Velvet Antlers, Velvet Nose

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.”

The text of the book is interspersed with pages of photos, including this classic of Alex on my back as a toddler!

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.

Alex, Tilly, Fiona and Alan back in the day. Look at those fresh faces!

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.

Crowds like this seem like a distant memory right now!

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.

Tilly

‘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

Tilly’s quiz

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.

Quiz teams nicely spaced out and all set to go. Note the cut hay drying – not something possible in the Paddocks in a normal year!

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.

Thankfully it was sunny enough that the midges weren’t around!

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?

Wapiti, Ladybird and Addax up on the mountains with Loch Morlich in the background

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 ………….’?

 

Nan Shephard now graces the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £5 note

12. Name 3 other places (countries, islands or states), other than Scotland where reindeer have been introduced to in the past?

Answers in a few weeks in a future blog!

Tilly

Social distancing- reindeer style!

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.

Turns out the reindeer have been enforcing social distancing all along!

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.

Beastie being very patient but it wasn’t too easy with a tape measure…
…but a marked stick was easier! Celt muscled in on the action too.

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.

It might be well below zero but no need for huddling!

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!

Rubiks with mum Fonn to his left this spring

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.

Tilly

 

A Tale of Two Boris’s

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!

Boris as he normally looks

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.

Boris not looking too enthusiastic for my lichen offering

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.

Poor Boris!

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.

Tilly

In all his glory! Wonky nose and all…

Border Terriers and me!

In this week’s blog we’re taking a diversion from reindeer to dogs, to hear from herd owner Tilly:

Tilly with Moskki and Tuva. And her customary very short shorts!

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.

Tuva with mum Moskki

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!

Spending most of their time sleeping!

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 with Tuva and her siblings

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.

Tilly in more normal times with her beloved reindeer. Photo: John Paul

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.

Tilly

Olympic

We all have favourite reindeer in the herd and over the years I had a very special reindeer, Beauty, who I hand-reared, back in 1993. Beauty’s mother Sorrel died when Beauty was born and I became her mother, a relationship which lasted her whole life even though she had calves of her own. Indeed I felt a bit like a granny as a result!

Beauty
Beauty

Beauty died an old lady and for many, many years there was never really a reindeer for me who filled the gap. There have been some great characters since Beauty but none of them were really special enough to replace her. Various reindeer were hand-reared, but not solely by me and although each reindeer has a distinct character there was no real favourite. But over the last 4 years a reindeer has grown on me and now I can honestly say, I have a favourite again.

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Baby Olympic

Olympic was born in 2012, in the year of the London Olympics, hence his name. His mother Glacier came from a long line of white reindeer and so when Olympic was born dark coloured, that was a bit of a surprise to say the least.

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Olympic with mother, Glacier

So he was the ‘black sheep of the family’. He grew tame and friendly like all the other calves once they are handled, indeed Olympic became quite outrageous when it came to hand-feeding, terrorising many an unsuspecting visitor on the hill visits. Which meant, in time Olympic was banished to the quieter life at our Glenlivet Farm, where visitors to the herd are less frequent and so life with Olympic and hand-feeding became manageable.

Strangely enough although Olympic is a very bold reindeer and eagerly comes up to us, amongst the reindeer he seems to be quite low down in the pecking order, almost to the point that he is a little bullied! Although he is a big strong reindeer he is just a big softy and another reindeer only has to so much look at him and he’s off. So Olympic often seeks out human companionship and whenever I am bringing the reindeer down off the hill for the daily feed Olympic is often right there beside me.  So we have developed a close relationship and as time has gone on Olympic has grown on me and become my new special reindeer.

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Olympic as a yearling

Last autumn we trained Olympic to harness and he joined the teams at Christmas time. Handling reindeer, gaining their confidence and harnessing them to pull a sleigh is a real joy for me. I love the close contact with the Christmas reindeer, feeling so responsible for them when away from home and proud of them as they delight the crowds who come to see them. Olympic was a delight to train and looks fantastic in full harness. He is as much at ease pulling the sleigh alongside another reindeer as pottering along at the back of the sleigh with the 6 month old calves. And I think Fiona, who organises Christmas now and decides which reindeer goes where made sure I had Olympic in my team! Thanks Fi!

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Big boy Olympic, in 2015

 Tilly