Whilst we’re lucky enough to live here in the Cairngorms, the only area of sub-arctic ecosystem left in the UK, and generally associated with snow and winter sports, we do (occasionally!) get some glorious sunny weather too. Loch Morlich beach turns into a resort, people are braving a dip in the water, and ice creams are being consumed.
But what happens to those arctic survival specialists that we look after, the reindeer? I have to say whilst I look forward to the sun, my heart also sinks a little that the herd are going to be unimpressed.
Reindeer are native to this area and habitat, as well as being found right across Scandinavia and Russia. And although those areas experience extreme cold, the summer temperatures rise to a similar level as here at Cairngorm. I actually looked up some average temperatures of prime reindeer herding locations in Sweden (Kvikkjokk by Sarek National Park) and Norway (Tromso) and compared them to Cairngorm.
It was interesting to see that their average summer temperatures actually exceed ours here, though they have much colder, and longer, winters. So, reindeer are definitely able to cope with the warmer temperatures – how do they do this?
Firstly, the reindeer have a much shorter, cooler summer coat than their insanely thick winter coat. From May they are moulting rapidly, looking like shaggy beasts with bad hair-dos, though with so much fur to lose it can take them until July to be fully into their sleek summer outfit. This must be much nicer for the sunny days – like when you’ve had a haircut and can feel the breeze on your neck!
Whilst reindeer don’t sweat like humans, they instead act like (large, overgrown, funny looking) dogs – flopping down and panting. This can look quite dramatic as their whole body moves with each breath, but it does seem to work. They do like the shade and will often sardine themselves into the shed in our Hill enclosure!
Another technique is to pee… a lot! By peeing, hot liquid is expelled from the body, and is replaced with cooler water as they drink to replace it, almost like an internal cooling system.
Reindeer also become “Beasts of the Bog” and disappear into muddy ditches and hollows, often lying down to cool their bellies. They will occasionally wade into pools and have even been known to swim in the loch – they are of course marvellous swimmers with their huge hooves.
The herd also tend to naturally choose the higher ground on hot days – in general there is a 1ºC drop in temperature for every 100 m gain in height (due to the lower air density), and this, along with the greater likelihood of a breeze to cool them, means the ridges and high tops of mountains are preferred when the sun is out. Up there, there is also more chance of late-lying snow drifts – even as late as August here in the Cairngorms, which are the ultimate cool bed to lie on!
So, while I do feel sorry for our reindeer on hot cloudless summer days, as they would much prefer the snows of winter, it turns out that they are pretty well adapted to cope with whatever the weather throws at them!
This past year has been my first full year as a reindeer herder. Despite becoming a reindeer herder seven years ago in 2014 (remember then? simpler times!), I was very much a seasonal herder. I would arrive for a few months in the summer whilst either my university course was having a break, or in-between travels abroad.
Therefore, last winter was my first winter as a reindeer herder. And what a memorable winter it was! Firstly, it was lockdown, so it was very different to how things usually operate which was new and exciting whilst also being unpredictable and slightly chaotic. But also, there was the snow. So. Much. Snow. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a couple of videos and photos from the crazy weather, including this short clip of Joe and I leading the herd downstream in blizzard-like conditions at the start of February.
And it’s not just reindeer that we fed throughout the winter! Opportunistic snow buntings joined in most days too:
I am writing this at the start of May where we have had quite a bit of fresh snowfall over the past couple of weeks, so maybe we are not through all the snowy weather just yet. But I am sure it won’t be anywhere near as much as the volume of snow that fell this winter. Overall, it was a lovely first year as a reindeer herder, albeit very unusual as the whole country adapted to changing circumstances. Now I look forward to my next year and hopefully getting to see all the ‘normal’ activities such as Christmas events and parades.
I know snow and ice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for our reindeer it definitely is! Reindeer are incredibly well adapted for arctic life, with thick coats to keep out the cold and large flat feet to stop them sinking in the snow.
And this winter was certainly a ‘proper’ one. Since the beginning of the year through to mid February we had sustained cold conditions in the Highlands and the mountains and hills were clothed in snow. We also saw considerable snowfall at lower levels, with both Reindeer House and my farm being white for many, many weeks.
Over at our second site for reindeer at Glenlivet we over-winter part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd out on the hill, just the same as on the Cairngorms. At this time of year the reindeer are grazing on ground lichens, their preferred winter diet and they will use their lovely big feet to dig down through the snow to the lichen below. Because of their thick insulating coats they do not seek any shelter and so in the worst of storms they remain on the tops of the ridges where the lichen grows best.
We do like to check the herd regularly though and so as often as we can we go out to see and feed them, although this was impossible for much of this winter due to the inaccessibility of the Cromdales in such deep snow. The reindeer never say no to extra food and when we call them down they come running. We don’t need to feed them much to satisfy them because the reindeer have a lower metabolic rate in the winter, so just a little bit of food is sufficient, and allows us to cast an eye over them to check all is well.
It’s a lovely sight watching the herd weave their way down through deep snow. They are past masters at conserving energy, which means they walk in each others footprints, to save working too hard. It often amuses me to consider which reindeer does the hard work at the front. Is it always the greedy ones that break track or do they ‘take turns?! I suspect it’s the greedy ones.
Once fed, they will drift away and settle on the higher ground in the snow for the night. A bed of snow is very comfortable for a reindeer.
The Cairngorms is unique within the UK in offering a sub-arctic ecosystem, which coupled with the wide expanses of mountainside, make it perfect for our reindeer. In most winters, we get weeks of snow cover on the mountains, but it’s less common to have such sustained cover as we’ve experienced this year. From Christmas through to mid February, the norm was snow, both on the hills and in the glens. Perfect for the reindeer, great for all of the snowsports enthusiasts who happen to live within reach of the mountains, but I have to confess the novelty of relentless snow began to wear… a little thin for me. I lost count how many times we cleared our drive at home of snow – all that snow shovelling definitely made up for the gyms being closed!
If you follow our social media accounts, you’ve probably enjoyed all those beautiful photos of reindeer in the snow under a bright blue sky, herders skiing out onto stunning mountains to cuddle reindeer, giving the impression that that is our every day experience. But alas, social media photos can be scheduled for the future. With the current situation, we’ve all just been working two/three days a week, keeping the essentials ticking over, which also means that we can work in separate households.
So every Friday and Saturday, Hen and me had our turn to feed the herd. As January rolled into February, with unerring precision, every day we were scheduled to work also appeared to be the scheduled day for a blizzard, a storm, or generally horrific weather. The reindeer were perfectly equipped, and with their appetites very reduced they would be a fair distance away, not fussed about seeking us out for food. Each time, we would drive up the ski road – a mission in itself as the snow was only cleared enough to allow Cairngorm Mountain’s essential staff access. We would wend our way up the closed road in our wee van, driving as far as we could, debating the safety of walking out to try to find the herd. And each time we would be forced to turn back.
Over the course of the next week, our colleagues would be gifted with better weather than us, and would catch up with the reindeer. More glorious photos for Facebook, then as we watched the forecast for our days, the harsh weather returned. The temperature plummeted to -19C, the Spey froze over. A second work “week” of seeing no reindeer, again foiled by the weather, the deep snow, and the distant reindeer. Now I know we can’t complain too much, when we have the privilege of getting to work with these awesome creatures, but by now we were starting to feel a little less like “Reindeer Herders” and a little more like office staff…
It was now nearly three weeks since we’d seen the herd ourselves, and with hope we looked at the forecast for our next Friday in – the thaw having finally started. Windy, still snowy, but not too bad… We loaded the van with feed, navigated the narrow cleared passage between the drifts (apparently the deepest for 40 years on the road in places), reached the car park and spied with binoculars.
Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.
Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!
Don’t you ever wish you could just lie down and take a snooze if things are taking too long?? With their thick coats, that’s exactly what reindeer do – everywhere can be a bed! Here’s some shots of them having a snooze in the snow a few weeks ago…
Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!
Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.
In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.
In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.
The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.
The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.
I help take the Christmas decorations down.
In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.
Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.
After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.
Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.
Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.
It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.
One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.
The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.
The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.
It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.
At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.
The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.
In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.
I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.
The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.
There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.
There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!
It’s not been a very snowy winter at all, and nor was last winter either. While there’s been the odd decent fall every now and then, it’s generally all melted away quite quickly. Until, ironically, about 6 weeks ago, when winter finally made a proper appearance. Since then the mountains have been much whiter, and the skiing good… until our new and nasty acquaintance known as COVID-19 stopped play for the ski centre, and pretty much the rest of the world to be honest.
But thinking about snow reminded me of the incredible 2009-2010 winter, when it started snowing at the beginning of it and just didn’t stop. So here’s some photos of back in the days that we got ‘proper’ snow – all of 10 years ago!
Many of you may have seen this photo (above) before, in one of our calendars or on a Christmas card. But in front of this line of reindeer are herders Fiona and Mary, struggling through deep snow while the reindeer had the easy job behind. This was the day we moved them from the hill enclosure out to the ‘free-range’, having closed to the public at the end of the Christmas holidays. But before moving the reindeer themselves, we had to make a path ourselves – easier said than done in some places!
Back down at Reindeer House, it just didn’t stop snowing! Day after day there were several more inches of fresh white stuff each morning, and gradually everything disappeared.
But thankfully the reindeer coped just fine, and being as a lot of the deepest snow was during our closed spell in January and February, it didn’t matter and we had a ball playing in it most of the time.
As everyone knows all too well, these are worrying and testing times for all and my heart goes out to anyone reading my blog. With the latest ‘call to arms’ by the government we really must all help to slow the spread of the coronavirus that is sweeping the world.
Nobody is immune from this, young or old, but some people will sadly be more susceptible to the symptoms and it is these people that our thoughts need to be with as their lives depend on all of us acting sensibly and not selfishly.
But we must all stay positive and work our way through the crisis and although this is only a part analogy I would like to think, for myself anyway, that we will ‘weather the storm’ like a reindeer.
In blizzard conditions reindeer just hunker down. Face the wind to keep their hair flat, trapping air in their coat and so helping to not lose heat. Reindeer will then lie and wait for the storm to pass. For us all these testing times will eventually pass and in the meantime we must all ‘hunker down’.
Interestingly although reindeer are a strongly herding animal, gregarious like people they do have a social distance that they like to maintain whether they are lying down or up grazing. They don’t ‘huddle like penguins’ but they enjoy each others company at a distance. So maybe think of the reindeer when you are out and about, keep your distance (at least 2 metres) and this too will help to slow down the transmission of the virus.
As many of you know when we name the calves born each year we choose a theme and the name of each calf (there are exceptions!) has an association with that theme. The association is sometimes quite tenuous but that makes it all the more fun and challenging to match a name to a reindeer!
2012 was an exciting year, with the Olympics in London, the Queens Silver Jubilee and indeed our own silver anniversary. May 2012 was 60 years since the reindeer were successfully brought back to Scotland, by Swedish reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi. So with that in mind we thought 2012 and 60 years would make a good theme for the calves born. Olympic, Gloriana, Duke and LX are some of our reindeer who were born that year.
One of the male calves born that year, was born with a wonky nose, which made him look slightly different from the rest. In 2012, Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London and oversaw the Olympics so we called our funny looking reindeer Boris!
To this day Boris still looks different to the other ‘straight nosed’ reindeer, indeed at a Christmas event a couple of years ago in Huntly, a young lad was heard to say, “That reindeer has got a nose like a banana!” Now I’m not saying Boris Johnson has a squint nose, but he does seem to like to look ‘different’.
Anyway I hope my wee story about ‘Boris the wonky nosed reindeer’ has put a smile on your faces and maybe even our Prime Minister’s face during these dreadful times.
Maybe this Christmas we could be singing Boris the Wonky-nosed reindeer had a very funny nose, instead of Rudolph with his red, shiny nose!
On a wild Hill Trip in February we were fortunate to witness a special moment. Andrew passed his phone to Manouk during a brief break in the weather and asked her to to take some pictures. She was able to capture the moment his partner Jasmine, became his fiancé.
Thanks to Jasmine and Andrew for sharing their photos with us. Congratulations from everyone at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. Let us know if you want Olympic and Aztec at the wedding….
As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…
Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.
Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.
While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.
From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.
But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.
Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…