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

Snowy snoozes

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…

Old lass Fonn and young Lima
Hi Lima!
Kernel, Cicero and his mum Brie
Wee Chickpea
Emmental with her calf Edamame
Butter with his mum Gloriana
Addax and her calf Hemp
Haricot
Emmental and her calf Edamame
Christie
Guardians of the bag – Pumpkin, Ärta and Heinz, with Holy Moley lying down

Andi

Thank you all!

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.

TV stars Dr Seuss and Holy Moley at the Strathspey Railway event. Photo: Justin Purefoy/Maramedia

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’.

Tilly feeding young bull Sherlock. Photo: Justin Purefoy/Maramedia

Tilly

How Holy Moley got her name!

A lot of you may have already heard of Holy Moley, whether it be on one of our guided tours up here in the Highlands of Scotland, on our social media or most likely through the recent Channel 4 programme (‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’) where Holy Moley was the star reindeer! The programme takes you through her roller-coaster of a life so far but it didn’t actually explain why she was called Holy Moley in the first place so I’m going to take this opportunity to explain her name.

On the 25th April 2020 our first reindeer calf of the year was born. Lotti and myself headed out for about an hour’s hill walk to look for Galilee, a 6 year old very pregnant female reindeer who we spied from a distance through binoculars. On top of a hill called Silver Mount within our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, or Airgiod-meall in Gaelic,  we found her and her new calf. This was Lotti’s first calving season with us, so her first reindeer calf. However, like Galilee I was an old hand at this time of year so was passing on advice on approaching and treating new born calves correctly to Lotti. Galilee couldn’t have been more chilled out with our presence, in fact she was pretty delighted we brought her a tasty feed after what had probably been an exhausting few hours! Lotti was absolutely ecstatic! A smile beamed from ear to ear which of course was infectious so the two of us were on cloud nine. We sprayed the newborn’s navel to stop any infection and popped a wee bit of insecticide on her back to prevent ticks from biting and causing problems for the wee girl then left her to get to know her mum. As she was the first calf we weren’t in a hurry to bring her in closer to the herd into the smaller fenced area which becomes a ‘nursery’ through the spring, but thought we would wait until another female had calved so they could come in together.

Huge excitement!

We caught up with them the next day to feed Galilee and check her calf was well. Galilee this time decided that with her calf being much more mobile, that she wasn’t sticking around so again we left her to it, with no urgent hurry to bring them in. Then on the 27th April myself, Andi, Lotti and Joe headed out to bring Galilee and calf (and now also Dante and her calf) into an enclosure a bit closer so we could keep an eye on them. Andi and Lotti concentrated on Dante and calf while Joe and I headed over to where we could see Galilee, assuming her calf was with her.

As we approached Galilee she didn’t move away from us, as you would expect a new mum to do. I got closer and closer and realised quite quickly that things weren’t normal. Galilee was grunting a lot. A call she would use to communicate with her 2 day old calf but I couldn’t hear or see her calf anywhere. Galilee was right in amongst a pile of boulders which didn’t cover a big area but she was pretty adamant to stay close to a certain area, sticking her nose into a section where the boulders had big gaps between. My heart sunk when I realised her calf must have fallen down in between the gaps  somehow! Joe and I searched, treading carefully over the boulder field. After about 10 minutes (which felt like an hour) of searching we could then hear a very faint calf grunting back to her mother. This then confirmed whereabouts in the boulders she was, however she was so far down we couldn’t see her, let alone reach with our arms to get her out.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t stop to take any photos during the rescue, but here’s a different boulder field to give you an idea of the type of terrain. Bonus point for spotting the ptarmigan!

By this time we realised we needed more assistance – Joe and I alone weren’t strong enough to remove the very large and heavy stones. Olly was at the Centre so we called him to come up the hill with tools which could potentially act as leverage. We also called Lotti down from bringing in Dante for an extra pair of hands. By this point 15-20 minutes had passed and Galilee decided there was too much commotion for her to be sticking around so she went back and joined the main reindeer herd, leaving us to find her calf. After removing, with great effort, some very large boulders we got our first glimpse of the calf… she was about 5ft down, but alive! I managed to reach as far as I could and with the tips of my fingers I could feel her. With a bit of rummaging I got hold of her back legs and very gently pulled, cautious not to cause her any hurt or injury. In my first attempt to pull her out there was too much resistance, like something was stuck. I pushed her back down, moved her body around a bit more, hoping she would release whatever was stuck. I had to do all this by feel as she was so far below ground that we couldn’t see her. On my second attempt to pull her out she came much more easily, and once I could get a second hand on her I supported the rest of her body and head coming out the hole backwards.

The poor wee girl probably didn’t know what was going on and we have no idea how long she was down there. She had rubbed the hair from the knees on her front legs and also a patch on top of her head so with a few bald patches and a sore back leg I carried her the ½ mile across mountain ground back to her mum. While walking back she was nuzzling my armpit looking for some milk – she was obviously quite hungry. I popped her down in front of Galilee who without hesitation sniffed her and realised it was hers. I suspect the two of them immediately forgot the whole scenario, being animals I don’t suppose they think of the past or what just happened. But I will remember it for a long time yet. Having been cooped up in a hole for so long she was a bit staggery on her feet to begin with but the wee calf was absolutely fine.

Back at the nearer end of the hill enclosure and reunited with her mum – but complete with bald patch on her head and rather bumpy knees!

Once it was all over and we could breathe a sigh of relief one of us used a phrase quite common amongst us herders… “Holy Moley, what a day!” And from there she got her nickname – ‘Holy Moley, the calf who fell down a hole’. It was never intended to be her name forever but inevitably that has happened. Most reindeer who end up with a nickname from a young age keep hold of it for the rest of their life – Grunter, Hippo, Paintpot and Hamish to name a few.

With mum Galilee (right) on the summer free-range – Holy Moley’s missing calf coat on her head still making her easy to pick out amongst the other calves.

So there we have it, at two days old Holy Moley fell down a hole between boulders and without our assistance she would not be with us today. She’s had a pretty tough start to life as unfortunately we then lost Galilee, her mother, in the summer while the two of them were free-ranging in the Cairngorm Mountains. Holy Moley has managed to muscle through on her own by keeping herself with the herd, stealing milk from other females and I suspect by having a bit of fight in her she will go on to be a big strong female reindeer herself. She certainly didn’t give up in the hole and every time we catch up with her on the mountains she makes sure she’s first to get her head in a bag of feed… She knows we’ll look after her!

Holy Moley in September, complete (once again) with bald patch, this time after the vet had to remove her badly broken antler!

Fiona