Reindeer Lookalikes

In January 2023 I wrote a blog about reindeer looking like their close relatives: https://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk/2023/01/20/mini-me-reindeer/

As we are now in calving season, I have recently heard myself saying “she looks just like her big sister when she was a calf” or fellow reindeer herder Lotti saying “she looks exactly like her mum as a new born”.

So, it got me thinking, perhaps it’s time for another blog about family resemblances.

Emmental’s boys!

Emmental in 2020, with her pale coat and white nose.

Emmental is a beautiful, mature breeding female, now aged 11 years old. She is rather pale in colour with a white muzzle. Over the years she has been a successful mother and has three surviving sons named Olmec, Iskrem and Ob. Yes, we chose names all beginning with vowels. But that’s not their only similarity. They also all have white noses, just like mum! Looking back through photos of them all as calves it’s easy to confuse who is who.

Emmental herself aged four months old, in 2013.
Olmec as a four month old calf in 2016.
Olmec as an adult with very similar face markings to his mum!
Iskrem also at four months old with the same beautiful colouring.
Emmental with her calf six-month-old calf Ob who also has the white nose (November 2023).

Pony’s girls!

Pony was a rather notorious reindeer in our herd with serious amounts of attitude! She was born in 2011 and sadly passed away a couple of years ago aged 11, which is a fair age for a reindeer. She left us with four surviving offspring – two males Poirot and Cowboy, and two females called Suebi and Turtle. It’s the girls who can sometimes make me confused! Their both normal-coloured, their antler shapes are similar, and they have also both inherited some of Pony’s attitude! We have nicknamed Turtle, “Snapping Turtle” as she often waves her head and smacks her lips at us if we can walk past her too closely.

Pony in 2016 aged 5. Pony herself was very easy to recognise as she was missing the tips of her ears, but look at the shape of her antlers compared to her daughters Suebi and Turtle…
Suebi in 2019 aged 3.
Turtle in September 2023, also aged 3.
Just for good measure, here’s Pony as a three year old too! Note lack of ear tips so very easy to identify.

Suebi and Turtle are both breeding females. Suebi has the lovely Scoop, a two year old male, and also is the mother of the twins Elbe and Alba. Turtle has Amur, who has just turned one and is proving to be a very sweet-natured lad. Time will tell whether they produce any lookalike females!

I’ll leave it there for now but who knows, perhaps I can write a third installment in the future as there are lots of other examples within the herd.

Ruth

Characters

Visitors often ask how on earth we tell apart the 150-strong herd of reindeer. Whilst there is variation in colour, markings and antler shape, one of the biggest distinguishing features is actually character. Just like people, reindeer come in every shade of cheeky, shy, friendly, stand-offish, bolshy, greedy, intelligent, daft… I thought I might mention a few stand out character types, past and present!

Overexcited Labrador

Aztec leading the herd – look at that expectant face

Step up, Aztec! Always the first to be involved, always wanting to “help”, very friendly, lovable, and not a manner to be seen if there is a mere sniff of food… Fun, but a bit of a liability.

Also falling into this category: Kipling, Bumble, Eco

The Thinker

Olmec paying careful consideration to all potential outcomes

Reserved and steady, not always the easiest to catch but utterly dependable when out on tour. Olmec, I’m looking at you.

Also applies to: Dragonfly

TV Diva

HM with her adoring fan Lotti

Introducing the one and only Holy Moley… who knows full well that she basically had her own TV documentary and hence feels that every visitor is there to see her and her alone.

Also: Dr Seuss appears to feel that his minor starring role in the same show entitles him to extra food portions every single day too.

Sweet as Pie, Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

Sweet Diamond, with Hopper in the background

Beautiful light-coloured Diamond has to be one of the gentlest souls in the herd. She walks with a slight limp after an injury back in her younger days, which of course means we all (needlessly) slip her extra bits of feed. 

Also: Amber, Esme, Sunflower

Loyal and True

Okapi in her usual position – right in the footsteps of the herder

Certain reindeer can always be relied upon when we’re moving the free-range herd – they’ll be near the front, they willingly have a headcollar put on, they trustingly plod behind you whilst the rest of the herd debate whether your bribe is worth coming for. Okapi, you’re the star here.

Also: Olympic

The Boy Band Pin-Up

Sherlock, admired by all!

Sherlock has to be one of the most impressive looking reindeer in the herd today, and he also knows how to work it. Some reindeer naturally prick their ears for a photo, and seem to offer their best side!

Also: Elvis, of whom there was never a bad photo taken!

Grumpy Old Men (and Women)

That look in Pony’s eye which was the precursor to antlers being aimed at you! We were always grateful when she cast her antlers each year, though she would then resort to using her front feet!

Bond may only be 5 years old, but he definitely ticks every box for “grouchy” – you only need to look at him and he rolls his eyes at the thought that you might try to interact with him. Likewise, walking too near Lace or Turtle is likely to extract a swing of the antlers and a snap of the mouth as a warning.  Turtle is Pony’s daughter, who was perhaps the grumpiest reindeer we’ve ever had in the herd, so it’s definitely inherited!

Also: Addja once implanted his antlers into my leg when in a bad mood, only to cast one, which definitely didn’t make him any more cheery (though it did make me chuckle at the instant karma).

Big Friendly Giant

Scrabble, our very own BFG!

One of the tallest, heftiest reindeer in the herd, Scrabble was a bit of a liability in his youth as he was just so keen to meet everyone, and somewhat unaware of his sheer size. It almost seemed that his bum was so far away from his brain that he couldn’t keep track of the children he was wiping out as he turned around… Now he’s an old fella so a bit steadier, but just as friendly and enormous!

Also: Comet

Don’t Mess With…

Brie acting like butter wouldn’t melt… until she disagrees with the program

Brie may look little and cute, but her first instinct if she doesn’t like something is to beat it/them with her antlers, and whilst she both she and her antlers may be small, she is ANGRY. As Mel once found out when leading Brie, and Brie decided she did NOT want to be there…

Also: Spy. If Spy has calved, it usually takes about four herders, all hiding behind gates/fences to move her where we want her to be.

Andi

Photo Blog: November 2023

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…

1st of November: Feeding a herd of free ranging cows. Caterpillar is closest to the camera.
3rd of November: Brie looking very soggy!
3rd of November: Poirot looking very handsome.
6th of November: Dante getting a close-up.
7th of November: Winnie and Cameron! Cameron did a lot of bottle feeding of Winnie and Alba (our han-reared calves) over the summer months and is particularly fond of ‘his girls’.
8th of November: For Isla (back of sleigh) and Cassie (front of sleigh) this is their first Christmas season, but they are total naturals already. Frost is the reindeer with the patchy white face at the front.
12th of November: No reindeer in this pic but what a wonderful office we have above the clouds! You can just make out the thick layer of cloud hanging over Strathspey.
15th of November: 6-month-old Orinoco being gorgeous! She’s a sweet-natured lass who is growing in confidence. She’s definitely not as pushy as some of our calves this year!
16th of November: Marple and her lovely calf Mekong.
18th of November: My first Christmas event of the year. Here’s LX resting his chin before he pulls the sleigh.
19th of November: Another Christmas event for me. Here’s Olmec licking the rain off our sign.
22nd of November: Dr Seuss flanked by Haricot and Adzuki.
23rd of November: The free ranging herd brought themselves into the enclosure looking for a free lunch! Torch closest to the camera.

Ruth

Emm’s Volunteer Blog Part 2: Christmas 2022

For Part 1 of this blog please click here: Emm’s Volunteer Blog Part 1: Christmas 2022 – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

Christmas trips begin…

Fiona letting Druid, Frost and Sunny enjoy some lichen before visiting a local nursery.

My first big trip out was when I went with Fiona and we took Sunny, Frost and Druid to a local nursery school in a big lorry. When we got there we took them for a walk in the woods by the car park and found some lichen lollipops which are broken off twigs covered in lichen which the reindeer love. We then took the reindeer outside the nursery and held them on lead ropes so the children were able to come out in small groups to see them. It was so lovely to see their faces when they saw the reindeer. My job was to look after Sunny and we were wearing our Herders’ Christmas jumpers.

Emm and Sunny – our hand-reared calf of 2022.

On Christmas Eve we went to the Ski car park to find the free-rangers and found them on the mountain so we went over to feed them. We had to jump over a few burns to get to them. I was given the job of doing the reindeer call and they all came over. It was particularly special as my adopted reindeer Scully was there and she came running over. It all felt very special as it was Christmas Eve and I was with the reindeer in their natural surroundings.

Later that day there was a big evening parade in Aviemore starting up at the top of the town. We had to load our Christmas reindeer for the event, Olmec, Scolty, Berlin, Poirot, Sunny and Popsicle into the big lorry outside the Reindeer Centre and take them to start of the parade. They were kept there with a tether line and given food. There were many people who came to say hello to them on the way to the parade. When Santa arrived he got into the sleigh along with the children who were travelling with him. Then we connected up the reindeer to the harness with two adults at the front and two at the back with the two calves. The pipe band started the music which was very loud and made poor Popsicle jump! We paraded down the high street all the way to the Cairngorm Hotel and my job for that night was to walk by the side and make sure no-one let their dog get near and scare the reindeer.

When we had finished we loaded all the reindeer and Santa’s sleigh back onto the lorry and headed for the next parade at Kingussie. On the way we stopped for some fish and chips and I had sausage. It was raining very hard at Kingussie but we still managed to get them all out of the lorry and connected up again to the sleigh for the parade. Everyone was very interested and excited to see and learn about the reindeer and Father Christmas. I stayed at the back of the sleigh to keep all the reindeer in line and not get tangled up.

When this was finished we loaded them all up again and travelled to Newtonmore for the last parade of the night. We went down the whole length of the high street and half way down Fiona surprised me by calling me forward to the front to lead the parade with Olmec and Scolty. This was an absolutely fantastic experience and I felt so honoured to be leading the whole parade with the reindeer. It was such as surprise. We finished the parade at one of the hotels and we all had a warming drink and soup while everyone could meet the reindeer and Santa. One funny time was when my dad was asked to hold all the reindeer whilst still drinking his mulled wine so he had six reindeer leads in one hand with a sleigh and his cup of mulled wine in the other!!! We finally reloaded them back into the lorry. Each time we did this we had to lead them up the ramp and take their head collars off and then load the sleigh into the lorry as well. It was very tiring but brilliant experience. We headed home for a well-earned sleep.

Emm leading the sleigh through Newtonmore – Olmec on the right.

On Christmas Day there were four visits to do to local hotels where the guests could meet Santa with his Elves and the reindeer and have photos taken and Fiona had invited us along to help again. The first one was Coylumbridge Hotel and when I arrived  I had a big surprise as Fiona had tied Scully’s antler, which she had shed earlier, to Sunny, and she walked him up to me with it and gave it to me as a present. That was very special to be presented with my adopted reindeer’s antler. We then did McDonald’s Resort Hotel, Nethy Bridge hotel and then one in Kingussie. It was the same team as Christmas Eve as well as Rocket. At each event we had to unload the reindeer and sleigh, harness them up then parade with Santa. The herders were Tilly, Fiona, Joe and Carol as well as me my mum and dad. We were able to have a break in Nethy Bridge and Tilly had arranged for soup and sandwiches for our lunch. It took most of the day but it was such a magical experience taking the reindeer to see lots of people celebrating Christmas and we were all exhausted at the end but very happy. We had a drink back at Reindeer House to celebrate with everyone. They were having their Christmas Dinner with about 20 people afterwards and everything was cooking and smelling very nice

Christmas Day parade! Fiona leading Scolty (closest to camera) and Joe at the back with Olmec (closest to camera).
Emm leading Sunny.

Boxing day was again very snowy and the ski road was again shut due to snow drifts and the herders couldn’t get through till after 10am. It was snowing heavily when we went up the mountain and I couldn’t believe how quickly the snow settled and became very deep. It was great again to see the reindeer in proper snow. We had to do more digging and gritting to clear the paths. The car parks at the top were very very slippy with the ice and we had to be careful not to slip over. The reindeer made it look easy. The free-rangers were on the road so Cameron led them away out of sight and fed them. Sunny the hand-reared reindeer had his final bottle of milk as he moved completely on to normal food.

Poirot back on the hill after his Christmas duties.

The following day our trip was over and we headed home through snow blizzards. It was really really kind of Fiona and all the herders to let us spend this special time with them and the reindeer and I loved every minute of it. We must also say a big thank you to Katie, Scott, Alan and all the team at the Pine Marten Bar for putting up with us over the week, kept us fed and watered well and who made our stay in The Treehouse so special as usual. It was such a fantastic and magical time which I will never forget.

Emm with Druid and Sunny.

Emm

All Change!

June and July are the months when our reindeer have to complete a full moult from their incredibly thick winter coats to their short, sleek summer coats. They don’t quite look at their most glam at this stage (though obviously they’re always beautiful!) but there can be some entertaining looks going on, which we thought you might all appreciate!

2-year-olds Legume and Arta with just a bit of shaggy winter coat on their backs
Beastie is always one of the first reindeer to be (nearly) into full summer coat
Wee Sunny is in his “calf” coat, which will moult to an adult coat over the next few weeks.
Cannellini is one of the last to get moulting, with just a bit lost on his face.
Poirot’s dark colouring is showing through with only a little winter coat still to lose.
Yearling Cowboy still looking glam despite his questionable coat choice!
The reindeer do groom off loose hair – here’s Olmec with the evidence!
Akubra working at his moulting…
Strudel with a beard of groomed-off winter coat.
Dr Seuss has moulted out all of his lower coat and hardly anything off his back… here he is tapping his antlers to stimulate the growth.
Frost looking incredibly scruffy… but it’ll not be long until he’s handsome again!

Andi

Then and now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hen

A Second Day in the Life of a Herder on Tour

It’s a couple of days since I wrote my last blog and I’m on a roll, so here’s another. We’ve travelled back to South Wales from Cornwall, and there’s another event to be done.

7.45am: Once I again I greet my alarm clock with despair, and consider whether I would be better suited to a job working nights somewhere. The first few minutes of my day are not improved when I remember that I arrived back to Wales yesterday sans toothbrush, which is languishing in Cornwall. Andi (infinitely quicker than me in the morning to cope with life) nips out to the shed to give the reindeer a small breakfast, but they are deeply unimpressed that she doesn’t give them any lichen – that can wait until we get to our event.

reindeer-chasing-hen
Exercising the reindeer in the field yesterday afternoon

8.20am: There’s no time this morning to take the reindeer out into the field to stretch their legs, but being as they had a good blast when we got back to the farm yesterday afternoon, we’re not too worried that they’ll be too full of bounce. We collect up their feed bowls, load them up and off we go, bang on schedule at 8.45am.

A beautiful setting for our welsh farm base
A beautiful setting for our welsh farm base

We’re staying on a farm near Cwmbran, and Andi and I know it well having been here every winter for years on end. Being in rural Wales, that therefore means winding lanes and big hedges, and the first 3 miles of any journey is a narrow gauntlet to be run before we emerge on to a dual carriageway. We always play the ‘gauntlet game’ here – guessing how many cars we’ll meet – and I thrash Andi soundly this morning. What can I say – we have to make our own fun on tour…

9.55am: Today’s event is in a wee town in South Wales, and is a favourite of mine, being very well run. It’s our most ‘standard’ type of event, with a quiet set up area away from the crowds, then the parade and finally a couple of hours in a display pen before we pack up and head away. We head to the pen first to drop off our signs, feed bowls, water and leaflet box, and then make our way another half kilometre along the road to our set-up area.

10.30am: Having set up our tether rope for the reindeer so they can come out of the lorry and have a second (small!) breakfast before the parade, Andi climbs through the partition in the lorry into the reindeer area to put on their halters. A couple of minutes later there is a muffled squeak, as Paintpot has shaken his head unexpectedly and clouted Andi really hard across the face. She sticks her head back out through the partition for me to check there’s no blood (i.e. hers, not Paintpot’s!), and then emerges, reindeer in tow, with a visible bump and bruise on her forehead – an occupational hazard of the job. Paintpot appears to be smirking. We potter around the field a couple of times, letting the reindeer stretch their legs a bit, before attaching them to their tether and giving them a pile of food each.

11.30am: Reindeer are fed and happy, the event organizers are faffing with the sleigh, cable ties and a tiny camera with which to film the parade (how long can it take to attach a 3 inch camera?!), and we’re about to start harnessing up. We’ve had to had a quick experiment with Tanner to check we can actually do the harness up around his fat belly – Tilly’s obviously been feeding him too much at the farm – but unfortunately for Tanner we managed, so it’s his turn to pull the sleigh today, along with Sooty.

12 noon: We are good to go. The best thing about this event is its organization – it’s a huge parade of which we’re only a small part, but whereas most events are slightly spoiled visually by a sea of security people wearing hi-viz jackets, this town comes up trumps. There are apparently 50 police here today on duty, but almost all of them are dressed as elves! Looks-wise they are in keeping with the parade, and everything runs very smoothly with no problems – after all, who messes with a 6ft elf?

Sooty and Tanner flanked by their giant security elves!
Sooty and Tanner flanked by their giant security elves!

12.15pm: There’s been a brief delay as everybody in the parade is organized and set off in the right order, with a disagreement about where the St Bernard dogs pulling carts (oh yes) should go. NOT right in front of the reindeer is the answer! The band should have been at the front but were all in the toilet at the wrong moment, so have to be slotted in further down the line… We are the back markers as usual, and once we’re over the speed bump then Santa gets in and off we go. Our sleigh has very low ground clearance (it only flies on Christmas Eve) so grounds at the slightest opportunity, leading to us frequently kicking Santa out while we heft it over a speed bump or kerb.

Our team of reindeer behave impeccably, with Andi and I feeling slightly surplus to requirements at times, particularly so Andi at the back of the sleigh. She might as well have gone for a coffee instead to be honest, being as Paintpot, Minute, Nazca and Olmec plod along with no guidance needed at all. At the front I am barely needed either, with Sooty and Tanner being total pros. As one of the elves comments, we should be concerned for our jobs! My main task in the entire parade ends up being yelling at a helium balloon seller, marching right towards Tanner with an enormous bunch of balloons. Tanner’s eyes pop out on stalks, but the rogue bunch of balloons with legs is accosted by a police elf, who quickly sends her packing in the opposite direction.

1.10pm: After possibly the slowest, but most relaxed, parade I’ve ever done, we finally arrive in the pen. Andi unattaches the reindeer from the sleigh as quickly as possible, and the crowd has a good laugh at Nazca, who has clocked the food bowls hidden in the corner of the pen instantly. He beats us to them, and then batters us continuously with his antler twiglets as we try to space the bowls out around the pen. Toerag.

And then… I hear a chorus of gasps, and exclamations of horror. Everyone is pointing in alarm towards Minute, who 10 seconds ago had two antlers, and now only has one… Oh dear. I grab the offending antler out of his bowl where it has fallen, and head to the side of the pen to make my way around, explaining to everyone that this is completely natural at this time of year and that poor Minute has not been maimed for life! A cast antler is a very useful prop in a pen, as everyone’s natural instinct is to lean over the barriers and touch the furry velvet antlers. When still attached to the reindeer this is a strict no-no, but once one has fallen off then suddenly a new opportunity arises, and lots of hands reach out eagerly to feel the soft velvet. I do laps of the pen continuously with the antler until Andi takes over, and I head off to retrieve the lorry from the set-up, filing away a mental note of the location of a brownie stall en route. Gotta keep my priorities straight…

Antler disaster for Minute! Photo by @HortopHortop via Twitter
Antler disaster for Minute! Photo courtesy of @HortopHortop via Twitter

3pm: After the exceptionally long parade and the huge crowds around the pen (roughly 15,000 people attended today’s event), the afternoon has flown by, and we’ve just finished packing up. Thankfully it’s been dry which is always nicer anyway, as nothing is worse than packing soaked straw (rain and reindeer pee) into giant plastic bags with frozen bare hands… If any of you ever catch me at that point and choose then to tell me I’ve the best job in the UK – I may argue. But today it’s dry and I’m warm (fleece lined trousers!) so all is good with the World.

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Snoozing Olmec! © John Lewis via Facebook

After a hasty gallop into Tesco on a toothbrush related mission, Team Handi are ready to go. The reindeer will be tired after a busy day and deserve to get back to base as soon as possible, so we do our best to oblige. Andi wins the gauntlet game this time.

sun-reindeer
Dramatic backlit reindeer! 

4.50pm: Reindeer are back in their barn, the animal movement license paperwork for the day is finished, we are back in our cottage and another day is done. We’ve checked in briefly with Fiona to let her know that all has gone well, and written our ‘event report’. This details carefully all relevant info from the day, including the travel times taken, details of the pen (was it big enough etc), set-up area and behaviour of the reindeer, plus anything that needs addressing for future years. At the bottom of the sheet is the most important bit though – the Santa rating. Today’s Santa has garnered himself a big fat shiny 10, based on: good banter, own beard (bonus point), glittery boots and the fact that he didn’t instantly address all the reindeer as ‘Dasher’ or ‘Dancer’. A Santa rating of 10 is not too common, or at least not from the pen of Team Handi, so good work that man!

Now, to finally brush my teeth…

Hen

A Day in The Life of a Herder on Tour

I thought I’d enlighten readers of a typical day in the life of a reindeer herder on tour.

7.30am: Anyone who knows me will know that I am terrible in the mornings, so my alarm clock is greeted with the usual feeling of utter horror, quickly followed by extreme distress. Fiona (my manager at Reindeer House) will testify that this can last till lunchtime sometimes.

Andi and I (collectively known as team Handi) are on tour with our reindeer once again and are currently right down in Cornwall. This is the furthest afield that we travel and are away from home for 2.5 weeks, the longest time we ever take reindeer on tour for. Home from home just now is a farm near St Austell, when both us and the reindeer have accommodation – but we’ve stayed on two other farms en route down here, and have had several days with no events, so by no means have we travelled all this way in one go.

boys-barn-cornwall
Morning boys!

8am: Our event today doesn’t start till late afternoon, so it’s a fairly relaxed start for us. First priority is to check the reindeer, who are all still lying down dozing when we reach them. On this farm they have a lovely large barn with a deep straw bed, and it’s a particularly nice building for them as it is very well ventilated and they can see out at every angle. They also have some very close neighbours here, in the form of several groups of cattle, all of whom couldn’t quite believe their eyes when we led the reindeer into their shed on arrival yesterday!

Paintpot ignoring his inquisitive neighbours
Paintpot ignoring his inquisitive neighbours

Before we feed the reindeer their breakfast, we pop their halters on and lead them out in to a neighbouring field to stretch their legs. There’s a brief bit of galloping about and ‘dancing’ (the reindeer equivalent of a horse bucking), but they soon knuckle down to the more important business of grazing. Grass is far too rich for a reindeer’s diet for them to exist purely on it, but a short spell in a field does them no harm and they enjoy it immensely. Andi and I have the usual team of 6 reindeer with us – 4 castrated males (‘Christmas reindeer’) and two 6-month-old calves. Our team this time consists of Paintpot, Tanner, Sooty, Minute, Nazca and Olmec, and having been away from home for 8 days now, we have got the measure of them all, knowing all their little quirks and the exact pecking order between them.

cornwall-field-3
Olmec, Nazca and Sooty following us round the fields

They look so relaxed out in the field that we prepare their breakfasts in the barn, but decide to have our own breakfast before bringing them in. It’s a nice secure field so there’s no worries about them deciding to explore the Cornish countryside on their own.

9am: We bring the reindeer in, but as this team are so relaxed, experiment with a laid-back method i.e. we don’t bother putting leadropes on the calves (we are nowhere near a road). They potter along – just the ticket – if only all teams were quite this easy to lead about! They dive into their breakfast bowls with enthusiasm and we leave them to it.

Leading the whole team back to the barn
Leading the whole team back to the barn

Team Handi head inside – at this time of year Reindeer House is in the grip of Christmas chaos, and the staff left at home fight to keep their heads above water amidst (among many other jobs) the adoption packs that require making up in time for Christmas presents. As such, Imogen has emailed us through a list of letters that need writing, and Andi and I just happen to be equipped with headed paper, envelopes and stamps. Fancy that.

2pm: We’ve had a couple of hours off chilling out, but lunch has been had and there’s work to be done. We’re off to a Cornish seaside town today, about an hour’s drive away. We load up the reindeer, and off we go!

3.30pm: We arrive on schedule, and are greeted by the organisers of the event. Our pen is outside a hotel on a grassy area, and there’s a brief delay while they frantically locate some more barriers, the number needed having been lost in translation. This is why we always arrive with plenty of time to spare! I move the lorry around the back of the hotel into its car park, with one of the (male) staff taking it upon himself to ‘help’ me reverse. Have been driving a lorry for years, and have made it all the way here from northern Scotland – can probably just about manage this bit myself, thank you very much…

4pm: The reindeer are on public display before the parade today, so we get them settled into their pen with feed and water, and pop up our info signs. I wangle a couple of cups of tea too, essential for reindeer herders on tour. Well me anyway – Andi’s day was ruined earlier by a coffee machine producing a cup of hot milk without a hint of caffeine to be found. Disaster.

Delighted people looking at the reindeer
Delighted people looking at the reindeer

With a couple of hours to go before the parade Andi goes off to decorate the sleigh, while I man the fort in the pen, chatting to people and handing out leaflets. The reindeer still have their furry noses in their bowls and ignore the fairly large crowd, particularly, it seems to me, all the people hanging over the barriers calling out ‘Rudolph!’…

6.10pm: 20 minutes to go, so it’s time for us to start harnessing. Minute and Paintpot are the chosen sleigh pullers today, so they wear the bigger harnesses, while the ‘back reindeer’ wear smaller body belts and bells. We get a bucket of lichen to keep Olmec, who is the shyer of the two calves, busy while we put his harness on, but it just results in a mugging from the bolder Nazca – who has earned the reputation of ‘small and annoying’ in the last few days! Olmec stands quietly watching the antics of his buddy…

6.20pm: T-minus-10 minutes, so it’s time to put the reindeer ‘into trace’ (attach them to the sleigh). Andi is leading the reindeer at the front today, so it’s my job to clip the various straps to the right places, and make sure everything is correctly connected. Not helped halfway through by having to retrieve Nazca from the other side of the pen, complete with a wreath and set of bells on his head that he’s collected from the front of the sleigh. ‘Small and very annoying’ today, but it gives the crowd a good laugh! I attach his leadrope to the back of the sleigh, and hope he behaves himself. He doesn’t.

Minute and Paintpot all set for the parade
Minute and Paintpot all set for the parade

6.40pm: After a slightly late start (not our fault), we are off! The boys excel themselves to say the least, and are proper pros, ambling along steadily. Nazca even manages to keep his wee antlers to himself for a little while, rather than poking them where they don’t belong: into the decorations, another reindeer, the leadropes, parts of my anatomy. It’s a fairly short parade, so we’re finished by 7pm. Work done for the day, we unharness the boys (while the organisers and hotel staff all take selfies with Nazca!) and repack everything into the lorry.

7.25pm: The reindeer are loaded up, and we set off. A brief stop for fuel, and a short detour in the wrong direction at a roundabout, but we’re back at the farm by 8.30pm. The reindeer are unloaded back into their barn, the cows looking on, and as soon as I pick up the feed bag there’s a chorus of moos, just in case it’s for them. The reindeer are utterly unperturbed.

9pm: Boom! Job done! Dinner is in the oven and pyjamas are on. At this time of year they are the only item of my clothing without a background aroma of reindeer pee. And people think travelling all over Britain on tour with reindeer must be glamorous…

Hen

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