My memories of the reindeer (part one)

Beth has been visiting us for most of her life, and has now become a valued occasional volunteer. Here’s her account of her involvement with the reindeer, in her own words.

It all started when mum and dad booked a toddler break to Aviemore back in 2001. I was 2 years old. I can barely remember it. But all I know is this toddler break has a lot to answer for! My first memory of the reindeer was actually being at home here in Harrogate. Sat in my mum and dads bedroom one
morning asking for a “Biscuit”. However back then I would call it a “bissy”. The reason this relates to the reindeer is the first reindeer we adopted as a family was called Biscuit, all because I used to call biscuits ‘bissy’s’.

Feeding Biscuit in later years

Fast forward to May 2008 and we went up to Aviemore for my birthday. By this time we had the two time-shares at the Coylumbridge, my brother Brody had been born and we had many memories made at what was the Hilton Hotel (now owned by a different company but still The Coylumbridge Hotel). It’s the
23rd May, my 9th birthday and we head up onto the hillside for a hill trip. Staying till the very end Fiona and Emily invited me into the smaller enclosure by the hut at the top. That was when I met the reindeer Elvis. That is a day I will never forget.

Now this is where my dates and times get all muddled up, cause I can’t quite remember what order things happened or what years they took place. But I’ll try my best to keep the events in order and try remember some years they happened! Now, I have always loved the reindeer and the species has
fascinated me. However I wasn’t always so confident around them. If it wasn’t for Tilly Smith being up on one of the hill trips one day I’m not sure how long after it would’ve taken me to feed a reindeer from my hands. I can quite honestly remember Tilly grabbing my hands and putting me in front of a reindeer with her still holding me and letting the reindeer eat the food we had for it. From that point on, you had a hard task getting me off the hillside! We went up to celebrate Christmas one year, I think it was 2005. It was magical. Christmas Eve was spectacular. The crowds down in Aviemore watching the parade go through the town and then the morning of Christmas Day… watching Father Christmas arrive at the hotel with reindeer pulling his sleigh.
The morning was great. We queued up to see Father Christmas and meet the reindeer. Once that had finished we all went outside to wave goodbye to Father Christmas as he left. That’s when Tilly pulled me up and sat me on the sleigh next to Father Christmas. I was one very lucky little girl. One very spectacular Christmas with memories I cherish.

Christmas in Aviemore!

Our first Christmas Event seeing the Reindeer was over in Scarborough. I can’t remember much of it but I remember being on my dads shoulders with my mum next to him with my little brother in the pushchair. We looked over the wall at the back of the Boyes store and saw the reindeer getting ready for the parade. I can’t remember who was there and what we did after. But I remember loving every moment of it. I have so many happy memories, and so much to tell! It’s like I’m telling my life through the reindeer. I remember in about 2007 we went to Tilly’s farm for our first farm visit. It was amazing! I loved seeing all the animals and what made the day for me was Tilly allowed me to ride on the back of the quad bike… I can tell you now – I did not get off it till the end of the visit! It also brings back a sad memory as it’s the last time we saw our adopted reindeer Biscuit before he sadly passed away.

The reindeer have brought so many good things my way. Aviemore is my favourite place to visit. During lockdown I have dreamed about being up there and when I’m not having a good day, I think of the happy memories and I instantly smile. I have made so many good friendships from the holidays I have had up in Aviemore and not just through the reindeer… but if I went into detail about all those lovely people you’d never hear the end of it! I am holding on to hope that I get to go up to Aviemore in October and share the memories and introduce my partner and his daughter to the staff at the Reindeer Centre and share the reindeer experience with them. Two years too long and I miss the place dearly!

Feeding Crowdie in 2018

Now I can’t remember when I started volunteering for the Reindeer Centre but I can not thank the staff there enough. My confidence would not be half as good as it is today if it wasn’t for experiences they offered me and the memories I made with them.

First time I helped out at a reindeer event at Christmas time was at Stockeld Park in Wetherby. They were there for a Saturday and Sunday. We went to see them on Saturday and I’m pretty sure it was Fiona and Heather. My face lit up the moment Fiona asked me to help. I couldn’t wait. I remember having the biggest grin on my face as I walked round at the back of the sleigh. I also remember being very nervous and scared when people asked me questions about reindeer! But as time went on my knowledge grew ( I am pretty sure if there were an exam about reindeer I’d get 100%). I can remember that weekend well. I was asked if I would like to go back and help them on them on the Sunday and of course I said yes! However… the morning of the Sunday I was representing my school at Stonefall Cemetery, laying red roses down on the graves of our fallen soldiers as it was Remembrance Sunday. So I ended up doing the reindeer parade in my school uniform!

Hamish pulling the sleigh, and Moose accompanying me at the back!

When I tell you, the first time I worked two full days with the reindeer in Scotland one year, it was a downpour of rain, gale-force winds and hailstones… it’s no lie! But it did not put me off! I loved every moment of it. I was scared at first and being so young I can remember not knowing much of what to say or do. But that was just the beginning… After that every holiday I went on I volunteered for two of the days we were up there during the week. It was usually an October we went so the weather was not always the best. But it
never put me off. I just threw on my waterproofs and wellies and got on with it!

Beth will be back for another blog later in the year with more of her story about why the reindeer herd mean so much to her 😀

Pedicures for reindeer

Hooves are important – got to keep them clean!

A common question we’re asked, usually after spending some time with the reindeer and noticing their beautiful big feet, is whether we need to trim their hooves. Reindeer are endowed with large feet with four toes to each hoof: two main weight bearing toes which do most of the work, plus two smaller and higher up toes which only touch the ground when on soft surfaces (snow or bog), when they spread out like a large snow shoe and mean reindeer can traverse snow drifts a lot easier than humans.

Okapi showing off how well her hooves serve her on snow.
Reindeer find snow way easier than us humans.
Fly says “It’s snow problem!”

In general our answer is no, we don’t have to routinely trim the hooves of our reindeer. Just like our own nails, the hard outer hoof continues growing constantly throughout their lives, but as they are roaming fair distances each day over rough, rocky and stony mountainous ground, the amount of wear tends to balance this out and means their toes stay nice and neat. Of course there is no one out trimming the hooves of wild caribou and other deer, who get through their entire lives with perfectly shaped hooves, and as our herd are in the correct habitat with plenty of movement, they are usually fine without intervention.

Wapiti grazing on short vegetation with gravel and rocks beneath it.
Spending much of their time on hard ground like this wears hooves down correctly.
Oatcake has beautiful feet!

However, there is always the exception to the rule. There are perhaps three reasons why we sometimes do need to dust off the hoof trimmers. First up is that we’re found our pure white reindeer (step forward Blondie and Matto in particular) have hooves that, for whatever reason, seem to grow faster than those of their darker coloured compatriots. Once or twice a year we’ll decide they are a little lengthy and have a trim to keep everything in place. Over-long hooves can cause all kinds of problems, especially putting pressure on their joints as their foot cannot sit correctly, so everything becomes misaligned. There’s an old saying “No foot, no horse”, and it applies equally to reindeer – without happy feet they can’t lead a happy life.

On white hooves you can see through to the bony structure of the foot beneath, and the hoof appears pink as you can see through to where the blood vessels are.
Matto joined our herd from Sweden, but despite not getting handled until he was a bit older he is an absolute star when we need to trim his feet. He’s busy moulting in this photo so looks a bit scruffy!
This hoof needs a wee trim…
Blondie barely needs a halter while her feet are trimmed as long as there’s a bag of feed. Olympic can’t believe that she is getting breakfast before him – the weariness has left him without strength to even hold up his head…

The second reason is if a reindeer has an injury or abnormality meaning a toe or whole hoof doesn’t receive the same amount of wear. Jute has one hoof which tends to grow a bit differently to normal, curving inwards instead of straight, which then prevents the edge wearing down in the usual manner. It’s no problem at all to him as long as we keep an eye on it and trim it as needed, but if we didn’t it could cause him difficulty walking as it grew.

And the third reason, embarrassingly, is pure laziness. This is where I’m going to point the finger squarely at some of our middle-aged males, the ones who can’t always be bothered to head off and graze as a real reindeer should, but who would much rather just lie waiting at the gate for their next meal to be served (Hamish, I’m looking at you). The straightforward reason that their hooves are too long is that they haven’t done anywhere near enough exercise to wear them down in balance with the rate that they’re growing. Perhaps we need to start a fitness club?! Funnily enough, there’s not a single female reindeer who falls into this category…

Hamish’s feet in his younger days (aged 4) when they were neat and pristine. Alas, in the last year or two laziness has caught up with him and they have a tendency to grow a little longer than this now…

Thankfully, trimming the hooves of our reindeer is stress free. Every single reindeer in our herd is halter-trained as a calf and is well used to being around humans. That means that if we spot their hooves need some TLC we simply catch them, pop a headcollar on, and whilst one herder occupies them with a bucket of tasty treats, another herder gets to work with a pair of snips to cut back the hard outer hoof. There is no feeling in this section of the foot so no discomfort is caused, and despite the fact that we never work at teaching reindeer to have their feet lifted like you would with a horse, they very quickly cotton on to the fact that nothing bad is happening and just let you get on with it. We never need to use tranquillisers in order to trim hooves, or hold the reindeer in place by force.

Hamish (mid-moult) contenting himself with a snack in the trough while I deal with his hooves. You may note that the lead rope has been abandoned entirely in order for the photograph to be taken!
Perfecting the crouch – balance their knee – trim action

My personal favourite technique is to crouch by a front leg, rest their knee on my knee, which leaves me two hands free to trim their hoof! Sometimes two hands are needed to cut through the tough hoof, especially on the old boys (hey, Elvis!) who have real “old man toenails”!

Sometimes two hands are needed!

We’re pretty proud of how good our reindeer are at standing to have their hooves trimmed.

Andi

Then and now…

With all these photos of calves over the last few weeks on our social media pages, I thought I’d dig out some photos of adult reindeer in our herd when they were just a week or two old, as a way of demonstrating their colouration and it’s changes with time. Reindeer are born in an extremely warm winter coat to protect them from the elements, but this calf coat isn’t necessarily the same colour as they will end up.

There’s a very short window from when they are born in May, to when they first moult in July, when they have this lovely calf coat. By July they have a short, darker summer coat, although their legs often retain their calf coat for a few extra weeks, and then their adult winter coat grows in for the first time in early September. At this point onwards they look like mini adults, and have lost the ‘cute’ factor.

We’ll start with Aztec. He was the most common colour for a calf, a gingery brown that we just call ‘normal coloured’. As an adult he’s still ‘normal’ – as common as muck! (But only in colour, not character!).

Roman was also a ‘normal coloured’ calf, although a much richer red colour (NB. it’s not so noticeable in this photo as it was taken on a different camera to the other pics) than the gingery colour of many calves. The rich red look is one of my favourites amongst the calf coats!

Still ticking the ‘normal coloured’ box is Hamish, although you’ll notice the blacker back he had. This photo popped up on my Facebook ‘memories’ for 10 years ago recently – where has the time gone?! Hamish had to be pulled out by Fiona after getting stuck being born – hence the rather weak looking little calf knuckled over and two herders in attendance (trying to assess whether there’s any milk in that udder…).

‘Chocolate brown’ is the next category, darker all over than the others so far. Olympic has grown in to a dark coloured adult, but by no means as dark as they get….

….unlike Lace! Jet black as a calf, she’s always been one of the very darkest reindeer in the herd. Note how dark her bum is compared to Olympic above!

And at the other end of the scale is Mozzarella. If a calf is pure white, whether they are actually leucistic or literally just very white, they will stay that way their whole lives, regardless of the changing of the seasons. Their summer and winter coats are both pretty much the same. Mozzarella has a couple of dark markings on her, and these will change in darkness depending on the season, but not her white hairs.

Olmec and his mum Emmental are both ‘white’ reindeer too, or at least what we would refer to as a white or light coloured reindeer. In August, on the right, (and 3 years later!) they are much greyer, about halfway from summer to winter coats, but reindeer’s coats bleach in the light throughout the winter months, turning them much whiter by spring.

Many light coloured reindeer also have white face markings, as Svalbard demonstrates here. The darker markings on calf coats tend to be much less obvious as adults though – you have to peer closely to see Svalbard’s dark leg nowadays! While he’s not a light coloured reindeer as such now, he’s still on the pale side.

Not all light coloured adults start out light though, as LX and Diamond demonstrate here. White foreheads on a brown calf generally signify a calf will turn white in adulthood though! It’s not a particularly common colouration though – I think these are the only two I remember in my time here (or at least the only two who survived to adulthood – there may have been others).

Finally, there’s always one or two odd ones each year. Above is Brie, a sort of slate-grey colour as a calf with a little white nose, but generally she’s pretty much normal coloured now as an adult, albeit still rather greyish. She was a very pretty calf!

And finally Spartan, again slate grey as a calf but on the darker side as an adult. His pale eyes are a giveaway for his slightly odd colouration though, and as a breeding bull he’s thrown some equally unusual looking calves this spring!

There’s nothing more exciting than walking towards a cow who just calved, having eventually tracked them down – knowing you’re the very first human to lay eyes on that calf. At 8am when reporting from the hill down to Reindeer House, having been on the early shift and out for two or three hours already, I’ve squeaked “You’ll never guess what colour so-and-so’s calf is!” down a phone excitedly many times in the past. Freezing toes, soaked clothes and rumbling belly temporarily forgotten.

Hen

A day at the farm

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!

Nice way to start the day…

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.

Roman decides I’m being too slow to put the feed out…
Trough of feed = happy reindeer

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.

Dr Seuss showing off his new antler growth
Spartan has a good set coming along
Strudel
Stenoa looking… handsome?!
Young Sherlock
Beastie, Jonas and Matto
Houdini, Origami and Bovril enjoying lunch
Atlantic
Atlantic’s older brother, Hamish
Bingo
Old lad Bourbon
Another of our old boys, Moose
Olympic
Young bull Pratchett
Svalbard

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.

Mixing feed

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!

The Belties are delighted to go anywhere for food.
Look at them go!
Dolly the Highland cow, and a beltie calf

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!

Andi