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!
Funny story…. For months Hen’s been meaning to write a blog about the new bridge en route to our hill enclosure, but eventually this autumn found herself too short of time and suggested to Andi that she wrote it instead, hence Andi’s recent blog. And then, displaying a woeful level of forgetfulness, Hen found the blog that SHE WROTE HERSELF, and had NO memory of writing…Wow. So, you might as well read this one too.
I often talk to people who came to visit years ago but can’t remember much about their walk to the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure, other than the fact ‘there was a big bridge’ over a river. Ah, we say knowingly, you mean Utsi bridge. It’s become an iconic part of our most common route on to the mountains to see the reindeer herd. (But it’s not the sole route we use, so if you read on and have no memory of a bridge, then you aren’t going mad – we probably just took you to meet the herd in a different location!)
The original Utsi bridge over the Allt Mor (the river which leads down to Loch Morlich) was built in the 60s, and consisted of not much more than telegraph poles with some planks on them, or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen that remain of it.
Bridge mark II was built in 1979 by the Army, and it’s this one, with it’s high-sided handrails, that is the one that most people will remember. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve crossed it, but being as between late April and early January it’s rare for a working day to pass without doing so at least twice (i.e. once in each direction), and often a lot more – it’s certainly a lot of times. I think my record was 9 or 10 trips up to the hill enclosure once whilst shuttling boardwalking material up there. I cursed the lack of vehicle access that day!
Many reindeer hooves have crossed the bridge over the years too. Obviously reindeer can, and do, cross the river directly a lot of the time, but the free-ranging herd will cross the bridge instead at times if making their way towards the enclosure of their own accord. Tell-tale droppings on the bridge give away their route!
We lead reindeer to and from the enclosure over the bridge, and the most eventful time is always their very first time, usually at around 5 months old, learning to walk on a halter. Actually the bridge itself is no issue at this point – it’s getting on the bridge which can be really hard as there are steps up on to it.
After over 40 years, the second incarnation of Utsi bridge was starting to show signs of wear and tear, the central support starting to get more undermined each time the river was in spate, and eventually it became obvious that it needed to be replaced. We don’t own the land that the bridge is built on so this didn’t come down to us thankfully, although we did attend meetings with regards to how it would happen, and made sure that the plan was definitely to complete the new bridge fully before the old one was removed!
Work began in November 2020, but ground to a juddering halt with the second lockdown after Christmas, and even though construction was permitted to continue, the impassable road and deep snow conditions of January and February 2021 made any progress an impossibility. It was mid-April before the bridge was finally completed, just before we re-opened to the public in late April, so all of our visitors in 2021 have walked to the reindeer herd via Utsi bridge mark III. This version is quite considerably bigger, and makes quite a landmark, but I’m not yet as fond of it as I was the old one.
We all kept pieces of the old bridge, so I have two of the uprights which once supported the handrails in my workshop at home. Maybe one day I’ll use them for gateposts somewhere! Alan and Tilly (owners of the reindeer herd) kept the four 30’ long steel girders that stretched the 60’ span of the river, which had to be helicoptered out from the site to the nearby car-park, and then collected via tractor and (large!) trailer! No doubt they will one day become part of one of Alan’s many sheds.
So if you are visiting us, particularly in the summer and autumn months, have your camera ready for this iconic bridge in case you happen to be lucky enough to cross it en route to the reindeer herd. You’ll be following in the footprints of thousands of visitors, hundreds of reindeer and dozens of reindeer herders, spanning nearly 7 decades.
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!
Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…
7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!
7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!
8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!
9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!
Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…
10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.
The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.
11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.
1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).
1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!
3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!
5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!
On our kids quiz in the Paddocks is the question ‘Name a sub-species of reindeer’, and I notice it’s often the one that people get stuck at (despite the fact that the answers are there on the display boards). I’ve realised over the years however, that this is often down to a basis lack of understanding of a percentage of the population of the concept of species and sub-species, rather than anything else. So therefore, allow me to explain.
As a zoology student (all too many years ago, so bear with me if my science is rusty!), the classification of all organic species using a system of ‘taxonomic rank’ was drilled into us. The system still in use today was founded by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 16th Century and brought order and clarity to the then chaotic and disorganised way of naming and categorizing all types of life. No wonder I loved learning about taxonomy – lists and organisation? My kinda thing.
The Linnaean system breaks down all living things into 7 major kingdoms, animals being one and plants another, and then each kingdom is broken down further, into different phyla. Then phyla are broken down once more to the next level, which is class, and the system carries on through order; family, genus and finally species. So reindeer can be categorized as such:
Kingdom: Animalia (Common name: Animals)
Phylum: Chordata (Chordates – meaning ‘possessing a nerve cord’)
Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Order: Arteriodactyla (Even-toed hooved mammals)
Family: Cervidae (the Deer family)
The two part ‘binomial’ name Rangifer tarandus is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘Latin name’, and every species in the world has one. You will be familiar with ours as Homo sapiens, and like humans, reindeer are the only species within their genus, Rangifer. A regular question from visitors is ‘So….how are reindeer different from deer?’ Bizarrely, it can be quite hard explaining to people that reindeer are deer. My usual analogy is to get people to think about lions and tigers. Both obviously cats, so therefore members of the cat family (‘Felidae’), but at the same time both clearly different species from each other. So while reindeer are a member of the deer family, they are a different species from other types of deer. For example, moose, red deer and muntjac – all clearly distinguishable in looks from one another, but crucially also genetically different.
But then, as with most things, it all gets a little more complicated. Not content with 7 major divisions, scientists introduced sub-divisions in order to break down everything further. So now there are, among others, sub-classes, sub-families, sub-genera etc. Arghh! While Rangifer has no sub-genus, there are some subspecies to contend with, and this is the relevant info that we hope people will track down in our Paddocks. All seven subspecies of reindeer and caribou are all still Rangifer tarandus, so effectively all genetically the same animal, but a subspecies is shown by adding a third name after the binomial. Just to clarify too, reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. The differences are also geographical, in that reindeer are found in Europe and Asia, while caribou are found in North America and Greenland.
So back to our seven subspecies. We have:
Eurasian Tundra reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus): Open-ground dwelling subspecies, which the majority of all domesticated reindeer belong to, including ours.
Eurasian Forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus): Boreal forest dwelling subspecies, typically taller than tundra reindeer.
Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus): Smallest subspecies, endemic to the arctic archipelago of the Svalbard islands. Short legged!
Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus): Migratory subspecies of open ground. The most similar of the caribous to our tundra reindeer.
North American woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou): Largest caribou subspecies, often darker in colour. As the name suggests, they live in forests, and generally don’t migrate.
Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi): Smallest of the caribou subspecies.
Alaskan or Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti): Migratory subspecies most closely resembling the barren-ground caribou, and named after the Porcupine river, which runs through much of their range. The longest migrating land mammal on Earth.
There have been two other subspecies in the past but these have now died out – the East Greenland Caribou and the Queen Charlotte Island Caribou.
So there you go, a brief taxonomy lesson, and congratulations to anyone who has stuck with me, as well as apologies for some slight over-simplifications for any scientists amongst you. Hopefully you’ll have all learnt something though – I’m a big believer of sneaking in educational blogs among the pretty pictures and funny stories we often post! And if it’s all too much and you’d just prefer something a bit more light-hearted, head off and google pictures of Svalbard reindeer. You’ll not be disappointed.
‘You’re never to old to volunteer at the Reindeer Centre’ said Mel as we walked reindeer around St. Marks garden in the middle of Lincoln. We were helping out with the Christmas event.
So we offered. Two, ‘older generation’, only relatively fit people, but willing and still able to do most domestic chores we thought it was a great idea. It has turned out to be exhilarating, enjoyable and far too addictive for words, we have now been back 5 times and still loving it.
To put our past experience into context, we have adopted at least one reindeer for the last 17 years and have taken our two boys to visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd since 1989. I started life as an adopter by being adopted by Indigo during one particular hill visit! A calm and lovable character who always had her nose in my pocket even when all feed had disappeared from my hands. I fell in love with her at first sight in 2002. After she died I adopted Cheer. A very quiet and shy reindeer, not an enthusiastic hand feeder like Indigo but easy to spot, which for me is a distinct advantage! For the past 3 years I have adopted Bumble, as far as I’m concerned one of the best reindeer in today’s herd. Colin adopts Olympic, a truly majestic animal who really adopted Colin at a Christmas event we were helping at in 2017 again in Lincoln.
Therefore we were not unfamiliar with the principles of the reindeer centre or being around the reindeer on the hill. We were both very experienced mountaineers and have extensive walking experience in the Cairngorm Mountains. An amazing place when treated with respect, so daily visits to the hill did not come with any apprehension.
We rent accommodation in Aviemore for between one and three weeks at a time to make the experience a working as well as a relaxing one, after all we need rest days at our age?
The welcome at Reindeer House is always so wonderful and after a few hours we feel as though we have never been away. There are always plenty of jobs to do but our favourite is still the 11oclock hill visit come rain, shine but preferably deep snow for me.
Each member of staff have their jobs to do and we fit in comfortably. I usually help in the shop from 10oclock with tickets for the hill visit, fetching wellie boots for lending out, usually collecting the size asked for, then the next size up or down until a comfortable agreement is reached. We usually have a variety of socks available for those who need them because wellie boots can be very cold particularly in the snow. However, for some reason visitors always return the wellie boots but not the socks, even though we wash them before re-use. My solution to this problem recently has been a request in our local church’s Pews News asking for unwanted socks and in only four weeks accumulated 230 pairs of socks plus hats and scarves! That should keep Reindeer House well stocked for a while yet.
Each day one of the regular herders lead the daily hill trip and Colin and I usually bring up the rear, making sure everyone is making steady progress and closing gates behind the group. It always amazes me how determined some people are to get the opportunity to hand feed the reindeer. Colin and I helped a lady who had recently had knee replacements and was walking with two sticks but she made it up onto the mountain and back in snow and ice such was her determination to succeed and like us she was of the more mature generation.
Colin and I usually give out the hand feed after the herders have put out the main feed and counted and checked the reindeer. The visitors hold out their cupped hands as dutifully instructed and before long the same pairs of hands are reappearing! Our challenge is to make sure everyone who wants to has had at least one chance to feed a reindeer, which is why most people come of course. And really, who couldn’t resist the appealing eyes of Saxon? Just 8 months old.
Eventually, reindeer well fed and visitors happy the party begins to disperse as visitors head back independently to the car park. Feed bags collected and stuffed into rucksacks we make sure we are last off the hill and the reindeer are settled. We head for Reindeer House and a well deserved lunch.
The afternoon jobs usually start off with me clearing the paddocks and overnight woodland area of reindeer droppings ready to be transported to the farm for composting. I often help out in the shop, restocking the shelves or dealing with visitors to the paddocks. Colin usually washes the lunch pots then the wellie boots or you may find him wandering around the paddocks chatting with visitors. December volunteering is the busiest when at the weekends I do crafts with the children in the BBQ hut and Colin keeps the paddocks clean and Santa occupied with excited children.
After filling the troughs with feed in the woods and calling the reindeer through, we help tidy and lock up ready for another adventure tomorrow.
With Christmas over and the Centre closed to the public for a month, we have put all of our reindeer out to free-range – the males are on the Cromdale mountains and the females are split between there and the Cairngorm mountains. We don’t necessarily see them every day, but where possible we like to catch up with them, feed them and check everyone’s ok. Here’s some photos from feeding the herd the other day:
Not bad for a place to live, but where is the snow?!?