Here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we are ‘popping the bottles of bubbly’ and celebrating, because it was this day 70 years ago that the first small group of reindeer arrived in the Cairngorms for what would be a successful experiment to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland after many years of absence.
An idea conceived by ‘couple extraordinaire’ Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, their tenacity and zeal paid off and the first small breeding group actually set foot on terra firma here in the Cairngorms on 27th May 1952.
The first consignment was swiftly followed by a second group of reindeer coming in the following October and finally on 29th April 1954 a third group arrived. These reindeer would form the nucleus of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd we love and cherish today.
Mikel Utsi was a Swedish Sami, born 17th May 1908 and brought up in a reindeer herding family in Swedish Lapland. As the second child of 8 children he was expected to ‘make his own way in life’, something I think we can all agree he certainly did!
His wife Dr Lindgren came from a very different background. Born on 1st January 1905 she was the only child of a wealthy Swedish-American banking family. She travelled extensively as a child with her family, graduated at Cambridge University with a first class honours in oriental languages and moral science and studied and wrote her PhD on reindeer herding people, the Tungus after expeditions to NW Manchuria in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren met in Jokkmokk on the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland and they married in 1947. They then devoted their lives to their ‘dream’ to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland. And 70 years on that dream has been a huge success, providing enjoyment to many. We have a lot to thank them both for.
The vast majority of reindeer have been born here in the Cairngorms and they descend from original females brought in during the 1950’s. Over a span of 11+ generations, both homebred and imported bulls have been used to ensure genetic diversity in the herd.
Today visitors to the herd, our reindeer support scheme and Christmas events with our trained reindeer are all ways we generate income to help keep this unique herd of reindeer in their natural, free-living environment. We have a dedicated group of ‘Scottish Reindeer Herders’ who are also family and friends and who are involved daily in the well-being and caring of this unique herd.
So for me as co-owner of the herd I would like to say a big ‘THANK YOU’ to the late Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren for establishing this herd and also to our reindeer herders of today who continue to make this imaginative experiment such a success.
So raise your glass to The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and may they thrive in the Cairngorms for many years to come.
I can’t help but smile when I see a reindeer yawn. They have the most wonderful facial expressions, produce the best sounds, and have the wobbliest of chins. I always try to capture the moment on camera but I’m usually way too slow and miss the moment. Over the past year I’ve been compiling a folder of my best reindeer yawns ready to produce a blog one day. Despite reindeer herding being my full time job, at the rate I’m going it would probably take several years before I’ve captured a decent amount of silly pictures and videos.
Sooo… I mentioned my blog idea to Hen and Andi recently whist *working very hard* in the office. Of course, they came to my rescue and more or less instantly produced many glorious pictures of yawning reindeer to bolster my collection.
So here goes, in no order or for any great reason other than hopefully making people smile. Enjoy!
After the busy Christmas season the entire reindeer herd free-range, either here on the Cairngorms or on the Cromdales. The staff working at the Reindeer Centre take care and deal with any reindeer related antics on the Cairngorms. Meanwhile the reindeer free-ranging on the Cromdales are looked after predominantly by Tilly and the farm crew.
On the days when Tilly needs an extra pair of hands, the shout goes out and one of us herders drive around the hills to help out, never quite knowing what the day will involve until we’re there! I answered the call to help in early January, and what a great day I had! By the time I arrived Tilly had already been out to call in the reindeer. Thankfully reindeer are ruled by their stomachs, so the offer of a free meal was too tempting as Tilly had successfully managed to call almost all of the herd into the corral. Little did they know it happened to be routine temperature checking day…!
After a quick de-tour to help feed the pigs, five of us headed on to the Cromdales on quad bikes. Tilly, Colin S, volunteers Davey and Christine, plus myself. The small number of reindeer who hadn’t come to Tilly’s earlier call, clearly decided they were missing out as they were waiting for us when we arrived.
I’ve never been to Sweden, or any other reindeer herding nation, maybe it was just the blue sky, cold temperature and low sunlight, but it felt like I was somewhere further afield than the Cromdales! I can imagine the corral that Alan has built up on the hill would be little like the one Sami people might use. It’s more rustic than the enclosure on Cairngorm where we take our Hill Trips, but does it’s job perfectly.
There is a corridor which goes around the main corral so the five of us were able to gently push the reindeer out of the corral and into the corridor. This allowed us to open the external gate to the hill allowing the latecomers to enter, whilst not letting any suspicious reindeer out!
We gently pushed the reindeer in batches along the corridor into a small pen at the end where we took the temperatures of all the reindeer, calling out their names to Christine who was armed with a list of the herd and a clipboard, checking everybody off and keeping us right. Once each batch of reindeer had a thermometer in the bottom and was sprayed between the legs with a treatment to prevent ticks from biting they were released back on to the hill. They can’t have had a bad experience as they didn’t dash for the high tops, rather they just milled around the outside waiting for the rest of the herd, and most importantly for their well-deserved dinner! It was a very fun way to spend a day and thankfully all the reindeer were fine and well.
Emm is one of our wonderful regular volunteers, and has written many blogs for us in the past. You can find out more about Emm by reading one of her previous blogs here: how reindeer herding changes me.
I was last with the reindeer in October/November 2021 for 10 days. It was so brilliant seeing all the reindeer, herders and dogs again. I hadn’t seen them since October 2020 due to Covid. I thought I would tell you what I did when I was with them over this time.
When I was up in October 2020, they were bringing in parts for the new Utsi’s bridge into the valley by helicopter. So this time I was excited to see the new Utsi’s bridge. I got to see the new completed bridge and go over it lots of times. It is wider than the old bridge and has steps either side and the reindeer go over it quite well. Another change is that on the walk to the reindeer with the hill trips, we don’t stop at the bridge anymore.
Being up at this time of year, I get to see the bulls with their girls. It was nearing the end of the rut. In one part of the hill enclosure, there was Poirot and his girls and in another part of the hill enclosure was Spartan and his girls. When you go and feed the bulls with their girls, you have to be careful as the bulls can be territorial and protective of their girls. With Poirot and his girls, we put the food out first and then let them in to the part of the enclosure where the food was where they will spend the day or night. Spartan and his girls were in a part of the enclosure called Silver Mount a big hill in the hill enclosure. A lot of reindeer have their calves on Silver Mount and it was my first time seeing a bull with their girls over in Silver Mount. We had to walk a little way across the hill enclosure to Silver Mount with your bags of feed.
It was my 1st time being there when the rut has finished. Poirot and Spartan came off the hill and went back to the farm. All the reindeer in the hill enclosure got separated into 2 groups; one group was castrated males and the other group were females. A few females had their 6 month old calves with them too. Some females hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so there was a lot of clashing antlers and charging around to sort out the new pecking order. Kipling even had lost an antler in a tussle. It was the first time I had seen the females being feisty with each other. The next day, some of the females were released onto the free range.
It was also the 1st time for me having a bull in the paddocks as Morse was in there as he jumped a fence and had hurt himself so they had pulled him out of the rut and were keeping an eye on him in the paddocks. When he was better, he went back to the farm.
Another thing being up this time of year is that walking calves and Christmas sleigh training happens. It is very exciting. We have to look out for dogs as the reindeer are scared of dogs as they think they are wolves. We walked the calves (2 at a time) with 2 adult reindeer. The adult reindeer are the role models for the calves and are a calming influence on them. I looked for lichen lollipops along the way to give the calves which they enjoyed. People sometimes came over to us to say hello. Handling the calves at this age gets them used to people and used to being handled.
Before we start Christmas sleigh training, we get the reindeer warmed up by walking them and running with them along the path. In the training, the experienced reindeer are buddied up with inexperienced reindeer at the front of the sleigh or the back of the sleigh. There are 2 reindeer pulling the sleigh at the front and 4 reindeer (2 are calves) are at the back of the sleigh. The experienced reindeer are training the inexperienced ones. The Christmas reindeer are usually the castrated boys. Sometimes people come over to watch and this is also good experience for the calves. It is lovely to see the calves having bell harness on for the first time.
Sometimes the reindeer and the sleigh go in the road. We have to have hi-vis bibs on. It is funny to see the people’s faces in the cars as they drive past the reindeer and the sleigh. They look very surprised and excited.
The reindeer go around the UK in November and December. There are lots of teams and they do Christmas events, garden centres and Christmas parades.
When the calves come off the hill to go into the paddocks to have their walks and to do Christmas sleigh training, it is the first time they get separated from their mum and wear a headcollar. They are fed lichen from a bucket whilst someone puts the headcollar on. The mums comes off the hill with them into the paddocks and then the mums goes back into the lorry to go back up the hill leaving the calves in the paddocks. They are normally separated for a few days. It was the 1st time I had seen the calves come off the hill with their mums.
The calves have their shiny new ear tags put in at this time of year. I saw Andi put Cowboy’s and Jimmy’s ear tags in.
When I was up this time 2 people got married up on the hill surrounded by the reindeer which was lovely. Olly made sure the reindeer behaved themselves although I heard that Holy Moley stuck her antler up the bride’s dress !!!!!
I also helped out in the office. I helped pack Christmas cards, stuck the information onto the photos which went with the October newsletter, put the October newsletters and information photos in the envelopes, made up the 1st year adoption packs and packed up the adoption gifts for each adoption pack. It really helps the herders when they do the adoptions of the reindeer.
I also helped do the feed mixing making up the reindeer feed. We do the feed mixing in a big cement mixer. We mix lots of ingredients together by measuring them out in buckets and then putting them in the mixer. The ingredients we use are barley, sugar beet, ewe and lamb mix, dark grains and haymix. We also put calcium powder in and oil to help mix the calcium powder in. We use lots of reindeer feed this time of year as there is lots of reindeer up on the hill as it is the rutting season. Feed mixing happens every 1 – 2 days this time of year as it runs out quickly.
I also led reindeer up the hill which came from the farm or when we switch the reindeer around from the paddocks. When you lead a reindeer, it is different from leading a horse. You wrap the rope around your hand and mustn’t let go even if the reindeer pulls. When you walk the reindeer should be behind you or at the side of you but mustn’t try to get past or pull you. We must look out for dogs as well as we are on a path.
When I was there, it was Hen’s birthday. I went to Reindeer House for Hen’s birthday meal. It was a really good night with very yummy food and really good company. There were 7 dogs and when we sang Happy Birthday to Hen, the dogs sung too by howling and barking. Lol.
I am so looking forward to my next trips in 2022 !!!!
At the end of November 2021 the UK was battered by Storm Arwen. It hit us on a very busy weekend with various teams heading off on Christmas tour – Fiona wrote a blog about that which can be found here. We’ve now had many more storms and lots of snowfall this winter, but I thought that I would share some photos of the reindeer and reindeer herders in the snow taken during the first major wintery weekend of the season…
Surprisingly I’ve been involved with working at the Reindeer Centre for over four years now. Time has certainly flown by and I would never have expected to be living at the Centre or even in the Highlands when I first began back in November 2017.
When I joined the team, the calves were already 6 months old and had been named under the theme of famous poets and authors. Back then they were still little fuzz balls on legs with small sticks for antlers and sometimes even then, a little mischievous. I quickly got to know them individually over a couple of weeks and eventually Kipling, Dr Seuss and Christie became my favourite reindeer calves. Over the four years I’ve had great joy watching them grow into the adults and characters that they have become now and I feel privileged to have known them all their lives up to this point.
In this blog I will write a little about Kipling, look out for a future blog about Dr Seuss and Christie.
I can shamelessly say that Kipling is probably my favourite reindeer in the entire herd. Is it bad to have my favourite? Should I treat them all equally? Maybe, but over the years Kipling has been so much fun to work with and get to know. As a calf, I remember her looking slightly different to the others of her year. She was dark in colour but with an almost silvery sheen to her coat. Her mother, Hopscotch, is quite tame and rather greedy and this instantly rubbed off on her daughter. Kipling has certainly always enjoyed her food!
During the first 2 years of her life, I only worked at the Reindeer Centre through the winter time but would still visit at least once during the summer months and I remember seeing her on the free-range as a young female. By the time I would start work in October for the season, Kipling would be in our hill enclosure and it was during this time her obsession with food grew. Handfeed is certainly one of her favourite foods and she would inhale it out of the hands of our visitors before they could even take her picture. She also became extremely tame and friendly during this time and sometimes behaved more like a dog than a reindeer, brushing up against people and didn’t even mind being stroked. Through the coldest winter months when all the reindeer were free-ranging I would always make sure to give her a few extra handfuls of food to keep her happy. Some of the herders were not too pleased to see me do this as over time this has made her quite pushy when it comes to a food bag and has now lost all manners when it comes to waiting to be fed!
Kipling was so tame as a two year old that she even came on Christmas events with us. We visited Milngavie, Keswick, Bedford and Windsor while on tour and she was so ridiculous when on display in the pen, brushing up against the fence to say hello to people and telling off dogs when they came too close.
At 3 years old Kipling became a mother and I was lucky enough to be the first person to see her after giving birth. In classic Kipling style, she was so food orientated that during her first year of being a mother she would pay more attention to what she could eat rather than keep her calf close by. I got to name the calf after the peas, seeds and beans theme that year and landed on the name Pip after my first family pet dog Pippin. Pip herself is more shy in nature than Kipling but has grown in confidence over the last year and is still close to her mother.
In more recent times Kipling has become a well known regular to visitors on our Hill Trips. She’s usually the first reindeer to come in and hand feed but has sometimes got a little too pushy in her greed and has been known to be a bit too boisterous for some. I feel that after all the extra food and attention I have given to Kipling over the years I have played my part in creating a food monster. But like people can be around their loved one, I look past this and only see the fun, friendly reindeer that I’ve become so fond of.
As Ben and Fiona have explained in previous blogs (click here, and here to read), we had a busy December with events and parades up and down the country, as well as a busy Centre here in Glenmore with fully-booked Hill Trips and Christmas Fun paddock slots! Plus hundreds of adoption packs to make up and post out, alongside all the usual office antics.
For this week’s blog, I’ve collated a series of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what went on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!
Reindeer don’t eat carrots, and other myths to ruin your new year… 😉
Myth 1 – Reindeer are made up
It seems silly when you work with them every day, but it is easy to forget that for a lot of people the only reindeer they know of fly around the world in a single night, so perhaps its not that surprising that they assume they aren’t real.
I’m glad to be able to confirm that reindeer are in fact real and are great fun to work with.
Myth 2 – Reindeer eat carrots
Recent surveys have suggested that British people leave out around 3,000 tonnes of carrots for Rudolph to eat every Christmas Eve. But we aren’t sure where this tradition stems from as they do not grow in sub-Arctic habitats, and reindeer physically can’t eat carrots. Their lack of top teeth prevents them from chewing them down into a digestible size.
The food of choice for most reindeer is lichen, a fungi-algi symbiote, that grows here in the Cairngorm mountains and keeps the herd healthy. We also use it to help entice our reindeer during handling, or sometimes just give it out as a treat!
Myth 3 – Reindeer can fly
This one really goes hand in hand with Myth 1, but I am still yet to see one fly.
I do hear things are different on Christmas Eve though…?
Myth 4 – Antler points correlate with age
Antlers do tend to increase in size (and therefore often the number of points) with age, however this doesn’t necessarily align with exact ages in years. Also, over the course of their lives, the antlers are susceptible to change. For example, a cow’s antlers tend to be smaller any year she has a calf, a more senior reindeer tends to grow a smaller set, and damage or breaks in antlers can change the growth pattern permanently.
Myth 5 – Who pulls the sleigh at Christmas
This is an interesting one because the fact that some reindeer keep their antlers through winter leads to confusion about who might be pulling the sleigh. Many people’s first assumption is that it is all boys, due to the antlers. However, the fact that bulls will drop their heavier antlers before winter sets in has led many people to believe that sleigh teams are led by female reindeer (who tend to keep their antlers until the end of winter). While we may take female yearlings and calves out with the sleigh, the reindeer we have pulling the sleigh are castrated males. This is due to their laid-back nature, but also, they tend to hold their antlers longer than entire bulls. Additionally, mature female reindeer could be pregnant at Christmas time.
Castrates have long played an important role in reindeer herding culture. They tend to be more docile and better for training than bulls or cows, and in herds of thousands of reindeer a well-trained castrate male can be used as a ‘decoy’ to influence the movement of the herd in a desired direction.
Myth 6 – Antlers are made of wood
While the various textures and colours of antlers throughout their life cycle can often make them look wooden, fully grown antlers are formed of bone. They grow throughout the summer months, while covered in a thin layer of skin and a fur called velvet, and then in autumn the skin will be shed, and the bone shows through. At this point there is no more feeling in the antler, as the blood supply has fully stopped – which is the reason the skin sheds. The reindeer often look quite dramatic at this point, as residual blood can make for a scary looking reindeer! But after a rainy day or two the antlers will look lovely and clean.
Merry Christmas everyone. As you may well imagine, when you have a herd of reindeer, December is a busy time of the year. And this year has been no different. In this blog, I’ll provide a summary of what happens at the Reindeer Centre throughout December.
We’ve been having plenty of ‘Christmas Fun’ in the Paddocks and Exhibition area. This has taken place every December weekend as well as every day this past week in the build up to Christmas Day. Here we’ve had Santa Claus in his cosy, fire-lit grotto as well as arts and crafts, a special Christmas activity booklet for the kids to complete and plenty of herder talks out in the paddocks alongside the reindeer. We hope you’ve enjoyed chatting to us herders and seeing Santa!
The weather hasn’t always played ball with our plans. In fact, the start of December brought some pretty wild weather. We had over 10cm of snow. The reindeer were delighted and could often be seen dancing with joy, which can be seen in the video below. However, the Ski Road leading up to the car park had to be closed on occasion due to dangerous, icy conditions and a few Hill Trips were subsequently cancelled.
The snow melted about halfway through the month due to a mild spell of weather and we now have just a bit of frost on the ground in all areas except the very tops of the mountains. The weather didn’t put you hardy folks off visiting though and we had lots of visitors wrapping up warm and braving the elements on our hill trips. In fact, the December weekend hill trips were all booked up before December even started!
December is also the busiest month for our adoption scheme. As such we’ve been wading through seemingly never-ending torrents of incoming adoptions. All the herders have gallantly pulled long shifts of office work and about a week before Christmas Day we managed to paddle through the swell and get through the backlog of adoptions. No adoption was waiting more than a couple of days after being received so we hope that you receive your packages in a timely manner. During the busiest times, herders were writing letters whilst on tour and we recruited help from Linda and Tina who have been fantastic at writing letters for us from their homes.
One of the other events that happens over November and December is that a selection of trained reindeer may go out on tour around the nation. Events are often relatively local, however we reached as far south as Windsor this year and went as far away as Llanelli in South Wales. Training for the reindeer occurs throughout summer and really hots up during the autumn. The reindeer may be in a display pen or participating in a sleigh procession. It varies from event to event. The team and their herders will stay at overnight bases throughout the UK, and they will travel in big lorries with lots of space which means that the reindeer will often lie down on the straw when travelling or as some of you may have seen, they may also lie down when they’re in a pen. They like to relax whenever possible. Our calves have even had a bit of exposure to Christmas events and overall, they’ve been absolute champions.
Colin D (we have two Colins!) has clocked up the most miles of all of us herders and that’s good news for the rest of us as he produces the funniest videos. Here is Colin narrating Dr Seuss’ gardening skills. Stay tuned for more of Colin’s videos in a future blog/social media posts…
We are still open as usual until the 6th of January 2022. The Centre will then close until the 12th of February, re-opening in time for the February half-term. The entire herd will soon be free-ranging either on the Cairngorms or the Cromdales, fingers crossed for another cold and snowy winter. Thank you for all our wonderful visitors, supporters, blog-readers, and adopters throughout 2021. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, from all the reindeer herders!
So last week the whole country had a bit of a blustery time with Storm Arwen crossing our paths. When we clocked mid week it was on its way we started putting plans in action for how to run one of our busiest weekends of the season with 6 teams of handlers and reindeer out and about on tour as far south as Oldham and as far north as Portree on Skye. And not to mention the day to day runnings at the Reindeer Centre itself.
Firstly Banchory, near Aberdeen was due to have an event on the Friday night. But very sensibly made the decision two days before their event to postpone until the following week. Luckily weekdays for us aren’t so busy so we could accommodate with little fuss.
Next I had to think about my own team. Joe and I were heading to Yorkshire on Friday ready for events in the north of England on the Saturday and Sunday. Usually I’d get my reindeer off the hill that morning and hit the road but with the snow and wind forecast to come in mid-late morning I brought my team off the hill the day before, they then spent the night in the paddocks here at the Centre and we got away in good time, getting down country safe and sound.
Another team were spending the night at our farm base in Central Scotland ready for Milngavie the next day. When they’d usually leave late afternoon with only a two hour drive in normal conditions they also got away once their reindeer were off the hill on Friday morning. Our Perth event team were meant to go down Saturday morning but opted to also stay at our Central Scotland farm base as well… and it’s a good job they did because the snow came in thick and fast!!! The final three teams were all leaving from home on Saturday morning to get to Oban, Skye and Tain so just made sure they gave themselves plenty of time.
The Oban team had to divert via Inverness due to closed roads but got there in time to visit a care home prior to their event which was a great hit amongst the residents bringing lots of Christmas cheer to those who couldn’t come and see the reindeer parade. A long day for the Skye team but they have a day off on Sunday to recover. And Tain had a superstar in their team… Holy Moley made an appearance and that went down very well indeed!
Also in Tain, were Hamish and LX who pulled the sleigh with Ruth leading them. During the parade the team got an mention over the microphone, the man announced that Hamish and Alex were pulling the sleigh! Now this to all us herders was rather funny as of course Hamish and Alex are also the names of two of my family members. Alex is my brother and his son is Hamish… So we all had a good chuckle imagining those two pulling the sleigh instead of the reindeer!
So, Saturday for the reindeer teams all went well despite the harsh wintery conditions. Although my parade in Oldham was cancelled we still managed to do a small arrival with Santa and sleigh and the folk of Oldham welcomed us with open arms for the 24th year visiting the Spindles Shopping Centre.
That was the news from all of us out and about on tour so I can’t properly relay the stories from home and the running of the Reindeer Centre. I know the hill trips had to be cancelled due to the hill road being closed as the mountain was storm-bound. Instead the herders trooped together and did paddock talks throughout the day hoping the disappointment wasn’t too much for those missing out on the hill trips… Though to be completely honest if there was a hill trip in those conditions you wouldn’t be able to hear, see or take much in as the wild winds and snow conditions would have been too epic! Some of the herders still had to go up onto the mountain to feed and check the reindeer but actually doing this in these conditions just reminds us how incredible these animals are. They have the most amazing coats to cope with such low temperatures. Facing the wind means they get amazing ice masks covering their foreheads and ice covering their antlers… It looks very cool! Hopefully for those of you who missed the hill trip will get another chance sometime soon, it was very unfortunate but we are at the mercy of the weather gods and when they call it off there is little we can do about it. The main thing is everyone stays safe in these conditions, the reindeer will be here for a long time and certainly ready for your return!