The Early Shift

No job with animals is entirely “9 til 5”. As reindeer herders, we normally work from 8am to 5pm. In calving season, however, this becomes rather more flexible. When cows are ready to give birth, they tend to head away from the herd to find a nice secluded spot, which in our 1,200 acre enclosure means they can vanish! Every time we feed the herd, we do a head count to check if anyone is missing, work out who they are, then someone will be dispatched to walk round the enclosure looking for them. This means we can hopefully find them not too long after they’ve given birth, check the calf over, spray its navel and put a drizzle of insecticide on their back to protect against ticks. If a reindeer heads off at the morning, this is easy – a herder will walk out. But if a cow is heading away in the afternoon, we take turns to do an “early” – basically starting at the crack of dawn to give ourselves the best chance of an unhurried search of the enclosure.

Loch Morlich mist
There can be some cracking views early in the morning

Now, like several of the other herders, I’m really not a morning person, but I never resent taking my turn at an early. There’s something incredibly special about being alone up the hill as the sun rises and the world wakes up for another day. The potential of being the first person to find a newborn calf is also good motivation! I thought I’d fill you in on a typical early start in the calving season…

5am: Painful as it is, the alarm clock buzzes me out of slumber, and I get up and ready quickly, putting toast on and making up a flask of coffee to take with me. I’m entirely dependent on caffeine, especially when I’m awake unsociably early.

5.15am: Out of the door and on the short commute to Reindeer House. This early in the morning it seems that the rest of mankind is still asleep – all I see are numerous wood pigeons (who seem to love sitting on roads in the early morning) and a roe deer buck.

5.30am: Arrive at Reindeer House and swap into the work van. The night before it was prepared with reindeer feed, binoculars and the all important “baby bag” – stocked with lichen, reindeer food, headcollar, antiseptic spray and emergency chocolate. I then drive round the mountain road – it gives a good view across to the enclosure and a bit of an advance idea of where missing reindeer may be hidden – anything to make it a bit less “needle in a haystack”.

5.45am: Shoulder a sack of feed and the baby bag, and walk up to the enclosure. The sun is just coming up, the woods are alive with birdsong, and the day is already warming up. Whilst some of our reindeer cows calve out on the free-range, we use the enclosure for most of them as it provides a safer environment (away from dogs) and means we can keep a bit of an eye on them. They are great mums and rarely have any problems, but just on occasion we can give them a helping hand.

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Some of the cows and calves as the sun comes up

6am: Most of the herd are already waiting at the gate, back from their night of wandering, aware that we are on “calving time” and there is a chance an early breakfast may be on offer. I let them in to a different part of the enclosure, feed them, then go along the line of munching reindeer, naming them out loud: “Bumble, Clarinet, Enya, Orkney, Morven…” When I reach the end of the line I scan over the list of the reindeer who should be there and note the absentees – in this case four of the females. One of them we have already seen with her new calf, but we haven’t yet got her in to our “nursery” area of the enclosure. The others are potentially away to calve, or perhaps are just a little late in for breakfast!

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The main herd in, fed, counted and ID’d

6.15am: With the herd fed and content, I begin the walk round the enclosure. Everyone ends up with their own favoured route, but in general everyone begins by walking right up and round Silver Mount, the small mountain in the enclosure, before searching the woods. You can expect to be walking for about 2 hours, stopping to peer through binoculars at anything that could be a reindeer (so many reindeer-shaped rocks in this part of the country…). Today it’s already a glorious sunny day and I’ve soon taken off my jumper, but the weather isn’t always so kind – Fiona had the first early of the year in gale force winds and hail! Once I gain the height of the ridge, I spot two of the cows at different places in the woods, but no sign of the third one, so I carry on walking.

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Glorious views from the summit of Silver Mount, at 6.30am in the morning.

7.30am: I’ve almost completed my circuit, and haven’t found the third cow, but have had nice views of a cuckoo, tree pipits and a black grouse. We’re lucky to have a huge amount of wildlife set up home within the enclosure, probably because its mostly free of people (apart from when we’re searching for reindeer!) and dogs. Last week there were even two osprey circling above, though I suspect they decided Black Loch was too small for their purposes!

7.45am: I reach one of the cows I’d spotted from the ridge. She stands up when I call to her and despite shaking a bag of food for her, she heads away from me purposefully. There is no calf following at her heels, but her behaviour suggests that she’s soon to give birth, so I leave her to it.

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Spot the reindeer! A lone cow is in the centre of the trees.

8am: I find the second cow that I’d spotted, but she is equally as keen to keep her distance, and sadly for me hasn’t calved yet either. Finding a newborn calf is always the highlight, and many of the females are just delighted to get some food, so are completely unconcerned by you checking the gender of the calf, spraying its navel and having a quick cuddle before leading them in to join the group of cows and calves. Some of the cows, however, do turn completely wild once they’ve calved, and won’t come anywhere near you – instinct kicking in to protect the vulnerable calf from any potential danger. Thankfully they tend to calm down after a couple of days.

8.15am: No new calves for me this morning, but I do have the task of getting in the female who calved a few days ago. She isn’t too far from the gateway that I need her to go through, but is in a flighty mood so it is a case of gently herding her in the right direction. I’m lucky that she is happy to go the direction I’d like her to go, as there is no way I can outrun her two-day-old calf! Once through with the group of cows and calves, she immediately comes over for a pile of food – flight mode forgotten!

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This is what you’re always hoping to find – a newborn bundle of calf!

9am: With the main herd let back out into the main enclosure, and everyone fed, it is time for me to head back down to the Centre. An unsuccessful morning in a way, with no new calves found and one cow successfully hiding from me (shows how massive the enclosure is!), but when the sun is shining and all the reindeer are well, there’s no way I can begrudge the early start.

Later that day Hen was the lucky one to find the first cow I’d come across with a newborn female calf. Maybe I’ll be treated to a newborn calf the next time!

Andi

Superstitions

Since it’s Friday the 13th, I thought I would try to write up a blog about superstitions from reindeer herders around the world. I thought it would be a fairly easy subject to research, but it turns out it is rather difficult and trying to determine what was actually believed way back when, and what has been made up for the tourist industry is exceedingly difficult. I have tried my best to be as accurate as possible and only report on reliable information, but do feel free to correct me if any of what is said below is wrong. Sámi shamanism, traditions, superstitions etc. are very difficult to come by because up until the mid-20th century, the Sámi underwent ‘Norwegeniasation’. The Sámi were not allowed to speak their own languages, were converted to Christianity by missionaries and it was shameful to have Sámi roots. Attitudes have now changed and it is cool to be a Sámi now. There is even a festival in Norway called Riddu Riđđu where people can explore and enjoy their Sámi roots. Anyway, here are some little snippets of traditions and beliefs of reindeer herders around the world.

 

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A band at Riddu Riđđ,  holding a Sámi flag on stage. (Photo from norwayfestivals.com)

The Chukchi, a group of reindeer herders from Siberia, thought it akin (bad) to sell a live reindeer, but would happily sell a dead reindeer. There is a book called ‘In a Far Country’, by John Taliaferro, which is a true story describing how, after whaling ships were trapped on Alaska’s north coast by ice, a missionary named Top Lopp decided to herd reindeer out to the 200+ whalers who would otherwise starve to death, with the help of 7 Eskimo herders, in the late 1800’s. The book describes the troubles that the men faced in trying to purchase live reindeer to herd across the Bering strait to the men stranded in Alaska. It talks about the Chukchi being offered a fortune in tobacco and cloth, but they would always refuse. The Chukchi would sell dead reindeer at 75 cents apiece, up to 500 at a time, but never a live reindeer.

Chukchi reindeer herder, Sergei Elevye, with one of his bull reindeer
Chukchi reindeer herder, Sergei Elevye, with one of his bull reindeer. (Photo from mediastorehouse.com)

The Sámi had and have a very close bond with nature, and natural phenomenon which nowadays can be easily explained by science, were of course much more exciting/terrifying occurrences. The aurora borealis, or Northern lights are of course one of the most fascinating and obvious phenomena in the north. Some northern Finnish reindeer herders used to believe that they were caused by a fox running extremely fast across the sky, whipping up the colours with her tail. The Sámi of Sweden feared the lights and would even hide away from it, or at least try to cover themselves if they could not hide. It is also extremely bad luck to mock, or even make notice of the lights, to some. It was believed that if you whistled at the lights, they would swoop down and kill you. However, if they did try to kill you, you could clap your hands and they would leave you alone.

This close connection with the natural world often meant that they would pray and give sacrifices to many different Gods. They also believed that everything had a spirit including certain trees and rocks. There were often stones that people would have to greet, otherwise the stone could get angry and come down on them. Unusual landforms, especially rocks, were often called seidi‘s and were worshipped to bring the worshipper protection. They were also seen as gateways to the underworld.

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A seidi in Balsfjord (Image from wikipedia.com)

It is also believed that white reindeer bring good luck and all herders should have a white reindeer in their herd. Luckily, we have quite a few in our own herd, including Blondie, and her son Lego. Fiona has also heard that if you see a white reindeer, the sun and the moon all at the same time, it brings good luck. So have a look out next time you come on one of our visits!

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Blondie, relaxing on a sunny day.

The Sámi also joik, a form of acapella singing; its themes usually include animals, people and special occasions in life. The Sámi also joik about Stállo, who is a mythical being, very rich and very smart, and who is able to change shape and can even change the landscape so people become lost. He is an evil entity, and often the joiks describe how to trick Stállo.

We haven’t had many reindeer born on Friday 13th, since it really is only May that the reindeer calve. We did have one handsome male reindeer born, called Peru. He lived up until around 8 years old, and was a ‘Christmas reindeer’. There are actually only 4 reindeer still alive who were born in 2005 with Peru, so I think he did ok to get to 8 years old. Obviously, I don’t know if one has been born today or not, but it doesn’t seem to be too bad an omen for the reindeer.

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Peru looking handsome in his summer coat.

 

Imogen

The Calm before the Storm

It is the morning of April 29th, and it is the calm before the storm – the reindeer calving season. All was quiet this morning on the hill, but a sea of large pregnant bellies greeted Sarah and I in the enclosure, ready and waiting…

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Lots of massive bellies!

Having spent the first few months of the year free-ranging out on the mountains, last week we brought the cows into the enclosure to sort them out ready for calving. Non-pregnant females went back out to free-range for the rest of the spring and summer, while the pregnant ones were moved into the main part of the enclosure (after a frantic fixing of the fences after the winter storms!). They will now stay in for the next 3 – 4 weeks but once the majority have calved, they will go out on to the free-range to join the single females out there for the summer. While it’s lovely for us to have the cute wee calves around for a while, ultimately they will do better out on the higher areas of the mountains, up away from the biting insects, and so for this reason we get them out onto the free-range as soon as possible after calving.

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‘Stop taking photos and give us the feed…’

The East Enclosure (the main area inside the enclosure where we take the hill trips to) becomes the pre-natal unit, with one by one as they calve, the reindeer being moved through to the Bottom Corridor (the smaller area immediately inside the main visitor gate) – the ‘nursery’. The cows generally just get on with calving themselves, and older females, knowing the score, have been known to bring their new calves to the gate into the Bottom Corridor (BC) themselves, ready to move into the nursery! Younger or more inexperienced cows often give us a bit of a run around, marching away with their little one trotting at their heels – telling us in no uncertain terms to keep our distance. We spread out and act like sheepdogs, herding the cow gently in the right direction and through the gate into the BC.

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Most of the females have now cast their 2015 antlers, but there’s a few still hanging on in there, like Wapiti.

The reindeer in the enclosure I feel a bit sorry for just now are the female yearlings, still with their mums and totally unaware they are about to plummet from apple of their mum’s eyes to second best, as their mum’s attention is turned to their new siblings. The yearlings are always very confused by this, and often stand despondently nearby, watching the new calf suckling. By the summer though they have come to terms with this new development, and have re-joined their mums to make little family parties.

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Yearling Morven glued at the hip to her mum Spy – poor Morven’s about to get a nasty shock when Spy calves!
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An old photo – this is Chime way back in about 2010 – but look at the size of that belly!

So there we have it. The reindeer are in the correct place, the staff bets are in for first cow to calve, the calving rucksack is ready for early morning expeditions around the enclosure (complete with emergency chocolate bars) and the stage is set. Unfortunately winter has sneezed on us all again, but hopefully it’s its last spluttering cough of the season – we, and the reindeer, are ready for spring!

Hen

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Flake

I thought maybe I’d start an occasional blog series remembering particular characters in the herd who are no longer with us, because some readers amongst you may have met them once upon a time, and those of you that didn’t can at least have a brief glimpse of some of the most memorable reindeer from our herd.

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Flake with her beautiful antlers

I scrolled through our photo archive of reindeer no longer with us, and my eye alighted on Flake. Well, there is a fine place to start! Plenty of memorable things about Flake, and what a fabulous reindeer she was over the years. I first met her in summer 2009, having been away for several months, and arrived back and headed up to the hill enclosure for the first time. Most of the reindeer there I recognised, or managed to work out pretty quickly, but who was this bull with a blue ear tag? Quite narrow, upright antlers compared to some, but still a very good size, and ‘clean’ in design rather than the chaotic, many tined antlers of the castrate males. I was flummoxed. Turns out it was Flake, in the enclosure for the summer months rather than out free-ranging like the other females, due to her calf Diddly (who we’ll get to in a tick).

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Flake was a beautiful reindeer

Flake’s fabulous antlers set her apart from many of the other cows, as they were much more elaborate than the average female set and a very decent size most years. In 2009 however, the year I first saw her, they were a particularly fine set and there is a specific reason for that…

Flake was a notoriously bad breeding female. Her calving record, filed away on our computer here, is basically a list of disaster after disaster, from stillborn calves, to ones that got stuck and needed pulling out by the vet, to premature twins, you name it. In 2011 she produced a calf who had a problem with his joints, probably not helped by the fact that Flake had calved right next to a large boulder which he had promptly got stuck beneath! The entry on her records for her final calf Brave, born in 2012, reads ‘Normal!!!!’.

But before that, in 2009, there was Diddly. Born prematurely, she was tiny, so much so that she couldn’t reach Flake’s udder. Even if she had been able to, Flake didn’t produce any milk that year anyway, so right from the start we had to hand-rear her, bottle feeding through the night to start with.

Heather feeding Diddly
Heather working hard to look after Diddly, while Flake stands by
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Diddly was so tiny!

Flake and Diddly started off in the paddocks, then eventually moved up to the hill enclosure for the remainder of the summer and the autumn. And that is the reason for Flake’s great antlers – while we slaved away feeding Diddly for the first 5 months of her life, Flake basically sat back and let us do all the work – a ‘designer mum’. All the energy going into her body from the feed we lug up the hill every day went straight to her antler growth rather than to milk production. The antlers of the other females, out on the high tops foraging for themselves, all showed the detrimental effects of the effort of raising a calf, being smaller and wigglier, but not Flake. She resided in state in the hill enclosure all summer, fat as butter and with fancy headgear, with a queue of reindeer herders tending to her every need and raising her calf for her!

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Flake and Diddly when I first met them in August 2009

 

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Flake with the grown up Diddly in February 2011

Flake passed away in 2013, an old girl by that point. Very sadly, Diddly followed later that year, but not before producing her son Crowdie, who is now nearly 3 years old and a great fun wee reindeer. Diddly was an interesting character in her own right as she never produced any antlers at all, remaining bald for her whole life, a little quirk that sometimes happens with female reindeer.

Hen

Introducing Fergus

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Fergus

Many of you may have already heard about our wee orphan reindeer, Fergus, who we have had the joy of hand rearing this summer. Sadly his mum died when he was just 10 days old but he got several very eager human mums instead, not least myself who has gone completely maternal over him, worrying about him on his first day up the hill (like it’s his first day at school!), texting when I’m away to make sure he has had his milk on time and collecting him fine lichens and bouquets of heather when I’m out on walks!

Fergus quickly adapted to life without his reindeer mum and was very tame from the start. He also befriended the dogs! Wolves are reindeer’s biggest natural predator so it’s an unusual relationship to say the least.

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Murdo was besotted with him when he was tiny. Couldn’t take his eyes off him!
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While Murdo’s love faded slightly as Fergus grew (food is always his first love!) he made a lifelong pal with Tiree!

Fergus began his life down at the centre so that we could bottle feed him easily and he hung out with the reindeer in the paddocks, but right from the start Fergus was very happy wandering around the house and quick to seek out a comfy bed!   He tried quite a few…

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A feed bowl was a perfect bed when he was tiny, but the rug on my bedroom floor was better when he needed to really stretch out!

He soon discovered that dog beds were the best bet…

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His favourite one is Tiree’s. The office bed was quickly outgrown.

Fergus loves his milk and is always on the hunt for a possible udder! This involves butting us very violently at times and looking in some unusual places:

Maybe there’s one in the sofa cover? ….or in this duvet?
Maybe there’s one in the sofa cover? ….or in this duvet?

As soon as we could we began taking him up the mountain to spend the day with the herd, to teach him to be a proper reindeer. He loves his walk up the hill first thing and usually does a few wee skips of joy along the way.

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On the path up to the hill enclosure, Sookie leading the way, then trotting over Utsi’s bridge.
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With our volunteer Charlie, walking along with the rest of the herd
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Return transport to the Centre is in the back of the reindeer van, with good company.

He also likes his walks around Glenmore in the evenings; he gets some exercise and some tasty snacks along the way:

Visiting the Pine Marten to fetch some milk, and snacking on lichen lollipops on the way
Visiting the village shop to fetch some milk, and snacking on lichen lollipops on the way

Recently Fergus went on his first half day trek as he needs to get fit for the time when he will go out free-ranging with the herd. He loved it and had a great time eating all the new plants he found along the way.

Fergus trekking to the top of Silvermount, 644m, the highest he has ever been.  He needed a nap half way round!
Fergus trekking to the top of Silver Mount, 644m, the highest he has ever been. He needed a nap half way round!

Fergus is a bit of a local celebrity and has been in two local papers; people come from far and wide to see him….

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Fergus’s story in the Press and Journal. Check this out boys, what is it???

Fergus has been a great source of entertainment and joy to all of us. He is definitely in the “terrible twos” stage at the moment, always up to antics and eating and drinking things he is not supposed to:

Suckling the wine cork and sneaking into the feed mix bag...
Checking out the wine cork and sneaking into the feed mix bag…

Finally, now the rutting season is about to begin and all the boys are busy stripping their velvet and revealing their splendid antlers, we felt Fergus needed a helping hand as his antlers are just tiny wee ones right now…

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But whilst these pictures may give you the impression that Fergus is a house pet, we have to assure you that the majority of his time is now spent with the herd on the mountains – he is a “big boy” now and will very soon spend all his time up there, enjoying the views and the natural life of a Cairngorm Reindeer.

Fergie hill

Mel

Watch this space for more news on the adventures of Fergus!!!

The Calving Bet

Every year we reindeer herders have a little flutter into betting around calving time of year – the idea is to pick a reindeer you think is going to calve first and if your reindeer calves last you have to take an icy dip into Loch Morlich. As you can imagine this makes it all the more serious and some proper consideration should always go into picking your ‘bet’ reindeer. This year turned into a two handed contest between Abby and Hen, and it was never going to end well for one of them…

Hopscotch versus Lulu
The contenders: Hopscotch versus Lulu

Abby: Last year (my first calving) I took all the advice on board, I learned about families who calve early, I checked out tummy size and I looked at udder size; and ended up with a female who calved pretty near the beginning.

You would think that after a year of reindeer herding I’d enter this year’s bet with a bit more wisdom and expertise: after all, I’ve got to know the reindeer pretty well now. However, I committed the cardinal sin, and chose a reindeer who I just really liked before weighing up the facts properly. A lovely four year old called Hopscotch, and indeed she was pretty rotund looking when I picked her but there was no sign of an udder, but I’d made my choice and had to stick by it.

Hen: Bets have to be in by the end of April, and this year I went with Lulu. I had dutifully peered between hind legs at udders, assessed general belly size, and considered previous calving patterns, and Lulu seemed like a pretty safe bet. Everyone else made sensible bets too, with the exception of Abby. We ripped her to shreds continuously as she was very obviously going to end up in the loch, and deserved to as well – Hopscotch (daft choice, ha!) was looking pretty slim compared to everyone else’s bets, who were waddling around huffing and puffing.

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Checking the pregnant cows early in the morning

Abby: By the 30th of April it all kicked off and the calving storm began – one by one the females started popping and one by one my colleagues became safe from the dreaded swim. By mid-May most of the females had calved and all that was left from the bet was me with Hopscotch and Hen with Lulu. Lulu was the size of a barge with an udder to match, and was like the vision of doom every time I saw her up the hill. I began to think myself very foolish indeed and resigned myself to the fact that a very cold swim was coming my way as there was no way Hopscotch would calve before an old pro like Lulu!

However, much to my surprise on Monday the 18th of May Hopscotch was missing, I was all a-flutter and stoked thinking that I was free of the swim and off we headed to track down her and her new calfie. We were, however, a wee bit disappointed, finding her on the top of Silver Mount (which is a very popular calving spot) chillin’ like a villain. There would be no calf today it seemed. It’s very common for reindeer to go off and faff about for up to a week before they actually give birth and I resigned myself to fact once again that I’d probably end up in the water. However the next day the same thing happened, no Hopscotch, hopes were high until once again she was found and pootled back to the herd quite happily but by our afternoon visit she was once again gone… this was it I thought. If a female goes missing in the afternoon a herder will head up the hill at the ungodly hour of 5am to track her down and this is just what I did! Once again she was on Silver mount (a bit of a shock for my legs that early in the morning – this is why reindeer herders get through so many biscuits!), but she didn’t look quite right and upon taking her temperature I realised she had an acute case of ‘Man Flu’! She got a wee dose of antibiotics before I popped her in with the cows and calves. 10 yards later she went down and in my head my thoughts ran along the lines of ‘Oh my god, I’ve killed a reindeer!’ until she started huffing and puffing away… she seemed to be going into labour! I left her to it and waited with glee to meet a new calfie in the afternoon.

Hen: I had foolishly chosen this week to have a few days off, and was away from home too. A smug text message on the Monday told me that Hopscotch was away to calve, but frantic texts from me after that, trying to gauge what was happening, mostly seemed to go unanswered or got a cryptic reply that didn’t really tell me what was going on. I started to sweat. Surely I wasn’t going to be beaten by Abby?! Having been here for a year, she is still ‘new’ compared to me – I’ve been a reindeer herder for over seven years and have experienced a lot more calving seasons than Abby, I should have been able to sail through the bet with no problems! Towards the end of the week I started to doubt myself.

Abby: By Wednesday afternoon Hopscotch was acting completely normally and stuffing her face with glee and was most definitely not giving birth. At this point I felt it was all a bit cruel and gave up on the idea of no swim and as Thursday rolled around with still no sign of a calf I decided it was definite.

Hen: I arrived home from my days off to discover Hopscotch had had a temperature but nothing else, and all was back to normal up the hill. Huge relief, false alarm and all that, and I went back to teasing Abby relentlessly about when she was going swimming! I was stupidly overconfident once again that I was completely safe, Lulu must surely calve any minute, but reindeer have a nasty way of bringing you back down to earth and the ringing phone the following morning signalled the end for me… Andi’s voice sounded like she was stifling the giggles, informing me that she’d just found Hopscotch with her new-born male calf. Abby collapsed in relief and I cursed Lulu, Hopscotch, everyone else and to be honest, reindeer in general.

Hopscotch and calf
Hopscotch and her new-born calf Kips

Being as it was about 8°C at this point, I was given until the end of June to swim. Loch Morlich is only a few hundred metres from Reindeer House, but at this time of year consists mainly of snow melt, and I am not someone to throw myself into cold water with abandon unless there’s a damn good reason.

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Walking to my doom… Note the laughter on everyone else’s faces!

Summer didn’t arrive right until the end of June in the Cairngorms this year, so I bided my time and kept an eye on the forecast. I left my swim right till the bitter end, on 30th June, and at least the dogs had the decency to come in with me, although everyone else stuck to paddling! I don’t appear to have hypothermia either. Or at least not yet. Maybe it’ll be slow onset hypothermia.

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Sookie at least joined me in the loch!

Lulu did eventually calve, far too late for Hen of course, completely unaware of everything that had been riding on her!

Abby and Hen

A Day of Firsts

Having only been part of the Reindeer Centre team for a month, there are usually novel activities for me to take part in: shovelling bark chippings, painting benches or washing the van to name a few. However, I was not expecting to meet a calf, learn to lead reindeer, tag sheep and drive a Landrover all in the same day!

Imogen's First Calf
Meeting my first calf!

The day started off as usual, with Fiona and I checking on the free range female reindeer before heading off to feed the girls in the enclosure. We led the girls over to their usual feeding area, but someone refused to come. Considering she is one of our greediest reindeer, this was a little odd. She had been acting strange the previous day, running off on her own. I had since learnt that this was a sign she may be ready to calve, and I was thrilled to see a fuzzy ball of baby reindeer lying next to her when we went to check her. We led the pair into a smaller part of the enclosure to have a proper look at the calf and found out she was a girl. Obviously, I had to get a selfie with her.

We left the pair in peace and headed back to the Centre. We were going to the farm that afternoon so Fiona, Abby and I had an early lunch and hopped over to Tomintoul in the van. It was busy from the word go with sheep ear tagging. The ewes were almost finished when we arrived, but the rams were still waiting.

I was handed what looked like a pair of pliers and some plastic strips with numbers on them. Fiona and Abby knew exactly what to do and started catching sheep. I was a little overwhelmed until I realised, “Oh, these are the ear tags!” I snapped off a tag and tried to load it into the gun, but it was fiddly and I felt uncoordinated. Eventually I managed and felt quite pleased until I saw how quickly Tilly was loading them; I needed to speed up! I got the hang of it and by the time the rams came through I felt like a pro.

Soay rams
Some of our Soay rams

We then loaded the ewes and their lambs to be moved to the hill. I presumed we were doing the same with the rams until we started fencing off the garden. This seemed odd, but it turned out that’s where the rams were going. Abby and I were positioned to keep the rams from escaping onto the road while Tilly herded them out of the shed and down to the garden. The Soay sheep at the farm are much smaller than the ‘normal’ sheep you see in the field, and it was quite funny to see their legs going ten to the dozen as they ran to their new pasture. We fenced them in and went inside for a cup of tea before the real work began.

The reindeer herd is split into two in winter, with mainly females at Cairngorm and mainly males at the Cromdale hills. This reduces grazing pressure and stops the boys being bullied by angry, pregnant females! The boys have different grazing areas at different times of the year, and today they were due to be moved closer to the farm. To do this we had to lead each reindeer on a headcollar for a 30 minute walk. And there were a lot of reindeer to move.

We drove to the pen, where they had come in from the open mountainside for their breakfast earlier, and started selecting ones (ok, just whoever was closest really) to be led down the hill. I had never led a reindeer before, but had led a horse, so wasn’t feeling too nervous. All I really had to remember was “Don’t let go”. Because this was my first time, I was given only two very well natured boys. I was put in the middle of the group: boys at the front can be a little reluctant and boys at the back can be a little too enthusiastic to get going, so being in the middle meant a lovely, calm walk for me.

Walking Reindeer
Walking reindeer over from their winter grazing

We headed off down the road: 6 herders and 19 reindeer. What a sight we must have been! The boys were all pretty well behaved, but were glad to be released when we reached the farm. In total we completed 5 runs, taking a car up to the pen each time. Luckily as the number of reindeer reduced we were able to spare people to drive back down, or we would have had to walk up one more time to retrieve our myriad of vans, cars and quad bikes.

After our last run was finished, Tilly, Alex and myself drove up in the Landrover to take the remaining cars home and tidy up a little after the reindeer. I’ve never driven a quad bike, so Tilly took that and Alex drove his van, so I was left with the old Landy. I hopped in the driver seat, after taking a minute to figure out how to get in (there’s a button on the handle, who knew!) and tried to move the seat forward. It budged a little, but not as far as I would have liked it to. I have the shortest legs in the world (maybe not, but that’s what it feels like) and could only just put the clutch all the way in, at a stretch. I put it in first, let off the hand brake, and immediately stalled. I put my hand down to turn the key and, no key. What? How is the thing even on? Turns out Landrovers, as well as having buttons on their handles, have keys on the wrong side. Suitably stressed as I had been overtaken by Tilly and was holding up Alex, I turned the key and set off. Excellent! I managed to get going. It was a very slow, very deliberate, and very bumpy ride back to the farm, but the Landy and I made it safely back; I even managed to reverse park it.

Finally, the sheep were sorted, the reindeer safely at their new grazing and all the vehicles back with their correct owner. We set off for home, stopping in at Grantown for a takeaway. Well, we surely deserved a treat after such a long, but rewarding, day!

Imogen

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