November has been a busy month. We’ve had the first decent snow higher up on the hills, the free ranging reindeer have been showing their beautiful faces at the hill enclosure every few days, adoptions are coming in thick and fast so lots of letters are streaming out of the office, sleigh training has continued in Glenmore and the first Christmas teams have been on the road! The ‘Christmas reindeer’ have all been totally super and have made us very proud. So this truly is a mixed bag of pics that I’ve taken over the past few weeks! Enjoy…
August has been a fun month. The first half of the month was super busy with holiday makers but as Scottish schools went back the second half of the month got slightly quieter with visitors and we’ve been having lots of free range action which I love. Generally we start to see the free ranging females more as they come down in altitude as the weather gets cooler. Towards the end of the month we also start bringing in the mums and their calves back into the enclosure. They spend June through to August/early September out roaming the hills learning how to be little wild reindeer and enjoying all the best grazing, but when the autumn rolls around it’s time for them to learn what a feed bag is and in time, how to walk on a halter etc. The following photos are a small snapshot of what’s been occurring…
April has been a busy month with some glorious spring weather and some incredibly wild winter weather too. The first half of the month saw the Easter Holidays so we had lots of visitors around – some days we put on an additional Hill Trip in the afternoon when the morning visit sold out, and in the afternoons we ran “Seasonal Herder Talks” in our Paddocks. The second half of the month was busy with moving reindeer around getting them in the right places for the fast-approaching calving season… exciting! Pregnant females were brought into our hill enclosure and the “single ladies” (mostly the old girls retired from breeding or ones having a year off motherhood) were put back out to free range after a quick health check in the enclosure.
It’s been a fun month watching antlers casting and growing, and bellies widen on our pregnant females! Bring on calving season!
This year I will endeavor to make the last blog of the month a photo blog with a collection of pictures taken over the month. So here’s some highlights from January! A month when the Centre shuts and we crack on with lots of office work and general maintenance tasks such as painting the Exhibition floor and oiling the Christmas harness. But inevitably, I don’t take any photos of that stuff, so instead it’s just lots of lovely pics of reindeer!
Emm is one of our wonderful regular volunteers, and has written many blogs for us in the past. You can find out more about Emm by reading one of her previous blogs here: how reindeer herding changes me.
I visited the reindeer in April for 11 days which was over Easter. It was so brilliant seeing all the reindeer, herders and dogs again. I go and say hi to everyone at Reindeer House the day before I start. I went into the living room/kitchen and the room was empty. I started fussing Sookie the dog who was chilling in the armchair when I heard a sudden bleating noise . I had no idea where it was coming from then I realised it was coming from a big cardboard box. I peered in and saw a little lamb. It turned out it was a 2 day old lamb called Derren Brown (named after the illusionist). He is a Soay Lamb who was found without his mum in the field at Tilly’s farm. The herders were hand-rearing him with bottle-feeds. When I bottle-fed him, Fraoch the puppy licked him and cleaned the milk away from Derren’s face.
Most of the daytime, Derren went into Reindeer House’s garden and had a little pen. He was allowed out of the pen if someone was in the garden with him. The dogs were really good with him and I am sure he thought he was a dog. Derren chased the dogs and also loved to chase people’s feet. When we had lunch in the garden or we were just out in the garden and people saw a lamb running around with the dogs, they were so surprised and amazed. They asked loads of questions and took lots of photos and videos. Some even thought he was a baby reindeer. One day Derren helped me hoover Reindeer House and pack the Christmas cards and when I was doing feed mixing, Derren was trying to climb on the bags. He followed us around everywhere.
Over the 10 days I was helping out there were a lot of fun and interesting things I shared with all the herders.
Finding the Free-rangers
Most of the 11am hill trips were to the free ranging females who were free in the Cairngorm Mountains. We had different visit sites depending on where the reindeer were found in the morning. There were also a group of reindeer in the hill enclosure and if the 11am trip was full, we ran another trip to the hill enclosure reindeer in the afternoon. I enjoyed doing some of the talking parts on the hill trips and in some afternoons, the herders did talks in the paddocks.
Each morning, 2 herders went to find the free-ranging reindeer in the Cairngorm Mountains and brought them down to a suitable visit site for the visitors. It could be a long and steep walk for them as the reindeer like to go high up and also over the hills.
One morning, I was lucky enough to go and find the reindeer with Ruth and Harry. We had a steep climb and when we got to the top, we located the reindeer. Ruth tried to get the them to follow her with her food bag and calling them but they wouldn’t follow her so she put Ochil on a head collar and started walking down the steep hill to the suitable visit spot. The reindeer usually follow as they like to stay together as a herd. Meanwhile, me and Harry were pushing the reindeer from the back and made sure they all followed.
When we got to the visit spot, we let the calves (who were nearly 1) eat from the food bags. Ruth and Harry took the calves temperatures to make sure they weren’t brewing something as they are still building up their immune system. We fed them and Trilby had 2 antlers when she was feeding from the bag but after we fed them, and were counting them, I noticed Trilby had lost an antler. We all looked for her antler which we found.
We then realised there was 8 reindeer missing as there should have been 68 but we had 60. We went around the reindeer identifying them to see who was missing. Ruth was ticking off all the names. It was like doing a school register! After the Hill Trip, the reindeer wandered off but were found later on the ski road so Lisette led them away from the road. Later that day Harry was in the hill enclosure and spied the 8 missing reindeer from this morning so Lotti went out to the 8 and led them into the hill enclosure as in a few days time the rest of the free-rangers were going to go into the hill enclosure ready for the calving season.
Heavily Pregnant Reindeer
It is an exciting time of year to be up as some of the females are heavily pregnant. They have big tummies and it is amazing to think that a tiny reindeer calf is growing inside them. Hen showed me on a few reindeer where their udders were starting to show. Reindeer have fluffy udders. When they start to grow, the fur is a triangle shape under their bottom.
All the herders have a calving bet each year. Each herder chooses a reindeer who they think will calve first. I chose Scully.
One day, Ruth went to the farm to get some more reindeer for the hill enclosure and paddocks. Lulu and Gazelle went into the paddocks. Me, Ruth and Amy took Morse, Clouseau, Diamond, Aztec, Kiruna and Cannellini up to the hill enclosure. I led Clouseau and Cannellini. A dog off the lead behind them spooked them and Ruth told the dog’s owner to stay as far back as possible as reindeer think dogs are wolves and are very scared of them. When we lead the reindeer to and from the hill enclosure, we have to keep an eye out for dogs as it is a public path. When they spotted the other reindeer in the hill enclosure, it made them jump.
On another day, me, Fiona and Zoe took Celt and Spartan from the paddocks to the hill enclosure. I led Celt. On the way back, we took Aztec and Morse from the hill enclosure to the paddocks and this time I led Morse. When we transport reindeer, we use a big animal lorry called Brenda. I think it can fit 8 reindeer in, depending on how big their antlers are. It has a partition inside it too.
The Adventurous Hill Trip
I did a hill trip on the free-range with Amy, Harry and Carol. We met the people in the carpark and we then realised the reindeer were on the path next to the carpark. They had made their way down the hill from the visit spot to the path next to the carpark. It was the first time that it happened to me.
Amy led the visitors up the hill with the food bag calling to the reindeer to follow her. Me and Harry herded the reindeer from the back. I was so focused with herding the reindeer that I fell into a knee-deep bog! My knees to my toes got soaked and I had to empty the bog water out of my wellies after I climbed out of it. Eventually we managed to get the visitors and reindeer to the top of the hill where the visit was happening.
The Reindeer Herding Badge
There is a very special badge going around the herders. Whoever has it passes it on to someone who they think deserves it. This could be a herder doing something very special or doing something above and beyond.
I did some Christmas card packing (6 cards in a pack). I did it on and off through the time I was there. When I was a way through packing, I realised some people had been packing 2 designs and some people had been packing 3 designs. And they were all mixed up. So I went all through the packs sorting them into 2 designs and 3 designs. I was so busy and worried about it I missed a hill trip. Ruth who had the special badge thought I deserved it for my work and gave it to me and I was so happy I got it.
I passed it onto Lotti a few days later as on a hill trip Lotti thought Holy Moley’s wee was a different colour so she sat with her for ages until she went for another wee. Me and Amy left her on the free-range sitting by Holy Moley. It was very important to check if it was the right colour or if it had any blood in it. If it has blood in it, it means the reindeer could have Red Water Fever caused by a tick bite. Luckily she was fine.
To be continued! Look out next week for the second installment of Emm’s blog.
As you will probably know by now, we have put together a Naked Reindeer Herders 2023 Calendar!
The photo belonging to each month, was taken on, or very close to, that month in 2021 or 2022 so the reindeer look appropriate to the seasons throughout the calendar. Joe had the difficult job of being photographer. It really was a hard task and I think he’s done an awesome job. He had to contend with many challenges including the weather, figuring out 13 different poses, directing the reindeer, generally being around to take the pics (he’s a busy guy and works away quite a lot), and the biggest challenge of all… directing the herders who mostly try to avoid cameras, even when fully clothed.
Oh and Joe (aka “Mr September”) also had another big challenge. He had to face a rutting bull for his photo so he definitely wins the bravery award!
This wee blog shows what went on behind the scenes at two of the naked calendar photo shoots… July and our cover picture.
One of the challenges with any animal is keeping them healthy. Just as with humans, reindeer can be affected by a number of diseases and ailments. Whilst they are tough, hardy creatures, one of the largest threats is diseases spread by ticks. With climate change leading to milder, wetter winters, the ticks are not always knocked back so hard each year, so there is an increase in numbers. We mostly see tick-borne illness affecting our reindeer in the Spring and Autumn, with May/June and September being the worst months.
So how can you tell that a reindeer is under the weather? When our herd are spending time either in the hill enclosure or at our hill farm, our most important tool is food! A happy, content reindeer will be eager for their breakfast, and visitors on the Hill Trips may have seen that we routinely put out a long line of food, big enough for each reindeer to find a pile, and then count the herd (who are now conveniently stood in a line). Of course they don’t reliably stand still… counting accurately definitely takes a bit of practice.
At this point, there is a chance that the numbers don’t add up. You know that there should be 35 reindeer in the herd, but after three counts you’re still counting just 34. The next step is to work out who it is, which is why new herders get it drilled into them to learn the names! Everyone has a slightly different technique here – I walk along the line literally saying each name out loud, “Rubiks, Feta, Scrabble…” then when I get to the end of the line I can look at a list of who should be there and I’ll remember who I didn’t see.
As a herd animal, most reindeer are rarely off on their own, so to have one reindeer missing can be a sign they are unwell, feeling miserable, and haven’t followed the herd. But depending on the reindeer it can just mean they’re off on a jolly! But either way, if a reindeer is AWOL in the enclosure, we’ll head out and look for them, taking a wee bag of tasty food and a headcollar. At certain times of the year I seem to spend half my time trudging round the enclosure. At 1,200 acres and including a mountain, it keeps us fit and we sometimes can’t manage to find a missing reindeer if they don’t want to be found. Usually though we eventually come across them, and we either pop a headcollar on and lead them back, or if they’re a bit wilder we herd them in.
Next step is to check their temperature. Whilst they’re distracted with a bag of food, we use a thermometer, inserted… round the back end… to check if it is high or low. The “normal” temperature for a reindeer is 38.9, with a bit of normal variation – some run a bit high or low. But if its above 39.5, they’re running a fever. Most of the time this doesn’t require a vet to visit – we can inject antibiotics ourselves and in most cases this sorts them out in a day or two. We’ll usually keep them split off with a friend in a smaller part of the enclosure until they’re recovered, to keep an eye on them.
Sometimes poorly reindeer have stuck with the herd, but when we pop the feed out, they stand off looking morose, head low, perhaps even lying down – lying down with chin down on the ground is a red flag. This is particularly noticeable with the greedier characters, who suddenly undergo a personality change! On other occasions reindeer are with the herd, eating on the line, but there is just something about them that suggests all is not well. It’s a bit like knowing there is something wrong with your partner or friend, even through they’re going through all of the motions. There’s definitely a bit of experience and intuition involved here – I can’t always put a finger on it but am always quite pleased with myself when I decide to take a temperature on a hunch and am proved correct!
The other thing we keep a close eye on is the colour of pee… (its a delightful job working with animals!). Reindeer can be affected by a tiny parasite called babesia (similar to the parasite that causes malaria), which is again transmitted by ticks. This delightful critter can make reindeer very poorly indeed – one of the main effects is that the red blood cells are broken down, leading to the reindeer literally peeing blood – so looking each time you hear a tinkle is a great way to spot this. The nickname for the illness is “Red Water Fever” – referring to this red urine. Affected reindeer are usually also incredibly miserable and quiet. Again, we can treat this, but if it’s not spotted quickly enough (for example if we can’t find a reindeer, or if they become ill whilst out free-ranging, where we don’t see every reindeer every day) then it is possible for reindeer to die from it.
As these illnesses are caused by ticks, and the ticks are affected by the weather, we tend to get runs where several reindeer get ill within a few days, and it can feel like everything is against us as we battle to keep the herd healthy. Prevention-wise, we spend a lot of time waging war on ticks – we use a similar product to that used on dogs and cats which we apply between the front legs of the reindeer which helps stop ticks biting. We regularly feel in the hot-spots (around the ears, under the chin, in the armpits) and pick off any ticks that we find. And we use a vaccine to help protect against red water fever, but its not 100% effective.
We always look forward to the tick-free winter season, where we can breathe a sigh of relief and relax a little. Our reindeer lead happy lives being able to roam free in their natural habitat, and face none of the health issues that can be caused by a poorer diet or not being able to roam, but the pay-off is that there is more risk from ticks. I’m sure there must be a purpose for ticks existing in the ecosystem, but I’m afraid I struggle to see what it could be! Until we somehow manage to exterminate the lot of them, we’ll stay vigilant, and do our best to keep our reindeer healthy.