Wild weather and tricky walks

After the busy festive season, the Centre is now closed for a few weeks to give both us herders and the reindeer a chance to wind down and also to catch up on a few jobs that can’t be done whilst we’re open, like giving the Exhibition a fresh lick of paint.

The dogs often come along for most of the walk out to feed the herd, then waiting patiently at a safe distance.

We’re still feeding the herd most days, but as they’re all free-ranging (with nothing in the enclosure at all) this can involve quite a walk out in some…well…entertaining conditions. Earlier this week Fiona, Ben and I hiked out in crazily windy weather, being constantly buffeted and blown off our feet, and narrowly avoiding faceplanting as the ground was like sheet ice. We eventually got off the hill 2 hours later utterly exhausted.

Dreich weather – wind and sleety snow – can make walking out hard work even when we’re well equipped and used to the conditions. Soggy herders!

We’re looking forward to welcoming visitors back from the 12th February, and will be running our Hill Trips daily (weather permitting), but as these will be to our free-range herd rather than to the enclosure that we use from May – December, we are putting an age restriction on the Trips, with our minimum age being 4 years old. We’re also recommending against younger children (aged 4 – 11) coming at this time of the year, instead recommending a visit from May onwards.

Why? I know a lot of people will have visited from February to April before with a toddler, and had a wonderful time. However, the Cairngorm winter can be extreme, and as we just don’t know until the day if it will be a pleasant bluebird day, or gale force winds with a wind chill of -20, we’ve decided we need to be sensible about it.

Reindeer and herders battling the elements (c) Joe Mann

Small children tend to struggle with the weather more than adults, just because they’re wee – this isn’t a criticism of their toughness, just an observation from the years we’ve been running Trips. Indeed, for a large number of our previous Hill Trips in this season we have had to restrict them to “adults only” due to the weather or distance – safety has to be our first priority. We need to be realistic that if folks are booking ahead, it is unfair to everyone to then have to cancel their Trip on the day.

Even when the weather is calm, the walk to the herd frequently involves crossing unavoidable snow patches, which can be waist deep in places

Along with the weather, there is also the difficulty and length of the walk. In the free-range season this can be four or even five times the distance of the walk to the enclosure, meaning that we are out on the hill for much longer. Younger kids often find these longer distances tougher (again no criticism of their ability, just an observation of their smaller legs and reserves) and struggle to keep up with the group, which then leads to the rest of the people getting cold as we stand waiting. Little kids in backpacks often struggle even more, as they are stationary and not generating any muscle warmth. There is also the added risk of the parent slipping with them, resulting in injury.

Conditions like this are far from unusual, and are just not a place for wee kids to be (c) Andi Probert

In addition, the area has been so much busier in the last couple of years, and as a result we are needing to take our free-range Trips further and further to find a quiet spot where the reindeer are less likely to be disturbed by passing dogs. It is also trickier now that we take advance bookings as it means almost all tickets are sold before the day itself – in the past we used to only sell tickets on the day once we opened at 10am, at which point we already knew what the weather was like up on the mountains. That meant we could literally look people up and down as they entered the shop and judge ourselves whether they were adequately dressed for the current conditions – before selling them tickets! Unfortunately Hill Trips are just so oversubscribed now that advance bookings are our only option.

It looks beautiful but… Eve battles to feed the herd in winter – hypothermia and exposure are a real risk, even for well-equipped adults (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

We know this decision will be a disappointment to some, so as an alternative we are going to trial “Winter Herder Talks” here in the Paddocks on afternoons through the February half term. From 1.30pm each day you will have the opportunity to meet some of our beautiful reindeer and learn all about them from one of our herders. The Paddocks is usually a self-guided experience (and will remain so from 10am until 1.30pm), but with a herder available in the afternoons to share their knowledge of the reindeer as a species and as individuals, it gives a much more in-depth experience. We hope that this will be a good alternative for families with small children. We are still delighted to take all miniature children from May to December, when the walk (and generally the weather) is more predictable and manageable.