For me the summer solstice always fell on June 21st and I never knew otherwise however apparently this year it was on the 20th… Something to do with being a leap year?!? Anyway to mark the occasion it’s always quite nice to do something, whether we get a group of folk together and have a game of rounders or go for a nice ‘summery’ walk. This year we decided to take a wander up into the Northern Coire’s – Coire an Lochain in particular! Looking up from Glenmore and Loch Morlich this is the furthest right Coire with a large patch of snow on the right hand side of it. Mid-summer here always seems to be fairly awful weather, I even recall wearing my waterproof ski trousers for this about 4-5 years ago and in true Scottish Highlands style this year was no different. However, it wasn’t raining so we were already up on other years!
So we set off up the path into the Coire and it took us about an hour of which we chit chatted the whole way, of course putting the world to rights! Right in the back of Coire An Lochain there is, as stated in its name, a wee loch. We arrived with bags filled with tea and cake (very important for us reindeer herders), my bagpipes and four fairly hyper dogs (3 of them being under the age of two). As we arrived into the Coire something caught my eye… 4 reindeer behind the loch. Straight away dogs were called in and put on a leads, just in case, and I scooted over towards them to see if I could see who it was. Malawi, one of our older females in the herd at the age of 11 now was leading them away from us and she was followed by Okapi and two younger females (who I didn’t get close enough to, to ID). A three year old and a two year old, I got that much! They obviously weren’t too keen on coming up to us as we had the dogs but they did stop in their tracks when I started calling them, it was just unfortunate I didn’t any food as a bit of bribery to come a bit closer, then I would have definitely worked out the other two. Malawi is easy to identify because she has never grown any antlers which is pretty unusual.
Like I said the reindeer didn’t hang around as they don’t like dogs so we got onto what was also very important after our walk in – tea, cake and a quick blast on the bagpipes. I’m not really in practice at the moment so any wee slip up with notes I blamed on the cold weather and my fingers weren’t working properly but they sounded pretty awesome in the Coire getting good acoustics bouncing off the head wall. At this time of year it is light until about midnight and light again in the morning round 3.30am. Such a lovely time of year which is why we try to make the most of it by being outside. It’s a bit different in the winter months when it isn’t light until 9am and dark by 3.30pm but it’s also nice to have that comparison throughout the year too. Of course in the far north and Scandinavia they have the midnight sun… I shall have to go and see that one year for sure!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Sonya’s blog, which will be out in a couple of weeks!
All you eagle-eyed social media geniuses would have noticed the anouncement that we are now on Instagram! Instagram is another social media site that is mainly based around photographs.
We haven’t got too many photos up yet but hopefully we will get lots more up over the coming months. Our instagram name is @cairngormreindeer, so get following and feel free to tag us in your photos with our beautiful animals. We may even re-post some of the best ones!
You can use the hashtag #crcreindeerselfie to see our reindeer selfies and please join in if you have any fun selfies with our reindeer, from our hill trips or our Christmas events. We hope you enjoy seeing a bit more of the day to day of reindeer herding through our instagram account, but for now here’s a wee selfie to start us off!
Some of you may already know this female reindeer, Ryvita. If you don’t then she is a 7 year old mature female who has a lovely nature and, like most the other reindeer in the herd, is super greedy! Over the past three years she has had her daughter Cheese by her side as she hasn’t calved since she had her in 2013, so the two of them are inseparable. Not sure what will happen if Ryvita has a calf this year… Poor Cheese! However this blog is not about the relationship between Ryvita and Cheese, it is about antler growth. Over the past month I have been taking photos of Ryvita to show you all how fast reindeer antler grows. Antler is in fact the fastest growing animal tissue in the world.
I started taking my photos on the 17th April 2016 and took the last one on the 22nd of May 2016 and in that time I reckon her antlers have grown a good 8-10 inches and also a 4-5 inch front point, so it really is phenomenal. We think Ryvita is still due to calve so she’s also growing her calf inside her, and is doing a fantastic job of both. The photos speak for themselves so I hope you enjoy them. Note that we had snow, then a lovely sunny spell, then another good dump of snow again… Got to love an unpredictable Scottish spring!
Ryvita’s antlers will continue to grow until the onset of autumn, so hopefully she gets lots to eat and she will hopefully grow a rather lovely set of antlers.
Here’s a quick side by side comparison of 17th April to 17th May, just one month of growth:
As most of you know part of the Cairngorm reindeer herd lives over near Tomintoul on the Glenlivet Estate. We first took part of the herd over to our hill farm back in the early 1990’s and to this day the herd is split between Glenlivet and Cairngorm.
Over the winter months the reindeer at Glenlivet are up on the Cromdale range but by the end of April it is time to bring them down for the summer closer to the farm. Reindeer love routine and by the time we get to the last few days of April the reindeer are expecting to be on the move.
From now onwards it is all about eating. With spring just about here many of the reindeer are beginning to grow their new antlers and need to put on weight, lost over the winter. They need extra sustenance to achieve this and the winter diet of lichens and last years vegetation is not enough. The new spring growth and the extra feed we give them is what’s needed. Appetite increases many fold and to be absolutely honest everything we give them, they eat.
Every farmer up in the Highlands of Scotland will tell you that this year spring is really late. Whether it is the fields of grass that need to grow for hay and silage later in the year or the newly sown spring barley, the weather has just been too cold. And despite and recent few days of incredibly high temperatures it is not enough to kickstart the growing season yet. New vegetation on the higher ground is also absent so even more reason for us to be feeding the reindeer more than normal for the time of year.
So as it’s almost summer and I’m having a bit of a phone clear out of all the photos and thought who would most enjoy all my winter reindeer ones… everyone online! It was only 6 months ago I managed to upgrade my trusty old button phone to a smart one so I’ve been making the most of having a camera to hand most of the time.
We have had a right mix of weather over the past few months but regardless what it is doing out there we have to go out and locate the herd every morning. This is one good reason I never look at a weather forecast cos I either get excited that there is going to be good weather and it disappoints or I see it’s due to be bad weather so then I don’t look forward to getting a drenching so best just to look out the window on the day and dress appropriately! At least this way there is no expectations.
The girls (reindeer) have been pretty well behaved and we have found them most of the time. I say most because lets face it there is going to be the odd day the hill is storm bound or just too foggy to even begin to find them. We have experienced every terrain under foot from deep snow, mud and ice but to be honest the snow is the easiest one to walk through as we create a lovely packed path that both us and the reindeer use… unless you are the first one to break that path after a fresh dumping in which case a deep thigh high walk out it is!
They always go through the same pattern every year and they come to a call from far away through January and February but then through March they seem to get quite lazy and expect us to go to them so the walks become further and a little more frustrating, however, when you do get them back to the right place there is a much bigger sense of achievement. Plus it keeps us fit and if the weather is good then there is no better office!
Anyway there is no need for me to say anything else so enjoy my photos of the reindeer this winter.
As you may know reindeer herding isn’t quite as simple as it may first appear, one very common question we are faced with is, is reindeer herding all you do? We’re a wee team here with five core staff and we literally do everything between us which can be quite entertaining when we’re performing office duties. I (Abby) vaguely attempt to keep advertising under control and routinely receive calls for the advertising department (i.e me) who, when they’re told I’m ‘up on the hill’, are often quite bemused.
When a visitor tells us “You have the best job in the world!” our minds fleetingly head in the direction of the not-so-nice mountain weather as unfortunately it isn’t always sunny here (shocking right?). We have some quite epic storms in the Cairngorms and there’s been many a day where it’s icy, sleeting and gusting upwards of 80mph up where the reindeer are. These are some of those days you question reindeer herding and your dedication to having wet socks but it can be epically cool to be out and see the reindeer in these conditions. However, I do have to say I enjoy pretty much enjoy all of it (maybe not all the office work but it must be done!) and it’s super rewarding seeing people absolutely loving life with the reindeer!
Another reindeer herding problem specifically at this time of year is bringing the reindeer in for the visit. If you’ve visited us in spring you’ll know all the reindeer are entirely free-range on the Cairngorms and we have to tempt them in from ridges and corries every morning. In early spring the reindeer metabolism is still in ‘winter mode’ and the girls are beginning to feel and look increasingly pregnant too so they can be more than reluctant to come in in the mornings. Our method of extraction is walking part way out to the darlings if they’re in sight and then calling them in – if they stick a hoof up at us we walk out, catch a dominant female and lead her in on a head collar and the rest of the herd often oblige. To avoid suspicion it’s key to always have food to give them as the calls we use are always reinforced by food and these girls are wily – if you call them over without food one day they’re likely to disappear on you the next!
Obviously all these trips up and down mountainsides to fetch and move reindeer means we cover a lot of ground which is ace! We get some great views, see awesome wildlife, get quite soggy a lot of the time but on the whole it’s pretty fun getting to romp around in the hills for work. However there’s one big downer for us herders and that’s the sheer amount of rubbish we pick up/find plastered over the national park. Seriously, take your wrappers home folk! As we tell all of our visitors we live in the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat – it’s special – finding litter definitely makes it less so, as well as meaning we find odd things in our work jacket pockets when we’ve been good citizens and picked up other people’s rubbish!
This brings me onto my final trial of reindeer herding… doing your office work on a sunny day. I know many people are cooped up daily at a desk but us reindeer herders get a bit antsy if we don’t have at least an hour of outside time and on a sunny day it can literally be a fight to the death to go and paint as many things as we can find here at the Centre! This does however mean at some point we have to be tied to an office chair and get on with it!
Our last and certainly most crushing issue is our unending addiction to tea and cake… it’s a sure fire way to make each and every day epic! Us herders never turn a healthy cake down!
You’ll all have noticed on our Facebook page the lovely snowy photos we’ve been taking with the reindeer. When news channels report that it’s going to be warm and sunny, that the daffodils are out and spring is in the air, we are usually still huddled under our blankets, heating on full with no sign of those bright yellow trumpets. However, we’ve had a few gloriously sunny days here in Glenmore, so thought we’d do a quick round up of pictures (as evidence!) before the warm weather disappears and we get snow again.
This was the picture last week – snowy, but pretty. The reindeer do love the snow and when you get snow and sunshine, it’s just bliss.
One week later, and it’s full on sunshine and cloud inversions. I drove to work in mist and fog, thinking it would be a cold, grey day on the hill. To my surprise, and delight, the sun was shining as we drove higher up and on my morning mission to find reindeer, I was down to just a tshirt. The fog cleared and we had a gloriously sunny and hot visit. The poor reindeer were feeling the heat a little, but are great at dumping heat when temperatures occasionally soar.
Since the weather has been so good, we’ve been getting on with our outside jobs, some painting and tidying up that is just too hard to face when the weather is miserable. We even found a little newt in the garden as we were raking! I thought maybe I’d raked over him a little too hard (by accident, of course!) but he was a resilient wee thing and we rehomed him to a wee burn.
There is a thick harr over Glenmore today, and unfortunately I think the weather is going to change next week. It was good while it lasted though!
“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!).
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!
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!
Since Minute terrified himself and the curlew chick a lot of water has quite literally ‘gone under the bridge’. About 4 weeks ago there was tremendous heavy rainfall in the Cairngorm Mountains which resulted in the River Avon (pronounced locally “A’an”) beside our Glenlivet farm rising 6 feet in just a matter of hours.
The source of the River Avon is Loch Avon at the back of Cairngorm Mountain, a long slender loch with a beautiful sandy beach and crystal clear water. It is not a popular beach for the family because to get to it you have to climb up on to the Cairngorm Plateau ( about 2,500 ft of climb ) followed by a similar drop down the other side.
The sudden rise in water levels caught out one fisherman on the river who had crossed onto one of the islands to improve his fishing chances. When the river rose so rapidly he hollered for help and luckily one of our neighbours realised the gravity of the situation and called mountain rescue. The first we knew about it was a mountain rescue helicopter arriving and plucking him off to safety.
Just a year ago a similar flood happened in August. Once again heavy rain in the Cairngorms brought havoc to many of the rivers and tributaries and the A’an got its fair share of water with the levels this time rising by about 12 feet. In a space of just 12 hours the heightened water washed trees and debris down and ‘ate away’ at the river bank near our farm before the bank finally gave way, washing 40 metres of the A’anside road downstream. It was six weeks before the road was repaired and re-opened.
If you look back in history there is the famously recorded “muckle spate” of August 2nd to 4th 1829 where heavy rain and thunderstorms in the Cairngorm produced floods which claimed 8 lives, numerous buildings and many cattle and sheep. It would seem that summertime is when these spates occur and it does make you wonder if two floods in the last two years says something about climate change and global warming.
Weather is extremely topical just now with record low temperatures being recorded here. The number of sunny days could almost be counted on one hand during July and there have been times at night when the temperature has dropped to nigh on zero. Not good for the farmer needing his crops to grow, but great for reindeer who struggle in the heat of the day and get frustrated by the buzzing insects that come out in force on warm sunny days.
So there is a silver lining in every cloud, whether it be rain, sun or overcast conditions, someone or something will benefit from the topsy turvy weather we seem to get these days.