Whilst sorting through the photos on my phone recently, I thought it might be fun to show how the reindeer change in appearance over the summer months so I put together this little blog. This could have turned in to the longest blog ever but I have tried to restrain myself picking just a handful of reindeer; Camembert, Dr Seuss, Kiruna, Sherlock, Gloriana’s calf, and Christie and her calf.
Following the TV programme on Channel 4, ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas‘, we have been overwhelmed with lovely letters of support, incredibly generous donations and new ‘adopters’. It really has been a fantastic lifeline for us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and I can honestly say our lovely reindeer have touched the hearts of many, both at home and abroad.
The lovely letters we have received have been incredibly varied and while protecting people anonymity I thought it would be nice to share some of the contents of these letters.
A young lass from the Midlands sent a wonderful letter, written and illustrated by herself. Her attention to detail was amazing and I can’t resist sharing her lovely drawings with you.
If any of you budding young reindeer enthusiasts would like to also send in anything we would love to receive it. Getting letters through the post is always special and here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we would love to receive any works of art or prose! Our postal address and email address can be found on the Contact Us page of our website.
Quite a number of letters and cards came from people reminiscing about days gone by, maybe an occasion when they met the original owners of the herd, Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren. Although we have a considerable archive here at Reindeer House of the history of the herd, many of the stories recalled were new to me and so all the more interesting.
I smiled at the recollection of one couple who attended a talk given by Dr Lindgren and described her as ‘large’ (not fat) and very straight backed and a loud voice. Well I certainly chuckled at this description! Dr Lindgren indeed a very tall lady and the above description hits the nail on the head. I knew Dr Lindgren well in her latter years and I was terrified of her! She was so worldly, intelligent and dominant, but she was also kind and considerate when necessary. I would love to hear from anyone who knew her personally and has a story to tell – she was quite a character and had many different interests and skills, other than reindeer.
And then there was a lady who met Mr Utsi, in North Sweden, before the first reindeer came to Scotland in 1952. This was a lovely encounter, which was described in detail to us. Back in 1951, the lady who wrote to us went on a skiing expedition with her school to Swedish Lapland. Many of them had never skied before, but quickly got to grips with the sport and by all accounts had lifetime memories from their time there. While there they were taken to see a herd of reindeer and the owner Mikel Utsi told them that he was introducing his reindeer to Scotland! What a wonderful memory and I am so glad this lady was able to see the TV programme on Christmas Eve and see just how it is all those years later!
There was a strong common theme through the many letters we received with comments as follows:
‘ best viewing ever over the Festive season’
‘Thank you for adding ‘animal magic’ to a home alone Christmas’
‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas was absolutely brilliant and a stroke of genius – wonderful publicity, informing such a wide audience of all the great work you are doing for the community’
‘The programme brought back lovely memories of when we used to visit you in your early days’
So thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone you has been in touch to reminisce, donate and adopt reindeer. It has been a huge help to us and most importantly ‘put a smile on our faces’.
The Real Rudolph: A Natural History of the Reindeer was the second book I wrote and this time was commissioned by Sutton Publishing. The publisher had already come up with the title and they were looking for a book of ‘hard facts’. Packed full of juicy info about reindeer and caribou (which are actually the same species, but coming from different parts of the world), I combined a lot of research with personal experiences and I was lucky to know a number of good photographers who kindly provided amazing photos which are littered through the book.
The photo on the front cover is from a picture I took of a reindeer bull in Outer Mongolia and I dedicated a chapter to my trip there in 2005 and also various excursions to Swedish Lapland, which ultimately led to us bringing new breeding stock back from there.
The first half of the book is all about their world distribution as a species, seasonal nature, arctic adaptations, how they fit into the ‘Deer Family’ and their domestication. I did have one gentleman get in touch to say it was the most interesting and entertaining textbook of reindeer he had ever read!
But I was always conscious that readers would also be interested in the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, particularly since I would be selling it here at the Reindeer Centre and so the second half of the book was not just about my personal experiences of far flung ‘reindeer places’ but also some stories closer to home.
Published for the Christmas market in 2006 it is now sadly out of print, but it can be acquired, very cheaply, on Amazon!! It is (although I say it myself) a very informative book, is well produced with high quality paper and photos inserted into the text, rather than clumped together in sections as they were in my first book, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses. That book is also out of print now, but my latest book Reindeer: An Arctic Life is in print and available on our online shop (please click hereto have a look), along with several other books and items. Many are suitable for stocking fillers!
Following on from my previous blog about reindeer coloration, I thought I’d highlight some of the funky face patterns in our herd today. White face markings are super helpful at aiding us in identification of the reindeer, as they don’t change much throughout the year (or their lives). Though they can be harder to make out when the reindeer are in their late winter coats, as they are less distinct.
Other than the few reindeer still out free-ranging who I haven’t seen lately, I’ve otherwise managed to get nice ‘adopt’ photos of everyone in the herd in the last few weeks. These photos are to go on the certificates that go out to all the lovely people who support us by adopting a reindeer, and as autumn is when reindeer look at their best, it is therefore when I take all the photos.
I realise (after sitting down to write this) that I’ve actually written a blog about photos before (to be fair, that was 5 years ago and I have a rubbish memory at times…) but hey, what’s wrong with repetition?! But actually I thought I’d just show you some of the ‘outtake’ photos, ‘cos everyone likes to see photos of reindeer looking daft, don’t they?
Most photos that don’t make the grade are just because of open mouths or closed eyes:
But after my trip over to our farm last month to photograph the reindeer there, I realised that I’d mainly just taken photos of Olympic looking ridiculous!
Then there’s just the odd ones:
Reindeer often need encouragement to look alert for their photo, with ears pricked. This results in my photography assistant (Andi) doing a lot of dancing in the background while making a lot of noise, or sprinting back and forth shaking a feed bag…
And sometimes we resort to throwing things at the reindeer (well, nearby anyway) to get their attention!
Most of the time it seems, this is what the reindeer think of me and my camera!
Emm volunteers with us several times a year usually, and has been doing so for years now. Here’s her story of working in the summer and autumn seasons! Her recent blog about the winter and spring can be found here.
In summer I have been up in both July and August. The visitors are meeting the male reindeer in the hill enclosure. The female reindeer and the calves are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains.
The reindeer’s antlers have done the majority of their growth and the velvet is getting ready to strip away at the end of August. The reindeer are looking smart in their dark summer coats.
The weather can be hot in the summer. The flies bother the reindeer by flying noisily around them, sometimes the reindeer rush around to try to get away from the flies which tend to sit on their antlers as they can sense the blood supply in their growing antlers. We spray the reindeer’s antlers with citronella spray to protect them from the flies. Midges are also a problem in the summer for both reindeer and humans.
In one part of the enclosure, the reindeer have access to a shed for shade. One time when we got up there with the visitors, the reindeer were nowhere in sight. All 41 of them had gone into the small shed. The shed doesn’t look like it can fit 41 reindeer in but it is does, it is like a Doctor Who’s Tardis. One Hill Trip, I was herding them out of the shed, I realised that I hadn’t seen Blue – I found him in a small part of the shed asleep. Blue, who was deaf, didn’t hear his reindeer friends move on. The reason Blue was deaf is because he was leucistic (pure white with blue eyes). Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation. Leucistic reindeer are camouflaged in the snow.
There are three Hill Trips a day (during the week) in the hill enclosure and last year we did ‘Summer Fun’ in the Paddocks which involved feeling the weight of antlers, feeling the weight of a feed sack, Paddock reindeer talks and much more fun (N.B. This will return in 2021!). Reindeer House is busier as the seasonal summer staff are working as there is a lot going on with three Hill Trips a day and Summer Fun in the Paddocks.
One of the jobs in the summer is to water the garden as it is hot.
Last July, Olympic would stand by the gate like he was guarding it and wouldn’t let visitors out of hill enclosure. I kept having to go over to him and move him on.
In the Autumn, I normally come in October half term. The scenery is changing with leaves changing colour and leaves falling off the trees.
The reindeer’s winter coat is growing and most of the velvet has stripped off revealing the hard bone antler underneath.
It is the rutting and breeding season. Normally in different areas of the hill enclosure there is a bull with his girls. My two favourite breeding bulls are Houdini and Kota as they have massive magnificent antlers. When we feed the breeding bulls with their girls we have to be careful as they can be protective over their girls. We don’t take the visitors in with the bulls and their girls.
We do one Hill Trip a day in the hill enclosure. Normally in the afternoons we do sleigh training with the ‘Christmas reindeer’. We put the harnesses on them and harness them up to the sleigh. The reindeer pull the sleigh around Glenmore (where the Reindeer Centre is based). They even go on the road. It is so funny to see people’s faces when they drive past reindeer pulling a sleigh.
We also get to handle the calves to get them used to people. We sometimes take them on a walk around Glenmore in the morning.
I am busy learning the calves names and if I hadn’t been up in May, I am learning which calf belongs to who and meeting all of them. The calves are also getting their new ear tags.
One year, I was lucky enough to help out at a early Christmas parade at the very start of November which was very special. It was at The Cairngorm Mountain. We wore red Christmas jumpers and woolly hats with reindeer on them. The reindeer team were Mo, Spike, Sooty, Aonach and calves Morse and Poirot. Mo and Spike pulled the sleigh with Santa in it. It was so wet and so windy. The wind was 60 miles per hour. Santa was holding his hat on in the sleigh. Not many people turned up. We had to tie things on to the pen railings otherwise they would have flown away.
One of the other jobs in the autumn is to sweep up the leaves. At 4 o’clock it is starting to get dark. So we put the Paddock light on in the Paddocks so the visitors can still see the reindeer. When we put the reindeer to ‘bed’ in the woods and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
My 2 Favourite Seasons
I have two favourite seasons which are autumn and spring.
In the autumn, I love doing the Christmas sleigh training, helping the calves get used to being handled, learning the calves names and seeing the reindeer with their newly formed antlers.
In the spring, I love seeing the newly born calves, seeing the reindeer being mums and hearing the grunts between mum and calf.
Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…
7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!
7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!
8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!
9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!
Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…
10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.
The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.
11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.
1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).
1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!
3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!
5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!
Before we went into lockdown I had one last day of fun catching up with with our boys and girls free-ranging on the Cromdale Hills. The ‘Christmas Reindeer’ (males who are trained to harness) are generally fairly lazy and don’t stray too far but every now and again the females, accompanied by the young bulls, wander off a bit further away than we like.
I headed off into the hills with Tip, herd owner Tilly’s son Alex’s (and his wife Emily’s) dog, to help them find their way back to where they should be. By walking into the hills towards the reindeer and making her bark it is usually sufficient to get the reindeer to head swiftly back in the opposite direction. As the Cromdale Hills form a vaguely straight rounded ridgeline the reindeer – usually – head in the right direction easily enough. Once within a few hundred metres of the reindeer they spotted Tip and myself before promptly turning round and making there way back in the other direction.
With Part 1 of our job done Tip and I made our way back to the van and headed off to the farm. Tip’s work for the day was done, but not for me. Back up onto the Cromdales, this time powered by a quad bike to carry the feed. I caught up with all the reindeer, some of which I hadn’t seen in about five months, giving them some food to reinforce which part of the hills are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ to be on. It’s always good to catch up with them. They all seemed in good health and a few antlers starting to grow amongst the bulls. Roman looks to have got a bit of a head start on the other boys!