Snow has arrived!

Up here on the Cairngorms (as well as many other places in Scotland), the first proper snow has arrived. As much of our blogging and online posts recently have been about our Christmas tours, I thought I would share with you all some photos, to remind you all where our reindeer live for most of the year.

This wild landscape can be cold, cruel and hard, but the reindeer thrive, and love their habitat in the snow. We also love it!

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A chilly but beautiful walk through the woods up to the enclosure.
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The brave souls choosing to come on our hill trip.
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The Alt Mor in the snow.
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Sheena entertaining her visitors with tales of past days.

Its one of the most beautiful times of year to visit the herd, with their wicked antlers still on their heads, long soft winter coats,and furry noses to keep them warm. Reindeer truly love the snow, and if you’re lucky you get to see them dancing about and chasing each other round.

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As we call the reindeer, they appear in the distance, coming down off Silvermount.
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The first of the greedy bunch!
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The reindeers’ view – looking down across the Reindeer Centre, Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and the cold Loch Morlich.
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The beautiful Aral, face blending in with the snow.
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Mmmm.. brunch.
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Dixie and Kara, mother and daughter, sharing their food.
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Bovril’s big antlers carrying snow, looking ready for a snowball fight?

Our Hill Trips are still running each day, at 11am, so if this inspires you to get up and visit the herd, make sure you come properly dressed for a cold encounter and get here in plenty of time. And to sign off, I’m leaving you with a picture of our beautiful Svalbard!

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Svalbard, back on home territory.

Morna

How does Svalbard get his name?

Each year all the calves are named in September after spending the first four months of their lives free-ranging in the Cairngorms. Every year we select a theme to name the calves by. In 2011 the theme was “Games and Past Times”; as a result we have Scrabble, Rubiks, Rummy, Origami, Monopoly, Puzzle and Jenga amongst others.

However, as with any rule there is always an exception and Svalbard, also born in 2011, is the odd one out for that year!

Svalbard is currently in our Hill Enclosure here in the Cairngorms and, because of his large white nose (not to mention his fondness for food), he often stands out leading visitors on our Hill Trips to ask what his name is. This has prompted me to answer the question, why is Svalbard, called Svalbard?!

 To fully answer I’m going to first take us to the Arctic Ocean and the archipelago of Svalbard itself…

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You talkin’ about me?!

The Svalbard archipelago of Norway is found in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Svalbard is an incredibly wild place with a land area of 61,022 km2 and a human population of only around 2700 (for comparison Scotland’s land area is 77,933 km2). Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers! The islands are home to only a few species of mammal which include polar bear, Arctic fox and its own subspecies of reindeer, called the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus).

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Svalbard is located in the Arctic Ocean. Map from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer has inhabited this harsh wilderness, and has been geographically isolated from other reindeer for over 5000 years. As a result they have become very well adapted to the particular landscape and roam on nearly all non-glaciated areas of the archipelago. The Svalbard reindeer wins the award for being the most northerly living herbivore mammal in the world!

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A wild Svalbard landscape. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer is the smallest subspecies of all reindeer and caribou. Bulls average 65-90kg in weight, and cows between 53-70kg compared with our Cairngorm reindeer where bulls can weigh 150kg. Svalbard reindeer are very distinctive for having short faces and short legs, making them appear ‘dumpy’. They also have a very think, long winter coat. The long coat also contributes to their short-legged appearance and even starved individuals can appear fat in the winter!

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A Svalbard bull with tiny legs! Photo from Wikipedia.

Svalbard reindeer may make short altitudinal movements, or slightly longer inter-island journeys across the sea ice but they are mostly sedentary and therefore have low energy demands. The lack of migration could be a reason why they have evolved short legs, also helping them have conserve heat with a smaller surface area.

However, don’t let their short legs deceive you! They can reach speeds of up to 60 km an hour on a good running surface, giving them the ability to out run a polar bear, the only predator they face on Svalbard (apart from man).

Unlike the majority of Reindeer on the Norwegian mainland the Svalbard Reindeer have not been domesticated, and also do not live in large herds but tend to be solitary or stay in small groups.

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Svalbard reindeer, with proportionally shorter legs. Photo from Wikipedia.
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Not sure what our Scottish lassies would make of these fellas! Photo from Wikipedia.

I’m digressing, so back to our Scottish Svalbard…

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Back to me… finally!

Svalbard was born on the free-range in May 2011 to Arnish, as a result his exact birthday is unknown. Arnish and young Svalbard were not seen between July and October that year, until Svalbard turned up by himself  in October at the Hill Enclosure, without his mother, who was sadly not seen again.

When this orphaned calf turned up, he was given a name according to the theme for that year. But the herders at the time kept commenting on how dumpy and short-legged he was; as a result he was quickly nick-named “the Svalbard reindeer”. Before too long, the name stuck and he’s been Svalbard ever since! Thankfully for him, he lost his stocky proportions and we now have a handsome reindeer with a big personally!

This whole blog was basically an excuse to show some cute photographs of a young Svalbard (and to research a future holiday destination!) so here come the pictures…

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Svalbard with his mother, Arnish (who never grew antlers). Looks like he’s got pretty long legs here!
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Svalbard – perhaps I can see the short legs here?
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Svalbard in his gangly teenage phase?
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Svalbard as a young bull in 2013 with his obvious white nose.

 

Ruth

 

Looking back: The arrival of the first reindeer

2017 is our 65th anniversary, and just lately I’ve been trawling through the records of the reindeer herd for one reason or another. As such I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and think it is time I started another occasional blog series, this time about the history of our herd.

If you’ve been on a Hill Trip with us, you may know the basic story. Sami reindeer herder Mikel Utsi visited the Highlands of Scotland in 1947, and was immediately struck by the similarities to his homeland of northern Sweden.

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Northern Sweden (top) and the Cairngorms (bottom)

Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore, on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures. Travel in the Highlands showed that many species of ground, rock and tree lichens which are elsewhere the chief reindeer food were plentiful and of little use to other animals. Red deer and domesticated animals graze on plants and fodder than reindeer seldom eat. The Orkneyinga saga tells us that about 800 years ago red deer and reindeer were hunted together, in Caithness, by the Jarls of Orkney.”

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One of the crates being winched on board the S.S. Sarek in April 1952

Mikel Utsi decided it was time that reindeer once again roamed the mountains of Scotland, and five years later, that dream became a reality. The Ministry of Agriculture gave permission for Mr Utsi and his Swedish-American wife Dr Ethel Lindgren (an anthropologist who had studied in China and Mongolia as well as Swedish Lapland) to bring the first consignment of reindeer over to Scotland, and at first they were granted an area of around 300 acres near Moormore in the Rothiemurchus forest, which was completely fenced to contain them. Moormore is now better known as the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre. Mr Utsi knew this was not ideal for the reindeer however, and had his eye on the higher ground of the Cairngorms themselves – much more suitable reindeer habitat.

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Mikel Utsi (right) and Sarek on board the S.S. Sarek

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The first consignment of 8 reindeer landed at Clydebank in Glasgow on the 12th April 1952, having travelled on the S.S. Sarek from Sweden, which had been somewhat rough four day crossing. The group consisted of two bull reindeer (Aviemore and Murjek), four cows (Mona, Kristina, Margaret and Rowena), and a castrated male who was named Sarek. After a month in quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo, the reindeer finally made their way north to the Cairngorms to the Moormore enclosure.

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Reindeer in the forest, looking up to the Cairngorms

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It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start, with the reindeer struggling to cope with the low ground and the insects, but in 1954 Mr Utsi finally got permission from the Forestry Commission to lease Silver Mount, which many of you will know as the hill at the far end of the current reindeer enclosure, the back drop to the majority of our guided tours throughout the year. Later the same year free-grazing up to the summits of the northern corries of the Cairngorms was finally allowed, as well as the continued use of the Silver Mount enclosure. Finally the reindeer could escape the insects and the herd began to thrive. Further groups had been introduced from Sweden too; Inge, Alice, Anne, Pelle, Assa, Ella, Ina, Maja, Siri and Tilla in October 1952; Nuolja, Kirtik, Ranak, Neita, Noki, Rovva and Vilda in early 1954. Bulls Fritzen and Ruski followed in 1955.

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The 3rd consignment of reindeer on the M.S. Nuolja in 1954
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Bulls Fritzen and Ruski in April 1955 – the 4th consignment

To keep a closer eye on his herd, Mr Utsi felt it was important to be on site as much as possible. He made a hut at ‘Road End Camp’ in the 50s, tucked away in the woods at the base of Silver Mount, building it from the wood from the crates that the reindeer had been transported to Scotland in. This made life much easier as there was no bridge across the Allt Mor at that time, or indeed, a road up to where the Ski Centre is now, so for Mr Utsi the herd was now much more accessible. Today, the hut still stands, and some of you may have even been there – in recent years we used to stop for a rest at Utsi’s Hut on some of our half-day treks with visitors. A shelter was also built at the top of Silver Mount, and although this no longer stands, there are still a few old, weathered, pieces of planks lying around up there, which are the last remnant of the shelter.

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Mr Utsi harnessing Sarek at Road End Camp in October 1955. Utsi’s Hut is on the right.
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Trekkers at Utsi’s hut in more recent years! With reindeer Gandi and Svalbard.
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The shelter on top of Silver Mount in July 1954

By the mid-fifties the herd had grown to around 20 animals, and the herd was doing well. There’s lots more to tell you, but it’s a story for another day! However, if your appetite to learn more of our history has been whetted, we have a lovely book called ‘Hoofprints’ in our online shop on our website which is all about the history of the herd with loads of beautiful photos, so pop over there for a wee look.

Hen

Romford Retailer becomes a Cairngorm Reindeer Herder

Sonya, author of this blog, came up to us in June to volunteer with our beautiful reindeer. She has very kindly written us a blog about her experience, and we will be sharing it over the next few weeks. Thanks so much to Sonya for coming along and being so helpful, and we really hope to see you again in the not too distant future!

Day One

In June 2016 I arrived for my volunteer placement at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore with no previous experience of working with animals but lots of enthusiasm and affection for the reindeer I had visited as a tourist many times before. I had recently taken the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my 20 year career and had a whole summer to fill before starting university in September. I had no idea what to expect but was seeking solace and comfort in the remoteness of the fabulous Cairngorms and the company of the placid reindeer. I was blessed with a rare dry day on the first Monday and arrived promptly at 8am alongside fellow herders Imogen who has a zoology degree and big-bearded Dave who I later found out to be exceedingly well travelled and originally from New Zealand. By the way, it’s the beard that’s big, not Dave himself.

So after meeting a confusing muddle of strangely named dogs, I was introduced to Fiona who runs the Centre, and tasks were allocated for the morning. Can you guess what my first job was? That’s right…. reindeer poop scooping. Keen to carry out all necessary tasks enthusiastically, I wielded the bespoke pooper scooper and collected a remarkable bucketful of the stuff from the paddocks. A few of the herd are kept in the paddocks for two weeks at a time so they are more accessible to very young, old or less-able visitors who can’t manage the hill trip to see the whole herd. After scooping all the poop I could find, transferring the contents of the bucket to a sack was a trickier and less appealing task but the trusty Dave was on hand to show how it’s done without spilling too much. I confess from that moment on I found myself a pair of gloves for this task and many others, much to Dave’s derision, I suspect. But hey, you can take the girl out of Essex………

I had a full and detailed explanation from Dave on how to open up the exhibition ready for visitors and spent some time replenishing the children’s craft materials, I wish I was 5 years old again so that I could make paper chains or make an antler headband, and draw colourful pictures of my reindeer friends. However, with pencils sharpened, loan wellies sorted into sizes and the shop vacuumed, it was time to set off on the first hill trip. The tourists were very impressed with Dave’s authentic appearance of bushy beard and battered green hat and took several photos of him and the van before we even set off. I’m convinced I need to change my image, which currently consists of generic walking attire, so as to appeal to the tourists but I am stuck for inspiration, more of this later.

On the first hill trip the cheeky Svalbard is overly friendly and pushes and prods me repeatedly with his antlers and nose. The tourists mistake his behaviour for affection and there are many oohs and aahs and clicks of cameras, however it’s far more likely that he recognised the smell of food on the jacket I was borrowing from the Reindeer Centre.

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Svalbard

I also learnt that my adoptee ‘Gandi’ is there somewhere, in amongst the swirling sea of moulting coats and velvet antlers that greeted us. Correction, they are greeting the sack of food, not us, and I have learnt they couldn’t care less about us or how the food gets there. Despite this pragmatic realisation, I am still deluding myself that Gandi recognised me, if he could talk he’d even remember my name, of course!

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Visitors admire Gandi

I am delighted and relieved to see him in such good health with a remarkably majestic pair of antlers. I feel inordinately proud that I chose such a worthy recipient of my sponsorship, for he is also a recent TV star in the BBC Scotland programme about the Highlands due to be shown across other BBC regions in Autumn 2016.

After lunch Dave teaches me how to mix the reindeer food, I was keen to get started as I love a piece of machinery and rather ingeniously, I thought, a cement mixer is used to mix the food. And when you realise the quantity of food they get through, you realise why it’s necessary to mechanise the process. There is little demand for a commercially available reindeer food, as this is the only large free-ranging herd in the UK, so I was shown the recipe and the shed full of ingredients. We started with sheep food containing corn and grains, then added extra barley, some starchy sugar beet, some fibrous malt pellets which are a waste product from the numerous nearby distilleries, added a sprinkle of a secret mineral supplement and four big handfuls of hay enriched with garlic and molasses. Well this was all fascinating for me and I was enjoying making this tasty treat until we ran out of grain. Dave despatched me to the shed to fetch more barley, all good so far. I located the barley and saw with some dismay how huge the new sack was. I should mention at this point that I only manage to measure five feet with my shoes on, and the heaviest thing I’d lifted in my previous job was a bottle of Chanel No 5! Battle with the barley sack commenced but I should have been grateful for small mercies as some of the other ingredients are much heavier.

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Preparing the feed

By the time we had mixed about half a cubic metre of food, it was a relief to leave behind the previously fascinating cement mixer, and head up to the hill again on the 2:30pm trip. Dave encouraged me to carry the sack of food but I chickened out and took the lighter and smaller sack of hand feed. Poor Dave gets the bigger, heavier sack yet again, but gallantry isn’t completely dead in my world!

Near the end of the trip Dave gets a phone call, we’re a 20 min walk from the nearest road and goodness knows how far from the nearest dwelling but amazingly there’s a mobile signal in the reindeer enclosure. I can’t always get one of those in flat, overpopulated Essex. Anyway the phone call is to invite me to the reindeer shed to see some vaccinations taking place where I met the famous Tilly, Fiona’s mum and owner of the herd. The injection is to help prevent the potentially fatal red water fever that can kill a reindeer if not caught early enough. Imogen had previously told me that Tilly always comes to administer these injections as there is a tiny chance the reindeer will go into anaphylactic shock and she has the most experience to deal with that possibility. Despite their huge antlers and sharp hooves, I had never felt even remotely intimidated by reindeer before. But closed in a tiny shed with six of them circling round and round in an effort to escape the needle, it felt a bit like being caught up in a whirling dervish of hoof and hair and taught me a greater respect for the fact they are still wild animals even though they generously humour us with their presence and grace.

Day Two

Tuesday starts with much excitement and anticipation when Fiona tells me I can join her and Hen on a harness training session. Hen is the longest serving herder based at Reindeer House other than Fiona and I found out she can recognise and name every single reindeer, as can most of the herders. However, if a pair of antlers are cast in the autumn, Hen knows which reindeer they belonged to as she recognises the distinct and unique form of each and every reindeer’s antlers even when they’re no longer on the animal. The Cairngorm reindeer participate in many Christmas events across the country and it’s important they keep practising with the halter and harness throughout the year so that Christmas is a relaxed affair with no anxiety. Another treat for me is that my adoptee Gandi is one of the reindeer coming along on the practice session because he and Elvis are experienced trekkers and will set a good example to Camus, Balmoral and Shinty. I hadn’t met the last three reindeer before and I’m pleased to say they all did very well with their training. Shinty was the most reluctant to get going and he gave Hen a thorough workout by making her tug him up the hill, but with Gandi encouraging him from behind, we were soon underway on our circuit.

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So this is Hen on the left and me on the right with reindeer (from left to right) Elvis, Shinty, Gandi, Camus and Balmoral. It was to be the last glimpse of the sun for several days so I’m glad I took up Fiona’s offer to take a photo of me with the reindeer and I sent it to my ex-colleagues to illustrate the dramatic difference to my working day.

The rest of the day was spent on hill trips with tourists, becoming more familiar with the information we impart to the eager visitors. Many people meet a favourite reindeer on their visit, as I did with Gandi, and decide to adopt them. In between the trips we all work on the biannual newsletter as it’s time to send it out to all the reindeer adopters. This edition of the newsletter features many tales of the reindeer and activities and events at the centre. There are some hilarious stories about Fergus, a hand-reared calf who has turned out to be a very cheeky boy indeed, and sadly, there’s a moving obituary to Grunter, a much loved reindeer who was also hand-reared when he was a calf.

I’ve learnt the name of another member of the herd today, the endearing Blue, who was named in the year of cheeses 2013. He was born with a condition which means he is very pale, almost completely white and he’s also deaf. Many visitors think he is albino but Imogen explained to me that albinism means a complete lack of pigment, whereas Blue just has a reduced level of pigment which means he is Leucistic. His skin is very pink and prone to sunburn and any broken skin could lead to infection so he has bright yellow ‘summer cream’ on his face which is a mix of sunscreen and insecticide to keep the midges away. Blue has been a bit slow to come for food today and hasn’t hand fed from the tourists as much as normal so on one of my hill trips with Imogen, it’s necessary to take his temperature once the visitors are gone. I’ve seen this before and it involves luring them close with an irresistible bucket of lichen to get a halter on them, one person holds the head while the other person takes the temperature from the ‘other end’. Whilst Imogen does the ‘business’ she regales me with detailed advice about insertion of the thermometer, which angle is best, how long to leave it in, etc. I decide it’s time to manage her expectations and make it clear, I’m happy to learn the theory, but as far as practise goes, I think I’ll remain at the head end, thank you very much!

Blue

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Blue having a wee lie down

Today I also discussed with Imogen how I could possibly look less like a tourist when we take the visitors out. Her insightful but wildly impractical suggestion is that I should dress for conditions at least ten degrees warmer, so go up the hill in just a t-shirt when everyone else is in hats and jackets, and claim it’s a warm day. I fear this soft southerner might catch her death if she attempted that, so I bear it in mind but keep my multiple layers firmly in place.

Sonya

Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Arnish

One of my favourite reindeer when I first arrived was Arnish. To start with this was possibly because she was so distinctive as she didn’t grow any antlers, making her one of the very first reindeer in the herd that I learnt, but quickly my reasoning changed and simply became because she was just so, well, cool.

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Arnish in 2007, aged 10

Arnish was, quite simply, a dude. Everyone liked her, and she was a tame, friendly female. Some of the females in the herd skulk around in the background, not particularly wild nor particularly tame, spending most of their time out on the Cairngorm free-range where we barely ever see them. But some, like Arnish, always seem to be around, and spend a good bit of their time in the hill enclosure too as well as on the free-range, when it is easier to get to know them as we see them daily.

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Arnish in 2009

Antlers are a symbol of dominance in reindeer, generally the bigger the better. A reindeer with no antlers should therefore be very low in the hierarchy, but it seems no-one told Arnish this. A great lump of a female, thickset and solid, with a head the size of a male reindeer’s, Arnish ruled the roost and was one of the leaders of the herd, or at least she was by the time I arrived on the scene. At this point she was 10 years old already and only needed to look at a group of reindeer for them to part like the Dead Sea to make way for her! If all else failed, she just ploughed into them headfirst, somewhat resembling a hairy bulldozer. No-one messed with Arnish.

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Hanging out with Arnish

Her lack of antlers had one significant downside, for us at least. If Arnish got her head into the feedbag you were carrying, it was nigh on impossible to get her out. When any other greedy, tame reindeer push their way into a feedbag, we can remove them but hoicking them out by an antler but this just wasn’t possible with Arnish – there were no handles! The battle was lost already. I should add that most of the time we never touch a reindeer’s antlers, certainly not when they are in velvet, but when in their bone form with no feeling needs must at times!

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Arnish and Jaffa, 2009

Arnish may be gone now, but she’s left behind a legacy in the form of Addax, Jaffa and Svalbard. Daughters Addax and Jaffa have gone on to have calves of their own, and son Svalbard, along with Addax’s own son Monty, are part of our team of ‘Christmas reindeer’ – males who are trained to harness and go out on tour in November and December.

Arnish and Svalbard
Arnish and Svalbard, June 2011

Svalbard was Arnish’s last calf, and there’s a wee story about his name to tell. He turned up without his mum in October 2011, and we named him Meccano, to fit into the ‘Games and Pastimes’ theme of that year. Arnish had passed away out on the mountains, but at 4 months old her calf was just about old enough to survive without her. Short and dumpy, Meccano looked very much like a Svalbard reindeer, the sub-species of the Svalbard Islands which have evolved shorter legs than their migratory cousins. Try as we might, the nickname stuck, and Meccano became Svalbard.

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Svalbard has grown into a strapping lad!

With Addax’s daughter Parmesan quite possibly pregnant just now with her first calf, Arnish’s bloodline looks set to continue for a good while yet. Every descendant so far has produced antlers, but the antlerless trait can skip generations so maybe watch this space.

Hen

A Reindeer Wedding

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Greg and Karen (the happy couple) with Svalbard (left) and Duke (right).

A few weekends ago a selection of our beautiful reindeer were invited to a wedding, with a special request for the lovely Fergus (the wee calf we are currently hand rearing). Along with Fergus we took four of our Christmas reindeer; Moose (an old hand at pulling the sleigh and wearing bells and harness), Svalbard (a rather small and stocky but very handsome reindeer aptly named after the reindeer from the island of Svalbard who are much smaller than their Scottish cousins), Monty and Duke (two of our three year olds who have recently become Christmas reindeer this year and will be trained to pull the sleigh and go out on tour with Father Christmas this winter, both are very handsome reindeer with lovely big antlers).

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Svalbard, Fiona, Moose, Fergus, Duke, Lotti and Monty eagerly waiting in their bells and harness for the music to finish and the wedding party to arrive.

First we took the boys out of the Brenda (our fondly named livestock lorry) and gave them a good bit of lichen. This bribe allowed us to slip the harness and bells onto the boys, who barely batted an eye lid. Having worn harness for many years Moose was the perfect role model for Svalbard who has only done one Christmas season and Duke and Monty who have never worn bells before but behaved themselves fantastically. Fergus has always followed us like a little lamb and jumped in the back of our van, so I think his nose was a put a bit out of joint when he had to wear a halter and travel in the reindeer lorry with the other reindeer (instead of in with the herders and dogs).

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Duke, Svalbard, Fergus, Moose and Monty with Greg, Karen and their friends and family.

Once the ceremony was finished the wedding party and guests came out to meet the reindeer, all of them posed fantastically for photos and Fergus charmed everybody with his cheeky personality.

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Svalbard (left) and Duke (right) posing with ex reindeer herder Zac and his partner Emily.
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The blushing bride leading Duke for a walk in the woods, with both Greg and Svalbard checking the path behind for any oncoming dogs (other than Fergus the reindeer are not keen on dogs).

 

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The boys showing off their slightly less photogenic end!

All in all a fantastic afternoon was had by everybody. The boys behaved themselves wonderfully and had a little practice for the madness that is Christmas. I think after a bit of sleigh training for Duke and Monty, they will all be ready in time to pull Santa’s sleigh all over the country. The real question is will we be?

Lotti

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