Winter is always one of the best times of year with the reindeer. They are completely free range and we head out daily, locate and feed them so we keep a good management on the herd. It’s probably the time of year we get the most exercise too – a morning work out to find reindeer and bring them into closer proximity of our Hill Trips is a favourite amongst all the herders.
The top followers this winter have to be Okapi, Lace and Fly, usual suspects. However, with a greedy family often some of the first ones all running down together are Hopscotch with daughters Juniper and Kipling, and their calves Fab and Tub so it certainly is a family affair!
They don’t want to make our job too easy through. In January the reindeer often come to a call. We bellow our wee lungs out and the reindeer come running. But in February they like to make us walk, so most often two herders will head out and as good as get to where the reindeer are before turning round – one herder leads whilst the other walks at the back to keep them moving. Otherwise, they’d probably just lie down and we wouldn’t get very far.
On one occasion in January Lotti and I skied out to retrieve the herd. Always a treat getting out on skis and topped off with ski-ing for work… well it doesn’t get much better than that. More recently there hasn’t been so much snow, just a lot of wind so even if it doesn’t look cold outside that wind chill can get pretty brutal.
The reindeer are so good though, without fail they plod down behind us herders ready to meet and greet our many half term tourists wanting to visit them. Chief hand feeders at the moment are – Kipling, Juniper, Holy Moley, Okapi, Pumpkin, Marple, Brie, Ryvita…
Once the visitors have enjoyed spending time with the reindeer the herd wander back out into the mountains and it happens all over again the next day.
Late summer/autumn is always a very exciting time of the year for a reindeer herder. It’s when we start seeing the cows and calves more regularly after they’ve spent the summer free ranging in the hills.
Each morning we drive up the ski road to Cairngorm Base Station and have a spy for any free ranging reindeer. One morning in mid-September Fiona, Sheena and myself were checking the roads when we spotted a small herd of reindeer. Exciting! Even from a distance we instantly knew there was a calf in the group, and we knew she had to belong to a lovely female called Ochil.
Ochil had a white (leucistic) calf back in May, and even though we had three white calves born this year, the other two were already safely in the enclosure with their mums so it just had to be her – our ID skills of calves from over a hundred metres away are not usually that good!
Fiona dropped Sheena and I off to try to get the small herd into the enclosure, whilst she headed back down the hill to carry on with feeding the herd in the enclosure. Mission on!
As we got closer to the herd we were able to identify them all. Three cows (Ochil, Vienna and Roule) and their lovely calves, plus a yearling female called Beanie. I’d not seen any of these reindeer since we let them out to free range back in June, so it was lovely to see them again. They all looked great! The enclosure was about 1.5km away from where we were, across a ridge, over a road, across a burn and up a hill affectionately known by the herders as “Killer Hill”. You can see how our mission unfolded in the following photographs….
After sitting at the computer for what seemed like an age trying to think of a topic for a blog which could include lots of reindeer pictures, I finally stumbled across one which means you guys get to look at numerous pictures of reindeer bottoms!
“Acting sheepdog” is a term us herders use when we are trying to manoeuvre the reindeer. Depending on how willing the reindeer are we might only need one person to call and bribe them with food to a new position or if the reindeer are more reluctant two of us can go out with one leading the herd and the other staying behind the herd making sure that they do not stray off in the wrong direction, because once one reindeer wanders off in a different direction they all can go! We can also use this sheepdog technique to our advantage when the reindeer are lethargic and don’t feel like moving far. All we must do is put a head collar on a friendly individual that we know is a pro at leading and the rest of the herd aren’t long in following.
My preference out of the two roles is to be at the back of the herd, in this position your job can either be a breeze or you’re racking up your daily miles trying to ensure the reindeer stay on the right path! The picture above was from a day where the reindeer were not playing ball and Lotti had to put one of the girls on a head collar and lead the herd to our destination, however once we got to the top of the hill at the left-hand side of the picture, the herd found a good lichen spot, so I had my work cut out trying to move them again. This leads me on to my first reason for liking being at the back of the herd and “acting sheepdog”, which is that it gives you a good chance to take lots of photos! Below is a picture of Witch wondering why I’m so red in the face.
Being relatively new to the job I find that walking along behind the herd gives me a chance to look at and notice what defining characteristics each reindeer has, for example, Witch on the left here has the typical reindeer colouring but I find her easy to distinguish as she has quite a narrow face. It also gives you a chance to see how the reindeer behave around one another – who’s a “bossy boots” or who is more timid in nature and sticks to the outskirts of the herd. My final reason for preferring to be at the back of the herd is because currently my navigational skills are rubbish and on cloudy days when you can’t really see where you are going I don’t want to be responsible for getting myself lost as well as a herd of reindeer! [Editor’s note: Amy’s nav skills are better than she thinks!].
From when we close in January through until around the end of April, most of the reindeer here at Cairngorm will be out free-ranging. This is great for them as they get to roam wherever they please (mostly) and spend time in their natural habitat, where they are at their most comfortable. But it does mean that before every Hill Trip during this time, we must head up into the hills to find the herd.
Generally getting to the reindeer is a pretty simple process but getting them back to whichever site we are running the hill trip from can be more complicated – they don’t always want to follow us!
Around the beginning of April, we had a morning collecting reindeer that were a little more difficult than usual. The cloud was extremely low and thick, and they were in an area of the hills with almost no established paths, only a handful of trodden trails at best. It’s also not an area we go too all that much and there are very few proper landmarks to navigate by. All this is a way of saying that it was quite a difficult morning of reindeer herding!
During the hill trips us reindeer herders will often be asked questions such as “what will you do with the rest of your day?” or “is doing the hill trips the best part of the job?”
In this week’s blog I will chronologically outline a ‘typical’ day for a reindeer herder. However, it is worth noting that it’s almost impossible to predict how a day may take shape. The job tends to be incredibly variable and diverse. There are time-dependent jobs that may suddenly arise, such as moving reindeer from where they’re not meant to be to. For example, when they venture down from the mountains on to the road. There are also plenty of seasonal-dependent jobs, such as gardening or leading additional hill trips in the summer months. Or in the winter months you may need to clear footpaths to keep them free from snow and ice. Not to mention the early starts that occasionally occur. These tend to be in the calving season or on the epic days when reindeer need to be moved across the Cairngorms. It’s possible that you could be helping Tilly over at Wild Farm as well, transporting reindeer from the farm to the Cairngorms and vice versa, or helping with the other animals there. The list of possibilities is vast.
Nonetheless, the skeleton of a ‘typical’ reindeer herding day is as follows:
08:00 (summer) or 08:30 (winter): Work starts. Turn up and prepare to be greeted by the dogs.
There typically may be anywhere between 4 and 7 herders working on a day, depending on the business of the season. Half of us will initially head up to feed the herd their breakfast whilst half of us will stay down at the Centre.
Those of us which stay down at the Centre will be responsible for feeding the paddock reindeer their breakfast, poo picking, cleaning the exhibition, answering emails and any phone calls, cleaning the shop and office, as well as opening the shop and checking in guests after 10am.
The cohort of herders which head up the mountain to feed the herd will initially have to locate the herd. The difficulty of which can depend on weather conditions and whether the reindeer are free-roaming or in the hill enclosure. As I write this – at the end of February 2022 – it took Andi and I three hours to venture out in the snow to where the reindeer were located and then lead them closer to where the 11am hill trip would be.
It is at this point in the day which we’re most likely to check the temperature of a reindeer – if we suspect illness – and administer any appropriate treatment. Before the morning feed is put down in a straight line (easier to count) with spaces of approximately 1m in between each pile (to try to stop fighting) there may be a spot of preferential feeding. The young calves are encouraged to come and feed out of the bags whilst one herder will circulate around the herd enticing the less tame reindeer to hand-feed. This preferential feeding is very important for the management of reindeer when they become ill. Catching reindeer can be a long ordeal but it’s important if a reindeer is ill that we can get close enough to help them, so by enticing them into the smaller hand-food bag throughout the year they hopefully won’t always associate the food bag with feeling rubbish. The preferential feeding also allows the young, growing calves to get a bit of extra food from the main bag as they are likely to be lower in the pecking order when it comes to feeding from the line and can get the sustenance they need to continue growing.
11:00: Hill trip. This is the time when some of our herders are let loose to come and meet yourselves and serenade you with some interesting reindeer-related facts and some terrible reindeer-related jokes. This typically lasts for an hour and a half to two hours, depending on the weather.
Those herders that don’t participate in the hill trip will be responsible for staying at the Centre and minding the shop, dealing with phone calls and emails, compiling adoption packs for our loyal adopters, mixing reindeer food or even, writing blogs.
12:30 – 2: The herders stagger their lunches to ensure someone is always free to mind the shop. Shop visitors can often be caught commenting on the lovely smells coming from the kitchen.
The afternoon: Whilst the morning of a reindeer herder is fairly constant and predictable year-round, the afternoon can vary depending upon the time of year. From May to September there is an additional hill trip at 2:30. During these months the hill trips take place in our hill enclosure so the chance of seeing reindeer is almost definite, and the walk out to see them is shorter and less exposed to the elements. The reindeer herding day generally runs to 5pm, although in July and August we run a third daily tour at 3:30. So for a couple of months the day runs until 5:30.
Recently, we’ve also started been doing ‘Seasonal Herder Talks’ during the school holidays. This means throughout the afternoon one of the reindeer herders will be out in the paddocks talking to visitors about the reindeer and answering any questions.
Close: At about 4:45 the herders will start to perform the closing dance. This involves one of us cashing up the totals from the shop whilst another herder will head out to the woods located behind the paddock area and put food out for the paddock reindeer. Just before 5 o’clock the reindeer will be let through to the woods area whilst the herder closes and wipes down the exhibition area. The shop will also be shut and wiped down at 5pm. You can always tell it’s 5 o’clock as the dogs begin to stir. They become more energetic and boisterous as they realise the working day is ending and there is now a high chance of them heading out on a walk or run with at least one herder.
Approximately half of the reindeer herders live on-site at the Centre, whilst half of us journey in from the local area. Having some staff on-site means that on the very rare occasion where there is a reindeer emergency after hours, there is staff that can stick their capes on and come to the rescue.
Throughout the year The Reindeer Centre has its core staff with a mix of full time and part time Reindeer Herders. Many of you will know us well, so we’ve got – Fiona, Hen, Andi, Lotti, Ben B, Ruth, Olly, Sheena and Lisette. We also have our hill farm contingent consisting of Alan, Tilly, Derek and Colin. We are here all year round seeing the reindeer (and other animals on the farm) through the different seasons, however we cannot manage all the work ourselves… that would be impossible!
Editor’s note (Ruth): not every herder features in the photos, please do not be offended if I’ve missed any of you lovely herders out! Check out this page on the website for more info and photos about who we all are: Who’s who – The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd
So we call upon seasonal staff who dot in and out throughout the year to help out. The parts of the year that can be busy are: February half term, Easter holidays then of course right through the summer with schools breaking up in Scotland first and English schools going back at the beginning of September. Although we aren’t so busy with tourists through September it is the start of our rutting season so we are busy with reindeer management. At this time of year we are carrying a lot of feed up the hill so it’s a reindeer herders work out! We usually have around 4 different groups of reindeer in various enclosures either running with a bull or the herd of Christmas reindeer and females we aren’t breeding from so plenty to keep us on our toes. Its busy through October half term just before we gear up in preparation for Christmas and our own Christmas tour which runs through November and December. We can all breath a big sigh of relief in January when we take a month off and close the doors to the public. We do however keep the office and reindeer management ticking over amongst the core staff.
Seasonal staff that worked throughout these busy periods in 2021 consisted of – Joe, Nell, Harry, Kate, Mel, Izzy, Colin D, Ben H, Dave, Manouk and Leonie. We even roped in ex reindeer herders Jack and Eve for a busy weekend in December… Once a reindeer herder, always a reindeer herder!
If you’ve been up to visit us in 2021 you’ll have no doubt bumped into a few of these herders both core and seasonal along the way. We are very lucky with our team here at the Reindeer Centre. Everyone works well together, is great with the public and of course fab with the reindeer. Every day we are learning more when it comes to reindeer management but we all take it in our stride and everyone mucks in which is the important thing
A while ago I wrote a blog about how Reindeer House managed to cope with its temporary hitch back in the summer, when its resident staff caught Covid. I mentioned then that Andi and I (who live outside of Reindeer House and managed to stay unaffected) were responsible throughout for the 8am morning check of the herd on the hill, so I thought I’d perhaps explain a little more about what we do in the mornings, before visitors arrive, in another blog. So I have put fingers to keyboard and here we are.
Throughout the whole summer we run the guided Hill Trips up to meet the reindeer in our hill enclosure at 11am and 2.30pm, but the herd are actually fed 3 times a day. By doing the first feed bright and early, it gives us time to check everything is shipshape and ready for the day, allowing us to then concentrate on making sure our visitors have as good a visit as possible, with us safe in the knowledge that all the reindeer are happy and healthy.
Usually 2 or 3 of us will head up early doors, and in the summer there is usually only one group of reindeer in the enclosure to deal with. By comparison right now as I’m writing this (early October), there are reindeer in 5 separate areas of the enclosure, all needing checking and feeding at least twice daily! One group only is much more straightforward and seems like a distant dream right now.
The very first job of the day, before heading to the hill enclosure, is to drive up to the ski centre to check none of the free-ranging reindeer are nearby. Right in the middle of summer this would be unusual, but they do sometimes surprise us, so it’s always worth a check! A convenient layby also gives us a bird’s eye view of much of the enclosure, so we have a quick scan over it too.
The hill enclosure is around 1200 acres in size; about 2km in length. The nearest end of it consists of several smaller areas, and our first job of the day is to bring the herd through to the nearest area, the ‘bottom corridor’, and to see if everyone walks through cheerfully and willingly. A reindeer who is off colour will lose their appetite and is quite likely to trail through a distance after the others, less enthusiastic about the prospect of breakfast, so that is the first clue of someone feeling under the weather.
If we are suspicious any reindeer is not quite themselves, the first thing we do then is to check their temperature – so it pays not to be the last reindeer through the gate, otherwise there could be a thermometer up your bum before you know what’s happening! However, a high temperature indicates a tick-borne fever, and a shot of antibiotics is the next step, which should nip any infection in the bud.
Once every week or so in the summer we’ll get the whole herd up to our shed and work our way through the whole herd, checking temperatures, as some reindeer are very good at not showing any symptoms at all even when they have a roaring fever. This type of fairly intensive routine monitoring isn’t necessary in the winter months as there are no ticks about then, but the warmer weather brings them out and so reindeer do get very used to regular violations of their dignity…
Something else that needs doing regularly of a summer’s morning, even daily at times, is fly-spraying. Like with any animal, flies will buzz around the reindeer on sunny days, and whilst they don’t generally cause any real problem, they drive the reindeer mad at times. No-one likes having flies buzzing round their face! With the reindeer, the flies tend to aim for the antlers, clustering around the soft growing tips where the blood supply is richest. If a tiny nick in the velvet skin is made, the flies will feed on the blood and this brings with it the risk of infection.
So we spray the antlers to help keep the flies off, using a DEET-based spray that is designed for horses. But unfortunately we can’t wipe the spray on with a cloth as reindeer hate their antlers being touched whilst they are growing (and also it would take forever to do 40-odd reindeer this way!), so we have to just spray it on, accepting that – from a financial point of view at least – an upsettingly large percentage of it is lost or misses it’s target. Reindeer very rarely stand quietly to have their antlers sprayed, either doing their best to pull away from us, or rushing around in circles if contained in the shed. But there’s no way around it – antlers need spraying and it’s better for the herd to be rather flustered for a few minutes each morning than spend the day charging around to get away from the flies.
On an average summer’s morning, at this point it’s breakfast time! Just like on the Hill Trips, we tip the bag of feed out into small piles in a big long line, count to check every reindeer is present and correct, and make sure every is eating enthusiastically. And then – just as importantly – head back down to the Reindeer Centre and stick the kettle on…
This first couple of hours of the morning is also when we do any ‘movement’ of reindeer if needed, such as letting reindeer out to free-range on the mountains outside the enclosure, or swapping over the reindeer in the Paddocks with those up in the hill enclosure. We also regularly poo-pick the nearer areas of the enclosure where the reindeer congregate, or do maintenance jobs on the fencing and boardwalks. I suspect people sometimes wonder why we don’t open any earlier than 10am, but these couple of hours are sacred to us – the time flies by all too quickly and we’re still often left scrabbling around trying to get finished and back to the Centre in time to open on schedule!
Every year when the cows and calves come off the high tops from the summer one group tend to head towards Glenfeshie, a part of the Cairngorms they aren’t meant to be. We have got good communications with the landowners and gamekeepers over there so they let us know and we head over in the mission to catch them. It is always the same culprits. To name a couple– Fern and Wapiti. You may remember a blog in October of Andi and I recovering Fern from Glenfeshie in the autumn so she must have gone straight back!
Alex is chief free range reindeer herder and knows the hills best over there so he headed out the first few times to catch up with them. Once he knew their location he set up a corral with a few gates in the aim to catch the naughty reindeer. This all happened over the Christmas and New Year period, they like to pick the busy times! Alex went out a few times and fed them which gets them used to the feed again and a bit easier to manage. In the group were three calves who weren’t yet trained so they were fairly timid and didn’t let Alex get very close. But then we got the phone call at Reindeer House from Alex that he had them all in… calves included. Ye-Ha!!!
So Chris and I got everything together and headed off in Brenda (this is the name of our wee livestock truck). Alex was going to start putting halters on them. When we arrived it materialised Alex wasn’t on his own. With Emily (his wife) and two month old son in toe the three of them had caught all the reindeer. Start them young! Being the holiday period the hills were pretty busy with people walking and there were a few dogs around so Emily was on people and dog duty while we walked the reindeer up to the livestock truck. Remember the calves are pretty wild and not halter trained so there was a lot of persuasion going on. Luckily all their mothers are halter trained so they were easy. So in two runs, we walked all 11 reindeer up to the livestock truck and loaded them.
On route we phoned the Centre to get extra pairs of hands to lead them across to our enclosure where they have now been for a week. The calves are getting more and more bold everyday, eating the mixture and now joining in with our daily guided tours. It won’t take long for them to get pretty tame… the great thing about reindeer and thousands of years of domestication means working with humans comes second nature to them. We will halter train them over the next few weeks. Their names are Keats, Blyton and Harper to fit into our 2017 naming theme of poets and authors.
It has been an exceptionally mild winter here in the Cairngorms; the ski season never really seemed to kick off, the herders are missing the snow and it has just felt a bit wetter and warmer than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed how early the snowdrops and daffodils seem to have emerged and we have noticed that the hills are looking a bit greener with the heather and deer sedge starting to grow already. Looking at the Met Office summary for winter 2016-2017, temperatures are up about 3.0°C on average (average being data from 1981-2010) in the UK.
For the reindeer, this warming winter could have lots of effects, and we have recently heard of the reindeer in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia, starving to death due to increased rainfall in the autumn freezing and leaving a thick layer of ice impenetrable to them for foraging.
Our reindeer seem to be coping just fine and it has not frozen here enough for them not to reach their favourite food, lichen. However, research done by previous reindeer herder Heather Hanshaw has shown that weather conditions do definitely affect the proportion of male to female calves born in the spring. Since calving will soon be upon us, I thought it might interest you to know about this research and what our mild winter may mean for us in the upcoming weeks.
Heather studied Physical Geography at Edinburgh University and in her final year needed a project to study. Of course, having an interest in climate as well as reindeer, and having worked at the Reindeer Centre, a project about how climate affects them was a natural interest to Heather. She knew that Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren had been very meticulous about the data kept on calves born in the Cairngorm herd, and climate data was easily enough accessed, so Heather devised a project determining if weather (temperature and rainfall) had any effect on the proportion of male to female reindeer calves born. A similar study was conducted with Red deer on the Isle of Rum, and their study found that milder winters led to more male calves. Would it be the same or opposite of Rum, or would weather have no effect on the Reindeer?
It turns out that Reindeer are similar to Red deer and when the winter temperature increases, so does the proportion of male calves. So, will that turn out to be true this year? With only a few weeks until calving begins, it will be interesting to look at whether we have lots of male calves this year.
Last year the winter seemed fairly average, possibly on the warm side a little, and our calving ratio was almost perfectly 1 male to 1 female, so it will be really interesting to see if this mild winter has had an effect on what will be born this May.
I thought for a wee change I’d write a bit about one of the most important parts of the reindeer company, without which we could not function as a business and place of many a giggle and frustrated sigh. It is… The Office.
Reindeer herding is an unparalleled job for variety and us herders cover the whole job, we serve visitors in the shop, take visits, cover the paperwork, walk reindeer, train reindeer as well as heading out on tour with reindeer over the festive period. All in all there’s a lot to be done on a daily basis and the office is no exception and we all have our little niche that we’re responsible for. Myself, it’s adoption renewals and advertising, some of you may have come across Hen who is the lady to speak to if you’re buying antlers, or this blog itself which is under the firm control of Imogen.
The office is often a hive of activity and the festive period is no exception, over a period of two months we made over 500 adoption packs. That means over 500 handwritten certificates, ID cards, letters (lots of letters), special requests and addresses… all in all a lot of writing. The calligraphy pens become very coveted at this time of year, woe betide you if you blunt a nib! All in all, we do industriously enjoy our office time and our wee nook is the epicentre of everything reindeer. In one tiny room all adopt records are filed, reindeer movements are noted alongside vet records, locations and family trees.
Our trusty computers must every day wake up and download the day’s queries and requests and today the great delight of an email informing us that our order of replacement mop heads has been dispatched which was a triumphant feeling as it took a surprising amount of online mop education to finally locate just what type of mop head was required. Has anyone else heard of the Kentucky mop…?
There’s always a new something in the office too whether it’s my mound of weird snacks (chia pudding being my current favourite), Hen on her ball, there have been around 5 ‘on the ball’ puns per minute since the appearance of said green sphere! After a trip away on yoga teacher training I’ve been attempting to share some of the cool wee things I’ve learned including myofascial release with a tennis ball.
Here’s Andi working on her back!
All in all it’s a pretty weird place to be in at times… as i write this I’m being serenaded by Boyz 2 Men (& Imogen) singing ‘I’ll make love to you’…. need anymore be said…