From when we close in January through until around the end of April, most of the reindeer here at Cairngorm will be out free-ranging. This is great for them as they get to roam wherever they please (mostly) and spend time in their natural habitat, where they are at their most comfortable. But it does mean that before every Hill Trip during this time, we must head up into the hills to find the herd.
Generally getting to the reindeer is a pretty simple process but getting them back to whichever site we are running the hill trip from can be more complicated – they don’t always want to follow us!
Around the beginning of April, we had a morning collecting reindeer that were a little more difficult than usual. The cloud was extremely low and thick, and they were in an area of the hills with almost no established paths, only a handful of trodden trails at best. It’s also not an area we go too all that much and there are very few proper landmarks to navigate by. All this is a way of saying that it was quite a difficult morning of reindeer herding!
For this blog I have decided to cast my mind back to a very wonderful day at the beginning of January, in the depths of winter when the entire landscape was white with snow.
I will start off by saying that I am not a skier, unlike quite a few of the reindeer herders, I didn’t grow up in a snowy place with planks attached to my feet. Fiona had always promised me that when I worked at Reindeer House through a winter then she would teach me to ski. Sure enough in the winter of 2020 we had a couple of snowy weeks and she helped me ski up and down the pisted ski runs early in the morning or late at night when there were no people around for me to crash into. I had a wonderful time, but spent most of it in the snow plough position which was quite tiring. When the snow arrived this winter, the ski slopes were all shut so my skiing journey had to continue off-piste. I had lots of wonderful tips from all the other reindeer herders as well as Fi, from very technical advice from Dave who had worked as a ski instructor for years. And equally wonderful advice from Sheena ‘you look very tense Lotti, I think you need to sing and dance while you are skiing, it will help you relax’.
About a week into the snowy weather this year Ruth and I were tasked with the job of fetching all 70 or so of the free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure so that one of the reindeer could have a visit from the vet. The snow was so deep that the only way to get to them was on our skis. Ruth is a very wonderful skier and I think it had been a dream of hers since starting to work with the reindeer in 2017 to do some reindeer herding on skis, so this was the perfect opportunity. We headed up, with our skins on the bottom of our skis which allow you to ski up hill without sliding backwards, out of the enclosure, onto the top ridge. We called and called hoping that the reindeer would hear us and come running. But the cloud was low, and I suspect dampened the sound of our calls. We continued in the direction of where we thought the reindeer were, stopping, and calling every few minutes. Eventually after an hour or so of skiing we found the herd near the top of Castle Hill.
As soon as we found the reindeer, they were delighted to see us, or delighted to see our bags of food at least. They followed us all the way back to the enclosure, walking in the tracks left by our skis in a single file line. The reindeer always walk through the snow in a single file line as it’s more efficient to walk in the tracks of another reindeer (or in this case skier) than it is to make your own tracks. I was particularly delighted as for most of the way back I was followed so closely by two of my favourite reindeer, Gloriana and her calf Butter, that they kept stepping on my skis! That was the beginning of a winter where almost all the reindeer herding was done on skis or snowshoes as the snow was so deep, but that very first experience of moving over the snow on skis with all the reindeer behind us is something that will stick with both me and Ruth for a long time.
An incredibly important part of the life of a Cairngorm reindeer is its time free-ranging. For the male reindeer their time to free-range is the cold winter months, where they happily roam the Cromdale hills keeping out of mischief. The life of a female Cairngorm reindeer is even wilder, with almost the entire year spent free-ranging the mountains apart from time in the enclosure during calving and rutting.
When the reindeer are free-ranging there are no fences holding them in, and they are able to walk anywhere they chose however they are only meant to be on some of the land. If they venture off our land in search of a tasty bit of lichen we move them back to where they are meant to be. This often involves a day walking in the mountains looking for reindeer and sometimes moving them to a better location. There are a number of ways to move a herd of reindeer. For those of you who have been on our hill trips you will know how keenly they follow a bag of food; however they will only follow food so far. Another good technique is to lead a few of the reindeer on halters and hope that the rest of the herd follow. A week or so ago Fiona came across a group of naughty females reindeer just off our land, she was unable to move the group on her own so we waited for a day clear enough to move them.
On a clear day last week sometime (well mostly clear above the mountains at least) Fi, Tilly, Chris and I headed up to move a group of the free-ranging females from the tops of the northern corries further down the mountains. We headed up in pairs up two separate ridges to maximise ground coverage with the plan to join together when we found reindeer.
Chris and Tilly headed up Cairn Gorm and soon spotted the group of reindeer. So Fi and I headed towards them with Chris catching us up on route. We reached the group of reindeer just in time as the clouds covered us. We decided the distance we wanted to move them was too large to persuade them with a bag of food so instead decided to halter a few of them. Having caught the ten most willing reindeer we headed down to meet Tilly who was coming up from below. We then walked with the reindeer for about an hour till we found the right spot to leave them with a bit of food each in the hope that they will now stay in that area. Tilly went out walking a few days later and didn’t see any reindeer where they weren’t meant to be so it seems our mission was a success.
Spending a day in the hills is always one of my favourite things to do, but when it involves interacting with the reindeer in their environment it really is a pretty special experience. A day like this has got to be one of the highlights of being a reindeer herder.
I’ve been well aware over the last couple of weeks that it’s definitely my turn to write a blog, and my justifications of going away on holiday, then having to catch up on work, and reorder stock for the shop, and organise the new adopt gifts, and… have started sounding a little too like excuses. Hen started a lovely series about memorable reindeer, and I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon.
In my first calving season, 2012, Esme was one of the pregnant females who was in the enclosure so we could keep an eye on her when she calved. Being a novice to the world of reindeer midwifery, I would walk out with a more experienced herder and learn the correct way to approach a new mum, how to check over the calf, and how to bring them back in to the herd.
As we neared the end of May, only one female was left to calve – Esme. She was the sweetest of reindeer – calm, docile, and an experienced mum. She was also beautiful, with a silvery sheen to her coat. So when the day came that Esme had left the herd to calve, we spied her with binoculars up on Silver Mount, and Fiona asked if I wanted the honour of going to find her and her new calf. I was apprehensive – What if I didn’t get it right? Or if she wouldn’t let me approach? – but still jumped at the chance. Hiking up from Black Loch onto Silver Mount, the “baby bag” with the essentials on my back, I still remember feeling the nervous anticipation. I needn’t have worried – as I came over the ridge and saw Esme, she looked up calmly and took a couple of steps towards me (well, the bag of food). I scanned around – had she calved yet? – before spotting the tiny bundle of new life at her feet.
I can’t claim to have done everything in a smooth polished fashion, but Esme was the most patient lass ever, standing whilst I fumbled with the headcollar, not quite having the right technique for holding her calf whilst I sprayed his navel, and talking myself through what to do (out loud!). Finally, we were ready, and we proceeded down the hill and back to the “nursery” area of the enclosure. She must have been rolling her eyes at my inadequacy, and I’m fairly sure she did actually yawn a couple of times!
Over the following years, Esme remained one of my favourite females – she was always a friendly face in the herd, dependable and happy to follow a bag of feed to wherever you wanted her to go, and easy to catch if you needed to put a headcollar on her. As she aged, she struggled a little at times to maintain her condition, and we’d slip her extra bits of feed, allowing her to join in when we fed the calves out of the bag. Throughout, she was never pushy, always waiting to be invited, though once her head was in a feed bag it was almost impossible to remove it!
Reindeer, like people, age at different rates, and whilst some of our charges still look in their prime at 13 or 14 years old, by the time Esme was 11 she certainly looked like an old girl. She was also spending more time alone, away from the herd, which isn’t uncommon for the older females – they have the confidence to enjoy their own company, and can sometimes be pushed out by the younger, stronger reindeer. In the 2014/15 winter, Esme was often away from the herd for weeks at a time, off doing her own thing, and there was a memorable day when we spied for the reindeer and saw one lone female marching across the Ciste flats towards the car park. Aware that the rest of the herd were a good distance away in the next glen, we peered through the binoculars trying to work out who it was, finally realising it was Esme!
She seemed delighted to see us, and, wondering if she was looking for the herd, thought we should join her up with them. Whilst we could have hiked over the ridge with her on a headcollar to reunite her with the herd, we wondered if we could save both her energy and ours (of course we were thinking about the fact that she’s an OAP rather than our own tiredness level…) and hop her into the back of the van…
Once we’d popped the back seats down to give her some more room, she gave no objections to following us into the van. She must have thought it was a definite upgrade on the usual trailer, with a much better view, and being allowed to munch her way through a bag of feed enroute was also an added bonus! A short 5-minute drive and it was time to emerge at the other car park nearer the herd. There was a car pulled up with a few people admiring the view, and the last thing they must have expected was for a reindeer to hop out of a van! Esme didn’t bat an eyelid at the whole experience, and was quickly reunited with the herd.
Esme had a good summer that year high on the Cairngorm free range, but when the females started coming down to lower ground in autumn, she was clearly feeling her years. We moved her over to our Glenlivet hill farm, where she could have access to the large straw-filled barn and ad-lib food in the day, with a gentle stroll onto the hill at night, and she settled right in – she was a funny sight – a little old lady amongst all of the big chunky castrates. She also completely won over the hearts of the men at the farm!
One evening, they went to move out the reindeer onto the open hill for the night, and for the first time, Esme didn’t want to go. With no wish to force her, they let her stay in the shed, and slipped her an extra bucket of lichen. In the morning, she had passed away in her sleep, peacefully tucked up in the straw.
It’s always galling when animals die, but I can’t think of a better end for one of the gentlest reindeer I’ve known. Esme’s family members are still in the herd – her daughter Okapi is a slightly less polite version of her, son Elvis is a dependable but enthusiastic fellow, and sister Sambar is a sweet lass who keeps to herself. All of them share the similar silvery coat colouring, and remind me each time I see them of lovely Esme.
As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.
Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉
On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!
So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.
Well, we’ve had our annual month of closure to the public and are now open again for hill trips! The weather hasn’t been too horrendous this winter and most of us here are really missing the snow; we are all considering going off to the Alps for our skiing and snow fix!
Of course, it is now the February half term so we are back with a bang and having busy hill trips, even reaching our limit of numbers on some days. Most of us have had a slight panic at the beginning of our first visit: “What do I say again?” “Where do I go again?” “What is a reindeer?(!)” Luckily, once you are faced with a whole load of expectant tourists most of your talk comes flooding back to you and you manage to muddle through, getting the important safety and history information in.
Although it is not that snowy at the moment, it is relatively cold and we have had some quite windy days too. Most folks have been well enough dressed that they’ve managed to keep the cold out and have enjoyed the trips. If you would like to come visit us in the near future, please remember to dress up warmly, and give us a call in the morning to make sure we definitely are going ahead with the trip. The reindeer are completely free-ranging at the moment, so both they and the weather mean that we can’t always run the trip!
Visitors to the Centre often ask how on earth we get our free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure. The answer I give is “shake a bag of food”… whilst it sounds too simple, it can really be that easy. All of our herd are currently out on the mountains, but occasionally its easier to move them into an open part of the enclosure to feed them, out of the way of passers-by, and dogs who may like to chase them. This morning we went to spy round the roads and the tell-tale car pulled over with its hazards flashing gave away the presence of the herd who were picking at grazing through the snow just below the road. We pulled up and here’s their journey following me and a bag of food over to the enclosure…