How does Svalbard get his name?


Each year all the calves are named in September after spending the first four months of their lives free-ranging in the Cairngorms. Every year we select a theme to name the calves by. In 2011 the theme was “Games and Past Times”; as a result we have Scrabble, Rubiks, Rummy, Origami, Monopoly, Puzzle and Jenga amongst others.

However, as with any rule there is always an exception and Svalbard, also born in 2011, is the odd one out for that year!

Svalbard is currently in our Hill Enclosure here in the Cairngorms and, because of his large white nose (not to mention his fondness for food), he often stands out leading visitors on our Hill Trips to ask what his name is. This has prompted me to answer the question, why is Svalbard, called Svalbard?!

 To fully answer I’m going to first take us to the Arctic Ocean and the archipelago of Svalbard itself…


You talkin’ about me?!

The Svalbard archipelago of Norway is found in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Svalbard is an incredibly wild place with a land area of 61,022 km2 and a human population of only around 2700 (for comparison Scotland’s land area is 77,933 km2). Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers! The islands are home to only a few species of mammal which include polar bear, Arctic fox and its own subspecies of reindeer, called the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus).


Svalbard is located in the Arctic Ocean. Map from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer has inhabited this harsh wilderness, and has been geographically isolated from other reindeer for over 5000 years. As a result they have become very well adapted to the particular landscape and roam on nearly all non-glaciated areas of the archipelago. The Svalbard reindeer wins the award for being the most northerly living herbivore mammal in the world!


A wild Svalbard landscape. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer is the smallest subspecies of all reindeer and caribou. Bulls average 65-90kg in weight, and cows between 53-70kg compared with our Cairngorm reindeer where bulls can weigh 150kg. Svalbard reindeer are very distinctive for having short faces and short legs, making them appear ‘dumpy’. They also have a very think, long winter coat. The long coat also contributes to their short-legged appearance and even starved individuals can appear fat in the winter!


A Svalbard bull with tiny legs! Photo from Wikipedia.

Svalbard reindeer may make short altitudinal movements, or slightly longer inter-island journeys across the sea ice but they are mostly sedentary and therefore have low energy demands. The lack of migration could be a reason why they have evolved short legs, also helping them have conserve heat with a smaller surface area.

However, don’t let their short legs deceive you! They can reach speeds of up to 60 km an hour on a good running surface, giving them the ability to out run a polar bear, the only predator they face on Svalbard (apart from man).

Unlike the majority of Reindeer on the Norwegian mainland the Svalbard Reindeer have not been domesticated, and also do not live in large herds but tend to be solitary or stay in small groups.


Svalbard reindeer, with proportionally shorter legs. Photo from Wikipedia.


Not sure what our Scottish lassies would make of these fellas! Photo from Wikipedia.

I’m digressing, so back to our Scottish Svalbard…


Back to me… finally!

Svalbard was born on the free-range in May 2011 to Arnish, as a result his exact birthday is unknown. Arnish and young Svalbard were not seen between July and October that year, until Svalbard turned up by himself  in October at the Hill Enclosure, without his mother, who was sadly not seen again.

When this orphaned calf turned up, he was given a name according to the theme for that year. But the herders at the time kept commenting on how dumpy and short-legged he was; as a result he was quickly nick-named “the Svalbard reindeer”. Before too long, the name stuck and he’s been Svalbard ever since! Thankfully for him, he lost his stocky proportions and we now have a handsome reindeer with a big personally!

This whole blog was basically an excuse to show some cute photographs of a young Svalbard (and to research a future holiday destination!) so here come the pictures…


Svalbard with his mother, Arnish (who never grew antlers). Looks like he’s got pretty long legs here!


Svalbard – perhaps I can see the short legs here?


Svalbard in his gangly teenage phase?


Svalbard as a young bull in 2013 with his obvious white nose.





Why the reindeer loves its mushrooms


For those of you who forage, or for those of you who are naturalists, or even for those of you who aren’t, you’ll know that now is the time for mushrooms. The reindeer know this too, and they have long clocked into the secret of where the best places are, and at this time of year they can be found down in the woods, where all the best mushrooms grow.


Spotted you!

Reindeer can eat mushrooms that are poisonous to us, and will even seek them out. They have a trick to this that is shared by many other ruminants – having four stomachs and a specialised form of digestion.

Reindeer digestion works as follows:

  • The reindeer eats a lot of food very quickly and stores it in its first stomach.
  • The reindeer brings the eaten food back up to its mouth and chews it (chewing the cud) then swallows it into stomach number 2. Stomach number 2 contains many microorganisms which can break down the plant material in a way in which us mammals can’t.
  • The reindeer brings the food back up into the mouth and chews it a third time. Now the food is mixed with microorganisms and the reindeer chews them all up too. Yummy. The food is then swallowed into stomach 3.
  • Stomach number 3 absorbs all the water from the food and passes it onto stomach number 4, which is similar to our stomach and contains lots of acid to break the food down further.
  • Food passes into the intestines and all the goodness from the food and the chewed microorganisms is absorbed.

The complicated stomach of a reindeer, with four stomachs. The rumen, the largest of the four, contains the microorganisms which break down food for the reindeer. Diagram from Wikipedia.

This incredible process means that the microorganisms living in the stomach deal with all the mushroom poisons, and the reindeer gets off scot free. It also means that reindeer can live off of lichen over the winter, when no other food is available, giving them a big advantage over other animals.


A carpet of lichen provides a tasty snack for a mother and calf, all thanks to fantastic digestion abilities.

So with the poisons all gone, the reindeer is free to enjoy the mushroom (and any of its other properties!). One of their favourites is the Fly Agaric, the traditional ‘Christmas mushroom’, with its red cap and white spots, and hallucinogenic chemicals. This we believe is sometimes the culprit for any missing reindeer that we find later on in the day, sleeping soundly beside a pile of chewed stems!


A beautiful arrangement of Fly Agarics. Photo from Wikipedia.




All Silent On The Hill


All silent on the hill – just the wind, maybe a raven overhead. Then, in amongst the herd, surrounded by soft clicking as the reindeer move around us. Easy to stand with eyes closed and hear how they move, where they are, feeling a timeless sense of ‘reindeer-ness’ that stretches way over the northern lands. Imagining the clicking in a white-out in the winter, wind howling but always hearing where each other are. It’s a reassuring herd message, effortless on the reindeer’s part and made by their hooves.

One of the herd here is leucistic – a white coloured reindeer named Blue (born in a cheese-themed naming year). Blue is also deaf, so doesn’t hear the clicking. One day I saw Blue wandering off alone, and wondered how the herd relates to him, a herd member who doesn’t respond to the kind of reindeer body language and communication that is shared by the clicking. Like, if there’s the need to run, Blue may not hear how the clicking speeds up around him. It’s not a problem here – there’s no danger to run from, and the herd live out their lives to the full and any unusual behaviour is noticed straight away.


How does Blue think?

The path up to the herd goes over the Utsi bridge – named after Mikel Utsi, the Sami reindeer herder who introduced and established the first herd here back in the 1950s. Before then, the Cairngorms hadn’t seen reindeer for perhaps 1000 years, and way before then, it would have been in the Ice Age climates that the reindeer really thrived across the land. Mikel Utsi died in 1979 and the bridge was rebuilt at that time and named after him. His name is carved into a large granite boulder by the bridge and we pass this boulder many times each day. For me it’s a very special thing – this boulder probably came here with the glaciers as the landscape was formed, and there’s an odd sense of completeness with the Ice Age, the boulder, Mikel Utsi and the reindeer.

Why did I come here? – well, I wanted to understand reindeer better by being around them and amongst them. I’ve had a long term passion with Ice Age cave paintings and carvings, and have dealt with antler (mainly from Scottish red deer) as part of what I do. I work as Leaf Trading Post, supplying antler and prehistoric materials to flint knappers, museums and the like. I also work as Helen Leaf Designs, which is where I create beautiful things inspired by nature and prehistory. I work with antler, wood, silver and bronze. I’m interested in the traditional carving of Inuit and Maori peoples, but I try to work in a way that’s true to myself rather than just copy another culture.

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I love working with antler of all kinds, but reindeer antler is special as it ties me in to the prehistoric images that inspire me so much. I’ve learnt so much about reindeer in my week here – kind of like reconnecting with my own Ice Age self. So now, when I carve a reindeer into antler, I understand more of the face, the antlers, the muzzle, and the lines of colour and shape. I can also recall the feel of their fur, the soft calling between mother and calf, and yes, the clicking of the hooves as the herd passes.


When the cats are away…


For those of you who have been up on our hill trips you will know that we carry hessian sacks of reindeer food up with us each day. We do this partially to ensure we don’t over graze our hill enclosure and partially as a bribe so we know the reindeer will show up on our visits (it wouldn’t be quite the same without them). Over the past few weeks I have noticed less and less reindeer food in my sack and more and more down the back of my t shirt. After repeatedly tying up holes in the bag we decided to get to the route of the problem! Mice!


The bottom of our food holding bin, with the mices’ snacks.


The two thieves!

We found these two lovely mice in the bottom of the bins where we keep the food in the hill enclosure. They must have been living in absolute heaven, more food than they could eat in a life time. Unless I wanted my job title to change from reindeer herder to full time sack darner we needed to get those mice out. At this point Olly gave me a choice, either we could catch the Mice and move them far enough away that they wouldn’t find their way home or we could more permanently remove them from the bin (in the quickest, kindest and most humane way possible). Have spent my whole life a vegetarian I of course opted for the first option.

At the end of our hill trip Julia and I (assisted by Chris and Geri) attempted to catch the mice. After first making sure to punch breathing holes in the top of a shortbread tin we attempted to get both mice inside. This was more difficult than anticipated but eventually we succeeded.


Our first-class mice transporter.

We thought that if we put a fair bit of mountain and a river in between the mice and the feed bin they would be unlikely to return so we decided to drive them to the Ciste car park (slightly further up the ski road than our hill enclosure).


The 2 mice, at the end of the trip, before their release into the big bad world.

Upon opening the tin we found they were both alive and well. They stayed in the tin for just long enough for us to take a photo before scampering off through the undergrowth. I think that will be the last time we see those mice but secretly I hope it’s not, they were so sweet!


Bye for now!


A Recovery Mission


Whilst many of our visitors come and meet some of our reindeer, mostly the males, in our hill enclosure, it’s great to remember that our herd all get to free-range for part of the year. The males, who are a little lazy at times and can’t be relied on to actually go and be reindeer, rather than hanging out on the car parks, do most of their free-ranging on the Cromdale mountains (which are a little more isolated) over the winter months – December-May. The females, however, are out and about for most of the year on the Cairngorms. Their range is vast, with our leased land covering thousands of acres on the high ground.

When they reach the boundary though, there is no fence, nothing to stop them, so on occasion a small group of reindeer will wander a little further than they should. Thankfully most of our neighbours are pretty understanding, and we do our best to retrieve any “wanderers” as soon as possible. So it was that Fiona and I set off on a showery morning across to Glen Feshie, where we’d received a report of some of our girls hanging out on one of the hills. Glen Feshie is perhaps eight miles away from the hill enclosure, as the crow flies – a thirty minute drive by road.


The beautiful rolling hills at Glen Feshie

First up, we spied at the hills using a telescope from a good vantage point, and it was only a minute before Fiona spotted a reindeer, then two, then three. Fantastic! It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack at times, so we were off to a good start! We then drove to the car park and set off walking up the track through the woods, an easy trail to follow but all uphill. Fiona has been keeping pretty fit with lots of running recently, whereas I have not, so I was certainly feeling my inferior fitness! We had Tiree with us, Fiona’s dog, who we can use to push the reindeer in the right direction if necessary. She was bouncing around, full of energy and excited about being somewhere new!

It took us about 45 minutes to get clear of the trees, but once we were, we quickly spotted the naughty reindeer just a few hundred metres ahead. They were loving the good grazing and plentiful lichen – no wonder they’d decided it was a good spot to hang out. Time for a plan of action! We left Tiree waiting off to one side, blending perfectly into the hillside, and I skirted round towards the females, shaking a small bag of feed and calling. Three heads shot up in the air, suspicious, but it wasn’t long before one decided I was friend not foe and started making her way over, swiftly followed by the others. Peering at each, we identified them as Fern, Cailin and Clootie. Fiona was close behind me with three headcollars tucked into her jacket, and it was perhaps the easiest time either of us had ever had catching females: offer bag of food, reindeer nose goes in, arm round neck, headcollar on. Within 2 minutes we had our three lassies on headcollars, looking slightly betrayed by their greed! Of course when we got back we told a slightly different tale to the other herders, about how they were only captured due to our extreme skill and herding prowess (which wasn’t believed for a second…).


Fern and Clootie couldn’t quite believe what their greed had done to them


Fiona delighted that we’d been prepared and brought food


Lunch with a view!

Before starting down, we sat and had a spot of lunch (the reindeer too), admiring the view, then Fiona went on ahead with Tiree back to the car park (reindeer and dogs not being a good mix as they resemble wolves, their natural predator) and I pottered along behind with the reindeer.


Fiona then ran back up to join me and help with the girls, who didn’t seem too fussed by the unexpected change to their day, and were enjoying all of the mushrooms alongside the track – especially Cailin!


Cailin tucking in to a path-side mushroom

With only one quick detour off the path to avoid a hillwalker with a dog, we soon reached the car park, and about two minutes later Tilly arrived with the cattle truck to transport the reindeer back to the right side of the mountains.



Thirty minutes later, we pulled up beside the road, led the girls back out and up to our hill enclosure for the night, where they enjoyed a good feed (hopefully reminding them that it’s a good area to stay near!), before going back out to free range the next day. Hopefully they’ll now stay in the area they are meant to be in!




A Visitor’s View


Once or twice each day, we take a group of people up the hill to see the reindeer in their natural habitat. Many people cannot believe how friendly and inquisitive (and often greedy!) they are, and it can be wonderful for us to see visitors’ reactions to these wonderful creatures.

Its interesting for us to hear how our visitors percieve the hill trip, and so this week, our blog post comes not from us, but from a blog written by a couple of our visitors. Click on this link to view the post on the ‘Find Yourself Lost’ blog by John and Holly.

The photos capture incredibly well the natural beauty and wildness of the Cairngorms, and we thank John and Holly for their willingness for us to share their post.



Memorable reindeer of the past: Minstrel


Having been brought up with the reindeer I have had numerous favourites during that time, one of which was Minstrel. He was a dark coloured male and born in 1998 into the sweetie and chocolates theme. I was 11 when he was born. I remember when he was just 1-2 years old he became quite unwell but with lots of TLC and extra lichen he pulled through and made a full recovery. I think having spent this time with him getting better I grew a soft spot for him.

He was a very greedy reindeer which meant he was also super tame… especially as he had the extra handling when he was unwell. If he ever got his head in the bag of food it was an absolute mission to get it back out again! When he got to the age of 4 he became a Christmas reindeer and from the moment we trained him to harness and pulling the sleigh he was an absolute pro! For many years we would call on his expertise to help train new Christmas reindeer who were learning the ropes.

Minstrel 2

Minstrel taking a wee rest amid the rest of the herd, probably digesting all that food…

Minstrel went from being young to old, there never seemed to be a middle part. So even though he was middle aged for a long time he was always referred to as an ‘old boy’! On Christmas events he would take part in a parade, whether it be pulling the sleigh or walking at the back being the perfect role model, then as soon as the team went into a display pen Minstrel would eat his food (or mainly all the lichen off the top of all the food bowls) then take position right in the middle of the bed of straw for the next couple of hours. He has even been known to completely fall asleep, mid event, out on his side even with a potential snore in there!

Minstrel adopt 09

Look at all the lichen under his feet!

He had a lovely nature and lived to a good age. He would eat anything offered to him, even a banana flapjack as someone once witnessed. He is one of those legend reindeer we will always talk fondly and forever compare other reindeer if they are misbehaving, wishing they would be more like him.