Autumn is definitely here now, even if we have tried to ignore the fact the leaves are turning and days getting shorter… however it’s not all bad cos it’s the time of year that reindeer are looking at their absolute best. The past 5 months have been full on for the bulls growing these enormous antlers. Bovril, Balmoral, Bandy (not all bulls begin with ‘B’), Ost, Houdini, Pera and Kota (there we go) are a few of our main breeding bulls this year and they have all got a fantastic pair of antlers to complement their voluptuous curves (fatties!).
So we get to the end of August and wait with baited breath to who will be first to strip their velvet. Ost was number one. He is a 3 year old bull, just a youngster, so this will be his first year of being the main man. The others took a few days but then we were well underway with velvet hanging off left, right and centre. Balmoral stripped his velvet in the paddocks so with visitors going around we had to pre warn them of his gory state as it can look quite bloody, even though there is no feeling in the antlers at this point. He is now back on the hill with the others. It was fairly amusing walking this huge, quite terrifying looking bull out of our livestock truck, across the Sugarbowl trail to our mountain enclosure and he walked like a true gent. Makes us so proud of them!
The first to strip velvet are the main breeding bulls, then young bulls and females are next in line. The gelded males don’t always strip their velvet clean and end up with velvety antlers over the Christmas period which is fine and means they don’t look so terrifying with big bony antlers, even though we all know they are far from terrifying.
Antler is an amazing thing and there hasn’t been much study on it. For so much bone to grow over such a short period of time, it is incredible! Another cool antler fact is if a reindeer damages or breaks an antler one year, the antler that grows the next year (keeping in mind it’s a whole new antler) will remember the break/damage and it will have a scar in that same spot. At that point it will always be slightly weaker… Hmm, that’s pretty weird you have to admit.
I remember the day Grunter was born. Dixie, his mum, was only two years old at the time and rather than taking herself away from the herd to find a nice wee spot to calve she stuck with them and joined in with our daily guided tour. Things all happened very fast for her and before she knew it, mid hand feeding time for our visitors, Dixie popped out a tiny wee bundle which was Grunter! Much to her surprise she really didn’t know what to do next, instinct didn’t kick in and she legged it off up the hill in panic. Sally and Kathleen were on the visit that day so they reported down for a contingent of herders to come onto the hill to help out.
Alex and Emily first came up to help out getting Dixie back and taking herself and Grunter (who obviously wasn’t named at this point) back to our shed and penned area on the hill. I then joined them to help get Grunter to suckle as it is very important for them to get their first milk which is the colostrum. This plays an vital part in their immune system at the very beginning but also for the rest of their life! Dixie was extremely unsettled and actively using her feet to shoo Grunter away from her so we had to use a bit of brute force as Grunter needed to get the milk. We also supplemented with some formula from the vet, just in case he didn’t get a full quota.
For the next few days we didn’t want to keep them separate in case there was a small chance Dixie would take to having a calf. We left the two of them up in the shed area for a few days but also went up early mornings and late nights to give Grunter a bottle of milk. It was at this point he got his name as Sally and I were walking up towards their pen one morning and the demanding sound of ‘grunt… grunt… grunt’ was echoing. It was a nickname which of course stuck, as most nicknames do with the reindeer. It became very apparent over the next few days and weeks that Dixie was not going take on Grunter so we decided it was best for her to head for the summer free range with the other cows and calves and we would hand rear the wee man ourselves.
Another few days passed and then we sadly lost a female, called Maisie, who had a female calf of 10 days old so now we had two! Its unusual enough having one, let alone two to hand rear in one year – we were left well and truly holding the babies… We named her Hippo as she was as hungry as a hippo when it came to giving them their bottle of milk. The two of them were thick as thieves however it was definitely Hippo leading Grunter astray, he would follow along like a lost little brother. Everyday they would go up and down the hill with us spending the day up there and then back down to our paddocks here at the Centre at night. Not only did we have two reindeer to hand rear but we also ended up with two red deer (from our Glenlivet farm) to bottle feed so it was a right wee crèche out there.
As always they grow up far too fast but it was such a great summer with them. They were full of fun and mischief. Usually reindeer wean off the bottle of milk round October time but Grunter (not Hippo) was very much still enjoying his bottles of milk right into December and even had them while out and about on Christmas events. As a teenager Grunter was a bit of a handful as he loved jumping on people. He has managed to include most of us reindeer herders in that too. Reindeer herder Anna will remember Grunter’s hooves reaching her shoulders in the paddocks and I remember once I was calling the reindeer down and Grunter decided that was his time to pounce (literally) therefore during those younger years Grunter was sent to the farm for the summer months where he couldn’t pick on the general public… or reindeer herders! However he did mellow when he got to about 3-4 years old and he turned into the most amazing reindeer – he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.
When out on Christmas tour I have taken him into old peoples homes and children’s hospitals where patients have been bed bound. The delighted looks on their faces to meet Grunter was priceless. We went to visit my Grandpa when he was fairly frail at his home on the south east coast and we got Grunter right in his conservatory to meet and greet, needless to say my grandpa was delighted! I have had very young children lead him around as he is totally trust worthy. Candice and Pandra (long term supporters of the herd) will have fond memories of Grunter on tour, I think he was a bit of a guardian in the pen when little Pandra would walk round, the other reindeer wouldn’t give her a hard time if Grunter was by her side. That was the only slightly naughty thing about Grunter was that he was so tame and used to humans that he didn’t think twice about giving the other reindeer a bit of a hard time… or was it keeping them in check within the herd, not sure. When we stopped at service stations to fill with fuel Grunter would make himself known by grunting to seek a bit of attention, which let’s face it if he was in my team he always got… I did spoil him rotten!
When back at home he was always used as a role model, whether it be training new reindeer to pull the sleigh, to lead the herd in or moving them round on the hill side. When loading into the livestock truck Grunter wouldn’t even break his stride to go up the ramp which showed how comfortable he was and gave the younger inexperienced reindeer comfort in travelling. He definitely had a cheeky side though and sometimes when pushing the herd in Grunter would leap around dancing and refusing to go through gate ways… he was playing like a naughty child and avoiding doing what we wanted him to do because he knew us so well.
Grunter died almost exactly eight years to the day after he was born. He was over at our hill farm having spent the winter free ranging on the Cromdale Hills. Over the past year he hasn’t seemed to put on weight quite as much as we liked however his spirits were always high. On his last night with us Tilly shut him in so he could get a good pile of lichen to himself and as she left she just pushed the gate to, not quite latching it shut. In true Grunter style he finished up the yummy stuff and then pushed his way out the pen. He headed to the top of the hill beside a birch woodland and that’s where he died. Tilly found him in the morning so we buried him up there in the woodland with a good view of the Cromdale Hills. We suspect his shortened life may have been from not getting the best start to life in the first place and maybe not having as strong an immune system, but this is just speculation, maybe he had something underlying that we didn’t find. The main thing was he was never in pain or horrifically ill, he was the same old Grunter from beginning to end.
Reindeer like Grunter are rare and he has no doubt crossed paths with many of you whether it be here at home in the Highlands of Scotland, out and about on Christmas tour, or both! Feel free to write your story / memory of Grunter and let’s share the antics of this amazing reindeer!
Grunter in 2008, the year he was born, followed by him in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!
The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!
As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)
Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.
Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.
NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.
The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!
Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!
Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!
Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.
First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.
It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!
One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.
We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!
This is the third and final installment of Sonya’s blog about her week volunteering with us and the reindeer. Thanks so much again to Sonya for all of her hard work and we hope you have enjoyed reading all about what our volunteers and staff get up to on a daily basis!
(Here’s a handy link to the first and second parts of Sonya’s blog)
Day Five of an Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
I only worked a half day today and started at 2pm, it looked like it could be a dry day in Aviemore but by the time I got to Glenmore it was raining as usual. Fiona was making buttons out of slices of antler, to sell in the shop, first she saws the antler into tiny slices, a bit like you would a cucumber, I’m amazed she still has all her fingers. Then she thoroughly sands each tiny piece on both sides until it’s as smooth as glass, then drills two tiny holes in the centre so it can be sewn on.
I started by sorting out the hire wellington boots today, we try to keep them on racks in size order so that it’s easy to find a suitable pair to hire out to visitors. Bizarrely there are three odd boots, a size 5, 6 and 10 with no partner. We have all looked everywhere for the missing ones to no avail.
Only four people are booked on the 2:30 hill trip so Dave suggests I do some of the talking, He says its less intimidating if its a small group but I am just concerned they won’t hear me over the noisy, raging torrent of water at Utsi’s bridge where we pause for the history segment but they huddled close and it was fine. We had to take more feed up than usual today so Dave and I had a sack each and asked for a volunteer to carry the hand feed, which they were only too happy to do. When we put the feed down, only 28 reindeer arrived which means 10 are missing and two are separated in the sick pen because they have upset stomachs. This is probably because they have over eaten and gorged themselves on grass. One of the greedy grass eaters is Gandi so I am especially worried, Dave shakes his head when I express concern which I take to mean there is no hope for Gandi’s recovery, but Dave quickly reassures me that Gandi is likely to recover in 24 hours, just like we do when we have an upset stomach. Must be an antipodean thing, shaking your head when it’s not bad news, but the frequent misunderstandings keep us entertained. I think I am mostly to blame for these as I have often misunderstood foreign tourists, much to Dave’s entertainment. I don’t easily recognise accents but it seems a good conversation starter to ask people where they are from, the problem is they ask me the same question back and we try to answer each other too soon and it gets very confusing to the point where I thought a young couple were asking me if I was from Paris when really they were telling me that’s where they were from. I am learning it’s safer to just listen and nod, and not ask too many questions.
Day Six of a Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
Back to the early morning start today which was a struggle, but at least it wasn’t raining. Dave and I were on paddock duty i.e poop scooping, and we cleared up the shed where the paddock reindeer have sheltered while it’s been so wet, then we did some weeding before going on the 11.00 hill trip. I think I can say Dave and I have now got a well practised routine, I do the ‘welcome’ at the car park and the ‘history’ at Utsi Bridge and he does the ‘health and safety’ at the enclosure and the ‘reindeer characteristics’ at the herd. At feeding time today we were trying to get all the reindeer from the bottom corridor into the east enclosure and about 15 of them were well spread out and comfy in the bottom corridor so Dave suggested I go and get them so they don’t miss lunch. If I was better at it I suppose I should have been able to get them all in one go but they were so far apart I found it difficult to keep them all moving so I resorted to doing small groups of three or four at a time. I went up and down the hill in the bottom corridor many times and I think it was me who needed lunch more than the reindeer by the time I got them all. By the time I was able to bring up the rear with the last of the stragglers, the first visitors were leaving, but they all seemed to have had a good time so no worries. When I join Dave he tells me he thinks we only have 39 instead of the requisite 40 reindeer. I am seriously dismayed and set about my own count but they are moving around now as the food is mostly gone. It takes me two attempts but I count 40, twice, just to make sure.
In the afternoon I do the hill trip with Julia, the weather is glorious and we have a few small children in the group, I am leading the first part and Julia is bringing up the rear. I end up waiting ages at the bridge for the back end of the group to join us. Julia has really aching legs from running up a mountain yesterday. She cleverly disguises her slow progress by making it look like the small children are holding her up! But this photo reveals the truth, as she hobbled back down once the tourists had gone.
At the end of my penultimate day I’ve already had to say goodbye to Hen and Abby. It will be difficult to part company with everyone else tomorrow, when my placement comes to an end.
Day Seven of Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder
Ah the last day…….awoke to a lovely morning and I thought you might like to see the tough commute I’ve had each morning, the traffic has been heavy as you can see and the views along this road can be distracting on a bright day, as you can see by the view of Loch Morlich below.
So my last morning began with a trip up the hill with Fiona and Dave to give the reindeer their breakfast. The sun was quite warm even though it was early in the day so the reindeer took a lot of rousing to make their way up the hill, they like to lounge around when it’s warm and it takes a lot of coaxing and shaking of the feed sack to get them going. Fiona asked me to put my half of the feed out to coax the other stragglers up so this is the first group lined up for breakfast.
Gandi seems to be poorly again because he doesn’t express any interest in breakfast and stays sitting at the gate far away. Upon closer inspection it turns out he has a very upset stomach. We try to usher him into the sick pen for Fiona to check his temperature but it’s risky getting too close behind him because his ‘issues’ are non-stop. The unflappable Dave accuses me of being squeamish and shoves Gandi onwards and upwards with little or no regard for his own hygiene. Gandi’s temperature is a little high but not dangerously so, Fiona thinks he’s just been gorging on too much grass again. I wondered why he does it if it makes him ill and Fiona thinks its because it tastes so nice. I guess it’s a bit like us having so much ice cream we get a headache or so much chocolate we feel sick, but we just can’t resist it. Well it seems Gandi has no will power, little sense and a weak constitution. “Sorry Gandi, does that sound harsh? You’re still my favourite but to be fair, you been poorly for more days than you’ve been well, this week”. Despite being so handsome, it’s certain he will be castrated this year. It’s uncertain if he ever did father any calves but if he did, they will be three years old this year and ready to start breeding themselves. Therefore, to avoid any possible in-breeding, Gandi’s new career path will involve being a Christmas reindeer, which I am sure he will excel at. I am a little sad he’ll never grow those lovely graceful silver antlers again so here’s one more photo of them as he munches on some lichen with Moose. For any fans of Moose, he’s fine and well, he’s just keeping Gandi company. Wherever possible, reindeer are never in a position where they do anything alone, it would just distress them more to feel like they were being singled out and not part of the herd.
After a few more busy hill trips throughout the morning, including one at 11:00 that I did completely alone, it was time for lunch and then manning the shop single-handedly for the first time. I’ve not really done much in the shop, beyond clean it, up to this point. But Dave and Julia are the only other herders working today and they really need to do the last hill trip of the day, in case Gandi needs an antibiotic injection.
Dave has christened me the retail queen due to my previous work and assumes I will be fine to just step in and run the shop. I am quick to point out that the tills I used were computerised and not quite like this one. After a quick lesson from Julia, they’re off and the shop is all mine. In case you shopped here on Sunday 19th June, I would like to apologise to any customers who had to wait while I wandered round the shop with a calculator checking the prices and adding up their purchases. In case I worked with you in the past, I would like to point out, in my defence, that there are no barcodes and this beautiful vintage till does not actually add up, nor work out the change! Several postcards, pens, souvenir bags and one expensive reindeer hide later, the day is suddenly over and after closing the paddocks for the last time, its time to go home. It’s been very hard work but the MOST rewarding time I have had, so immense thanks to the Reindeer Centre for this amazing experience and for being the subject of this blog, hope to see you again soon.
So as most, if not all of you know, Glenmore where we are based and the surrounding area is rich in wildlife, and it is always a delight to see other creatures on our walks to the reindeer, as well as the reindeer themselves. It’s been such lovely weather recently and we have seen and heard a wide array of birds and other creatures recently, so I thought you might like to know what to look and listen out for on your trip up to the reindeer in the spring and summer.
The village of Glenmore is surrounded by Caledonian pine forests. Our bird table in the garden attracts lots of little songbirds, including chaffinches, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, siskins, green finches and even crested tits, which are usually quite shy and we take as a sign that snow may be on the way. We get ducks, pigeons and dunnocks on the ground around the table, tidying up after their small friends and we even get woodpeckers on the peanut holder occasionally. We often have red squirrels visit our bird table too, and one in particular at the moment who looks very scruffy and has a broken looking tail
The path on our walk to the reindeer is lined by trees and there are many animals and birds which call the forest home. Most often seen are chaffinches, as they seem to be less shy than other birds. To borrow a phrase from Hen, the trees are “dripping in willow warblers”, which we always hear and sound familiar to chaffinches, but are more ‘flutey’. We also cross a river on the way to the enclosure which means we see birds associated with water. Just a few weeks ago we saw a dipper on the rocks, bobbing away looking for food. We also see grey wagtails, with their yellow bums, and pied wagtails too. Very lucky visitors can also get a glimpse of our ‘tame’ roe deer. Occasionally we see her just to the side of the path, or even in the car park. She doesn’t seem too bothered by us but we always try to keep quiet if she is around. The visitors get very excited that they’ve seen a deer even before getting to the enclosure!
Inside the enclosure, we encounter upland birds and often see red grouse, hearing them shout ‘go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back’ at us as they fly off. There are often curlews calling to each other, wood pigeon, crows, and cuckoos in the forests. If you’ve been on the visits, you’ll know that we are also plagued by ducks from Loch Morlich!
Ring ouzels, a migratory bird which breeds in the north of Scotland during summer, are often seen flying around too. They are fairly similar in size and shape to a blackbird, and look similar to them to except that they have a white collar on their chest. There are some black grouse too, but they are very shy and we only see them when we go up early in the morning. We have snipe in the enclosure, and I once almost stepped on a snipe nest when I was trekking last year!
We recently had some nesting wagtails in the shed in our hill enclosure. The fledglings were so cute and fluffy!
There are always a few roe deer in the enclosure and on our early morning jaunts to look for calving females we often hear them barking. We even seen red deer in the enclosure and Abby and Andi were super lucky to see an osprey flying over the enclosure. We have a few mountain hares running around and a couple of leverets always seem to be hanging around our shed area. We have toads, lizards, mice, weasels and lots and lots of midges too! And years ago Hen was walking along the boardwalk when she and a mole, of all things, passed each other – on the boardwalk!
Jack Ward’s fantastic photographs can be viewed at his Facebook page – Alba Wildlife
**Sidenote: Abby wanted me to call this blog “Oot and Aboot with Imogen” but I refused. This blogging business is much too serious for trivial blog titles, obviously.
The second installment of Sonya’s blog about volunteering is here! The weather isn’t so great in this blog but Sonya’s enthusiasm shines through. If you missed the first installment, here’s a link to days 1 and 2 of Sonya’s week with us.
The weather is dreadful today, I have become obsessed with the weather forecast so I am aware the rain is due to last at least two days or more, this calls for waterproofs and a certain strength of spirit to face heading outside and up the hill. Fiona and Abby take me to help separate six reindeer from the rest of the herd. There is a pre-booked trek the next day so we are getting the trekking reindeer in a separate enclosure, we must be sure to include Bingo in the smaller group as his adoptee is one of the trekkers. As the reindeer head through two gates, my task is to count them to ensure they all come in for breakfast. A simple task you’d think. Well it would have helped if they stood still, or even if they moved at a steady pace in an orderly manner. A few times they stop, then rush through two or three at a time, or occasionally shove their way through the wrong gate and have to come back and be encouraged through the correct gate. I’m aiming to reach a total of thirty five. By the time I’m up to seventeen or was it fifteen….., I’m hoping Abby or Fiona are double checking me and counting too. By the time we get to the last reindeer, I’m only up to thirty two but not feeling too confident about my total.
After settling the smaller group of six, we set about feeding the larger group which means we can more easily recount them. I’m not sure what to wish for at this point because if there are twenty-six it means my count was accurate, but if there are twenty-nine it means all the reindeer are here and we don’t have to walk the 1200 acre enclosure in this downpour, looking for them. There are twenty-six. Three are missing and one of them is my Gandi. Fiona thinks they’re likely to turn up for the 11:00 feed to we don’t rush into looking for them, we will have to do that if they’re not hanging around by then. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to miss the odd feeding session at this time of year as there are such tasty nibbles available elsewhere in the form of a variety of new green shoots all across the hillside.
With all this counting of reindeer and trying to identify which ones are missing, I’ve learnt another name today. I had noticed Puddock’s antlers before, without knowing his name. They are many branching but he is castrated so they don’t grow so tall. They end up in a tangled mass going every which way. He was born in 2007 when calves were named after green things like Fern and Meadow. I didn’t know what a Puddock was but I’m reliably informed it’s an old Scottish term for a frog. My education continues.
I spent quite a lot of time in the shop today as a rainy day is a good opportunity to wipe everything down and have a general tidy up and restock. Some hardy individuals are still out and about in this awful weather and there is a steady stream of bookings for the 11:00 hill trip so the waterproofs are back on and up we go again. Despite the weather I’m eager to see if Gandi has turned up since this morning and sure enough, when we get up to the hill, he’s there at the gate with two companions, all indignant at missing breakfast. We have an adopter on this hill trip who is eager to see Dragonfly but he is not on the hillside at the moment. Dragonfly is due to arrive later in the afternoon as he is currently on the farm and coming over to take his turn in the paddocks. So his adopter can have a leisurely lunch and pop back to see him later on.
Fiona’s brother Alex arrives at lunch time with the reindeer from the farm. He has Ross with him who I haven’t met before. I remembered Imogen’s suggestion about how to look like a local and wear less clothing, so I guess Ross is a true Scot as it is the coolest and wettest of days and Ross is wearing the flimsiest of shorts! I began to share the joke with him and merrily tell the tale of Imogen’s advice…. At the end of my story, Ross looks at me in a confused way and simply says “Sorry?”.
He hasn’t understood a word of what I said, in what must sound to him, like a broad southern accent. My joke is wasted and he thinks I’m crazy! Oh well, you can’t win them all, so we get back to the reindeer.
The plan is to put them in the paddocks and take the current paddock reindeer up to the hill enclosure. I’m not sure how we managed to achieve this swap over but it seemed a well-practised opening and closing of multiple gates and trailers until eventually the right reindeer were in the paddock and the others were stowed in the trailer to go up the hill. We all squeezed in ‘Brenda the truck’ for the short journey but there aren’t quite enough seats so Fiona bravely gets in the back with the reindeer. It’s a big novelty for me to lead them along the public footpath, over Utsi’s bridge and up to the enclosure, I find myself hoping a walker will come along the path as I’d love to see the look on their faces as five reindeer on halters are lead past them, but nobody comes by to witness the incongruous sight of reindeer using a footbridge and they are reunited with the herd without further incident.
Today is the day of the trek for a pre-booked party and I am heading up in the rain again, with Andi. It’s lovely to meet Andi as she was the herder I made contact with to seek this volunteering placement and it’s good for both of us to put a face to the name. Our fellow trekkers are Bessie and Joyce from Glasgow, Bessie has adopted Bingo for a few years and is keen to see him again. Our other companions are Susan and her granddaughter Mira from Whistler in Canada. They are on an extended trip to Scotland in an attempt to track down some family graves as they know their ancestors were from Scotland many generations ago. Susan has a deep love of all hooved animals, she has goats and sheep as pets at home in Canada, and Sooty the reindeer is her best friend within minutes. It’s a cold damp morning but at least it keeps the midges at bay and we ascend through low cloud to the peak of Silver Mount.
I am walking Camus, as a non-paying trekker it’s only fair that I take a reindeer that needs the practise and training, rather than the nice quiet obliging ones that the tourists get. Camus was a jittery boy for the ascent, jumping and prancing around until at one point it took all my strength to hang on to him. Until that point I had been trying to bring up the rear of the group so we didn’t leave anyone behind but Andi quite rightly suggested I bring him into the middle of the group. Reindeer are herd animals and nothing is more comforting to them than a bit of company and by this time I was keen to try anything to calm him down, I just hoped we didn’t end up losing any of the group in the mist on the mountain. When we reached the peak of Silver Mount we stopped for photos and a soggy snack before descending. When the rest of the herd were in sight we removed the reindeer halters and let them re-join their companions. Some other reindeer came to meet us, tempted by Andi’s stash of lichen. More photos were taken and sweet nothings were murmured to all our favourites and as we headed out of the enclosure the reindeer proved themselves to be in a friendly mood and followed us all along the boardwalk as far as the gate. I know they were just hopeful of more food but it looked for all the world like they were waving us off.
For me the summer solstice always fell on June 21st and I never knew otherwise however apparently this year it was on the 20th… Something to do with being a leap year?!? Anyway to mark the occasion it’s always quite nice to do something, whether we get a group of folk together and have a game of rounders or go for a nice ‘summery’ walk. This year we decided to take a wander up into the Northern Coire’s – Coire an Lochain in particular! Looking up from Glenmore and Loch Morlich this is the furthest right Coire with a large patch of snow on the right hand side of it. Mid-summer here always seems to be fairly awful weather, I even recall wearing my waterproof ski trousers for this about 4-5 years ago and in true Scottish Highlands style this year was no different. However, it wasn’t raining so we were already up on other years!
So we set off up the path into the Coire and it took us about an hour of which we chit chatted the whole way, of course putting the world to rights! Right in the back of Coire An Lochain there is, as stated in its name, a wee loch. We arrived with bags filled with tea and cake (very important for us reindeer herders), my bagpipes and four fairly hyper dogs (3 of them being under the age of two). As we arrived into the Coire something caught my eye… 4 reindeer behind the loch. Straight away dogs were called in and put on a leads, just in case, and I scooted over towards them to see if I could see who it was. Malawi, one of our older females in the herd at the age of 11 now was leading them away from us and she was followed by Okapi and two younger females (who I didn’t get close enough to, to ID). A three year old and a two year old, I got that much! They obviously weren’t too keen on coming up to us as we had the dogs but they did stop in their tracks when I started calling them, it was just unfortunate I didn’t any food as a bit of bribery to come a bit closer, then I would have definitely worked out the other two. Malawi is easy to identify because she has never grown any antlers which is pretty unusual.
Like I said the reindeer didn’t hang around as they don’t like dogs so we got onto what was also very important after our walk in – tea, cake and a quick blast on the bagpipes. I’m not really in practice at the moment so any wee slip up with notes I blamed on the cold weather and my fingers weren’t working properly but they sounded pretty awesome in the Coire getting good acoustics bouncing off the head wall. At this time of year it is light until about midnight and light again in the morning round 3.30am. Such a lovely time of year which is why we try to make the most of it by being outside. It’s a bit different in the winter months when it isn’t light until 9am and dark by 3.30pm but it’s also nice to have that comparison throughout the year too. Of course in the far north and Scandinavia they have the midnight sun… I shall have to go and see that one year for sure!
Sonya, author of this blog, came up to us in June to volunteer with our beautiful reindeer. She has very kindly written us a blog about her experience, and we will be sharing it over the next few weeks. Thanks so much to Sonya for coming along and being so helpful, and we really hope to see you again in the not too distant future!
In June 2016 I arrived for my volunteer placement at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore with no previous experience of working with animals but lots of enthusiasm and affection for the reindeer I had visited as a tourist many times before. I had recently taken the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my 20 year career and had a whole summer to fill before starting university in September. I had no idea what to expect but was seeking solace and comfort in the remoteness of the fabulous Cairngorms and the company of the placid reindeer. I was blessed with a rare dry day on the first Monday and arrived promptly at 8am alongside fellow herders Imogen who has a zoology degree and big-bearded Dave who I later found out to be exceedingly well travelled and originally from New Zealand. By the way, it’s the beard that’s big, not Dave himself.
So after meeting a confusing muddle of strangely named dogs, I was introduced to Fiona who runs the Centre, and tasks were allocated for the morning. Can you guess what my first job was? That’s right …… reindeer poop scooping. Keen to carry out all necessary tasks enthusiastically, I wielded the bespoke pooper scooper and collected a remarkable bucketful of the stuff from the paddocks. A few of the herd are kept in the paddocks for two weeks at a time so they are more accessible to very young, old or less-able visitors who can’t manage the hill trip to see the whole herd. After scooping all the poop I could find, transferring the contents of the bucket to a sack was a trickier and less appealing task but the trusty Dave was on hand to show how it’s done without spilling too much. I confess from that moment on I found myself a pair of gloves for this task and many others, much to Dave’s derision, I suspect. But hey, you can take the girl out of Essex………
I had a full and detailed explanation from Dave on how to open up the exhibition ready for visitors and spent some time replenishing the children’s craft materials, I wish I was 5 years old again so that I could make paper chains or make an antler headband, and draw colourful pictures of my reindeer friends. However, with pencils sharpened, loan wellies sorted into sizes and the shop vacuumed, it was time to set off on the first hill trip. The tourists were very impressed with Dave’s authentic appearance of bushy beard and battered green hat and took several photos of him and the van before we even set off. I’m convinced I need to change my image, which currently consists of generic walking attire, so as to appeal to the tourists but I am stuck for inspiration, more of this later.
On the first hill trip the cheeky Svalbard is overly friendly and pushes and prods me repeatedly with his antlers and nose. The tourists mistake his behaviour for affection and there are many oohs and aahs and clicks of cameras, however it’s far more likely that he recognised the smell of food on the jacket I was borrowing from the Reindeer Centre.
I also learnt that my adoptee ‘Gandi’ is there somewhere, in amongst the swirling sea of moulting coats and velvet antlers that greeted us. Correction, they are greeting the sack of food, not us, and I have learnt they couldn’t care less about us or how the food gets there. Despite this pragmatic realisation, I am still deluding myself that Gandi recognised me, if he could talk he’d even remember my name, of course!
I am delighted and relieved to see him in such good health with a remarkably majestic pair of antlers. I feel inordinately proud that I chose such a worthy recipient of my sponsorship, for he is also a recent TV star in the BBC Scotland programme about the Highlands due to be shown across other BBC regions in Autumn 2016.
After lunch Dave teaches me how to mix the reindeer food, I was keen to get started as I love a piece of machinery and rather ingeniously, I thought, a cement mixer is used to mix the food. And when you realise the quantity of food they get through, you realise why it’s necessary to mechanise the process. There is little demand for a commercially available reindeer food, as this is the only large free-ranging herd in the UK, so I was shown the recipe and the shed full of ingredients. We started with sheep food containing corn and grains, then added extra barley, some starchy sugar beet, some fibrous malt pellets which are a waste product from the numerous nearby distilleries, added a sprinkle of a secret mineral supplement and four big handfuls of hay enriched with garlic and molasses. Well this was all fascinating for me and I was enjoying making this tasty treat until we ran out of grain. Dave despatched me to the shed to fetch more barley, all good so far. I located the barley and saw with some dismay how huge the new sack was. I should mention at this point that I only manage to measure five feet with my shoes on, and the heaviest thing I’d lifted in my previous job was a bottle of Chanel No 5! Battle with the barley sack commenced but I should have been grateful for small mercies as some of the other ingredients are much heavier.
By the time we had mixed about half a cubic metre of food, it was a relief to leave behind the previously fascinating cement mixer, and head up to the hill again on the 2:30pm trip. Dave encouraged me to carry the sack of food but I chickened out and took the lighter and smaller sack of hand feed. Poor Dave gets the bigger, heavier sack yet again, but gallantry isn’t completely dead in my world!
Near the end of the trip Dave gets a phone call, we’re a 20 min walk from the nearest road and goodness knows how far from the nearest dwelling but amazingly there’s a mobile signal in the reindeer enclosure. I can’t always get one of those in flat, overpopulated Essex. Anyway the phone call is to invite me to the reindeer shed to see some vaccinations taking place where I met the famous Tilly, Fiona’s mum and owner of the herd. The injection is to help prevent the potentially fatal red water fever that can kill a reindeer if not caught early enough. Imogen had previously told me that Tilly always comes to administer these injections as there is a tiny chance the reindeer will go into anaphylactic shock and she has the most experience to deal with that possibility. Despite their huge antlers and sharp hooves, I had never felt even remotely intimidated by reindeer before. But closed in a tiny shed with six of them circling round and round in an effort to escape the needle, it felt a bit like being caught up in a whirling dervish of hoof and hair and taught me a greater respect for the fact they are still wild animals even though they generously humour us with their presence and grace.
Tuesday starts with much excitement and anticipation when Fiona tells me I can join her and Hen on a harness training session. Hen is the longest serving herder based at Reindeer House other than Fiona and I found out she can recognise and name every single reindeer, as can most of the herders. However, if a pair of antlers are cast in the autumn, Hen knows which reindeer they belonged to as she recognises the distinct and unique form of each and every reindeer’s antlers even when they’re no longer on the animal. The Cairngorm reindeer participate in many Christmas events across the country and it’s important they keep practising with the halter and harness throughout the year so that Christmas is a relaxed affair with no anxiety. Another treat for me is that my adoptee Gandi is one of the reindeer coming along on the practice session because he and Elvis are experienced trekkers and will set a good example to Camus, Balmoral and Shinty. I hadn’t met the last three reindeer before and I’m pleased to say they all did very well with their training. Shinty was the most reluctant to get going and he gave Hen a thorough workout by making her tug him up the hill, but with Gandi encouraging him from behind, we were soon underway on our circuit.
So this is Hen on the left and me on the right with reindeer (from left to right) Elvis, Shinty, Gandi, Camus and Balmoral. It was to be the last glimpse of the sun for several days so I’m glad I took up Fiona’s offer to take a photo of me with the reindeer and I sent it to my ex-colleagues to illustrate the dramatic difference to my working day.
The rest of the day was spent on hill trips with tourists, becoming more familiar with the information we impart to the eager visitors. Many people meet a favourite reindeer on their visit, as I did with Gandi, and decide to adopt them. In between the trips we all work on the biannual newsletter as it’s time to send it out to all the reindeer adopters. This edition of the newsletter features many tales of the reindeer and activities and events at the centre. There are some hilarious stories about Fergus, a hand-reared calf who has turned out to be a very cheeky boy indeed, and sadly, there’s a moving obituary to Grunter, a much loved reindeer who was also hand-reared when he was a calf.
I’ve learnt the name of another member of the herd today, the endearing Blue, who was named in the year of cheeses 2013. He was born with a condition which means he is very pale, almost completely white and he’s also deaf. Many visitors think he is albino but Imogen explained to me that albinism means a complete lack of pigment, whereas Blue just has a reduced level of pigment which means he is Leucistic. His skin is very pink and prone to sunburn and any broken skin could lead to infection so he has bright yellow ‘summer cream’ on his face which is a mix of sunscreen and insecticide to keep the midges away. Blue has been a bit slow to come for food today and hasn’t hand fed from the tourists as much as normal so on one of my hill trips with Imogen, it’s necessary to take his temperature once the visitors are gone. I’ve seen this before and it involves luring them close with an irresistible bucket of lichen to get a halter on them, one person holds the head while the other person takes the temperature from the ‘other end’. Whilst Imogen does the ‘business’ she regales me with detailed advice about insertion of the thermometer, which angle is best, how long to leave it in, etc. I decide it’s time to manage her expectations and make it clear, I’m happy to learn the theory, but as far as practise goes, I think I’ll remain at the head end, thank you very much!
Today I also discussed with Imogen how I could possibly look less like a tourist when we take the visitors out. Her insightful but wildly impractical suggestion is that I should dress for conditions at least ten degrees warmer, so go up the hill in just a t-shirt when everyone else is in hats and jackets, and claim it’s a warm day. I fear this soft southerner might catch her death if she attempted that, so I bear it in mind but keep my multiple layers firmly in place.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!
Spring and early summer is a wonderful time here at Glenlivet because the farm comes alive with very noisy breeding birds, in particular waders like Curlew, Oyster catchers and Lapwings.
All three species are ground nesting so vulnerable to disturbance, intensive farming and predation. Because of the remote nature of Glenlivet area, the traditional way farming is practiced and the fact that it is an active sporting estate all helps the plight of these birds and encourages good breeding populations of all three.
All migrants, they come to inland areas like Glenlivet to breed and the first to arrive are the lapwings which is a sure sign for us residents that spring is on the horizon. With their characteristic ‘peezie’ call, swooping flight and distinct head crest they are easily identified. The oystercatchers are close behind and their distinctive call, ‘cleep, cleep’ resonates around our farm from late February onwards.
My favourite however is the Curlew, a beautiful mottled brown colour with long curving beak they are the biggest of the three species and have the most wonderful call that sounds like their name. Like our reindeer they frequent the higher ground, heather moorland where they circle endlessly seeking out a good place to nest and chasing away predators once they have laid eggs.
It’s late June now, the eggs have hatched and some of the chicks are as good as fledged. Indeed today when I went up onto the hill to gather the reindeer a half-grown curlew rose from the ground to the frantic call of its parents, I suspect flying for the first time.
Now the longest day is past these chicks, like reindeer calves, need to grow quickly and be ready for the winter ahead. The Oystercatchers, Lapwings and Curlew will all leave us for the winter, many of them going out to coastal habitats and river estuaries until next spring when they will return to breed again.
Like these birds our life with the reindeer is ruled by the changing seasons, calving in spring, growing during the summer, rutting in the autumn and surviving in the winter. It is just amazing how quickly the days flash by, it just seems like yesterday that it was the New Year and now we are past the longest day. If I was a pessimist I would say its downhill from now on, but I’m not and I enjoy the changing seasons and look forward to what the next one brings.
Hello. I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Dave. Yes I am male. I am the first male Reindeer Herder for 100 years and it shows!
“If you fancy using your man skills and fixing something around here, we’d be pleased.”
I heard this line four times on my first day. Jokes aside, this is a marvellous place to work and I am getting to use my man skills a lot.
As most of you will know there are a few hundred metres of boardwalk in the enclosure. This needs constant maintenance. Usual maintenance tasks are simply replacing the boards and wire mesh, however large sections of the boardwalk have needed replacement in recent years. I’ll look forward to that job in the future.
The shed with the tin roof on the left side of the enclosure is affectionally referred to as the office. After the long winter the office was looking rather neglected as well as emitting a terrible stench. I have taken this project on with some muster. First of all – the stench. Sometime during the winter a mountain hare decided it would RIP behind some boxes. The stench thankfully left when I removed the remains of the hare. Next job in the office was to build a new desk. Using nice old recycled lumber the office now has a new desk.
Early on during the office project I found a wagtail nest with four chicks in it. Over the next couple of weeks I watched these chicks grow up fast. On one morning when I arrived I found one dead chick on the floor and the other three were stood on the edge of the shelf waiting to fledge! One was in the front and clearly wanted to get off shortly. I could hear mother or father outside tweeting encouragement and sure enough the little chick took flight and slammed straight into the window. While the chick was seeing stars on the floor I picked it up and it flew out the door to join its parents. After covering up the window and leaving the door wide open, the next morning the other two were nowhere to be found. Hopefully another happy young family in the sky!
Without the worry of disturbing the nest I could continue with the office refurb. General shifting and sorting of the equipment and medical supplies in the office have made for a much more usable space.
Any and all available spare time is spent in the paddocks. There is always a lot of weeding to be done at this time of year. Mainly nettles and docks but also some bramble! The usual suspects! Yes, they can manage the sub-arctic climate as well. When it rains here, and it often does, the paddocks can become quite muddy. We are trying a new technique to support the soil and improve drainage. We have buried plastic frames into the topsoil where it is prone to becoming muddy. We are hoping we can establish grasses in the frames and that it will improve the mud problem. Now we just need to wait for it to rain. Shouldn’t have to wait too long.
This is the end of my introduction blog. I hope you enjoyed reading about my ‘man skills’. Looking forward to meeting you all here at the Reindeer Centre.