Houdini

Houdini is 11 years old now. He joined our herd when we brought reindeer over here from Sweden in 2011 as a way to boost the genetics in our own herd. At the time he was a calf and the way he got his name was during his time in Sweden while my brother Alex was there training them ready for their journey over to Scotland. On a number of occasions when Alex would head to the corral in the morning all the reindeer were securely inside the fencing… except for one. After a good bit of persuasion with food he’d coax that calf back in to join the herd in the corral. The weird thing was he couldn’t work out where he was getting out… and that is how he got his name, Houdini! He must have eventually watched him and worked it out because Houdini did come over to Scotland and didn’t remain in Sweden.

Houdini in Sweden in 2011.
Houdini in the Cairngorms!
Teenage Houdini – August 2013.

For his first few years with us he was too young to breed but with a quiet and greedy nature we soon realised that he’d be a good one to use as a main breeding bull in the future. His antlers were always a good size but never had much shapeliness to them. As a bull he was an interesting character. Sometimes when bulls are quite tame when they rut they can see us as part of their herd and in the rutting season this meant fending us off from trying to steal his females! Not that we actually wanted his females but he wasn’t to know that. So feeding him and his hareem had to be done with caution. Other bulls such as Kota, and Spartan never gave us a second look… nature of the beast I guess, they are all very different. Houdini over the years fathered many calves, including Olmec, Texel, Holy Moley, Jelly etc… Like their dad, as well as mums influence too, they all have a very sweet nature.

Houdini in September 2019 – ready for the rut.

In 2020 Houdini was 9 years old and we’d used him as a main breeding bull for a few years so we decided to give him a break now. This meant he had a visit from the vet to be gelded so Houdini will live out his life in our herd as a Christmas reindeer. We couldn’t possibly have a herd full of bulls or going into the rutting season would be complete chaos and very difficult to manage. We would risk relatives breeding with one another so we must geld reindeer that we don’t want to breed from. This would happen at the youngest of 3 years old, or like Houdini at the age of 9. It is our Christmas reindeer that would take part in events and are trained to harness and pull the sleigh.

As Houdini was already a good age we did train him to wear harness and pull the sleigh but the reality of him actually doing many events are pretty slim. As a big reindeer who has had a lot of stress on his body over the years with rutting he also needs to take it easy. We trained him at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore and he did really well. For a big, old boy who hasn’t done anything like that before he was great. With our normal Christmas tour not happening in 2020 due to COVID we did a few local events. Houdini joined the team that did a local hotel on Christmas day but he just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, nothing too tasking. In 2021 he went through the training again and he joined my team and for the first time since he came into Scotland, he came south of the border to the north of England.

Houdini, closest to camera, leaving the hill enclosure to visit England!

We were doing an event at Stockeld Park in Yorkshire. It was a two day event so both days we turned up for 11am into a huge grassy pen and did a parade around their enchanted forest at 3pm. The parade loop went around their cross country ski route and passed lit-up animals, ogres, Little Red Riding Hood’s house, a wicked witch riding on her sleigh as well as a lake with fountains and a few enormous lit-up unicorns with fairies dancing on top… I know I couldn’t quite take it all in either! We set off on our first out of four loops in total we were going to be doing that weekend, two each day. I thought it was a bit much to ask Houdini to pull the sleigh on the first day as it was his first event and discovering unicorns on his first ever event should be done while walking at the back of the sleigh and not having to concentrate on the sleigh as well. So he joined myself at the back of the sleigh with Anster, Beret and Beanie. Frost and Celt were pulling it with Lotti leading. As we enter the enchanted forest it was great seeing Houdini take it in but not reacting. Each lit-up animal we passed he’d stare at, but by the fourth round on day two he barely even gave each display the time of day, even the huge unicorns.

Houdini at the back of the sleigh – observing the craziness of his first proper Christmas event!
Houdini’s lovely bottom on the left – doing a fantastic job at the back of the sleigh!

After the weekend we headed north again and before he knew it he was back on the hill with the herd. I wonder if he spread his knowledge of unicorns in Yorkshire onto the other reindeer? Houdini was an absolute star! He took everything in his stride and over the years has brought so much to our herd, we are very proud of him. He might do the odd local event now but leave the ones further afield to the younger reindeer. Stockeld was perfect for him as a big comfortable grassy pen was good on his older joints. It’s a bit like me, when we stay at farm bases across the country now I need a comfy bed at night or I wake up a bit stiff!

Houdini (in the middle) enjoying a snooze with his team mates at Stockeld – November 2022.

Fiona

Volunteer Blog: Oct-Nov 2021

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.

Emm and Dr Seuss.

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.

Poirot – safely on the other side of a fence!

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.

Holy Moley at the front, with some calves and ‘Christmas Reindeer’ in the background.

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.  

Morse in the Paddocks, along with Cowboy and Jimmy.

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.

Emm holding on to the calves during a sleigh training session in Glenmore, Trilby closest to the camera.

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.

Sleigh training – Anster and Houdini at the front.

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.

Ruth with Olmec and Aztec.

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.

A busy office! From L-R: Emm, Lisette, Lotti, Ben B and Olly.

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. 

Stenoa having a snooze after a Hill Trip.

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 !!!!

Emm and one of her adopted reindeer, Scully.

Emm

Stinky Boys

Roman with his cows

By the time you read this, the rut will be underway here at Cairngorm, with our chosen breeding bulls split with selected unrelated females, to make sure we know who the parents of each calf are. While the bulls tend to be fairly relaxed and laid back for most of the year, as September comes to an end and the cows come into season, they start to “rut”, strutting around, posturing and rounding up their females, and challenging any other bull they see. Reindeer bulls don’t “roar” like some deer species (including the iconic Scottish red deer stag), instead they grunt. But one of the most noticeable changes for me is their smell.

Kota in 2020, grunting to his cows

Now, I don’t claim to have a particularly good sense of smell, but in general reindeer are fairly unsmelly creatures. However, a rutting bull is a different matter, and already, as I write in mid-September, our boys are getting stinky. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell – very musky and, well, masculine I suppose. One of the main reasons they smell so strong is that they begin deliberately peeing on their hindlegs. This always seemed a bit odd until I did my research and realised that reindeer, like all deer, have scent glands on the inside of their hocks, the tarsal glands. This gland produces an oily secretion, and when the natural bacteria on this area combines with pheromones in the urine, that distinctive scent is produced. Apparently every reindeer has a unique, individual scent, due to their own winning combination of bacteria, though I definitely don’t have a sensitive enough nose to be able to tell!

Nutti, illustrating the position of the tarsal gland
Roman peeing on his legs to increase his allure

Why do they feel the urge to be so stinky?? Well, part of it must be as a statement of dominance – when I, as a mere human, can smell a bull from 100 metres away, the other reindeer must be able to smell them from… 800 metres?… a mile?? This must act as a deterrent to a weaker bull, and quite possibly as an attractant to a female in season – they definitely come looking for bulls when they’re ready.

Feeding the big bulls last year, just before the rut – they were already stinky!

We have a vague theory among us herders that the female herders notice the scent of the rutting bulls more than the male herders do. Quite what that means, I have no idea – perhaps the smell is designed more as an attractant to cows than a deterrent to bulls after all (not that any of us lassies have said that we actually like the smell!). Either that or the men amongst us are less sensitive when it comes to body odour!

Andi

Experiencing the Four Seasons (Part Two)

Emm volunteers with us several times a year usually, and has been doing so for years now. Here’s her story of working in the summer and autumn seasons! Her recent blog about the winter and spring can be found here.

Summer

In summer I have been up in both July and August. The visitors are meeting the male reindeer in the hill enclosure. The female reindeer and the calves are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains.

The reindeer’s antlers have done the majority of their growth and the velvet is getting ready to strip away at the end of August. The reindeer are looking smart in their dark summer coats.

Dr Seuss and Pratchett in the hill enclosure

The weather can be hot in the summer. The flies bother the reindeer by flying noisily around them, sometimes the reindeer rush around to try to get away from the flies which tend to sit on their antlers as they can sense the blood supply in their growing antlers. We spray the reindeer’s antlers with citronella spray to protect them from the flies. Midges are also a problem in the summer for both reindeer and humans.

Monopoly in his summer coat

In one part of the enclosure, the reindeer have access to a shed for shade. One time when we got up there with the visitors, the reindeer were nowhere in sight. All 41 of them had gone into the small shed. The shed doesn’t look like it can fit 41 reindeer in but it is does, it is like a Doctor Who’s Tardis. One Hill Trip, I was herding them out of the shed, I realised that I hadn’t seen Blue – I found him in a small part of the shed asleep. Blue, who was deaf, didn’t hear his reindeer friends move on. The reason Blue was deaf is because he was leucistic (pure white with blue eyes). Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation.  Leucistic reindeer are camouflaged in the snow.

Selfie with Glenshee, back in 2016

There are three Hill Trips a day (during the week) in the hill enclosure and last year we did ‘Summer Fun’ in the Paddocks which involved feeling the weight of antlers, feeling the weight of a feed sack, Paddock reindeer talks and much more fun (N.B. This will return in 2021!). Reindeer House is busier as the seasonal summer staff are working as there is a lot going on with three Hill Trips a day and Summer Fun in the Paddocks.

One of the jobs in the summer is to water the garden as it is hot.

Last July, Olympic would stand by the gate like he was guarding it and wouldn’t let visitors out of hill enclosure. I kept having to go over to him and move him on.

Olympic

Autumn

In the Autumn, I normally come in October half term. The scenery is changing with leaves changing colour and leaves falling off the trees.

The reindeer’s winter coat is growing and most of the velvet has stripped off revealing the hard bone antler underneath.

It is the rutting and breeding season. Normally in different areas of the hill enclosure there is a bull with his girls. My two favourite breeding bulls are Houdini and Kota as they have massive magnificent antlers. When we feed the breeding bulls with their girls we have to be careful as they can be protective over their girls. We don’t take the visitors in with the bulls and their girls.

Breeding bull Kota

We do one Hill Trip a day in the hill enclosure. Normally in the afternoons we do sleigh training with the ‘Christmas reindeer’. We put the harnesses on them and harness them up to the sleigh. The reindeer pull the sleigh around Glenmore (where the Reindeer Centre is based). They even go on the road. It is so funny to see people’s faces when they drive past reindeer pulling a sleigh.

Sleigh training

We also get to handle the calves to get them used to people. We sometimes take them on a walk around Glenmore in the morning.

Calves Athens and Helsinki in October 2019

I am busy learning the calves names and if I hadn’t been up in May, I am learning which calf belongs to who and meeting all of them. The calves are also getting their new ear tags.

One year, I was lucky enough to help out at a early Christmas parade at the very start of November which was very special. It was at The Cairngorm Mountain. We wore red Christmas jumpers and woolly hats with reindeer on them. The reindeer team were Mo, Spike, Sooty, Aonach and calves Morse and Poirot. Mo and Spike pulled the sleigh with Santa in it. It was so wet and so windy. The wind was 60 miles per hour. Santa was holding his hat on in the sleigh. Not many people turned up. We had to tie things on to the pen railings otherwise they would have flown away.

Holding Mo and Spike after the parade

One of the other jobs in the autumn is to sweep up the leaves. At 4 o’clock it is starting to get dark. So we put the Paddock light on in the Paddocks so the visitors can still see the reindeer. When we put the reindeer to ‘bed’ in the woods and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.

My 2 Favourite Seasons

I have two favourite seasons which are autumn and spring.

Sleigh training with Slioch and North

In the autumn, I love doing the Christmas sleigh training, helping the calves get used to being handled, learning the calves names and seeing the reindeer with their newly formed antlers.

With the cows and calves

In the spring, I love seeing the newly born calves, seeing the reindeer being mums and hearing the grunts between mum and calf.

Emm

 

The Rut

3-bulls
Balmoral (left), Ost (centre) and Bandy (hiding on the right)

It’s an exciting time of year here at the Reindeer Centre as we are now well into the rut. Our main breeding bulls are looking fantastic with their bony antlers, thick necks and chubby bellies. The girls are also looking brilliant after a summer out on the free-range getting lots of tasty morsels and running around on the hills.

ost
Youngest bull Ost looking gorgeous

We’ve now got a few bulls in our enclosure with their selected cows and are hoping that they do their one and only job well and we will have lots of babies next year. As most of you know, our herd numbers around 150 and we like to keep it that way. We use the enclosure during the rut to manage our bulls and cows to make sure we get enough calves, but not too many. The single cows we are not breeding from, such as Lilac, Tuppence, Fonn and co., are put out onto the free-range and politely told to go and fend for themselves. Females with calves are kept separate from the bulls, but still in the enclosure. As well as the rut, we are currently halter training the calves so we need them on the hill, but we give most of the mums a year off between calves.

img_1741
Bandy strutting his stuff with his girls

There are roughly 4 large parts in total to the enclosure. The cows and calves have one, and the other three each contain one main bull, his cows and sometimes a couple of castrates and young bulls. The three main bulls in the enclosure this year are Balmoral, Bandy and Ost. We have a couple of castrates and young bulls in with the main bull to keep him fit and on his toes. Whilst the castrates and young bulls will never challenge the main bull for dominance, he will chase them away from his ladies if he feels they are getting a little too close for comfort. It keeps our younger boys in check and means our bulls work off that belly they have been building over the summer.

bovril
Handsome Bovril, with his antlers!

We also have a bull, Bovril, out on the Cromdales with some younger girls. He’s a very lovely boy and his antlers have been cut off (like getting a hair cut when the antlers have hardened!) so he is not too much of a worry if you come across him. Recently Tilly had a very long walk when Bovril’s 8 cows turned up on the road between Bridge of Brown and Tomintoul! I think Bovril was too fat to follow the girls so hopefully they have been reunited up on the hills and he is keeping them in check now.

balmoral-peeing
Balmoral peeing on his legs to make himself extra-attractive to the cows… men out there, please note that this doesn’t work for women!

Hopefully the boys will perform and next year we will have lots of cute little babies again!

Imogen

Introducing the bulls

Since some of our female reindeer finally decided to join us at the hill enclosure, the rut has got underway. We use different sections of our 1,200 acre hill enclosure to help us manage the bulls during the rut, as it would be complete chaos if we just put them all in together and left them to get on with it! By splitting each bull with a small group of females, everything is a bit more relaxed and the big lads feel less at risk of losing their girls. We do, however, let some of the younger, smaller bulls “have a go” by letting them remain in with a big bull, and if they manage to sneak a female away and have their wicked way, then good for them. Of course, most of the time, they don’t stand a chance!

Gandi
Swedish Gandi with his distinctive white nose

This year we have quite a few bulls who may be getting a chance to spread their genetics in the herd. As usual, most of these are of Swedish descent. Whilst we keep a record of the parentage of each calf born here, it is a lot easier to prevent inbreeding and promote genetic diversity if we use bulls that we know aren’t related to anyone else. Bovril, Gandi, Boxer, Nutti, Pera and Bandy all started their lives in Sweden, before joining our herd in 2011. After we have bred from them for a few years, they will join our Christmas team and live out the rest of their life as a part of the Cairngorm herd.

Bovril
Big handsome Bovril

Bovril and Gandi are perhaps the biggest and most impressive of the boys this year, especially Bovril as he is black in colour, and whilst he’s actually very sweet natured, when he’s strutting his stuff and chasing away the other males he can look extremely intimidating! Pera is another black reindeer, but is slightly smaller than Bovril. He is easily recognised due to having rather bizarre antlers – the top points point forwards rather than backwards. As antler shape is determined genetically, it will be interesting to see what the antlers of Pera’s offspring turn out like!

Pera
Pera with his bizarre antlers

Boxer is another dark coloured reindeer, but Nutti is much lighter and has a white nose, as does Gandi. Bandy is the one right in the middle – what we would call a “normal” colour. He’s quite a slight build and a bit less scary than the other big bulls, but is perfectly capable of holding a group of females.

BoxNutBand
A range of different colours: dark coloured Boxer, normal coloured Bandy and white-nosed Nutti

Of our Scottish born bulls, three-year-old Balmoral is the biggest and most impressive. He comes from a great family line – Fly is his mum – and his family has a good record for producing big strong calves with large antlers, so hopefully any offspring he fathers will inherit these traits. A few of the younger bulls may also get a look in – notably Cambozola, Mo and Atlantic are convinced that they are handsome enough to win over any female… its just a case of whether they can steal them away from the big lads or not!

Balmoral
Three-year-old Balmoral

CamMoAtl
The Young Hopefuls: Cambozola, Mo and Atlantic

Watching the bulls performing is always entertaining – unlike the red deer stags who roar their challenge at other males, reindeer bulls merely grunt. They also lick their lips, pee on their hind legs and generally swagger around thinking they’re the bees knees. Personally, they remind me of drunken lads out on the town, but they do seem to have some degree of success at impressing the cows. Quite how successful will only be proven next year in May!

Andi