Sika, the ‘forgotten reindeer’

The eagle-eyed amongst you, or those who have followed us on social media for a long time, might have noticed a reindeer named Sika popping up on our pages once or twice in the last few months, having never heard of her before. So where has she come from? Is she ‘new’?!

Sika in 2016

In fact, she’s not remotely new – actually she’s rather old. Sika was born in 2008 and has been here her whole life, but this winter there’s been a bit of a turnaround in her character, which has taken all of us rather by surprise. Let me explain…

In 2008 we named our calves after ‘horned and antlered animal species’, and the name we picked for Malawi’s wee female calf was Impala. But time passed and Malawi and Impala weren’t seen for ages, and whilst winter crept on and all the other calves came into the hill enclosure and got used to being handled and were halter-trained, there was still no sign of the two. Eventually, Malawi showed up but she was alone, with no sign on Impala. Frustrated, we wrote off Impala as one of the losses that year – not every calf makes it to adulthood sadly.

And then in January 2009, a report reached us of a reindeer calf alone at the far end of the Kincardine hills, at the edge of the Cairngorms but not in a spot that reindeer normally stray to. Off we went to investigate, and there was a wee calf – alone and very shy. Eventually she was captured with the aid of some makeshift fencing and a small group of tame adult reindeer acting as decoys – but who was she? Process of elimination led us to realise she must be Impala, separated from Malawi accidentally at some point and then lost by herself in an area she didn’t know. But as we had had to ‘seek her’ (geddit?), and the name Sika hadn’t been used in that year’s naming theme, ‘Impala’ fell by the wayside and ‘Sika’ joined the herd instead.

Sika in her younger days

Christmas is the time that our calves receive most of their formative handling, transforming from effectively wild animals to tame ones well used to being around people. But Sika had missed this window, and while we did initially halter-train her, she remained very wild still in character compared to others, and quickly became a reindeer that we didn’t even consider trying to put a halter on in adult life. She lived her life up on the Cairngorms, never being brought down to our Paddocks or moved across to our alternative winter grazing range as moving her just wasn’t an option. A ‘background’ reindeer – never noticed by visitors (and often barely by us!), just there in the herd but never really featuring much or making any great impact on any of our lives. She has never even had an adopter – one of the very few reindeer in the herd with this dubious accolade.

In the hill enclosure for the rut a couple of years back, with Caterpillar and Cottage following on

Over the years Sika produced a couple of calves, but in general we avoiding breeding her to some extent as breeding a wild streak into our herd is not ideal. Her calves, few and far between, also turned out rather shy too, although not as bad as Sika herself. The one anomaly was Bordeaux, her only female calf, who was born in 2019 and is an absolute sweetie! We have no idea really why she has turned out the way she has – she certainly didn’t get her trust in humans from her mum!

Bordeaux – Sika’s mini-me

In the last 3 or 4 years we have put a lot more effort in to training our reindeer to come and put their heads into a feed bag and allowing us to touch them, in order to make it easier to catch and halter them when necessary. All winter when we’ve walked out to the herd first thing in the morning, before putting feed down on the ground for them we have wandered around the shyer reindeer, offering a bit of bribery in return for any positive behaviour towards us. For most reindeer this has worked wonders, and some characters that we could never have considered catching in the past (or at least whilst out in a large open space) are now easily won over – Inca, Suidhe and Roule have been our particular success stories! But as for Sika… she was a reindeer that would never really make eye contact but just turn away whenever a herder optimistically proffered a bag.

Looking beautiful, but always keeping her distance…

Fast forward to January 2022, and I snorted ‘Hmphh. Good luck!’ at Andi as she tried to catch Sika’s attention with the feed bag once again. But something was different. Just for a second she looked, before turning away again. Andi is like a dog with a bone in these situations, and I know I can push her to keep at something by telling her it isn’t worth bothering about (god bless you, reverse psychology) and sure enough she kept persisting. I almost fell over in surprise when, 5 minutes later, Sika had got to the point where she was stretching her neck out towards the feed bag, although not yet bold enough to put her nose right in it. This behaviour persisted from day to day until finally she snatched a mouthful… and a light-bulb went on somewhere in her little brain!

Success! Andi’s smile says it all 😀

Now, Sika is one of the first reindeer over to us each morning, actively hunting down the feed bag and keeping a close eye on it until she’s offered a wee extra nibble. I love to look around at the herd, patiently hanging around waiting for us, catch her eye and rustle the bag a tiny bit… and see that head lift a bit, her eyes widen and a lick of the lips in anticipation! All her attention is on us the whole time – so different from the years of ignoring, or even actively avoiding – us.

At the front of the herd and leading them in for feed, earlier this winter

She is still quite jumpy around us however, and is definitely not a reindeer we’re about to try and actually catch and put a halter on, but at 14 years old there’s no need to. We are just enjoying finally getting to know her after a lifetime of obscurity! I can’t express enough how surprised we all are to find out that Sika is actually a lovely character, after all these years…

Shy reindeer sometimes need defending whilst they grab a mouthful from the pushier members of the herd – ironically this intruder is Malawi, Sika’s mum! Malawi is now the oldest reindeer in the entire herd, at 17 years old, and of the opinion that any feed bag is presumably therefore all for her.

Hen

Long-distance adopting!

Our blog this week comes from Freya, a long-time supporter of the herd for, well, as long as she can remember! Freya now lives in Canada so visiting us isn’t quite as easy as it once was unfortunately, but she and her family adopt several reindeer and keep in touch with the herd via social media. Isn’t technology useful these days?!

When I say I’ve been visiting the Cairngorm Reindeer herd since before I can remember I am quite sure people think I’m exaggerating. Truth is, I have been visiting since before I can remember. It became a well-established tradition for my family (and often my extended family) to visit Scotland at least once a year from when I was about 5 years old. I couldn’t tell you when our first visit to see the reindeer themselves was, but I do recall seeing photos of a tiny little me wrapped up so much that you could barely make out arms and legs!

Jigsaw with her mum Doughnut

The year I will always remember was 2005, the year of the ‘countries’ theme. We had come up to Aviemore for the first time in the Spring and were delighted to be able to see the calves like never before. As luck would have it we finished the climb of the Hill Trip just in time to see a very fresh calf popping into the world! I’ll always remember watching the little calf, later named India (I believe), making all the effort to stand up on those very wobbly legs!

One of the other newborn calves in 2005

It took a single visit for the reindeer to become an essential part of every trip to the Highlands and we would make the trek at least once, sometimes twice, every time we visited – rain, shine, hail or snow! By the age of 8 I was obsessed with the reindeer and we had fallen in love with a family line – specifically Bell (born in 2000), her mother Shell and grandmother Tortoiseshell (Editor’s note: Bell, Shell and Tortoiseshell were descended from a lovely reindeer named Edelweiss, who was a prolific breeding  female in the ’90s and early ’00s. While this line of her descendants has now died out, another branch of her family tree stretches down to Scrabble and Strudel, still present in the herd today). To this day we all (parents and grandparents included) remember the Edelweiss line well!

Shell (right) with Bell in March 2002

Up until that point we had been admirers of the herd but never adopters. The special memories of 2005 changed that and my birthday present a year later in 2006 was to choose a reindeer to adopt. Sadly, by this point India wasn’t an option so instead I adopted Fiji, Bell’s cousin through Shell’s sister Coral. As nature has it, a couple of years later we received the heartbreaking letter that Fiji had passed (I am thankful that I met Fiji several times in the meantime). It was at this juncture that I discovered the Russia family line and Russia became my next adoptee from the ‘countries’ year. I adopted Russia for a few more years and visited lots more times over the coming year until moving away to Canada.

Fiji with her mum Coral in 2005

In 2006 since on a visit with my dad, feeding one of the calves born the previous year. It might have been Fiji but I’m not 100% sure now! (Editor’s note: the reindeer’s coat’s bleach in the light through the winter months, so by late spring, prior to moulting, they are a completely different colour from the previous summer).

A Hill Trip out onto the free-range rather than to the hill enclosure in 2007.

Life happens and I confess that we lost track of the reindeer herd a little in the chaos of emigrating. We liked the page of course, watched any clips we could get hold of, but visiting became much less of an option. The global pandemic brought us many things, most of them bad, but I think it also gave us the opportunity to stop and take the time to appreciate the little things we often forget in the chaos of daily life. In these hard times I made it a resolution to consciously spend less money on large organizations and more supporting smaller, family-oriented organizations. The first one that came to my mind (conveniently right around my birthday) was the Cairngorm reindeer herd and an adoption was the birthday treat of 2020. I got in touch with the lovely team who willingly helped me find a reindeer with a connection to one of my past favourites. I became the proud adopter of Scrabble who is a cousin of Shell and grandchild of Edelweiss.

A Hill Trip with herders Gill and Jack (potential for plenty of ‘Jack and Jill go up the hill’ based jokes!)

Young reindeer Caterpillar in 2012

Fern

During lockdown I completed my Master’s degree, leaving my housemates and I stuck at home with lots a plethora of spare time. My household loves a challenge so to keep ourselves busy we decided to try and work out the past themes and family links of the current reindeer. I can now officially say I’ve read every blog post available online! I may not be an official ‘groupie’ yet – but I think it’s safe to say I’m a groupie-in-training! Another sign – my family and I have adopted two more reindeer (Jonne and Svalbard) and are thinking about a fourth (Holy Moley being a strong contender!) Suffice to say that I am just as excited about supporting the herd now as I was when I was eight and I look forward to visiting again in the future!

Freya

As usual we’re always delighted to include your stories of meeting the reindeer in future blogs. Just get in touch with Hen via our main email address if you’d like to get involved 😀