A Day in The Life of a Herder on Tour

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I thought I’d enlighten readers of a typical day in the life of a reindeer herder on tour.

7.30am: Anyone who knows me will know that I am terrible in the mornings, so my alarm clock is greeted with the usual feeling of utter horror, quickly followed by extreme distress. Fiona (my manager at Reindeer House) will testify that this can last till lunchtime sometimes.

Andi and I (collectively known as team Handi) are on tour with our reindeer once again and are currently right down in Cornwall. This is the furthest afield that we travel and are away from home for 2.5 weeks, the longest time we ever take reindeer on tour for. Home from home just now is a farm near St Austell, when both us and the reindeer have accommodation – but we’ve stayed on two other farms en route down here, and have had several days with no events, so by no means have we travelled all this way in one go.

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Morning boys!

8am: Our event today doesn’t start till late afternoon, so it’s a fairly relaxed start for us. First priority is to check the reindeer, who are all still lying down dozing when we reach them. On this farm they have a lovely large barn with a deep straw bed, and it’s a particularly nice building for them as it is very well ventilated and they can see out at every angle. They also have some very close neighbours here, in the form of several groups of cattle, all of whom couldn’t quite believe their eyes when we led the reindeer into their shed on arrival yesterday!

Paintpot ignoring his inquisitive neighbours

Paintpot ignoring his inquisitive neighbours

Before we feed the reindeer their breakfast, we pop their halters on and lead them out in to a neighbouring field to stretch their legs. There’s a brief bit of galloping about and ‘dancing’ (the reindeer equivalent of a horse bucking), but they soon knuckle down to the more important business of grazing. Grass is far too rich for a reindeer’s diet for them to exist purely on it, but a short spell in a field does them no harm and they enjoy it immensely. Andi and I have the usual team of 6 reindeer with us – 4 castrated males (‘Christmas reindeer’) and two 6-month-old calves. Our team this time consists of Paintpot, Tanner, Sooty, Minute, Nazca and Olmec, and having been away from home for 8 days now, we have got the measure of them all, knowing all their little quirks and the exact pecking order between them.

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Olmec, Nazca and Sooty following us round the fields

They look so relaxed out in the field that we prepare their breakfasts in the barn, but decide to have our own breakfast before bringing them in. It’s a nice secure field so there’s no worries about them deciding to explore the Cornish countryside on their own.

9am: We bring the reindeer in, but as this team are so relaxed, experiment with a laid-back method i.e. we don’t bother putting leadropes on the calves (we are nowhere near a road). They potter along – just the ticket – if only all teams were quite this easy to lead about! They dive into their breakfast bowls with enthusiasm and we leave them to it.

Leading the whole team back to the barn

Leading the whole team back to the barn

Team Handi head inside – at this time of year Reindeer House is in the grip of Christmas chaos, and the staff left at home fight to keep their heads above water amidst (among many other jobs) the adoption packs that require making up in time for Christmas presents. As such, Imogen has emailed us through a list of letters that need writing, and Andi and I just happen to be equipped with headed paper, envelopes and stamps. Fancy that.

2pm: We’ve had a couple of hours off chilling out, but lunch has been had and there’s work to be done. We’re off to a Cornish seaside town today, about an hour’s drive away. We load up the reindeer, and off we go!

3.30pm: We arrive on schedule, and are greeted by the organisers of the event. Our pen is outside a hotel on a grassy area, and there’s a brief delay while they frantically locate some more barriers, the number needed having been lost in translation. This is why we always arrive with plenty of time to spare! I move the lorry around the back of the hotel into its car park, with one of the (male) staff taking it upon himself to ‘help’ me reverse. Have been driving a lorry for years, and have made it all the way here from northern Scotland – can probably just about manage this bit myself, thank you very much…

4pm: The reindeer are on public display before the parade today, so we get them settled into their pen with feed and water, and pop up our info signs. I wangle a couple of cups of tea too, essential for reindeer herders on tour. Well me anyway – Andi’s day was ruined earlier by a coffee machine producing a cup of hot milk without a hint of caffeine to be found. Disaster.

Delighted people looking at the reindeer

Delighted people looking at the reindeer

With a couple of hours to go before the parade Andi goes off to decorate the sleigh, while I man the fort in the pen, chatting to people and handing out leaflets. The reindeer still have their furry noses in their bowls and ignore the fairly large crowd, particularly, it seems to me, all the people hanging over the barriers calling out ‘Rudolph!’…

6.10pm: 20 minutes to go, so it’s time for us to start harnessing. Minute and Paintpot are the chosen sleigh pullers today, so they wear the bigger harnesses, while the ‘back reindeer’ wear smaller body belts and bells. We get a bucket of lichen to keep Olmec, who is the shyer of the two calves, busy while we put his harness on, but it just results in a mugging from the bolder Nazca – who has earned the reputation of ‘small and annoying’ in the last few days! Olmec stands quietly watching the antics of his buddy…

6.20pm: T-minus-10 minutes, so it’s time to put the reindeer ‘into trace’ (attach them to the sleigh). Andi is leading the reindeer at the front today, so it’s my job to clip the various straps to the right places, and make sure everything is correctly connected. Not helped halfway through by having to retrieve Nazca from the other side of the pen, complete with a wreath and set of bells on his head that he’s collected from the front of the sleigh. ‘Small and very annoying’ today, but it gives the crowd a good laugh! I attach his leadrope to the back of the sleigh, and hope he behaves himself. He doesn’t.

Minute and Paintpot all set for the parade

Minute and Paintpot all set for the parade

6.40pm: After a slightly late start (not our fault), we are off! The boys excel themselves to say the least, and are proper pros, ambling along steadily. Nazca even manages to keep his wee antlers to himself for a little while, rather than poking them where they don’t belong: into the decorations, another reindeer, the leadropes, parts of my anatomy. It’s a fairly short parade, so we’re finished by 7pm. Work done for the day, we unharness the boys (while the organisers and hotel staff all take selfies with Nazca!) and repack everything into the lorry.

7.25pm: The reindeer are loaded up, and we set off. A brief stop for fuel, and a short detour in the wrong direction at a roundabout, but we’re back at the farm by 8.30pm. The reindeer are unloaded back into their barn, the cows looking on, and as soon as I pick up the feed bag there’s a chorus of moos, just in case it’s for them. The reindeer are utterly unperturbed.

9pm: Boom! Job done! Dinner is in the oven and pyjamas are on. At this time of year they are the only item of my clothing without a background aroma of reindeer pee. And people think travelling all over Britain on tour with reindeer must be glamorous…

Hen

Christmas Fun

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Well, there’s no escaping it now. There’s only a month until C-day and here at the Centre we are getting geared up for another busy festive season. We have already munched a fair few mince pies and started reviewing the different mulled wine options available from supermarkets (in the evenings!) as we have been doing Christmas events for the past month, but now the Centre is getting her makeover and will be sparkle-tastic for the next few weeks.

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The BBQ shed with her festive lights

Here at the Centre we are still running the daily hill trip at 11am. The numbers on the visits are limited and we are unable to take bookings (because we would probably lose them! and also the weather is too unpredictable) so if you would like to join us on one of our trips please arrive at the Centre nice and early on the morning of your chosen day. We try to take the visit every day but occasionally the weather can be against us and we might have to cancel. If we do then we will post up on Facebook on the morning to let you all know, or you can call to check. If you are planning on joining us just remember that the weather can be pretty fierce and you will be outside for 1.5 hours, maybe more, and there is no shelter up on the hill. Please make sure everyone in your group is dressed up nice and warmly with lots of layers, hats, scarves and gloves and please ensure you all have waterproof coats too. They are not only brilliant for keeping you dry but help to keep the wind out. On that note, waterproof trousers are really helpful too so it’s always a good idea to pack them if you can.

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Our wee tree and board waiting for Christmas wishes

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Sparkly Paddocks

Down here at the Centre, Christmas is exploding. The paddocks will be decorated in our usual over-the-top way and we will have lots of activities for kids to do on the weekends in December and the week running up to Christmas. A chubby man in a red suit will also make an appearance! Of course, we will also have our lovely reindeer to see, so if you don’t fancy a walk into the mountains or if they weather is just a bit too horrible for wee ones, the paddocks are a great alternative, and there is a heated BBQ shed which is lovely and cosy too.

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Prices for our hill trips are £14 for adults, £8 for kids and £11 for concessions.

Paddock prices are £4 for adults, £3 for kids and £3.50 for concessions.

Imogen

 

Memorable reindeer: Amber

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Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.

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Amber in 2007 with her awesome antlers

Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.

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Amber in 2009

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Amber looking out over the hills towards Meall a Bhuachaille

Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!

The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.

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Esme in 2009, with yearling Okapi

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Amber with Sambar on the left, in 2008

Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.

Hen

 

 

 

 

In the beginning…

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Throughout much of the western world, the creation story known is that of Adam and Eve, and perhaps this is the most well-known. The Sámi, however, believe that in the beginning there was only the Sun and the Earth. The Sun was the father, and the Earth the mother, and together they created a Son. The home of the Son of the Sun did not have any females, so he set out on a boat to the land of Giants to find a wife. There, he fell in love (or lust), with the daughter of the blind Giant King. With the help of the daughter, he won a game of finger pulling against her father and earned the right to marry her. They were then intimate, and then sailed away. However, they were pursued by her angry brothers who wanted her back. The couple defeated the brothers with her magical handkerchief and the Son’s hot rays, burning the men to death, essentially. They were married, and she soon gave birth to the ancestors of the Sámi, the Gállá-bártnit, who were hunting sons and passed their hunting knowledge down to the Sámi.

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There aren’t many pictures to go with this blog, so I thought I would just put some pretty reindeer as eye candy. This is the beautiful Wapiti.

The Sun and the Earth also had a daughter, which the Sámi believe came to earth to live with the Sámi. She gave the Sámi their reindeer to herd, and looked after them. When she was on her deathbed, she talked about wanting to see her Father, the Sun, again, because the darkness was coming in and she worried for the Sámi people. The story of the Son is all about optimism for the future, whereas the poem about the Daughter is about uncertainty and the need to pray to ensure the future of the Sámi way of life.

The Evenkis of Russia and China believe that the earth was all water and was not inhabited by people, until a maiden with an eight legged reindeer created the land. All the people lived in heaven, and when she refused to marry an old man, she was cast out of heaven, because such refusal was a great sin to the people in heaven. Her late father had left her one reindeer, an eight legged beast who she took with her when she was banished. She cried and cried, and fell asleep on the reindeer as they flew to earth. When she woke up, she realised her reindeer was not flying, but falling. The reindeer spoke to her, telling her to pull out his fur and throw it into the ocean below. She did as was told and logs appeared. The reindeer landed on the biggest one. He told the girl to tie them together to make a raft, so she did. There they floated on the ocean of earth, fishing with hair from the reindeer’s neck made into nets and loops, until the reindeer grew old.

Realising he would soon die, he told the girl to kill him. She wept, not wanting to kill her only friend, but he warned that if she didn’t she too would die. The girl reluctantly did as the reindeer wished. She lay his skin on the water, and it became land. His fur became forests and his skull became mountains. His lice became wild reindeer and his broken bones turned into crackling thunder. Before she lay down to sleep that night, she placed his heart on her left side and his lungs on her right. His heart became a hero and his lungs a boy and a girl. His last breath became the wind.

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The herd running for food

I hope you’ve enjoyed having a read of these little stories and I hope I have told them well. If you know of any others, tell us in the comments below.

Imogen

Filming reindeer

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They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.

A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.

The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.

In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!

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Fiona starring in Highlands Book

 

When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.

The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.

Tilly

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The “Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart” book

We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.

 

 

The Kincraig Fayre

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Recently we attended the Kincraig Fayre. We threw a few reindeer in the trailer and drove down the road. Kincraig is only 15miles from the centre so we headed out for the afternoon. Kincraig is a small highland village in the Strathspey. Every year we attend the Kincraig fayre and it is a great way to meet some of the local people.

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Preparation for a reindeer event needs to happen first thing in the morning. We need to bring the reindeer down from the hill so we head up first thing to hand pick some friendly reindeer. We decided on four reindeer to bring down from the enclosure. All of our reindeer are trained to walk on a halter. So we shepherd Strudel, Jonas, Cambozola and Aonach into a small pen, where we put a halter on each. We can now walk them along out of the enclosure and down the path to the road. It is quite funny walking a reindeer, imagine you are out walking your dog, now imagine your dog is three feet tall, with giant antlers and wants to eat all the leaves off the trees! Once we are at the road we can load the reindeer into our special transport truck. Then the short drive down to the centre to unload the reindeer into the paddocks where they will spend the time socialising with the tourists and the paddock reindeer until it is time for the fayre.

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So as it happens we decide to load the paddock reindeer into the truck and take them to the fayre for a change of scenery. The paddock reindeer on this day were Fergus, Scrabble, Sooty and Matto. With the reindeer loaded, we gathered some food for them, along with buckets for water. We loaded several hurdles which we will use to build a temporary fence to enclose the reindeer. Down the road we drive, past Loch Morlich and on towards Aviemore before joining the B Road south. We shortly arrive in Kincraig and are greeted with waves and children shouting excitedly “Look, the reindeer are here!”

We spent a lovely afternoon in the sun, speaking with local people about our reindeer. The four reindeer are enclosed on a patch of grass next to the Community Hall. The reindeer curiously wondered around the enclosure munching grass and occasionally allowing people to pat them and feel their warm coats. The reindeer ate plenty of mix and had water to drink, while we made sure to sample the cake and the candy floss. The event passed by without drama. We did keep a pretty close eye on Fergus though as we half expected him to try and jump over the fence. But even Fergus behaved and event came to a close around 4.30pm.

Dave

Summer 2016 Volunteers

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So as many of you know we have various folk who volunteer their time and come and work alongside us. This may be for a week or even slightly longer depending on the circumstances. Often they are doing placement work through university or college but sometimes they just want a change of scenery from their lives as you have read in Sonya’s (3-part) blog!

There are our regulars Paul and Kathleen who have been visiting us for many years now and who try to get up at least once but sometimes a couple of times a year. Paul being an ex-carpenter and joiner comes armed with his tool box and basically fixes everything we break throughout the year. We also aren’t allowed to touch the feed bag as we would get our wrists slapped by him if we did. He keeps it filled to the brim and we don’t even have to fill our own daily bags of feed as they are waiting for us in the morning… We love Paul! Kathleen has been a great supporter and ambassador of our herd for a long time now and when she comes up to visit helps out in our shop and taking guided tours onto the hill… It’s a nice break for the girls and boy (Dave) who do the tours the rest of the time so thank you Kathleen. Caroline also manages to join us all the way from Oxfordshire from time to time to donate her arty skills and good humour.

So they are our yearly regulars but we still get a few others for week placements through the summer. You have read all about Sonya’s time with us. I hope it’s brought great entertainment to your weekly blog reading. Fran (who volunteered with us in 2015) joined us for six weeks gathering data for her dissertation… that’s a whole different blog so I’ll let her explain that one. Beth is another great supporter of the herd and whenever she comes up on holiday with the family always pops by for a day or two to help out. This year she did a whole week with us and ditched the family, they were obviously cramping her style! It was great having her around and we have all noticed a big change from the first time she came along till now, she has grown into a very independent young lady.

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Sonya helping Hen to train Gandi and some other boys

Joe was with us in May and is a relation from Tilly’s side of the family. Along with Blyth, Leander, Erin and Shannon, he was looking to gain more experience within the animal industry to further his career. Amy came to us in August and for those of you who know the history behind our herd, you will recognise the name Dr Lindgren. Amy is Dr Lindgren’s great granddaughter, so it seems it still runs in the blood. Emm, like Beth, has been a supporter of the herd through our adoption scheme for many years. Her enthusiasm and hard work glowed! She knew most of the reindeer by name after only one week of working with them, and her herd list had notes all over it to help her recognise their individual features… Puts any reindeer herder who doesn’t know their reindeer to shame!

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From L-R: Fiona, Blyth and Beth

I’m sure they all have their individual story to tell of their week, maybe many! And we always try to encourage them to take their very own guided tour by the end of the week. After they have heard all our bad jokes and cool reindeer facts they can then pass that onto the public in their own way. Most of them managed to do this, even Leander whose first language was German so good for him!

But I also just want to say thanks to them all as well. Having that extra pair of hands is great and I hope their time spent here was fun as well as informative. They do all this hard work during their time here yet, without fail there is always a box of chocolates (or other cake goodness) left on the table from them to us at the end. Seems the wrong way around, it should be us giving them the treats but hey who are we to complain… don’t let that comment stop any future chocolate/cake giving!

Fiona