There’s no such thing as bad weather

Britain's Only Reindeer Herd Prepare For Christmas
Eve feeding the herd in a blizzard (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“There’s no such thing as bad weather… only unsuitable clothing…”

This is very much the mantra us reindeer herders live by and there are unfortunately even days here in the Cairngorms where our beautiful “office” on the mountains leaks and gets a wee bit blustery. This is never more emphasized than during the winter months here where weather conditions are some of the most beautiful and the most extreme.

We often start our mornings here at 8am vaguely unaware of exactly what the weather is going to bring, Reindeer House is fortuitously sheltered at the foot of the Cairngorms and it’s often not until we venture above the tree line that the true extent of the weather hits us.

If the ski road remains open and the reindeer are there we dutifully head out onto the hills even if this means battling 80 mph gusts and freezing temperatures… winds so strong herder Hen’s car was relieved of its undercover last winter! (we love it really!).

Snow AP (5)

It quite often looks a wee bit of a comedy show, us herders trying to walk in a straight line (people must think us perpetually drunk!). Annoyingly, the reindeer often look completely unfazed be it wind, icy temperatures and deep deep snow, quite often as we lumber through the drifts they use us as the snow plough for making them a path, following cheerfully in our footsteps even though they’re the Arctic animal!

Tony and Carol Dilger (4)
Making a path for the herd through the snow (Photo by Tony Dilger)

This brings us to clothing, again the reindeer come annoying pre-prepared for the weather with thick insulating, water repelling coats and built-in snow shoes; us on the other hand live for woollen thermals, multiple jumpers and cosy hats and are most definitely never far from a pair of waterproofs! Woe betide the reindeer herder who doesn’t have a spare set of clothes! On the other hand, I personally often find myself far too prepared in the summer months when even in the sunshine I never quite trust that Scotland won’t throw snow at me!

Working in the Cairngorms year round is definitely a different challenge to some of the more indoor based jobs I’ve held but as long as I have my mittens and spare socks I’m super happy to battle whatever the weather throws at us!

Abby

Starting a new life

Just over a week ago, I waved goodbye to my work colleagues in London, where I’d lived for eleven years, jumped in a van, and travelled the 500 miles (so cliche!) to Glenmore to begin my new life at Reindeer House.

London
Last day in London

Three years volunteering with the herd during holidays seeded the thought of moving at the back of my mind. Late in 2015 I thought, “What am I waiting for?” and decided to up sticks, leave my lovely job and lovely colleagues, and life in the city.

Corries
A view of the corries

Waking up to snow-covered hills and a single stream of cars heading for the ski slopes is slightly different to the hordes of people packed onto commuter trains and tubes heading for their glass and steel open-plan offices.

Plateau
Up on the plateau with Sookie
Sookie
Snowy selfies!

Mountains, forests, and fresh air give so much, which cities simply cannot give you – despite the parks and open spaces and being outdoors. The landscape here gives and teaches different things, as equally important, and gives a different outlook on life.

Plants
How I now spend my evenings – learning about plants with Sookie asleep nearby!

I am looking forward to making my way here!

Sarah

Normal Service Resumes

We’re back! As you regular readers will know, the Reindeer Centre has been closed to the public for about 5 weeks while we spruce the place up for all you lovely people, and get all the maintenance jobs done after yet another busy year.

We opened back up last Saturday and awaited the masses with baited breath. It was a pretty minging day i.e. it was howling a gale up the hill and there was a bit of rain/sleet, but still the people came to see our beautiful beasts.

Waiting reindeer
The reindeer await their visitors

We had around 10 cars on the visit, a respectable but, thankfully, manageable number for our return to visits. Hen and I drove up to the Ciste, and braced ourselves as we opened the doors to the biting wind. We gathered in our visitors and explained what we were going to do, and to be careful on the slippy stairs, and then headed off into the wilds.

At this time of the year, the reindeer are all out free-ranging on the mountains, so our visits could be to a different place every day. The path out to the reindeer that day included lots of boggy bits, and wasn’t particularly a path, but we made it out to the reindeer in one piece, stopping to let people catch up when needed. Thankfully, we were walking with the wind on the way out, so it wasn’t too bad.

Hen called the reindeer and I spoke, very loudly, about their adaptations while the girls made their way over to us. We put the food out, the girls tucked into their lunch, and we started the handfeeding.

Visit
A slightly nicer second-visit-of-the-year – the expectant reindeer following the excited visitors and a herder with a bag of food!

Despite the pretty rubbish weather, everyone seemed to enjoy meeting the reindeer. We were sometimes blown over by the wind, and I often had my eyes closed as I talked to the visitors because I had to face into the wind, but it was great getting back into the routine of a visit.

The next time the Centre is scheduled to close is Christmas Day, so this is one of many visits we’ll be taking throughout the year. Hopefully we won’t have to cancel too many over the winter months, and before we know it, it will be summer and we’ll be starting trekking!

Imogen

 

A Reindeer Herder’s Job in January

Reindeer
Expectant reindeer – food is always welcome!

You all know Christmas is our busy time of year, however you also know that reindeer are not just for Christmas, so what happens after all the commercial pursuits we undertake and those many visits onto the hill throughout the year…? Well, this is a reindeer herder’s favourite time of the year as the Centre is closed and for once in the year we feel like we can start to get back on top of things!

First and most important job is to get the reindeer into their correct locations for the winter. They are split between the Cromdale hills over near our Glenlivet hill farm and here on Cairngorm. We don’t use our mountain enclosure from January through to April/May (in time for calving). It’s a time of year reindeer are in their absolute element and what this species is all about – the cold, snow and thick winter coats. The split tends to be boys to the Cromdales and girls on Cairngorm however some females do also go onto the Cromdales as well.

Santana
Santana leading the herd up – single file through the snow to save energy.

We still like to see the reindeer everyday so we know where they are and therefore we feed and check them every morning. This means heading up and spying from our various points along the hill road where we get the best views of their hot spots. A reindeer herder’s eye is well trained and can spot the reindeer way before anyone else. A lot of the time we don’t even reach for the binoculars – we just know the lay of the land so well that we know which ‘reindeer shaped rocks’ are indeed rocks and which ones are actually the reindeer! The weather has a big part to play in this so no snow means we find the reindeer quickly, lots of snow means the darker reindeer stick out, however that annoying mottled, patchy snow is the worst to spot reindeer in as they are so camouflaged. High winds keep them off the high tops and closer to the tree line, sunny weather often means they are happy just to have a chilled out day soaking it up… just like us!

Feeding the herd
Mel hefting just some of the daily rations – it certainly keeps us fit lugging feed out into the mountains!

So once found we head out and give them a good feed, count and check them. Even the dogs benefit from this part as they get to come part of the way out. Obviously they can’t mix with the reindeer however Sookie and Tiree are both now trained to wait wherever we ask them. Sometimes we are feeding and checking the reindeer and look back to the dogs and all we see is their wee faces poking above the heather watching our every move and the reindeer don’t even notice them!

Dogs in the snow
Sometimes the dogs look all majestic… (Tiree, Moskki and Sookie)
Windblown dogs
… sometimes not so much! Looking windblown – Murdo, Sookie and Tiree

Once the morning is complete and reindeer fed and checked its back down to the centre to complete our long list of ‘January Jobs’. This may be painting the exhibition floor in the paddocks, fixing fences and gates, oiling the Christmas harness (ready to pack away for another year), going through every single event folder and reading all the reports, making up adoption packs, cleaning, packing away the endless decorations put up at Christmas etc, etc, etc… But being closed means we can also make the most of the good weather. If the sun is shining and snow conditions allow some of us keen skiers head for the hills for a day on the snow! Needless to say the dogs like this part too as they get to come along. This does turn us into fair weather skiers, however we spend plenty of time in the hills being blown off our feet and getting soaked to the bone, to pick and choose when we can go skiing only seems fair!

The honeymoon must come to an end though so on the 6th February we re-open our doors and get back to our daily routine of 11am guided tours. It’s all fine and well it being a nice time of year for us herders but we wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for our many visitors to the Centre supporting our lovely herd of reindeer in the Cairngorms!

Fiona

‘Snow deer’

Snowdeer
Snow deer in their element

It has often amused me that the most arctic living of the deer species, i.e. reindeer and caribou are not called ‘snow deer’. Apart from the obvious and appropriate descriptive title of an animal so ‘at home’ in the snow, I have always thought it would have been a rather attractive name for them as well!

There are plenty of occasions over the winter when our reindeer experience truly arctic conditions and so for me anyway in winter they become our ‘snow deer’. Part of the Cairngorm herd spends the winter on the Cromdale hills, which are situated to the north east of the Cairngorm mountain massif. Despite not being as high as the Cairngorms and so not quite the same exposure to wintry weather, the Cromdales still get their fair share of snow and so our ’snow deer’ here can experience pretty wild conditions.
These are a few photos taken a couple of years ago when in blizzard conditions our snow deer were quite at home. Not sure the same can be said for me!
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A coating of snow on their coats
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Us humans feel the cold even when completely wrapped up!
There are no winter conditions that drive these animals off the hill. They have incredible soft thick coat which provide all the insulation they need against the cold. Their broad flat feet make it both easy for them to walk across the snow and dig down through the snow to their favourite winter food, lichen and in blizzard conditions they face the prevailing wind which keeps their coats ‘flat’ and so trapping air between the hairs to create another insulating layer. It does mean though that they end up with ‘ice packs’ on their foreheads.
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Whilst they don’t worry about the snow, the reindeer will close their eyes to stop it swirling in.
Knowing how well adapted they are to snow, many people ask me whether reindeer like the milder weather we have come to experience more of in recent years. Indeed as I write this today, the 24th January 2016 the day is decidedly ‘spring like’, there’s no snow, no wind or rain, the grass is looking quite green and I can wander around outside without a jacket on. As far as our reindeer are concerned I suspect it just makes it easier for them, as they don’t need to expend energy digging down through the snow to find food. But that’s not to say they wouldn’t prefer to be lying on a soft bed of snow.
Tilly 

How to move your reindeer

Visitors to the Centre often ask how on earth we get our free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure. The answer I give is “shake a bag of food”… whilst it sounds too simple, it can really be that easy. All of our herd are currently out on the mountains, but occasionally its easier to move them into an open part of the enclosure to feed them, out of the way of passers-by, and dogs who may like to chase them. This morning we went to spy round the roads and the tell-tale car pulled over with its hazards flashing gave away the presence of the herd who were picking at grazing through the snow just below the road. We pulled up and here’s their journey following me and a bag of food over to the enclosure…

Freerange
Once the herd are spied, it just takes a call to get them thundering towards you (on a good day). Not just any call though – they can differentiate between a herder and a tourist!
Freerange
When it’s snowy, the easiest route is often straight down the main road – thankfully pretty quiet at this time of day.
Freerange
Off the road and we start cutting across and downhill. Glenshee is delighted to lead the way – it’s often the calves who are the greediest and most confident!
Freerange
The intended route – down the steep slope to the bridge, over the river and up the other side to the enclosure. The gate in is near the shed.
Freerange
Sometimes there’s a bit of hesitation at the top of the bank, but today the girls were happy to come straight down.
Freerange
Down the slope and onto the bridge.
Freerange
I’m always amused by the herd trotting neatly over the bridge in single file – why get wet feet when you don’t have to – great trail left down the hill too. Reindeer will walk single file through the snow to conserve energy.
Freerange
Along the path up the other side – if you’ve been on our hill visit you may recognise this path! Sometimes the girls charge past up the hill, but today they were content to potter along behind.
Freerange
Plodding up the path…
Freerange
… and in through the enclosure gate. We often feed the free-ranging reindeer inside the hill enclosure, with the gates left open, as it gives them a bit more safety from being hassled by dogs.
Freerange
Food out as their reward as the snow sets in – happy reindeer and happy herders – just 10 minutes after we set off, a successful morning complete.

Andi

Winter Holidays

As the schools go back, and the Christmas decorations, sleighs and harness are packed away at the end of another busy but successful season, the Reindeer Centre closes its doors to the public for a wee break. Of course we don’t get an actual holiday, the reindeer still like to be fed, but we put every single member of the herd out to free-range on the mountains. The boys head on over to the Cromdale mountains (where their lazy habit of hanging out on car parks can be prevented!) whilst most of the cows and calves go onto the Cairngorm range. The enclosure, and paddocks down in Glenmore, stand empty.

Okapi Lace Ciste
Lace and Okapi posing!

Every day we still drive up the mountain road early, spying for reindeer. Sometimes they make our job easy, like when the herd decide to get our attention and wait on the car park. It’s a bit of a giveaway when we see a traffic jam in an unusual place – you can guarantee there are a few females hanging out at the front of it, with excited tourists abandoning their cars to take photos!

Returning Escapees
The herd appears up the hill, completing their transformation from dots into reindeer

Other times we spot the reindeer a long way away, and on a good day they’ll hear you calling and run a mile or more to reach you. One of my favourite moments is when you see the distant dots on a faraway mountainside suddenly start streaming down towards you, looking alarmingly similar to ants until they transform into reindeer!

Cailin
Beautiful Cailin, one of our older reindeer, waits for the rest of the herd to join us

Winter is when the reindeer are in their element and whilst they’re always delighted to see us, if the weather prevents us finding them for a few days, or they decide to not be found, it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t need us. Their metabolisms slow right down in the winter months, and with shovel-like feet they have no difficulty digging through the snow for food.

Lilac
Lilac, a bit of a legend at an incredible 16 1/2 years old, has a stretch after a nap. We often leave the top part of the hill enclosure open so the free-ranging reindeer can join us to ‘request’ food, whilst safely out of the way of hill-walkers and dogs.

Whilst it makes life fairly unpredictable (Will we find the reindeer? Will they come to call? Will I have to hike up a mountain in the snow and wind with a massive sack of feed on my back???) it’s a really fun time of the year, and great to see the reindeer loving life in their natural habitat.

Nepal Merrick
“Mum, you’re embarrassing me…” Merrick looking sheepish as mum Nepal gives him a good wash round the ears.

Andi

Snow!

To any southerner just an inch of snow means great excitement, school closed for a week and the front page story on every newspaper! Having spent the first 18 years of my life living in Bristol, where the yearly day of snow is celebrated (before everything grinds to a halt) you can imagine my excitement to wake up to snow one morning in early November!

Morning commute
The morning commute

Seeing as my room (fondly known as the Cave) in Reindeer House has no external windows, it was not till I opened the curtains in the kitchen, I saw the snow covered wonderland that was Glenmore. I proceeded to eat my porridge in the garden and then spend the last ten minutes before work throwing snowballs for the dogs, before realising I had no gloves on and could no longer feel my hands.

Caddis
Caddis looking beautiful on the snow covered mountain side!

Initially my excitement was laughed at as the dusting that we woke up to barely counts as snow if you’re Scottish. By mid-morning however I was told by Fiona that we now had ‘real snow’ which looked a lot like a blizzard to me!

Arrochar
Arrochar looking a wee bit shocked by the whole thing (I think that may just be her resting face)

I was away on Christmas events the first three weekends that it snowed here, but I just about managed to fit in a few rounds of torch-lit sledging before work (dogs in tow of course) and a snow angel or two. This weekend was the first weekend to be at home for the snow (enough for the snow plough to be out) and I took up a lovely snowy visit.

Feeding the herd
Feeding the herd on a lovely snowy morning

The reindeer are absolutely in their element at this time of year; they couldn’t be happier in the snow. If you’re coming up to visit us make sure you’re well wrapped up (as many layers are you can wear and still move and a full set of waterproofs) so you can feed the reindeer in the snow and love it as much as I do!

Brimick, Spy and Cioch
Brimick looking incredibly cute, Spy posing for the camera and Cioch pulling a silly face

Lotti