Here’s a selection of pics taken throughout the month, hopefully giving a snap shot of what we’ve been getting up to. It’s been full on with the rut taking place in the enclosure, our breeding bulls do now seem a bit less enthusiastic after a busy six weeks for them! We’ve also been bringing two calves at a time down to the Paddocks to halter train them. They usually spend around four days here in which we take them out on morning walks to get them used to seeing traffic, bikes, their own reflections in shiny windows and whatever else Glenmore can throw at us at 8am! Christmas sleigh training for our three year old Christmas Reindeer begins too. So far Adzuki, Haricot and Hemp have been trained and they’ve all been total pros. During the October holidays when our 11am Hill Trip sells out we’ve been putting on an afternoon Hill Trip too. Funnily enough, during the rain and wind of Storm Babet we did not require this attentional visit. But after the storm we’ve been treated to some gorgeous autumnal weather and the first decent snow on the hills of the season.
Amongst all of this we’ve also managed to get the October newsletter written, printed and sent out to our lovely adopters! Until it’s safely in the hands of our adopters I’ve left all calf names out of the blog.
Every morning, as most of you know, two herders head out to gather the reindeer in and bring them closer for our Hill Trip at 11am. This requires dropping our bags of feed off on route somewhere closer to where we plan to end up with the herd then anything from a 10 minute walk to a 1.5 hour walk out, depending on where the herd are. Most often we have a section of uphill just to really make us work hard and get a sweat on. Most of it is pathless so winter time can be a time of year where reindeer herders can get quite fit! Or that’s what we tell ourselves…
Once we’ve located the herd, usually far in the distance, first of all we will call them in the hope they will come running. However, this isn’t always the case so off we trot and we walk all the way out to them. When we reach them they are usually all lying down looking very relaxed. It almost feels a bit rude asking them to go to the effort to move location. However many people have bought their ticket and want to visit them. Plus they never really complain when they get a big bag of tasty food after their walk in. At this point there are two herders and two different jobs. One herder leads at the front and the other keep them moving from the back. So here is the role of each herder:
You set of with a small bag of feed slung over your shoulder and a halter, just in case you need extra bribery by putting one of the reindeer on a halter to lead as encouragement for the rest of the herd to follow. We don’t often have to put one on the halter, but we’ve got it just in case!
Some of the herd are always first to follow. Okapi, Lace and Sika are three older girls who accompany the front herder. On occasions while letting the rest of the herd catch up these front girls would get an extra handful of feed, much to their delight! Hopscotch and family (Kipling, Juniper, Tub and Fab) are also front runners… ruled by their stomachs.
While leading the herd down inevitably you try to take the easiest route. Not too steep, not too rough but it doesn’t matter how much you think you’ve picked the best line, the reindeer always prove you wrong by taking a slightly different one. Lets face it, they do know the hills better than us. It’s always fairly amusing being the front person when it’s a foggy day. You have to pick the best line trying not to lose your herd or your colleague at the same time. There is lots of calling, or reindeer chat/encouragement which translates to ‘follow me girls’. Shaking the bag of feed, offering handfuls, zig zagging our way down the hill in front of the herd. You do get a good opportunity for photos but it’s a fine line to keep the herd moving and getting a good photo so we cant hang around too much.
On the whole reindeer prefer to follow uphill as opposed to downhill so we are quite canny with our route choices but there are certain points of bringing them in which we know are pinch points so once we’ve got them past that we know they’ll come no bother. Then, once you’ve reached your destination there is a big bag of feed waiting for you which was left prior by us prior to walking out.
So that’s the front herder job, now for the herder following at the back.
Once you’ve reach the herd and font herder starts with the encouragement and trying to get the herd to follow its now the job for the back herder to keep up the momentum from behind. To begin with the reindeer are feeling pretty relaxed and a bit lazy so a bit of clapping, woosh woosh noises and generally pushing those back few reindeer usually gets them going. We don’t need to push them hard, just keep them going so often you act like a sheepdog zig zagging left to right. Like the trend at the front, there are also reindeer who are always at the back of the herd. Gloriana with her 2022 calf Rocket as well as her 2021 calf Beanie are usually ones at the back for us to keep moving.
Once you’re 10-15 minutes into starting the reindeer tend to follow quite nicely then the back herder can just enjoy hanging out with them, pootling (technical term) in slowly behind. This is also a nice time to get photos but you are more likely to get photos of reindeer bottoms at this point, which isn’t all bad, they do have very beautiful bottoms!
I think on the whole herders prefer being at the back. There is less pressure on route choice and you’re not spending your whole time trying to encourage the reindeer, instead you just get to walk alongside them as they follow. Inevitably some herders end up at the front more than others and this is usually down to experience and knowing the lie of the land, route choice the way the reindeer like to walk and the fine line between going too slowly so the reindeer just graze more and getting far enough ahead to keep up momentum. As a front herder you spend less time with the reindeer themselves so obviously we all like being at the back.
At the beginning of winter and bringing reindeer in for hill trips I’m happy to do the front as we’re all a bit rusty having not done it for a year and I’m pretty confident with route choices having done it for so long. Equally I’m happy for others to learn from me. But come March onwards we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to know which way to go and I like to take my turn at the back.
It’s the last blog of the month and so time for another photo dump! March has been a relatively quiet month, with the Paddocks shut and fewer visitors around, but it’s still felt very busy for us herders! Generally only four members of staff work each day throughout March. The mornings are taken up by two herders heading out to find and move the free ranging herd, and the other two herders lead the Hill Trip at 11am. So, by the time we’ve all had lunch the afternoons seem to totally fly by. We also had some very snowy and wintery weather in the middle of the month, making our lives a little more interesting and keeping us on our toes! Hopefully, we’ve managed to tick off all the important jobs in time for the Easter Holidays which kick off on the 1st of April.
It’s the last blog of the month, so here we have a selection of photos I’ve taken during February. The early part of the month was all about crossing jobs off the to-do list ready for us to re-open to the public on the 11th of February for the busy half-term holidays. The second part of the month has been all about locating the reindeer and moving the herd into a suitable position for our Hill Trips each morning, the Hill Trips themselves, and afternoon talks in the Paddocks. Plus all the usual shop and office work. As always, the holidays are over in a blur, but here are some photos of our beautiful reindeer, giving a small taster of February for you all.
A final point – if you are wondering where all the young bulls and Christmas reindeer are in the photos, they spend the winter free ranging in a different herd that Tilly and other colleagues at the farm mostly look after. I’ve not been to visit them myself this month hence why it’s just photos of our beautiful girls and some male calves that you’ll find in this month’s blog.
Each year, as calving season looms, we reindeer herders have a sweep stake. We place our bets on which reindeer will calve first. Or rather more importantly, try to bet upon which reindeer won’t calve last.
I say ‘bet’…what I really mean is we try to combine luck and science to each predict a reindeer. The herder whose reindeer gives birth last then has to do a punishment. The punishment was historically swim in Loch Morlich. However, this task became obsolete as a punishment a few years ago when it became apparent that most herders regularly braved the cold waters as a leisure activity.
So, the current ‘punishment’ is to bake a cake for the calf naming evening in September. It is on this evening in September that we pick a theme and subsequent names for the recently born reindeer. It’s hungry work, so cake is always greatly appreciated. In fact, in 2009 the cakes were so appreciated that we had a whole naming theme dedicated to ‘cakes, puddings and biscuits’.
We’re in the last week of April as I write this blog and it’s a stage in the year where some of the pregnant females are MASSIVE. We’ll be expecting the first calf in the coming days and each of us will keep a keen eye on who calves throughout the month. I mentioned science as a prediction method in my first paragraph. Some herders like to research when a reindeer stripped the velvet on their antlers in the previous year, some herders like to look at if the reindeer are already growing their new antlers, and some herders like to inspect how big a reindeer’s udder is, all as a sign of their readiness to calve. If a reindeer strips their velvet early it can be an indicator that they come into season earlier. If a reindeer is already growing their new antlers it can be a sign that they are using more of their nutrients for themselves and not sharing them with a foetus.
This makes it all sound very technical actually. I think most of us just tend to pick one of our favourite reindeer. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to take a risk as well. Add to the drama. However, herders have been known in the past to make a risky prediction and the reindeer to not be pregnant at all. Just fat!
Some reindeer are so dependable to calve first that they’re off-bounds. Christie was first last year. And it was Pagan the year before that who always seems to be there or thereabouts. This year Tilly has chosen Ladybird who looks rotund. Ladybird, that is. I’ve chosen first time calver (I hope), Texel. My baking skills aren’t up to much so let’s hope Texel pulls through to reduce the risk of a salmonella outbreak up here.
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!
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.
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.
It’s just a couple of weeks after the shortest day of the year as I write this (6hrs and 35 minutes of daylight up here) and the weather has certainly been wild and wintry, with deep snow and thick ice across the lochs. With short days and extreme weather come additional seasonal immigrants, such as snow bunting from Scandinavia, and some of the animals in new disguises, with ptarmigan and mountain hares changing their colours to suit the elements. The wind turns harshly abrasive, carrying tiny pieces of ice, freezing rain, or thick blizzards, and the nights open up to all the phases of the moon or the open milky way. It’s like the mountains find themselves in a whole new dimension.
Recently I’ve discovered that poetry can be a great way of condensing a particular feeling, season, or place, and it’s truly delightful when a poem seems so relevant to a Hill Trip, day out with the free-range reindeer, or view of the Cairngorms and the Strathnethy from up on the hill. Here I have gathered some of my favourites which I hope can bring those of our supporters who haven’t been able to visit (I’ve said it a lot, but what a strange year…) back into the feeling of a day on the hill with the reindeer. Some of my photos from this winter are included too!
The first poem which comes to mind is the Ryvoan Bothy poem, one which anyone who has visited Ryvoan Bothy, a couple of miles away from us, has probably seen pinned inside the door. Many of our visitors in the summer also take the gorgeous walk up to the “Green Lochan” or An Lochan Uaine so I imagine a lot of the places mentioned in this will be familiar to many.
Ryvoan Bothy Poem: I shall leave tonight from Euston by the seven-thirty train, And from Perth in the early morning I shall see the hills again. From the top of Ben Macdhui I shall watch the gathering storm, And see the crisp snow lying at the back of Cairngorm. I shall feel the mist from Bhrotain and the pass by Lairig Ghru To look on dark Loch Einich from the heights of Sgoran Dubh. From the broken Barns of Bynack I shall see the sunrise gleam On the forehead of Ben Rinnes and Strathspey awake from dream. And again in the dusk of evening I shall find once more alone The dark water of the Green Loch, and the pass beyond Ryvoan. For tonight I leave from Euston and leave the world behind; Who has the hills as a lover, will find them wondrous kind.
The poet and writer whose work is most famously connected to the Cairngorms is Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981). The first woman to feature on a Scottish banknote, she was a student and then lecturer at Aberdeen University in English Literature, the part of her life which she enjoyed alongside hill walking, through which she extensively explored the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain, her last published book is an awesome and personal, although at no point self-absorbed, memoir to her days on the Cairngorm plateau. Although a lot of her work is in plain English, I think her work is pretty unique for preserving Doric (the strong dialect in the North East of Scotland) so well, and so beautifully.
Loch Avon – Nan Shepherd Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie! Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I. Bricht though yer deepmaist pit may be, Ye’ll haunt me till the day I dee. Bricht, an’ bricht, an’ bricht as air, Ye’ll haunt me noo for evermair.
Writing with equal admiration about their homeland are the Eveny, the reindeer herders of Siberia. Considering reindeer are so intrinsic to their culture that they both feature in their creation story and provide a livelihood, it’s not surprising that many of their songs and poems mention reindeer. Very little of this has been recorded though, however, in Reindeer People; Living With Animals And Spirits in Siberia (Piers Vitebsky) this song is translated and shows the deep connection which the Eveny have with their animals and the land.
I have come from afar, I have not beheld you for so long, With all my heart I love you, My Homeland!
The Autumn leaves fall, My voice echoes far, My song is about you, my homeland, Birthplace of my ancestors
If the reindeer do not come, If the herd turns away, If the reindeer do not come, There will be no more Eveny!
It is difficult to source the lyrics or lines of poems and songs by minority cultures and people (which are the reindeer herders of the north) such as the Eveny or Sami, due to the suppression which these groups have faced, and also the fact that many of the poems are part of an oral tradition, passed on over time but not recorded. An exploration of Sami poetry, a lot of it related to the reindeer can be found here.
Over on the North American continent, the caribou (which are genetically the same species as reindeer: Rangifer tarandus) have a different relationship with people because they’re not herded or domestic, instead living wildly and sometimes being hunted. Richard Kelly Kemick captures the full seasonality of their lives in his book, Caribou Run which follows the year as the animal. I find this one intriguing:
The Love Poem as Caribou – Richard Kelly Kemick It’s hard to imagine. As doves, yes, or even vultures. But there’s nothing of a ballad in the hard weight of antlers. You can’t cut into an ode, stripping its skin to bones cabled with muscle, or search its creased face for something you can almost explain. And a sonnet has never made me see myself inadequate beneath the bright light of evolution’s long apprenticeship, acutely aware of the many failings of my own form. But maybe it’s in how a love poem will cross a body of water without being about to see the other side. Or maybe it’s in the deep prints left in the drifts, that speak of how hard it must have been to move on from here.
On the same continent, Mary Oliver is a poet who has spent a lot of time observing nature, and in her writing brings the reader on a quiet walk with her.
The Poet Dreams of the Mountain – Mary Oliver Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts. I want to climb some old gray mountain, slowly, taking the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks. I want to see how many stars are still in the sky that we have smothered for years now, a century at least. I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all, and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know. All that urgency! Not what the earth is about! How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only. I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts. In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.
And lastly, heading back home to Scotland and the Scots words and phrases, our rewilding landscapes, and great, airy glens we will finish with a poem which couldn’t possibly be more relevant. This one is in the first few pages of the book Hoofprints, a book which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Reindeer in the Cairngorms. It proclaims the “Reindeer Council of the United kingdom is proceeding with the experiment of importing reindeer to Scotland” – Punch magazine, August 1951. Look out for the hints of hunting, these refer to the plan that once the reindeer would be established in Scotland, they would contribute meat to the post-war rationing. Thankfully, after giving the animals names and getting to know them, our herd has always been kept for it’s own environmental and educational value to the Cairngorms.
Stag party O Lords of misty moor and ben! O monarchs of the mountain glen! Crowned with your proudly branching span Surveys your kingdom while you can.
Where Affrie’s corried glen divides, In Atholl’s furthest forest rides, Amid the firs that fringe Loch Shin Will feed the herds that fed the Finn.
Their splayed and hairy hooves will pound, Your ancient Highland stamping ground And Stalkers (snug in hats with flaps) WIll hunt the quarry of the Lapps.
Will later landseers art portray Proud Scandinavian stags at bay, And (taxidermic’ly prepared) Will foreign heads delight the laird?
Will other antlers grace the walls As hatstands in suburban halls- Sad pointers to the fact that you Have yielded to the Caribou?
Shall reindeer, blue of flesh and blood, Reign where the ruling red deer stood, Or will one more invasion fail And wiser councils yet prevail?
Don’t you ever wish you could just lie down and take a snooze if things are taking too long?? With their thick coats, that’s exactly what reindeer do – everywhere can be a bed! Here’s some shots of them having a snooze in the snow a few weeks ago…