Our adult ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrated males) are trained to harness at around 3 or 4 years old, so they can take part in a few events and parades in November and December each year, bringing in part of the income that then supports the herd for the rest of the year. About 25 of our males are trained so this enables them to take their turn at events, most of which are at weekends, and no-one is overworked at Christmas time (except, perhaps, us…)! Between weekends all the reindeer are back on the mountainside getting some good grazing and some downtime.
What happens during a training session? This photo blog will hopefully give you a taster of what we get up to during afternoons in October and early November here in Glenmore in preparation for Christmas tour.
These photos have all been collated over the past few days over several training sessions involving different reindeer and reindeer herders.
My first big trip out was when I went with Fiona and we took Sunny, Frost and Druid to a local nursery school in a big lorry. When we got there we took them for a walk in the woods by the car park and found some lichen lollipops which are broken off twigs covered in lichen which the reindeer love. We then took the reindeer outside the nursery and held them on lead ropes so the children were able to come out in small groups to see them. It was so lovely to see their faces when they saw the reindeer. My job was to look after Sunny and we were wearing our Herders’ Christmas jumpers.
On Christmas Eve we went to the Ski car park to find the free-rangers and found them on the mountain so we went over to feed them. We had to jump over a few burns to get to them. I was given the job of doing the reindeer call and they all came over. It was particularly special as my adopted reindeer Scully was there and she came running over. It all felt very special as it was Christmas Eve and I was with the reindeer in their natural surroundings.
Later that day there was a big evening parade in Aviemore starting up at the top of the town. We had to load our Christmas reindeer for the event, Olmec, Scolty, Berlin, Poirot, Sunny and Popsicle into the big lorry outside the Reindeer Centre and take them to start of the parade. They were kept there with a tether line and given food. There were many people who came to say hello to them on the way to the parade. When Santa arrived he got into the sleigh along with the children who were travelling with him. Then we connected up the reindeer to the harness with two adults at the front and two at the back with the two calves. The pipe band started the music which was very loud and made poor Popsicle jump! We paraded down the high street all the way to the Cairngorm Hotel and my job for that night was to walk by the side and make sure no-one let their dog get near and scare the reindeer.
When we had finished we loaded all the reindeer and Santa’s sleigh back onto the lorry and headed for the next parade at Kingussie. On the way we stopped for some fish and chips and I had sausage. It was raining very hard at Kingussie but we still managed to get them all out of the lorry and connected up again to the sleigh for the parade. Everyone was very interested and excited to see and learn about the reindeer and Father Christmas. I stayed at the back of the sleigh to keep all the reindeer in line and not get tangled up.
When this was finished we loaded them all up again and travelled to Newtonmore for the last parade of the night. We went down the whole length of the high street and half way down Fiona surprised me by calling me forward to the front to lead the parade with Olmec and Scolty. This was an absolutely fantastic experience and I felt so honoured to be leading the whole parade with the reindeer. It was such as surprise. We finished the parade at one of the hotels and we all had a warming drink and soup while everyone could meet the reindeer and Santa. One funny time was when my dad was asked to hold all the reindeer whilst still drinking his mulled wine so he had six reindeer leads in one hand with a sleigh and his cup of mulled wine in the other!!! We finally reloaded them back into the lorry. Each time we did this we had to lead them up the ramp and take their head collars off and then load the sleigh into the lorry as well. It was very tiring but brilliant experience. We headed home for a well-earned sleep.
On Christmas Day there were four visits to do to local hotels where the guests could meet Santa with his Elves and the reindeer and have photos taken and Fiona had invited us along to help again. The first one was Coylumbridge Hotel and when I arrived I had a big surprise as Fiona had tied Scully’s antler, which she had shed earlier, to Sunny, and she walked him up to me with it and gave it to me as a present. That was very special to be presented with my adopted reindeer’s antler. We then did McDonald’s Resort Hotel, Nethy Bridge hotel and then one in Kingussie. It was the same team as Christmas Eve as well as Rocket. At each event we had to unload the reindeer and sleigh, harness them up then parade with Santa. The herders were Tilly, Fiona, Joe and Carol as well as me my mum and dad. We were able to have a break in Nethy Bridge and Tilly had arranged for soup and sandwiches for our lunch. It took most of the day but it was such a magical experience taking the reindeer to see lots of people celebrating Christmas and we were all exhausted at the end but very happy. We had a drink back at Reindeer House to celebrate with everyone. They were having their Christmas Dinner with about 20 people afterwards and everything was cooking and smelling very nice
Boxing day was again very snowy and the ski road was again shut due to snow drifts and the herders couldn’t get through till after 10am. It was snowing heavily when we went up the mountain and I couldn’t believe how quickly the snow settled and became very deep. It was great again to see the reindeer in proper snow. We had to do more digging and gritting to clear the paths. The car parks at the top were very very slippy with the ice and we had to be careful not to slip over. The reindeer made it look easy. The free-rangers were on the road so Cameron led them away out of sight and fed them. Sunny the hand-reared reindeer had his final bottle of milk as he moved completely on to normal food.
The following day our trip was over and we headed home through snow blizzards. It was really really kind of Fiona and all the herders to let us spend this special time with them and the reindeer and I loved every minute of it. We must also say a big thank you to Katie, Scott, Alan and all the team at the Pine Marten Bar for putting up with us over the week, kept us fed and watered well and who made our stay in The Treehouse so special as usual. It was such a fantastic and magical time which I will never forget.
Bingo is one of our older Christmas reindeer now at the age of 12 years old. He has always been a pretty, what’s the polite way of saying it, aloof reindeer. He’s not timid, cos he has plenty of confidence but he’s certainly had his moments over the years where he falls into the category of being very head strong or independent. Lets just say when working with him out on the open hill some swear words may have been passed amongst herders when trying to herd Bingo!
The days of bringing the herd down from our winter grazing at Glenlivet usually involved a few of us on foot pushing the herd down to our corral on the hill ready to bring them back to our hill farm for the summer. Without fail for years Bingo would always double back and for anyone who has tried to chase a four-legged animal, flat out going up hill you’ll know it’s a losing battle. On the odd occasion we did either turn him, or he decided to go in with the herd (this was rare), he was first to be brought off the hill to avoid the risk of him somehow finding his way out!
As I said earlier he’s one of our Christmas reindeer. This means he’s trained to harness and pull the sleigh and to be fair to him he’s a total pro. Having done some pretty big events over the years including the very prestigious Windsor Castle he doesn’t put a foot wrong and being so handsome he of course looks great too. When I had him in my team Christmas 2019 my team mate, Joe, had to do lots of sweet talking and bribery with Bingo. For whatever reason Bingo took a dislike to Joe. Whenever we had to go about our normal handling of catching, loading, putting on harness Bingo always showed his antlers to Joe. Never me, I could walk up to him and he’s act like a well behaved dog and not put a foot wrong but he did not like Joe. Joe would find himself trying to win him over… extra lichen treats and giving him lots of personal space but more often than none he’d just find Bingo poking him with his antlers… Needless to say I found it very amusing! So much so that when Bingo cast his antlers before Christmas 2019 on Christmas Day I said to Joe I had a present for him but he had to close his eyes. Then I proceeded to poke him with Bingos antlers, this was Joe’s special Christmas present for Joe and now Joe has them mounted in his room, never to forget the wonderful friendship the two of them had…
However, I think Bingo has slightly mellowed over the years. Maybe running in the opposite direction every time we want to bring the herd in has worn thin and is maybe just a bit exhausting now in his older years. A couple months ago when we brought the free range herd into out hill corral for some annual management we were handling reindeer and low and behold Bingo come down to the corral of his own accord. I got myself a small bag of feed and halter and open the gate. He comes waltzing in, head in the bag of feed and I pop his halter on… Does that mean we no longer have to chase him around the hill side anymore, I do hope so.
I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Bingo. As lovely as it is having a well behaved Christmas reindeer who never puts a foot wrong and always obliges when we’re doing any handling there is something about a challenge and Bingo has certainly provided us with a challenge over the years. He’s got a spark to him which I love and he didn’t poke me with his antlers so maybe we have a mutual agreement between the two of us? Who knows…
Over the Christmas period Sunny, our hand reared calf of 2022, was out and about joining in with our Christmas tour. He join me on most of my events and was a great hit with the public. Sometimes if we had a one of our older Christmas reindeer who was in training or just preferred being tucked in at the back of the sleigh and not so exposed to big crowds then Sunny would stride forward on the outside and what a great job he did too!
We sometimes stayed overnight at one of our farm bases away form home between events so we would have to take his milk with us so he could get his morning bottle of warm milk. He was such a mummies boy but lets face it both him and I liked that. Sometimes it would be myself out on a team with either Lotti or Ruth. This was his favourite as it was predominantly the three of us who put the most time into raising him so he was quite happy!
Often we would take a more timid calf who needed the training alongside Sunny as he’s such a good role model. Saying that sometimes they were best buds and other times they would push each other around. Much like small children claiming to be best friends one minute and worst enemies the next.
So a short and sweet blog but here are a few photos of his adventures over the Christmas period. Enjoy! Cos I did!
For this week’s blog, I’ve uploaded a heap of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what goes on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
I know you will look at the title of this blog and think… What?!?! Christmas is ages away. However, this isn’t about Christmas itself, more about our tour and what we will be doing this year with regards to Christmas events across the country.
Over the past 33 years we have covered the length and breadth of Great Britain and Northern Ireland visiting various town and shopping centres as well as garden centres, schools, hospitals, care homes… the list goes on. When it comes to Christmas everyone loves seeing our reindeer, and our trained Christmas reindeer are an honour to work with. Their naturally friendly nature and ability to remain unfazed in most situations makes us feel so proud of them. Of course extensive desensitising training has taken place over many years to prepare them for these moments, but nonetheless they make us feel so proud of them.
Times are changing and our business changes with it. Once upon a time the income from Christmas events was a crucial part of the year to help maintain the reindeer herd in the Highlands of Scotland for the rest of the year. Like every business we have bills to pay. Whether it’s paying the lease for the land the reindeer roam or staff wages, naturally there are plenty of outgoings, and Christmas events helped to support this. However, The Reindeer Centre itself here in the heart of the Highlands has really grown into itself and with a great team of herders with many visitors to the area to entertain we are becoming much more self sufficient here at home. As a result we have re-evaluated how much ‘Christmas’ we actually need to do.
Some of our longest standing events are in the far south. Basingstoke, Windsor, Llanelli, Carmarthen, Cowbridge and Usk to name a few. Some of these events have been going ahead for over 25 years. They are fantastic events and always well organised with the organisers and public giving our reindeer the up most respect. For some of the people visiting these events when they were children 25 years ago are now attending with their own children so it really is lovely to see and be part of. With COVID making the last two years tricky for everybody whether it be budgets being cut or just the fact that event organisers didn’t want to be attracting big crowds of people for public safety meant that some of these events didn’t go ahead. Naturally there was huge disappointment, but everybody understood. Off the back of less demand to travel further south we have taken this opportunity to look at our own business and where we are going and have now decided that we won’t be taking part in events south of Manchester. Obviously I feel terrible for the fantastic events that these venues have put on over the years but with such good relationships with them all I have explained our situation and they have all replied and completely understand our situation. They have thanked us and our lovely reindeer for being part of their Christmas festivities and wished us well going forward. We couldn’t have asked for nicer comments from them all.
So going forward we are still doing Christmas events but we will be sticking to Scotland and the north of England. We will run less teams as a result and concentrate much more of what we do at home. We hope you can visit us either here in the Cairngorms or while we are out on tour in November and December but for now I just want to say a massive thank you to all of our events based further south than Manchester for all your support over the years. We will miss working with you and we wish you all the best going forward.
Houdini is 11 years old now. He joined our herd when we brought reindeer over here from Sweden in 2011 as a way to boost the genetics in our own herd. At the time he was a calf and the way he got his name was during his time in Sweden while my brother Alex was there training them ready for their journey over to Scotland. On a number of occasions when Alex would head to the corral in the morning all the reindeer were securely inside the fencing… except for one. After a good bit of persuasion with food he’d coax that calf back in to join the herd in the corral. The weird thing was he couldn’t work out where he was getting out… and that is how he got his name, Houdini! He must have eventually watched him and worked it out because Houdini did come over to Scotland and didn’t remain in Sweden.
For his first few years with us he was too young to breed but with a quiet and greedy nature we soon realised that he’d be a good one to use as a main breeding bull in the future. His antlers were always a good size but never had much shapeliness to them. As a bull he was an interesting character. Sometimes when bulls are quite tame when they rut they can see us as part of their herd and in the rutting season this meant fending us off from trying to steal his females! Not that we actually wanted his females but he wasn’t to know that. So feeding him and his hareem had to be done with caution. Other bulls such as Kota, and Spartan never gave us a second look… nature of the beast I guess, they are all very different. Houdini over the years fathered many calves, including Olmec, Texel, Holy Moley, Jelly etc… Like their dad, as well as mums influence too, they all have a very sweet nature.
In 2020 Houdini was 9 years old and we’d used him as a main breeding bull for a few years so we decided to give him a break now. This meant he had a visit from the vet to be gelded so Houdini will live out his life in our herd as a Christmas reindeer. We couldn’t possibly have a herd full of bulls or going into the rutting season would be complete chaos and very difficult to manage. We would risk relatives breeding with one another so we must geld reindeer that we don’t want to breed from. This would happen at the youngest of 3 years old, or like Houdini at the age of 9. It is our Christmas reindeer that would take part in events and are trained to harness and pull the sleigh.
As Houdini was already a good age we did train him to wear harness and pull the sleigh but the reality of him actually doing many events are pretty slim. As a big reindeer who has had a lot of stress on his body over the years with rutting he also needs to take it easy. We trained him at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore and he did really well. For a big, old boy who hasn’t done anything like that before he was great. With our normal Christmas tour not happening in 2020 due to COVID we did a few local events. Houdini joined the team that did a local hotel on Christmas day but he just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, nothing too tasking. In 2021 he went through the training again and he joined my team and for the first time since he came into Scotland, he came south of the border to the north of England.
We were doing an event at Stockeld Park in Yorkshire. It was a two day event so both days we turned up for 11am into a huge grassy pen and did a parade around their enchanted forest at 3pm. The parade loop went around their cross country ski route and passed lit-up animals, ogres, Little Red Riding Hood’s house, a wicked witch riding on her sleigh as well as a lake with fountains and a few enormous lit-up unicorns with fairies dancing on top… I know I couldn’t quite take it all in either! We set off on our first out of four loops in total we were going to be doing that weekend, two each day. I thought it was a bit much to ask Houdini to pull the sleigh on the first day as it was his first event and discovering unicorns on his first ever event should be done while walking at the back of the sleigh and not having to concentrate on the sleigh as well. So he joined myself at the back of the sleigh with Anster, Beret and Beanie. Frost and Celt were pulling it with Lotti leading. As we enter the enchanted forest it was great seeing Houdini take it in but not reacting. Each lit-up animal we passed he’d stare at, but by the fourth round on day two he barely even gave each display the time of day, even the huge unicorns.
After the weekend we headed north again and before he knew it he was back on the hill with the herd. I wonder if he spread his knowledge of unicorns in Yorkshire onto the other reindeer? Houdini was an absolute star! He took everything in his stride and over the years has brought so much to our herd, we are very proud of him. He might do the odd local event now but leave the ones further afield to the younger reindeer. Stockeld was perfect for him as a big comfortable grassy pen was good on his older joints. It’s a bit like me, when we stay at farm bases across the country now I need a comfy bed at night or I wake up a bit stiff!
Elvis will be 16 this year, born on the 7th May 2006. His mother was Esme who was a really sweet natured female in our herd, who also lived to a grand age. Although he is a beautiful ‘Christmas reindeer’ Elvis was a real ugly duckling when he was a youngster. He’s now got old man status and is well and truly retired from any duties, but in his prime he has been out and about on our Christmas tour, greeted our many visitors on the mountain annually and won the heart of many through our adoption scheme.
I remember taking Elvis out on tour over a number of years and he was always a great role model to the younger, less experienced reindeer. He has visited Harrods in London, towns as far south as Cornwall and of course done many other events in Scotland, England and Wales. He grew a lovely set of antlers every year and still to this day amazes us with a great set of antler annually, even at his age!
He comes from quite a small family and there are no longer any breeding females left in his immediate family line. Okapi, his sister is just like her mum and brother by having a sweet nature and of course like most reindeer is very greedy. She spends all her time on Cairngorm, unlike Elvis who spends all of his time at our Glenlivet site either free range on the Cromdale hills over winter or down at our hill farm during the summer months. Okapi has to remain here as quite a few years ago she had an injury which meant she was unable to breed ever again, however, being so tame and friendly she is a great leader of the herd and often when we bring them in from free ranging in the mountains she helps us herders to do this by following very willingly!
Over the past year Elvis has started to look his age… and fairly so! When getting up from lying down he is that little bit stiffer than he would have been a couple of year ago. The stiffness doesn’t last for too long but I’m sure many of you can relate to this when getting out of bed in the morning. We have put him up onto the Cromdale Hills again for the winter season with the rest of the herd and will catch up with them a few times throughout the week for a feed and check over. Elvis, a few times now, hasn’t shown up immediately when the herd call down off the top ridge, however, him and Bovril (another old boy in the herd) eventually come wandering down at their own pace so we’ve learnt to save a bit back now so the other greedy reindeer don’t eat it all!
It will be a sad day when we don’t have Elvis around anymore but he has been a great ambassador to the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and I’ve known him from my late teens and right through my 20’s and 30’s so he will be a reindeer that I will chat about in years to come so his spirit will definitely live on!
As Ben and Fiona have explained in previous blogs (click here, and here to read), we had a busy December with events and parades up and down the country, as well as a busy Centre here in Glenmore with fully-booked Hill Trips and Christmas Fun paddock slots! Plus hundreds of adoption packs to make up and post out, alongside all the usual office antics.
For this week’s blog, I’ve collated a series of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what went on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
Well, that is Christmas here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre done for another year and I have to say it has been A LOT busier than 2020 when COVID restrictions didn’t allow us to go about our usual business. Although it wasn’t as busy as the years before COVID-19 I think this year has been an eye opener for us and how we go forward in the future. The income we receive over the November/December period through Christmas events is something we once completely relied on to help support the reindeer herd and running costs for the rest of the year but nowadays we are busier than ever and as a result the income through the Centre now provides a bigger ratio than it once did, so I think a quieter Christmas tour in years to come could actually be better in the long run, concentrating more on what we have here at home. I’m not saying we won’t carry on with our Christmas tour completely, but I will look into downsizing, which it has naturally done this year anyway and it’s been very manageable.
We went through all the normal training with the reindeer through the October period. The 5-6 month old calves being trained to wear and walk on a head collar and the new young male Christmas reindeer being trained to wear harness and pull the sleigh. They all did great and I think gold stars in particular go to Christie’s calf Akubra, who I can only describe as a born Christmas reindeer and Frost, our 3 year old who pulled the sleigh like he’d done it his whole life, taking part in some huge events and taking it all in his stride. They make you so proud when out and about on tour its hard not to shout their praises from the roof tops!
I also have to sing the praises of all our wonderful reindeer herders including core employees, seasonal reindeer herders and volunteers. Without this ridiculously capable team of folk we would not be where we are today. It takes input from every single one of us to make it work so thank you to everyone! I have to mention one person in particular who I know won’t want me to make a fuss, but I am going to anyway, because she has been a total super star. Carol thank you so much for just being you. Your kind and caring nature not to mention a special way you have when talking to the public about reindeer is wonderful to watch and you are an asset to our already great team. I know the reindeer also bring a huge amount of joy to Carol as well so I think it works both ways.
We finished off Christmas with 6 events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The team of reindeer were quite a young bunch with the oldest being 6 years, but what a team they were! Scolty, Dr Seuss, Frost, Clouseau, Holy Moley and Akubra. Handlers over the two days consisted of Tilly, Fiona, Joe, Ben Hester, Ruth, Carol and Aurélien. Although icy and cold the weather was kind to us bringing bright blue skies and sunshine on Christmas day. The public were delighted to see the reindeer bringing huge smiles to both adults and kids… and herders of course. Carol was in charge of 7 month old Akubra all day and the two of them got on really well. Introducing him to lots of people delighted to see the reindeer over this festive time. Though Akubra was a little tired by the 4th event so he took a wee nap mid performance! What a dude! Aurélien and Holy Moley were on top form, although Holy Moley can sometimes be a little bossy with small children so Aurélien did a great job of anger management… she’s a wee toerag!
At our second last event of Christmas day a couple of our youngest reindeer herders joined us and even mucked in helping to handle the reindeer. Oscar and Tilly (little Tilly, not big Tilly) were excellent in taking instruction when it came to leading and handling the reindeer… I see a couple of future reindeer herders in these two for sure! Newbie Christmas reindeer Frost and Clouseau both pulled the sleigh at three of the events each alongside role models Dr Seuss and Scolty. A-star team so bravo boys and girls… you all get an extra handful of lichen… the favourite food of a reindeer.
So that is it for another year and when I thought at the beginning of November that the end was nowhere near in sight. Suddenly Christmas is over. I’d worried that the reindeer would forget what to do on events having had a year off but that was absolutely not the case. If anything it was the humans that needed reminding and reassuring that they knew what to do, the reindeer were fab.