Spy – the reindeer we’re all a bit scared of

A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.

Spy, whose reputation precedes her!

Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.

The way it normally works: Myself gently pushing Cheese and newborn Kiruna in the right direction across the hill enclosure a couple of years back.

Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.

The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.

With Nok, the calf who I’d failed entirely to get close to.

This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.

Not one of Spy’s calves (this is Angua’s calf Chickpea), but a quick cuddle is usually needed once all calf duties are done and everyone’s in the right place!

By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.

Spy in the nursery part of the enclosure a day after trying to kill us all this year, antler having fallen off in the meantime. Suddenly she doesn’t look quite so intimidating when not waving a large, spiky antler around!

Hen

Long time, no reindeer

It’s been a bit snowy here in the Cairngorms this winter.

The Cairngorms is unique within the UK in offering a sub-arctic ecosystem, which coupled with the wide expanses of mountainside, make it perfect for our reindeer. In most winters, we get weeks of snow cover on the mountains,  but it’s less common to have such sustained cover as we’ve experienced this year. From Christmas through to mid February, the norm was snow, both on the hills and in the glens. Perfect for the reindeer, great for all of the snowsports enthusiasts who happen to live within reach of the mountains, but I have to confess the novelty of relentless snow began to wear… a little thin for me. I lost count how many times we cleared our drive at home of snow – all that snow shovelling definitely made up for the gyms being closed!

There’s a loch there somewhere! Loch Morlich froze solid enough that some people skied right across it.

If you follow our social media accounts, you’ve probably  enjoyed all those beautiful photos of reindeer in the snow under a bright blue sky, herders skiing out onto stunning mountains to cuddle reindeer, giving the impression that that is our every day experience. But alas, social media photos can be scheduled for the future. With the current situation, we’ve all just been working two/three days a week, keeping the essentials ticking over, which also means that we can work in separate households.

Our path off the car park blocked by a 10 ft drift. No reindeer today then…

So every Friday and Saturday, Hen and me had our turn to feed the herd. As January rolled into February, with unerring precision, every day we were scheduled to work also appeared to be the scheduled day for a blizzard, a storm, or generally horrific weather. The reindeer were perfectly equipped, and with their appetites very reduced they would be a fair distance away, not fussed about seeking us out for food. Each time, we would drive up the ski road – a mission in itself as the snow was only cleared enough to allow Cairngorm Mountain’s essential staff access. We would wend our way up the closed road in our wee van, driving as far as we could, debating the safety of walking out to try to find the herd. And each time we would be forced to turn back.

The main ski road.

A passage cleared through drifts higher than the van.

Over the course of the next week, our colleagues would be gifted with better weather than us, and would catch up with the reindeer. More glorious photos for Facebook, then as we watched the forecast for our days, the harsh weather returned. The temperature plummeted to -19C, the Spey froze over. A second work “week” of seeing no reindeer, again foiled by the weather, the deep snow, and the distant reindeer. Now I know we can’t complain too much, when we have the privilege of getting to work with these awesome creatures, but by now we were starting to feel a little less like “Reindeer Herders” and a little more like office staff…

Our wee van excelled itself at being a snow van. That’s the main ski road that we’re stopped on…

It was now nearly three weeks since we’d seen the herd ourselves, and with hope we looked at the forecast for our next Friday in – the thaw having finally started. Windy, still snowy, but not too bad… We loaded the van with feed, navigated the narrow cleared passage between the drifts (apparently the deepest for 40 years on the road in places), reached the car park and spied with binoculars.

Hen sights the reindeer just above the snow drift

Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.

Call and they shall come (possibly)

Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!

Wild weather but happy herders with hungry Holy Moley

Andi

My memories of the reindeer (part two)

Here’s the second part of Beth’s blog about volunteering with the reindeer over the years, and what it means to her. The first part can be found here.

One of the earliest memories I have of volunteering up in Aviemore is being sat in the back of the van in the summer with a small calf between my legs we were bringing back down the hillside for the evening (Editor’s note – this was a hand-reared reindeer calf who was at this point spending his nights in the paddocks beside the Reindeer Centre, and his days up on the mountain with the main herd in the enclosure. We don’t routinely transport reindeer up and down the hill in the back of our van!!!). He was so small, but I remember walking him down the hillside and when we got in the van he laid his head on my lap. It’s such a small thing but it meant so much. These amazing animals and I was lucky enough to be able to help and look after them!

Hand-reared calf Fergus tripping Abby up (a regular occurrence), en route to and from the hill daily

When I say the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd have a lot to answer for, I mean it. When I turned 16 I landed myself a job at Stockeld Park, near my home in Yorkshire, which is one of the many locations the Cairngorm reindeer have a reindeer parade at Christmas time. It is because of the reindeer that I got myself the job. A few years prior to getting the job one of the managers told my dad that when I was of the age to be able to work I was to fill an application out and they’d have me working on their team like a shot. And so I did. 21st May 2015 I was at Stockeld Park picking my uniform up. On my first shift there a few weeks later I walked into the shop where I would be working and a poster was behind the counter with my face on it from the previous Christmas event. I was known for a while as “reindeer girl” as most the staff first knew me for helping out at the Christmas events! That name lasted with me till I left a few years later.

Having a quiet word with 6 month old Lora at a Christmas event.

I could go on and on about the memories I have made volunteering. But I won’t bore you all! Just two more memories that have given me so much happiness  -one of them I was able to bring experience from my care work background into the day I spent with a family doing a half-day reindeer trek (which doesn’t run any more). I can’t remember the year but I remember going out early on a hill trek with a family with a young boy. They had adopted a reindeer in the past and all were excited to do the hill trek. It was a glorious day. The sun was out and it was warm. The young boy had autism and was very shy at first. It took a while to encourage him to take the rope and lead the reindeer on the walk. When he did it was like talking to a new boy. He was full of smiles and was so happy. I remember after the trek a reindeer called Lego, who he had been leading, laid down in the long grass. I’d turned away to talk to some of the other people and when I turned to see the young boy he was laid down cuddled into Lego. It was an amazing thing to see. It was like seeing a boy and his dog. They were so peaceful and seemed in their own world, and it melted my heart and made my day to see this young boy so happy.

When I was in my second year of sixth form it was mandatory to do a week’s worth of work experience during the summer after. Most people in my class chose to go work in a coffee shop or wherever their parents worked. Nope. Not me. I hopped in the car (which gave my family an excuse for a weekend away) and got myself up to Aviemore. I stayed in the Youth Hostel a few minutes away from the Reindeer Centre. That week I cooked for myself (may have burnt a meal or two…), I went for plenty of walks nearby where I was and most importantly spent five days working alongside the staff at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. I loved every moment of it !

Up on the hill with the reindeer on a drizzly day

I can also remember the day we went up on the hill trip and me and Imogen who was working there at the time went hunting for Pokemon on the way back down the van on what used to be a big craze back then on the Pokemon Go app! That’s also the same day Hen had asked me to help check a reindeer’s temperature… another new experience I had never done before!

This was the week that I was pushed the most. I had so much fun and I was also tested on my knowledge of the reindeer. Fiona had mentioned to me on the first day that by the end of the week she was wanting me to lead a hill trip from start to finish. Now I panicked. But eventually, on my last day, I took a small group of visitors up to see the reindeer. After I had done that I was so proud of myself. I have never had the most confidence. In school I would shy away, wouldn’t even put my hand up to ask a question to the teacher. But whenever someone asked me to stand up and talk about reindeer, it was like I was a new person. I could give a speech on the information I knew and then would be able to answer questions people had to ask. I will never be more grateful to a bunch of people then I am to those I have worked with at the
Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. They have helped me come so far in life and are part of the reason who I am today.

Getting back on topic, that same week I helped out in the office, cleaned the paddocks, cleaned the visitors centre, helped in the shop and on my evenings I spent a lot of them walking and being at one with the beautiful area Glenmore is. I can remember on one of the nights Fiona had invited us to join in with their “Come dine with me” evening. That day me and another volunteer, Blyth, had helped prep some of the food they would be cooking that night. It was just lovely. I felt so involved and learnt so many skills that week. I remember sitting on the train and not wanting to go home.

I have also helped at a fair few Christmas events, mainly Stockeld Park and Beverley. Beverley by far has to be my favourite. It’s so busy and feels so festive. I used to love answering questions people had and talking to the children about Christmas and the magic of the reindeer. I remember one year helping harness the reindeer ready for the event and one of the reindeer lifted his head and bashed his antlers in to my head, bad timing on someone’s behalf and the next day I remember going to school the next day with a bruise going
from the top of my head down to my chin on the left hand side… it was bragging rights and gave me an excuse to chat all about the reindeer event!

Me (right) at the back of the sleigh with Hen, Oasis and Bingo leading

Now I feel I have gone on long enough. And it’s time to wrap up this journey I have brought you on and the memories I have shared. I have met some amazing friends over the past 19 years. Who would’ve thought one reindeer called Biscuit could have brought us a friendship with a lovely lady called Carola who lives over in Holland, and from there many friendships grew. We then found more “reindeer crazy” people like us and started a Reindeer Groupies Page” on Facebook. We’ve had many meetings through the years and have made many memories. I will forever be grateful to everyone up at Reindeer House. You all hold a special place in my heart and I so hope that in October 2020 I will be back up, starting a new chapter of memories by bringing my partner and his daughter up to see the reindeer and hopefully sharing the magic and love I have in my heart with them for these lovely creatures.

Beth

With fellow ‘groupie’ Pandra! Andi looking a little less than impressed in the background – Christmas training on yet another wet, manky day!