The Sámi Flag and the Children of the Sun

Recently one of our supporters posted us two Sámi flags. He wrote explaining that he had been hoping to come and visit the reindeer in February, and on Sámi day, take the flags up to the herd, and make a toast to the Sámi people, culture, and way of life. He had originally been planning a trip to visit the Sámi people but when it was apparent this wouldn’t be possible, he had planned to visit us instead. So, you can imagine how disappointed he was to find out that his trip to the Cairngorms also wasn’t possible. He asked if we could take the flags on the hill and raise a toast in his place, of course we were delighted to do this.

Fiona and the Sámi Flag with some of the free-rangers

For the week around Sámi national day, when Dennis had been hoping to visit the reindeer, the weather was so wild that we couldn’t even get to where the reindeer were, let alone fly a flag. We’re talking snow drifts across the road as tall as me! This was serious winter weather. The reindeer were of course totally fine. When the weather gets wild and the snow gets deep the reindeer head up onto the ridges where the wind has blown the snow off and it’s easier to dig through to the grazing underneath. There was a couple of days when we forgot to take the flag out to the herd. The day we were finally able to was pretty wonderful. Me and Fiona headed out to find the herd, we had spied them quite a way away and were hoping to call them a bit closer. In the end we met somewhere in the middle. It was beautiful sunshine and certainly felt like spring was on it’s way. We flied the flag with the reindeer around it, it got me thinking a bit about what the Sámi flag represents.

Fava leading the herd

The Sámi flag is a relatively new flag, it was first designed in the 60s. The colours in the flag, red, green, yellow and blue, are the most common colours used in Sámi clothing. The circle symbolises the sun in red and the moon in blue. The yellow and green in the middle are to symbolise the animals and nature.

The Sámi flag

The sun is incredibly important in Sámi culture and the sun symbol appears in lots of traditional Sámi artwork. The sun is worshipped in Sámi culture in particular due to the lack of sun in winter and the life that it brings in the summer. In the Sámpi, the area where the Sámi live, in the winter the sun doesn’t reach the horizon. Beaivi is the name of the Sámi sun deity. On the winter solstice a ceremony is carried out for Beaivi and a white reindeer is sacrificed to ensure that the sun returns, and the long winter ends. In spring when the sun arrives, the plants start to flourish and so do the reindeer which brings prosperity to the Sámi people. In order to give the sun more strength to rise in the sky, Sámi people leave butter on their doorsteps which melts and provides energy to the sun.

Fiona and Borlotti with the Sámi flag

The moon is also important in Sámi culture, unlike the sun however, in Sámi folklore people are very suspicious of the spirit of the Moon. Supposedly in December the evil spirits wander among the people and the moon is thought to be the leader of them. Traditionally in February there would be a festival under the full moon in which people would bang drums and make a lot of noise to scare the moon away so that the sun can return. The sun and the moon are often shown to be battling in folklore. I would imagine that people are suspicious of the moon as it always comes out at night when it is dark.

The Sámi flag is a beautiful array of colours and wonderfully represents how the Sámi way of life revolves around the seasons and nature, much like the lives of the reindeer themselves.

Lotti

My first winter as a reindeer herder

This past year has been my first full year as a reindeer herder. Despite becoming a reindeer herder seven years ago in 2014 (remember then? simpler times!), I was very much a seasonal herder. I would arrive for a few months in the summer whilst either my university course was having a break, or in-between travels abroad.

Therefore, last winter was my first winter as a reindeer herder. And what a memorable winter it was! Firstly, it was lockdown, so it was very different to how things usually operate which was new and exciting whilst also being unpredictable and slightly chaotic. But also, there was the snow. So. Much. Snow. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a couple of videos and photos from the crazy weather, including this short clip of Joe and I leading the herd downstream in blizzard-like conditions at the start of February.

Pony and I trying not to sink!

Leading Feta and Diamond along the path on a snowy day

And it’s not just reindeer that we fed throughout the winter! Opportunistic snow buntings joined in most days too:

I am writing this at the start of May where we have had quite a bit of fresh snowfall over the past couple of weeks, so maybe we are not through all the snowy weather just yet. But I am sure it won’t be anywhere near as much as the volume of snow that fell this winter. Overall, it was a lovely first year as a reindeer herder, albeit very unusual as the whole country adapted to changing circumstances. Now I look forward to my next year and hopefully getting to see all the ‘normal’ activities such as Christmas events and parades.

Snowstorm armour!

Ben

Winter wonderland

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.

Sometimes skis were the only option for moving about on the Cromdales!

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.

Tilly

 

Long time, no reindeer

It’s been a bit snowy here in the Cairngorms this winter.

The Cairngorms is unique within the UK in offering a sub-arctic ecosystem, which coupled with the wide expanses of mountainside, make it perfect for our reindeer. In most winters, we get weeks of snow cover on the mountains,  but it’s less common to have such sustained cover as we’ve experienced this year. From Christmas through to mid February, the norm was snow, both on the hills and in the glens. Perfect for the reindeer, great for all of the snowsports enthusiasts who happen to live within reach of the mountains, but I have to confess the novelty of relentless snow began to wear… a little thin for me. I lost count how many times we cleared our drive at home of snow – all that snow shovelling definitely made up for the gyms being closed!

There’s a loch there somewhere! Loch Morlich froze solid enough that some people skied right across it.

If you follow our social media accounts, you’ve probably  enjoyed all those beautiful photos of reindeer in the snow under a bright blue sky, herders skiing out onto stunning mountains to cuddle reindeer, giving the impression that that is our every day experience. But alas, social media photos can be scheduled for the future. With the current situation, we’ve all just been working two/three days a week, keeping the essentials ticking over, which also means that we can work in separate households.

Our path off the car park blocked by a 10 ft drift. No reindeer today then…

So every Friday and Saturday, Hen and me had our turn to feed the herd. As January rolled into February, with unerring precision, every day we were scheduled to work also appeared to be the scheduled day for a blizzard, a storm, or generally horrific weather. The reindeer were perfectly equipped, and with their appetites very reduced they would be a fair distance away, not fussed about seeking us out for food. Each time, we would drive up the ski road – a mission in itself as the snow was only cleared enough to allow Cairngorm Mountain’s essential staff access. We would wend our way up the closed road in our wee van, driving as far as we could, debating the safety of walking out to try to find the herd. And each time we would be forced to turn back.

The main ski road.

A passage cleared through drifts higher than the van.

Over the course of the next week, our colleagues would be gifted with better weather than us, and would catch up with the reindeer. More glorious photos for Facebook, then as we watched the forecast for our days, the harsh weather returned. The temperature plummeted to -19C, the Spey froze over. A second work “week” of seeing no reindeer, again foiled by the weather, the deep snow, and the distant reindeer. Now I know we can’t complain too much, when we have the privilege of getting to work with these awesome creatures, but by now we were starting to feel a little less like “Reindeer Herders” and a little more like office staff…

Our wee van excelled itself at being a snow van. That’s the main ski road that we’re stopped on…

It was now nearly three weeks since we’d seen the herd ourselves, and with hope we looked at the forecast for our next Friday in – the thaw having finally started. Windy, still snowy, but not too bad… We loaded the van with feed, navigated the narrow cleared passage between the drifts (apparently the deepest for 40 years on the road in places), reached the car park and spied with binoculars.

Hen sights the reindeer just above the snow drift

Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.

Call and they shall come (possibly)

Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!

Wild weather but happy herders with hungry Holy Moley

Andi

Jokkmokk Winter Market

 

Back when everything felt much more ‘normal’ in February 2020 four of us from the Reindeer Centre went to the celebration of all things Sámi , the ‘Jokkmokk Winter Market’ in Arctic Sweden. It is held in the first weekend of February every year, and apart from world-class Sámi art, culture and handicraft, visitors are usually greeted by proper, cold winter weather.

Olly, Joe and myself at the market last year

Jokkmokk’s Market begins on the first Thursday of February every year. Situated just north of the Polar Circle and with a population a little over 2,000, the small town of Jokkmokk is a tranquil gem on the border of Laponia, the only combined nature and cultural heritage site in Scandinavia. Jokkmokk’s Market was first held in 1605, some 400 years ago, originally purely as a place to trade and meet. The Sámi people met to trade goods, to socialise, and possibly to get a bit tipsy too. At least they’d arrive in their party clothes! The market was created following a request from King Karl XI, who sought to exert control over trading in Lappmarken in order to collect taxes for the Kingdom. To make everything easier to control and run smoother, they organised the market during the coldest time of the year. People had to stay near the houses to keep warm. You might think this sounds like pure fiction, but the fact is that the Swedish state wanted to create a market for economic reasons – money was needed for all the wars the king was involved in down in Europe. And in that way, Jokkmokk got a market in the middle of the freezing cold.

Joe admiring Sámi knives at a stall

Plenty of reindeer antlers for sale!

At a quick glance, as you zigzag between stands selling sweets, t-shirts, knitted socks, doughnuts, there is little to differentiate the market here in Jokkmokk from just about any other market in Sweden. But if you look further than the muddle of seemingly pointless things you will find the genuine and the real. Much of the handicraft, art and jewellery are created in materials derived from the reindeer, such as hides and antlers. It’s an intriguing fusion of traditional Sámi styles and new, modern influences.

Reindeer racing always draws a big crowd

At Jokkmokk’s Market, there’s no mistaking that reindeer are a fundamental part of Sámi culture – they have been an integral part of Sámi life for thousands of years, from winter and summer pastures, from coastal regions to mountain terrain. Throughout history, reindeer have provided humans with food, clothing and materials for functional items, while in past times they were also used to transport everything imaginable between settlements.

For over 50 years, Per Kuhmunen has been walking his reindeer as a daily feature at Jokkmokk’s Market.

It’s not unusual for temperatures to plummet below the –30 degree mark. To get the most out of your market experience, it’s important to have the right clothing – multiple layers of warm materials such as wool, or other functional fabrics, covered by a heavy-duty down jacket, and a sturdy pair of winter boots. Add a fur cap and the warmest gloves you can find, and you’re all set!

Frosty beard men!

Jokkmokk’s Market is an annual highlight, however, this year things have to work a little different and the Jokkmokk Market has to go online… Maybe a little warmer from your kitchen table or living room than walking the streets themselves, though I know I would still prefer to be there in person having experienced the amazing atmosphere this market has to offer, even with cold hands! Learn more by visiting the market’s website and have the opportunity to purchase items from the market – the next best thing to actually being able to visit!

Beautifully carved antler crafts

Colourful gloves

Reindeer wear incredibly colourful harnesses

Mikel Utsi, who re-introduced reindeer into Scotland in the 1950s, originally came from the Jokkmokk area and still to this day when we travel to northern Sweden we stay with his family who are always very welcoming. It helps too if we bring a good bottle of Scottish Whisky! I feel extremely lucky to have visited this market a few times now and I hope this year is the only time it will have to resort to going online as nothing beats being there in person!

John Utsi, Mikel Utsi’s nephew, and his daughter Sofia at my brother Alex’s wedding back in 2013. Both are wearing traditional Sámi dress.

Fiona

Experiencing the Four Seasons (Part One)

Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!

With my adopted reindeer, Mo

Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.

Winter

In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.

In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.

Fly and her grown-up son Anster

The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.

Pony and her calf Poirot in winter ’18-’19

Frost

The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.

Ibex posing for a selfie!

The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.

I help take the Christmas decorations down.

Spring

In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.

April

Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.

After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.

Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.

Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.

It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.

One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.

With Ochil and Bumble in April 2018

The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.

The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.

It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.

Austen

At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.

The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.

In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.

Ibex and Clouseau in May 2018

I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.

Bottle-feeding Starsky in the woods beside the Paddocks

The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.

There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.

Emm

There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!

A winter not to be forgotten…

It’s not been a very snowy winter at all, and nor was last winter either. While there’s been the odd decent fall every now and then, it’s generally all melted away quite quickly. Until, ironically, about 6 weeks ago, when winter finally made a proper appearance. Since then the mountains have been much whiter, and the skiing good… until our new and nasty acquaintance known as COVID-19 stopped play for the ski centre, and pretty much the rest of the world to be honest.

But thinking about snow reminded me of the incredible 2009-2010 winter, when it started snowing at the beginning of it and just didn’t stop. So here’s some photos of back in the days that we got ‘proper’ snow – all of 10 years ago!

Many of you may have seen this photo (above) before, in one of our calendars or on a Christmas card. But in front of this line of reindeer are herders Fiona and Mary, struggling through deep snow while the reindeer had the easy job behind. This was the day we moved them from the hill enclosure out to the ‘free-range’, having closed to the public at the end of the Christmas holidays. But before moving the reindeer themselves, we had to make a path ourselves – easier said than done in some places!

We were wearing hi-viz as we’d led the reindeer the easy way until this point – i.e. right down the middle of the road.

I like to call this photo ‘Congo takes a wrong turn…’

Back down at Reindeer House, it just didn’t stop snowing!  Day after day there were several more inches of fresh white stuff each morning, and gradually everything disappeared.

Including the garden fence (nearly)…

…and then almost completely…

The elves were well and truly snowed in!

 

Think Reindeer House’s oil tank is under there somewhere…

Icicles everywhere.

Any flat sections of roof required clearing regularly to stop them collapsing. The elf house roof is just visible at the left of this photo.

Feed storage on the hill became trickier to get to than normal.

Big snow required big machines…

Thank goodness reindeer are so well designed for snow! Here’s old lad Sting having a good rest in a comfy bed.

But thankfully the reindeer coped just fine, and being as a lot of the deepest snow was during our closed spell in January and February, it didn’t matter and we had a ball playing in it most of the time.

A photo from a different year, but it’s kinda cool!

Hen

Memorable Reindeer: Esme

I’ve been well aware over the last couple of weeks that it’s definitely my turn to write a blog, and my justifications of going away on holiday, then having to catch up on work, and reorder stock for the shop, and organise the new adopt gifts, and… have started sounding a little too like excuses. Hen started a lovely series about memorable reindeer, and I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon.

Young Esme as a calf

In my first calving season, 2012, Esme was one of the pregnant females who was in the enclosure so we could keep an eye on her when she calved. Being a novice to the world of reindeer midwifery, I would walk out with a more experienced herder and learn the correct way to approach a new mum, how to check over the calf, and how to bring them back in to the herd.

As we neared the end of May, only one female was left to calve – Esme. She was the sweetest of reindeer – calm, docile, and an experienced mum. She was also beautiful, with a silvery sheen to her coat. So when the day came that Esme had left the herd to calve, we spied her with binoculars up on Silver Mount, and Fiona asked if I wanted the honour of going to find her and her new calf. I was apprehensive – What if I didn’t get it right? Or if she wouldn’t let me approach? – but still jumped at the chance. Hiking up from Black Loch onto Silver Mount, the “baby bag” with the essentials on my back, I still remember feeling the nervous anticipation. I needn’t have worried – as I came over the ridge and saw Esme, she looked up calmly and took a couple of steps towards me (well, the bag of food). I scanned around – had she calved yet? – before spotting the tiny bundle of new life at her feet.

I can’t claim to have done everything in a smooth polished fashion, but Esme was the most patient lass ever, standing whilst I fumbled with the headcollar, not quite having the right technique for holding her calf whilst I sprayed his navel, and talking myself through what to do (out loud!). Finally, we were ready, and we proceeded down the hill and back to the “nursery” area of the enclosure. She must have been rolling her eyes at my inadequacy, and I’m fairly sure she did actually yawn a couple of times!

Over the following years, Esme remained one of my favourite females – she was always a friendly face in the herd, dependable and happy to follow a bag of feed to wherever you wanted her to go, and easy to catch if you needed to put a headcollar on her. As she aged, she struggled a little at times to maintain her condition, and we’d slip her extra bits of feed, allowing her to join in when we fed the calves out of the bag. Throughout, she was never pushy, always waiting to be invited, though once her head was in a feed bag it was almost impossible to remove it!

Esme in her prime

Reindeer, like people, age at different rates, and whilst some of our charges still look in their prime at 13 or 14 years old, by the time Esme was 11 she certainly looked like an old girl. She was also spending more time alone, away from the herd, which isn’t uncommon for the older females – they have the confidence to enjoy their own company, and can sometimes be pushed out by the younger, stronger reindeer. In the 2014/15 winter, Esme was often away from the herd for weeks at a time, off doing her own thing, and there was a memorable day when we spied for the reindeer and saw one lone female marching across the Ciste flats towards the car park. Aware that the rest of the herd were a good distance away in the next glen, we peered through the binoculars trying to work out who it was, finally realising it was Esme!

She seemed delighted to see us, and, wondering if she was looking for the herd, thought we should join her up with them. Whilst we could have hiked over the ridge with her on a headcollar to reunite her with the herd, we wondered if we could save both her energy and ours (of course we were thinking about the fact that she’s an OAP rather than our own tiredness level…) and hop her into the back of the van…

Reindeer in the van
Supervising Esme in the van

Once we’d popped the back seats down to give her some more room, she gave no objections to following us into the van. She must have thought it was a definite upgrade on the usual trailer, with a much better view, and being allowed to munch her way through a bag of feed enroute was also an added bonus! A short 5-minute drive and it was time to emerge at the other car park nearer the herd. There was a car pulled up with a few people admiring the view, and the last thing they must have expected was for a reindeer to hop out of a van! Esme didn’t bat an eyelid at the whole experience, and was quickly reunited with the herd.

Enjoying the snow in her last winter

Esme had a good summer that year high on the Cairngorm free range, but when the females started coming down to lower ground in autumn, she was clearly feeling her years. We moved her over to our Glenlivet hill farm, where she could have access to the large straw-filled barn and ad-lib food in the day, with a gentle stroll onto the hill at night, and she settled right in – she was a funny sight – a little old lady amongst all of the big chunky castrates. She also completely won over the hearts of the men at the farm!

One evening, they went to move out the reindeer onto the open hill for the night, and for the first time, Esme didn’t want to go. With no wish to force her, they let her stay in the shed, and slipped her an extra bucket of lichen. In the morning, she had passed away in her sleep, peacefully tucked up in the straw.

Esme with her yearling daughter Okapi, a proper mini-me

It’s always galling when animals die, but I can’t think of a better end for one of the gentlest reindeer I’ve known. Esme’s family members are still in the herd – her daughter Okapi is a slightly less polite version of her, son Elvis is a dependable but enthusiastic fellow, and sister Sambar is a sweet lass who keeps to herself. All of them share the similar silvery coat colouring, and remind me each time I see them of lovely Esme.

Andi

Differences and Similarities

One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.

Bovril
Bovril in his shaggy old winter coat in June, and looking smart in September

First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.

Olympic
Olympic’s varied coat throughout the same year (2014) – in February, July and September

Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!

Beastie
Young Beastie throughout the same year (2011) – in full winter coat in January, darker summer coat in July, and new winter coat in September

Strudel
Young Strudel throughout the same year (2010) – in old winter coat in May, dark sleek summer coat in August and with new winter coat growing through in September

Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.

Diamond
Diamond as a brown calf with a white forehead, turning silvery later that year, and even lighter as a yearling

Origami
Origami as a calf with a white forehead, and as a silvery white adult

The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.

Caterpillar
Caterpillar with very similar antlers over three consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016.

Puddock
Puddock with his familiar crazy branching antlers over three consecutive years.

There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.

Lulu
Lulu with impressive antlers in 2013, and a rather less impressive set the following year, due to rearing a calf.

Sequin
Beautiful Sequin in her prime with a large set of antlers, and with a simpler set in her old age.

It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!

Andi

A Jolly January!

As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.

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Olly and I leading the reindeer out of the mountain enclosure for the winter. Tiree, my collie, adding another skill to reindeer dogs by carrying a wee bit of reindeer food to help lighten my load.

Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉

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Tiree and Frankie waiting while we go off to feed the reindeer (top left). Fiona leading Okapi with an improvised head collar (top right). Tiree and Sookie doing office work with me (bottom left). Three of the oldest girls in the her – Tambourine (17 years old), Tuppence (16) and Lilac (18).

On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!

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Feeding the herd on a beautiful sunny day with the northern corries in the background (top left). Moskki, Tiree and Murdoch enjoying their mountain runs (top right). Fiona with Moskki in a rucksack as Moski tries to have a lick of an antler while still attached to the reindeer’s head (bottom left). Hill running with the hounds (bottom right).

So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.

Fiona