This is the third (but maybe not last!) book I have written about reindeer. Published by The History Press, I was approached by them in the latter months of 2015 to ask if I would write another book about reindeer.
My immediate reaction was, “I’m not sure, there is only so much that can be written about reindeer!”, but after I had given it some thought I decided to agree. I don’t dispute I enjoy writing, I am passionate about reindeer and I have had many ‘busman’s holidays’ to reindeer places in the world. It would also be another way of promoting our unique herd of reindeer. So by the end of the year I was already putting pen to paper.
The History Press was looking to have the book on the shelves by Christmas 2016 and so I had to get my skates on. In fact as a person who likes a deadline I said I would have the draft ready by the end of March. And much to their surprise I did!
When we talked about the layout of the book the editor was keen to have the book illustrated, rather then include photographs. At first I was not so sure this was a good idea, reindeer are incredibly photogenic and of course live in some of the most iconic places in the world. However now in hindsight I am really pleased that it is illustrated with line-cut drawings and actually I think it may have made me more descriptive in my writing.
I start and finish the book in winter, the time of year that reindeer are without a doubt, in their element. It is the sort of book you can dip into for fun facts or entertaining stories, and a must for any reindeer enthusiasts, groupie or geek like myself!
Reindeer: An Arctic Life is still in print and if you fancy a copy then buying a signed copy (with personal dedication if you so wish) from us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre will help to support the herd far more than going to Amazon! You can buy it from our online shop ( along with lots of other reindeer related gifts ) or just ring the Reindeer Centre and speak to a friendly reindeer herder to you prefer to order things the old-fashioned way, or want a personalised dedication.
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 Real Rudolph: A Natural History of the Reindeer was the second book I wrote and this time was commissioned by Sutton Publishing. The publisher had already come up with the title and they were looking for a book of ‘hard facts’. Packed full of juicy info about reindeer and caribou (which are actually the same species, but coming from different parts of the world), I combined a lot of research with personal experiences and I was lucky to know a number of good photographers who kindly provided amazing photos which are littered through the book.
The photo on the front cover is from a picture I took of a reindeer bull in Outer Mongolia and I dedicated a chapter to my trip there in 2005 and also various excursions to Swedish Lapland, which ultimately led to us bringing new breeding stock back from there.
The first half of the book is all about their world distribution as a species, seasonal nature, arctic adaptations, how they fit into the ‘Deer Family’ and their domestication. I did have one gentleman get in touch to say it was the most interesting and entertaining textbook of reindeer he had ever read!
But I was always conscious that readers would also be interested in the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, particularly since I would be selling it here at the Reindeer Centre and so the second half of the book was not just about my personal experiences of far flung ‘reindeer places’ but also some stories closer to home.
Published for the Christmas market in 2006 it is now sadly out of print, but it can be acquired, very cheaply, on Amazon!! It is (although I say it myself) a very informative book, is well produced with high quality paper and photos inserted into the text, rather than clumped together in sections as they were in my first book, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses. That book is also out of print now, but my latest book Reindeer: An Arctic Life is in print and available on our online shop (please click hereto have a look), along with several other books and items. Many are suitable for stocking fillers!
Back in August we posted a blog with some quiz questions, from the quiz I ran for the staff here at Reindeer House towards the end of the (first!) lockdown, when the restrictions were starting to lift. So here are the long awaited answers! If you had a go then hopefully you have come up with the answers and they are similar to mine!
1: An old term for a stag?
‘Hart’ is an old English term for a Red stag. I grew up in the village of Welwyn, in Hertfordshire and the local Pub was called The White Hart.
2: Name the three types of Scottish heather, and in which order do they flower?
‘Bell’ heather is first to flower and is a very bright purple, generally growing in distinct patches on dry moorland heath. The ‘crossed leaved heath’ is a close second, much paler purple in colour, it prefers wetter, boggier ground. Then finally the ‘ling’ heather, which clothes the Scottish hillsides with the wonderful purple hue and this year we had one of the best ever flowering of the ling!
3: The Scottish name for a woodlouse?
A ‘slater’. They are very small terrestrial crustaceans, which I often find under stones (so not sure where the name ‘woodlouse’ comes from!). When we named the reindeer calves in 2010 on a Bugs and Beasties theme, one of the male calves was called Slater. Sadly he’s no longer with us but we still have some of them from that year, including Spider, Beastie, Lace and Caterpillar.
4: What are the colour of the following berries?
Bearberry is bright redand has a sharp taste.
Crowberry is black, only grows high on the mountain and provides an important source of autumn and winter food for Ptarmigan.
Cowberry is red like the bearberry – in fact it’s easy to confuse the two. They grow at similar altitudes on the moorland but the cowberry is an upright plant whereas the bearberry is prostrate, growing along the ground often on stony ridges.
Cloudberry when ripe is orange/peach colour and grows in wet mossy areas.
And finally blaeberry is blue/black, called ‘bilberry’ in England and is very tasty.
5: Loch Morlich is a glacial feature, but what type?
A Kettle Hole, which is formed by a ‘plug of glacial ice’, which was been left behind after the ice retreated and gouged out a depression.
6: Name the mythical creature of Ben Macdui. It has to be exact!
The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui.
7: In which coire in the Cairngorms does snow linger the longest? indeed some years it doesn’t melt at all.
An Garbh Choire which is between the Braeriach plateau and the Lairig Ghru.
8: Name the two insectivorous plants that grow in boggy ground?
Butterwort and Sundew. They both have ‘sticky leaves’ which attract the small insects (like midges) which then get stuck on the leaf. The plant then ‘digests’ the insects by injecting enzymes into it. Sounds like something out of science fiction!!
9: Who was the first pure white reindeer to be born in the Cairngorm herd?
Snowflake was born in 1966? and Mr Utsi was very pleased to have a pure white calf in the Cairngorm herd. Many of the reindeer herding people hold white reindeer in high esteem and are regarded as very special. Indeed Mr Utsi always claimed that more white reindeer were born in areas where there was a lot of white rocks and to encourage more white reindeer to be born he painted some of the rocks white!
10: What are the full titles and subtitles of the three books I’ve written?
Velvet Antlers Velvet Noses: The Story of a Reindeer Family 1995
The Real Rudolph: A Natural History of Reindeer 2006
The Reindeer love Munros! In fact, it could be said that they are our resident ‘Munro baggers’ in the Cairngorms, although, plenty of reindeer herders would also be contenders for that crown.
A ‘munro’ is any Scottish mountain above the height of 3,000 feet (914.4 metres) that has been recognised by the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC). And a ‘munro bagger’ is anyone (person, or perhaps any animal?) engaged in the activity of climbing all of the listed Munros.
Tilly, the owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, finished climbing all of the 282 Munros in 2019 with Moskki – her dog – completing most of them alongside her. Moreover, Alan (Tilly’s husband and fellow owner of the herd) and Joe (Tilly’s possible future son-in-law…) (Editors note: Ben is solely responsible for writing this and none of the rest of us are claiming any responsibility!) are other herders who have climbed all 282 munros.
Maybe that’s why reindeer herders feel such a connection to the reindeer…they both love the high tops. The reindeer are often found around Cairn Gorm Mountain, the 6th highest of the munros. They love the cooler air and vegetation that comes with being at a higher altitude. Occasionally they stray further afield and need bringing back into the areas they’re allowed to be in, which requires us heading out into the hills and bringing them home – potentially bagging a munro en-route.
The Cairngorm Mountains are blessed with many of the highest mountains in the British Isles. The second highest in the U.K. is Ben Macdui (Ben Macduibh in Gaelic), with its height recorded at 1309 metres. And the third (Braeriach), fourth (Cairn Toul), fifth (Sgor an Lochain Uaine) and sixth (Cairn Gorm) highest U.K. mountains are also located here in the Cairngorms.
As of July 2nd 2020, 6,768 people have reported completing the round of Munros (although the SMC would rather have the spelling as ‘compleating’!). But if there was a local record for the Cairngorm Mountains, reindeer would have ‘bagged’ more than a lot of the UK population, amongst which I suspect the average climbed to be very, very small!
As a sort of epilogue, I thought it interesting that the SMC recognise six peaks in England, fifteen in Wales and thirteen in Ireland that would be classified as munros or ‘munro tops’ (a peak over 3000′, but one considered a subsidary top of a nearby munro) . That just goes to show how plentiful and large the Scottish hills are in comparison to the rest of the U.K.
This was my first attempt at writing a book about reindeer. Approached by the reputable publisher Hodder and Stoughton in 1994, the editor had heard me speaking on Radio 4 and thought my ramblings had the potential for a book.
It was, to say the least, a particularly busy time in our lives, with 2 children under the age of 6, a herd of reindeer we were trying to make a living from and a second site to where we not only had moved part of the herd, but were beginning to look at how we would farm the lower ground.
So we were stretched to the limits. Indeed the introduction to the book begins with ‘I must be crazy, definitely off my head, to agree to write a book. My day is already full and chaotic.’
But as the saying goes “ If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
I would describe Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses as written ‘from the heart’. The highs and lows of caring for such a special herd of reindeer. The stories of extraordinary people who dedicated their lives to successfully re-introducing them. And a crazy family called The Smith’s, who have carried on the legacy.
From those early days of Alan and I becoming the proud owners of such a wonderful herd, the Cairngorm reindeer continue to go from strength to strength because of the dedication of the next generation. And this dedication has particularly shone through during these difficult times with the Coronavirus pandemic. Months of being closed, but with animals still to care for and hard choices to made.
Now we have opened partially it feels like a very long road ahead though with many of our normal income revenues needed; to feed reindeer, pay herders and the ability to ‘live’ normally looking like they are going to be curtailed for a long time to come.
The opening chapter of Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses describes an incident at Christmas time when I took reindeer to a local playgroup in Aviemore. The memory is etched in my brain forever when the heavy door swung back prematurely knocking the poor reindeer Larch’s antler off! It was a one-off and occasions like this are part of the steep learning curve but re-reading it this morning reminded me of the pleasure people get from seeing reindeer at Christmas (hopefully not with an antler dropping off) and how this November and December will almost certainly be very different.
Training male reindeer to harness and going out and about at Christmas time doing street parades, displays and events is a really important source of income for the herd and bring a huge amount of pleasure to the general public and reindeer supporters each year. Sadly I suspect this will not happen as normal this year, for all the obvious reasons, lack of money in the high street, the importance of not attracting crowds and of course not wanting to inadvertently spread the virus or put our own herders at risk of it. So interesting times ahead.
As I write the Paddocks beside The Reindeer Centre remain closed and Hill Trips are limited by pre-booking only to remain small enough to observe social distancing rules. Luckily we have an extremely generous following of adopters, who help to support the herd by adopting a reindeer. This has been and continues to be a massive lifeline for us and I would like to thank you all from the ‘bottom of my heart’ for your amazing support.
‘Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’ is long since out of print, but old copies can often be found online for purchase. Tilly’s latest book, ‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ is available, along with a couple of other books about the herd, via our website.
During lockdown it seems that all the rage was quiz nights on Zoom. I was party to a couple of these and I have to confess I did quite enjoy them. However I wasn’t over enthusiastic about gazing into a computer screen of faces, all at slightly odd angles with various pictures, bookshelves and miscellanea in the background. I was also useless at all the questions about music, TV and films.
So with these thoughts in mind and once there was some relaxation of the lockdown rules I decided I would make up a ‘Tilly Quiz’ of my interests and we would all sit outside in household teams, suitably socially distanced, for a quiz afternoon. In fact it was a lovely sunny day and we ended up in the empty reindeer Paddocks beside the Centre.
It was great fun and I confess some of the questions were quite quirky and nobody got the answers, but there was a winning team (only by one point ) by the end and they chose a bottle of Kendricks gin for their first prize. A bottle of single malt Balvenie Double Wood was snapped up by the runners up.
Anyway that was a fun day for us herders during late lockdown once restrictions had started to lift, and it occured to me that some of the questions could form a blog for our website, since my 3 areas of interest are (strangely enough): Reindeer, The Natural World and The Great Outdoors .
So why not give the following quiz a go and see how many questions you can answer without instantly referring to Google. Indeed even Google may not come up with the answers!
Here goes with just some of the questions from my quiz that day:
1. An old term for a red deer stag?
2. Name the 3 species of Scottish heather and in what order do they flower?
3. The Scottish name for a woodlouse?
4. What is the colour of the following berries: Bearberry, Crowberry, Cowberry, Cloudberry and Blaeberry? They are all found in the Cairngorms.
5. Loch Morlich (in Glenmore where the Reindeer Centre is) is a glacial feature. What type?
6. Name the mythical creature of Ben Macdui? (Editor’s note: Tilly was very strict about us getting this name exactly right!)
7. In which coire in the Cairngorms does snow linger the longest? Indeed some years it doesn’t melt at all. (A ‘coire’ is a hollow in the mountainside formed by glaciation).
8. Name the UK’s only two insectivorous plants, both of which grow here in the Cairngorms?
9. Who was the first pure white reindeer to be born in the Cairngorm herd? (Pretty sure Google definitely won’t help with this one!)
10. What are the full titles and sub titles of my 3 books about reindeer?
11. In the foreword to ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd she describes the reindeer herd in Scotland ‘as no longer experimental but ………….’?
12. Name 3 other places (countries, islands or states), other than Scotland where reindeer have been introduced to in the past?
Well, we all know what is meant by ‘social distancing’ now after 3 months of lockdown and continued measures for the foreseeable future.
Here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we will be applying the government guidelines to both protect ourselves and our visitors when we re-open next week.
Luckily for us we have helpers, the reindeer themselves, as you can see from the photo above, reindeer are very good at slipping in between groups when we are heading out on to the hill for feed time. The perfect animal to social distance with!
With our own little helpers I decided to ‘measure’ the length of an average-sized adult male reindeer from nose to tail (Beastie ticked all the boxes here) and that comes out on average at 1.8 metres (give or take a little!). And if he (or she) puts her head down the antlers add a little bit more! Ideal for helping people keep the right distance apart when walking along the boardwalk in the hill enclosure.
In fact reindeer as a social herding animal are a very good example of how social distancing can be achieved. Unlike many social animals, reindeer do respect a modicum of social distance. They don’t huddle together; they like their space when they lie down and if another reindeer encroaches into their grazing area, they push them away, with antlers (if they are bony) or feet if their antlers are still growing.
The only close contact between reindeer is usually between close relations, ie a cow and calf. Indeed this close relationship can extend through into their adult lives particularly among females. However last winter that close bond became apparent between an old female and her grown up son. When 9 year old Rubiks joined the Cairngorm herd in January 2020 he ‘found’ his 16 year old mother Fonn and they have been inseparable ever since!
Unfortunately the downside to social distancing for ourselves and our visitors will be that the normal hand feeding that takes place out on the open hillside will not happen. Not only will our visitors be disappointed, but the reindeer will be too. I can think of many of the friendly male reindeer like Olympic, Dr Suess and Aztec who will be extremely confused by the lack of yummy food from everyone!
However a visit to the reindeer will still be an amazing experience (hopefully at least!), with our lovely herd in their natural environment out on the mountainside. Experienced reindeer herders to guide you, answer questions and feed the reindeer, while you all get the opportunity to take photos and enjoy the moment with these gentle creatures.
Earlier this year I wrote about the two Boris’s, our reindeer Boris and the PM Boris Johnson. Well, in April both have made similar news, in one way or another. Boris Johnson contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised and ridiculously our reindeer Boris also fell ill around the same time!
Thankfully for reindeer they cannot contract Covid-19 but they are susceptible to various parasitic diseases and stomach upsets. In the case of reindeer Boris he showed the symptoms of a sore stomach, which led him to lose his appetite. That is never a good sign in a reindeer and is often linked to a low temperature because the body is ‘shutting down’. Boris didn’t even fancy some of his favourite food lichen. He was in a bad place.
When I first found him unwell, he was lying away from the herd, on his own, always a sure sign a reindeer is poorly. I encouraged him onto his feet and led him across the hill to a small enclosure, beside the shed. This would be where he would stay until he got better. Although reindeer are normally very social animals and want to be with the herd, in Boris’s case he was happy to be alone.
Intensive Care Unit for a reindeer is a bit different to where PM Boris ended up, but for a while it seemed as if the outcome could go either way. Thankfully though both Boris’s turned a corner and recovered and ours has never looked back – his antlers have begun to grow again (antlers are the first thing to stop growing when a reindeer is ill) and he is back to his old self, wonky-nosed, very friendly and very greedy.
In this week’s blog we’re taking a diversion from reindeer to dogs, to hear from herd owner Tilly:
Well I have to say I am one of the lucky ones. Living on our farm at Glenlivet, with the wonderful countryside around me I can safely enjoy the great outdoors without compromising the current lockdown requirements.
The Glenlivet Estate is a real gem, with a wonderful mix of open moorland, farmland and woodland and from our farmhouse I can go walking and running with my two border terriers Moskki and her daughter Tuva.
I got Moskki as a 6 week old pup in January 2014 and she has been the best wee dog I have ever had. When there is nothing to do she happily sleeps, but when its time to go out to the hills she’s the first to get ready. She has accompanied me on nearly all my Munros ( Scottish Mountains over 3,000 feet ), which I finished in November last year, so she is certainly fit!
At the end of November 2019 Moskki had a litter of pups and I decided I would keep one of the girls in the litter, hence Border terrier no.2! There were 3 female pups that were quite similar colouring to Moskki and so I decided ( after much procrastination ) on the ‘middle sized’ female of the three. I took some time to choose a name for my wee pup and finally settled on ‘Tuva’. Tuva is the name of South Siberian Reindeer Herding people and I was honoured to meet representatives of these people ( a mother and her grown up daughter ) at one of the World Reindeer Herder Association Congress meetings in Jokkmokk, North Sweden.
Moskki also has a reindeer herding association (can’t think why! ). The ‘moskki’ is ‘a small place’ in a kåta ( Sami tent – pronounced ‘kota’ ) where household items like pots and pans are stored. So my love of reindeer strangely enough strays into my two dogs. We’ve also had a Swedish born reindeer bull named Moskki in the past, and currently have a Kota too!
Tuva has grown up to be a clone of her mother. Sleeps well, enjoys getting out and devoted to me (unless she is on the scent of a rabbit!). So my two borders have given me a huge amount of joy in these difficult times and added to that we have had the warmest and driest April on record.
But I am yearning to get back to normal life, like everyone else. I can’t wait to immerse myself again fully in reindeer herding, general farm life, showing people around the farm, but most importantly seeing my grandchildren and playing with them at home and on the farm. Happy days ahead.