching and treating new born calves correctly to Lotti. Galilee couldn’t have been more chilled out with our presence, in fact she was pretty delighted we brought her a tasty feed after what had probably been an exhausting few hours! Lotti was absolutely ecstatic! A smile beamed from ear to ear which of course was infectious so the two of us were on cloud nine. We sprayed the newborn’s navel to stop any infection and popped a wee bit of insecticide on her back to prevent ticks from biting and causing problems for the wee girl then left her to get to know her mum. As she was the first calf we weren’t in a hurry to bring her in closer to the herd into the smaller fenced area which becomes a ‘nursery’ through the spring, but thought we would wait until another female had calved so they could come in together.

Huge excitement!

We caught up with them the next day to feed Galilee and check her calf was well. Galilee this time decided that with her calf being much more mobile, that she wasn’t sticking around so again we left her to it, with no urgent hurry to bring them in. Then on the 27th April myself, Andi, Lotti and Joe headed out to bring Galilee and calf (and now also Dante and her calf) into an enclosure a bit closer so we could keep an eye on them. Andi and Lotti concentrated on Dante and calf while Joe and I headed over to where we could see Galilee, assuming her calf was with her.

As we approached Galilee she didn’t move away from us, as you would expect a new mum to do. I got closer and closer and realised quite quickly that things weren’t normal. Galilee was grunting a lot. A call she would use to communicate with her 2 day old calf but I couldn’t hear or see her calf anywhere. Galilee was right in amongst a pile of boulders which didn’t cover a big area but she was pretty adamant to stay close to a certain area, sticking her nose into a section where the boulders had big gaps between. My heart sunk when I realised her calf must have fallen down in between the gaps  somehow! Joe and I searched, treading carefully over the boulder field. After about 10 minutes (which felt like an hour) of searching we could then hear a very faint calf grunting back to her mother. This then confirmed whereabouts in the boulders she was, however she was so far down we couldn’t see her, let alone reach with our arms to get her out.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t stop to take any photos during the rescue, but here’s a different boulder field to give you an idea of the type of terrain. Bonus point for spotting the ptarmigan!

By this time we realised we needed more assistance – Joe and I alone weren’t strong enough to remove the very large and heavy stones. Olly was at the Centre so we called him to come up the hill with tools which could potentially act as leverage. We also called Lotti down from bringing in Dante for an extra pair of hands. By this point 15-20 minutes had passed and Galilee decided there was too much commotion for her to be sticking around so she went back and joined the main reindeer herd, leaving us to find her calf. After removing, with great effort, some very large boulders we got our first glimpse of the calf… she was about 5ft down, but alive! I managed to reach as far as I could and with the tips of my fingers I could feel her. With a bit of rummaging I got hold of her back legs and very gently pulled, cautious not to cause her any hurt or injury. In my first attempt to pull her out there was too much resistance, like something was stuck. I pushed her back down, moved her body around a bit more, hoping she would release whatever was stuck. I had to do all this by feel as she was so far below ground that we couldn’t see her. On my second attempt to pull her out she came much more easily, and once I could get a second hand on her I supported the rest of her body and head coming out the hole backwards.

The poor wee girl probably didn’t know what was going on and we have no idea how long she was down there. She had rubbed the hair from the knees on her front legs and also a patch on top of her head so with a few bald patches and a sore back leg I carried her the ½ mile across mountain ground back to her mum. While walking back she was nuzzling my armpit looking for some milk – she was obviously quite hungry. I popped her down in front of Galilee who without hesitation sniffed her and realised it was hers. I suspect the two of them immediately forgot the whole scenario, being animals I don’t suppose they think of the past or what just happened. But I will remember it for a long time yet. Having been cooped up in a hole for so long she was a bit staggery on her feet to begin with but the wee calf was absolutely fine.

Back at the nearer end of the hill enclosure and reunited with her mum – but complete with bald patch on her head and rather bumpy knees!

Once it was all over and we could breathe a sigh of relief one of us used a phrase quite common amongst us herders… “Holy Moley, what a day!” And from there she got her nickname – ‘Holy Moley, the calf who fell down a hole’. It was never intended to be her name forever but inevitably that has happened. Most reindeer who end up with a nickname from a young age keep hold of it for the rest of their life – Grunter, Hippo, Paintpot and Hamish to name a few.

With mum Galilee (right) on the summer free-range – Holy Moley’s missing calf coat on her head still making her easy to pick out amongst the other calves.

So there we have it, at two days old Holy Moley fell down a hole between boulders and without our assistance she would not be with us today. She’s had a pretty tough start to life as unfortunately we then lost Galilee, her mother, in the summer while the two of them were free-ranging in the Cairngorm Mountains. Holy Moley has managed to muscle through on her own by keeping herself with the herd, stealing milk from other females and I suspect by having a bit of fight in her she will go on to be a big strong female reindeer herself. She certainly didn’t give up in the hole and every time we catch up with her on the mountains she makes sure she’s first to get her head in a bag of feed… She knows we’ll look after her!

Holy Moley in September, complete (once again) with bald patch, this time after the vet had to remove her badly broken antler!

Fiona

The wonderful (and slightly disgusting) life of a reindeer mum

This year I was lucky enough to spend May looking after all the cows and calves during calving season, whilst most of the country was in lock-down. This was my first calving season and I found it really fascinating to watch how the behaviour of the reindeer changed once they had calved. Especially for the first-time mums who were acting purely on instinct, which amazed me how strong that is! There were a couple of things that I noticed a few of the mum’s doing in the hours and days after they had calved which I thought might be interesting to read about.

Licking their calf dry

The very first job of a reindeer once she has calved is to lick her calf dry. This year some of our calves were born in the snow so they want to get dry as quick as possible so that their fluffy calf coat can keep them warm. I was incredibly lucky to be able to watch Brie calve this year, I watched through binoculars as she carefully licked all the placenta off the calf, Cicero, until he looked like all the other calves I had seen at a couple of hours old – fluffy rather than slimy.

Eating the placenta

Being an arctic animal, every bit of nutrition reindeer can get is very important – placenta included. We found Ibex and her calf Flax when she was a couple of hours old, by which point Ibex was obviously feeling peckish. I can’t say that it looked particularly appetising to me but then I’m not a mother, nor a reindeer!

Licking their calf’s bum

To stimulate the calf suckling the mother must lick her calf’s bum. This all works in a cycle because the cow licking the calves’ bum stimulates the calf suckling and the more that the calf suckles the more milk that the cow will produce! All resulting in a good strong calf. It’s also very important to help keep the calf clean, their very first poo can be very sticky and a couple of the mums – mostly the ones who had had many calves before – didn’t do a very good job of licking their calves bottoms meaning we had to do it instead (cleaning it, not licking it….)! I can’t really believe how something so smelly can come out of something so sweet, so I guess I can’t really blame the cows. When the calf is really young the mum will also lift her leg so that the calf can suckle whilst lying down, here is Pagan demonstrating both very well with her calf Pumpkin!

Teaching the calves to walk  

The last thing that I found really interesting was the way that the mums get their newborn calves to start walking. As a prey animal it is very important that the reindeer are up on their feet as soon as possible. But how do they go from an incredibly wobbly newborn calf to the agile calves who can easily outrun me? The answer is lots of careful training from their mums. From when Cicero was about 20 minutes old, Brie started to stand up and walk a few metres away and wait for her calf to take a few wobbly steps over. The calf would then lie down exhausted for a while before she did the same again. Eventually the steps become less and less wobbly as the calves grow stronger.

Lotti

My top 5 calving memories!

This year was the very first time I had work during calving season, as until now, calving season had always been exactly the same time as exam season. I can very easily say that calving season this year was the happiest month of my life so far, so it has been very difficult to think of just 5 highlights. But here we go, these are my five favourite memories from calving season this year.

Finding the first calf of the year

On Saturday the 25th of April, me and Fiona headed off around the enclosure to look for Galilee who was the first reindeer who had headed away from the herd to calve. It was much earlier in the year than the previous year, so I didn’t get my hopes up too much in case she was just ill or being a loner – Galilee can definitely be known to wander from the group. As me and Fi rounded the top of Silver Mount we caught a glimpse of Galilee, licking the ground. Fiona told me that this was a sure sign of her having calved, and as we got closer I could see the tiny calf on the ground. A new-born calf is barely recognisable compared to the calves I had seen previously in the summer and I can honestly say that Galilee’s calf is the most perfect thing I have ever seen. Galilee let us catch the calf and Fi show me how to treat the calf with an insecticide and some antibiotic spray on her navel. Galilee was very good but she clearly want us to leave her to bond with her calf uninterrupted. So we then fed Galilee and left them too it. The weather was even warm enough to cool off (and calm down from the excitement) with a quick dip in our own ‘private’ loch in the reindeer enclosure.

A quick dip in Black Loch!

Watching Brie calving

My second favourite calving memory has got to be watching Brie calve. One morning Brie was missing from the herd, from spying through binoculars we  saw her but couldn’t tell if she had calved yet or not so I headed out to go and check. Once I got closer I realised that she had legs actually coming out of her back end – she was midway through calving. I sat down a little way away from her and watched the whole thing through binoculars. I watched the calf take his very first, incredibly wobbly steps and have his first milk.

First time up on his feet!

Finding Gloriana’s calf

Another favourite calving moment for me was finding Gloriana’s calf. Gloriana is an 8-year-old female who had previously never had a calf. I really fell in love with her during the 2015 rut. She was amongst a group of reindeer on Silver Mount however she was a bit of a loner from the group and used to sometimes follow me away from the herd once I had finished feeding them. Having never had a calf, we thought that she was infertile so imagine my delight when she started to develop an udder, the first sure sign that a reindeer is almost ready to calve. On one very wet and rainy day, Gloriana was missing from the herd. Andi and I headed out around the enclosure and found her on Silver Mount with a beautiful big male calf. Gloriana was a wee bit nervous but let us treat the calf with no problems. The next day however when we tried to bring Gloriana and her calf to a closer section of the enclosure, I couldn’t get anywhere near her. I think having a calf for the first time at 8 years old made her a bit of an overbearing mum, so it took us a couple of days to get near her again. She did eventually settle down and both her and her calf became more and more confident during the time they were in the enclosure.

Gloriana’s calf with the white nose, with his cousin, Fly’s calf.

Hanging out with an experienced mum

Okay so this calving favourite is not just one moment. A couple of times during calving I got to go out and find a cow and calf from a very tame and experienced mum. Usually once we find the calf we will catch it and treat it and then leave the cow and calf as soon as possible to make sure that we don’t upset the mum. However, some of the cows have had so many calves and are so used to people that they are perfectly happy to lie down with you and their new-born calf. The new-born calves are incredibly inquisitive and totally unafraid of humans. It is a really wonderful experience just hanging out with the new-born calves and their very relaxed mums.

A wee chin rub for Ryvita’s calf (not a strangling!!!)

Ibex and calf!

Kipling and calf with Joe

Sending the calves onto the free-range for the summer.

My final favourite calving memory was letting the calves onto the free-range for the summer. We walked out of the enclosure with some of the cows on halters and the rest following towards the hills. Having spent every day of the last 6 weeks or so with the cows and then the calves, letting them go onto the free-range for the summer where we would likely see them every couple of weeks at the most was both sad and wonderful. Definitely sad to not be seeing them every day but also very wonderful to know that they would spend the next few months of their lives in the very best place for them, the mountains.

 

Leading the herd out of the enclosure

Off they go…

Lotti, Joe, Fiona and a socially distanced Andi after a busy morning!

Lotti

Experiencing the Four Seasons (Part One)

Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!

With my adopted reindeer, Mo

Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.

Winter

In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.

In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.

Fly and her grown-up son Anster

The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.

Pony and her calf Poirot in winter ’18-’19

Frost

The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.

Ibex posing for a selfie!

The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.

I help take the Christmas decorations down.

Spring

In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.

April

Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.

After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.

Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.

Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.

It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.

One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.

With Ochil and Bumble in April 2018

The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.

The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.

It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.

Austen

At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.

The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.

In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.

Ibex and Clouseau in May 2018

I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.

Bottle-feeding Starsky in the woods beside the Paddocks

The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.

There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.

Emm

There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!

Calves, calves and more calves!

At this time of year it seems that all anyone really wants to see are photos of calves – so here you are! A big calving for us this year, and we’re not finished yet either… But in the meantime here are some pictures 😀

Lockdown for those who are still herding reindeer!

We are now into week 5 of lockdown and life for the reindeer herder who is still working has taken a dramatic change in some ways and yet it all feels completely normal in others. Myself (Fiona), Andi and Lotti are still employed while all the other staff here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre are on furlough leave… a term I’m sure everyone is familiar with now. Hen is tending to her ever growing garden, which in this weather is the best place to be; and Dave has got plenty of work on his croft to keep him amused, especially now his sheep are    lambing! The other herders have got plenty to keep them busy, though I suspect are missing their ‘reindeer’ time, especially as we go into a crucial time of year… the calving season. Unfortunately they cannot be involved with calving this year but we will be sure to keep them updated with all the new arrivals.

Bringing the cows into the hill enclosure ready for calving

Where the reindeer management has remained the same over the past month (luckily coronavirus doesn’t affect the reindeer themselves), being closed means our work is chopping and changing between a lot of hill time, feeding the herd and a lot of office time. We have had lots of new adoptions come in, as well as donations. Folks who used to adopt reindeer but maybe it has lapsed over the years have renewed as a way of supporting us while we are closed. We are so very grateful to you all so a massive THANK YOU. We will keep our social media well updated so where we can’t have the Centre open and taking all you lovely people on the hill to visit the reindeer, hopefully we can keep you in the loop with the goings on in other ways.

Kipling WILL get to the bag of feed, one way or another!

The past week in particular has been pretty hectic so it was all hands on deck! There was a group of six female reindeer who had decided they wanted to venture away for calving into the depths of the mountains so we headed out to bring them home. With four of them haltered up the other two followed nicely and we brought them back to our mountain enclosure. The next day the rest of the herd were brought in too and Lotti and I did the big split of who is pregnant and who isn’t. The ones pregnant have been kept back to calve in our mountain enclosure and the ones who aren’t will head back onto the free-range. That isn’t the last we will see of them though, as we will hopefully still catch up with them daily. The ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrate males) and bulls who have spent the winter either here on Cairngorm or on the Cromdale hills are now all back at our hill farm on the Glenlivet Estate. Although we aren’t doing guided public trips onto the hill daily the management of the herd will remain the same so we may well get a few of the male reindeer back over here to Cairngorm once calving is over.

Fetching the remaining group of male reindeer down off the Cairngorm free-range.

One thing we have been publicising a lot is our Wild Farm meat which is our sister company based at our hill farm at Glenlivet with our other animals (NOT reindeer!). Reindeer herder Nicky has been fantastic in drumming up local business from her friends and neighbours, so meat sales have gone through the roof. Got to make the most of what business we can still do. I’m having to get involved with setting up adoption packs again. My role in the company over the past few years means I haven’t been so involved with this, but luckily I haven’t forgotten what to do! When Lotti and Andi need a hand to get a load done I swoop in to help out. As long as they don’t expect me to do this when everything is back to normal (wink wink!).

Such glorious April weather!

All in all we are getting quite used to the not-so-normal life of a reindeer herder and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rather enjoying it… Our local area of Glenmore is quiet so we have the surrounding hills and Loch Morlich beach to ourselves. With four of us living here at the Centre – Lotti, Olly, Joe and I along with the two dogs Sookie and Tiree we get out running, swimming, cycling, early mornings to watch wildlife at its best, watching movies and TV dramas and lots of lovely cooking. We have even had a pub crawl. This involved each of us turning our bedrooms into a pub… Maybe that is another blog for another time, watch this space! The one enjoying lockdown the most is my dog Tiree. For those of you who know her she isn’t the most sociable dog to strangers, however if she knows you, she loves you. So when going out on walks and pottering around the house with no strangers coming to visit, she is in her absolute element. She is currently fast asleep below my feet in the office after her 7 mile run with Joe at 6am this morning and the morning feed up the hill with us… It’s a dog’s life for sure!

Fiona

Memorable Reindeer: Esme

I’ve been well aware over the last couple of weeks that it’s definitely my turn to write a blog, and my justifications of going away on holiday, then having to catch up on work, and reorder stock for the shop, and organise the new adopt gifts, and… have started sounding a little too like excuses. Hen started a lovely series about memorable reindeer, and I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon.

Young Esme as a calf

In my first calving season, 2012, Esme was one of the pregnant females who was in the enclosure so we could keep an eye on her when she calved. Being a novice to the world of reindeer midwifery, I would walk out with a more experienced herder and learn the correct way to approach a new mum, how to check over the calf, and how to bring them back in to the herd.

As we neared the end of May, only one female was left to calve – Esme. She was the sweetest of reindeer – calm, docile, and an experienced mum. She was also beautiful, with a silvery sheen to her coat. So when the day came that Esme had left the herd to calve, we spied her with binoculars up on Silver Mount, and Fiona asked if I wanted the honour of going to find her and her new calf. I was apprehensive – What if I didn’t get it right? Or if she wouldn’t let me approach? – but still jumped at the chance. Hiking up from Black Loch onto Silver Mount, the “baby bag” with the essentials on my back, I still remember feeling the nervous anticipation. I needn’t have worried – as I came over the ridge and saw Esme, she looked up calmly and took a couple of steps towards me (well, the bag of food). I scanned around – had she calved yet? – before spotting the tiny bundle of new life at her feet.

I can’t claim to have done everything in a smooth polished fashion, but Esme was the most patient lass ever, standing whilst I fumbled with the headcollar, not quite having the right technique for holding her calf whilst I sprayed his navel, and talking myself through what to do (out loud!). Finally, we were ready, and we proceeded down the hill and back to the “nursery” area of the enclosure. She must have been rolling her eyes at my inadequacy, and I’m fairly sure she did actually yawn a couple of times!

Over the following years, Esme remained one of my favourite females – she was always a friendly face in the herd, dependable and happy to follow a bag of feed to wherever you wanted her to go, and easy to catch if you needed to put a headcollar on her. As she aged, she struggled a little at times to maintain her condition, and we’d slip her extra bits of feed, allowing her to join in when we fed the calves out of the bag. Throughout, she was never pushy, always waiting to be invited, though once her head was in a feed bag it was almost impossible to remove it!

Esme in her prime

Reindeer, like people, age at different rates, and whilst some of our charges still look in their prime at 13 or 14 years old, by the time Esme was 11 she certainly looked like an old girl. She was also spending more time alone, away from the herd, which isn’t uncommon for the older females – they have the confidence to enjoy their own company, and can sometimes be pushed out by the younger, stronger reindeer. In the 2014/15 winter, Esme was often away from the herd for weeks at a time, off doing her own thing, and there was a memorable day when we spied for the reindeer and saw one lone female marching across the Ciste flats towards the car park. Aware that the rest of the herd were a good distance away in the next glen, we peered through the binoculars trying to work out who it was, finally realising it was Esme!

She seemed delighted to see us, and, wondering if she was looking for the herd, thought we should join her up with them. Whilst we could have hiked over the ridge with her on a headcollar to reunite her with the herd, we wondered if we could save both her energy and ours (of course we were thinking about the fact that she’s an OAP rather than our own tiredness level…) and hop her into the back of the van…

Reindeer in the van
Supervising Esme in the van

Once we’d popped the back seats down to give her some more room, she gave no objections to following us into the van. She must have thought it was a definite upgrade on the usual trailer, with a much better view, and being allowed to munch her way through a bag of feed enroute was also an added bonus! A short 5-minute drive and it was time to emerge at the other car park nearer the herd. There was a car pulled up with a few people admiring the view, and the last thing they must have expected was for a reindeer to hop out of a van! Esme didn’t bat an eyelid at the whole experience, and was quickly reunited with the herd.

Enjoying the snow in her last winter

Esme had a good summer that year high on the Cairngorm free range, but when the females started coming down to lower ground in autumn, she was clearly feeling her years. We moved her over to our Glenlivet hill farm, where she could have access to the large straw-filled barn and ad-lib food in the day, with a gentle stroll onto the hill at night, and she settled right in – she was a funny sight – a little old lady amongst all of the big chunky castrates. She also completely won over the hearts of the men at the farm!

One evening, they went to move out the reindeer onto the open hill for the night, and for the first time, Esme didn’t want to go. With no wish to force her, they let her stay in the shed, and slipped her an extra bucket of lichen. In the morning, she had passed away in her sleep, peacefully tucked up in the straw.

Esme with her yearling daughter Okapi, a proper mini-me

It’s always galling when animals die, but I can’t think of a better end for one of the gentlest reindeer I’ve known. Esme’s family members are still in the herd – her daughter Okapi is a slightly less polite version of her, son Elvis is a dependable but enthusiastic fellow, and sister Sambar is a sweet lass who keeps to herself. All of them share the similar silvery coat colouring, and remind me each time I see them of lovely Esme.

Andi

Reindeer calving: Can we predict whether there will be more males or females born?

It has been an exceptionally mild winter here in the Cairngorms; the ski season never really seemed to kick off, the herders are missing the snow and it has just felt a bit wetter and warmer than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed how early the snowdrops and daffodils seem to have emerged and we have noticed that the hills are looking a bit greener with the heather and deer sedge starting to grow already. Looking at the Met Office summary for winter 2016-2017, temperatures are up about 3.0°C on average (average being data from 1981-2010) in the UK.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This blog is really just an excuse to look at cute calves. Here’s a reindeer and a red deer calf, both being hand reared.

For the reindeer, this warming winter could have lots of effects, and we have recently heard of the reindeer in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia, starving to death due to increased rainfall in the autumn freezing and leaving a thick layer of ice impenetrable to them for foraging.

Our reindeer seem to be coping just fine and it has not frozen here enough for them not to reach their favourite food, lichen. However, research done by previous reindeer herder Heather Hanshaw has shown that weather conditions do definitely affect the proportion of male to female calves born in the spring. Since calving will soon be upon us, I thought it might interest you to know about this research and what our mild winter may mean for us in the upcoming weeks.

calf
Newborn calf

Heather studied Physical Geography at Edinburgh University and in her final year needed a project to study. Of course, having an interest in climate as well as reindeer, and having worked at the Reindeer Centre, a project about how climate affects them was a natural interest to Heather. She knew that Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren had been very meticulous about the data kept on calves born in the Cairngorm herd, and climate data was easily enough accessed, so Heather devised a project determining if weather (temperature and rainfall) had any effect on the proportion of male to female reindeer calves born. A similar study was conducted with Red deer on the Isle of Rum, and their study found that milder winters led to more male calves. Would it be the same or opposite of Rum, or would weather have no effect on the Reindeer?

fergus-5
The famous Fergus, asleep on Mel’s rug

It turns out that Reindeer are similar to Red deer and when the winter temperature increases, so does the proportion of male calves. So, will that turn out to be true this year? With only a few weeks until calving begins, it will be interesting to look at whether we have lots of male calves this year.

Last year the winter seemed fairly average, possibly on the warm side a little, and our calving ratio was almost perfectly 1 male to 1 female, so it will be really interesting to see if this mild winter has had an effect on what will be born this May.

Hopscotch and calf
Hopscotch and calf

Please find sources below.

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries/2017/winter

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112958-80000-reindeer-have-starved-to-death-as-arctic-sea-ice-retreats/

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6735/abs/399459a0.html

Imogen