How reindeer herding changes me

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My name is Emm Cassidy and I come and volunteer at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre for a week at a time which happens normally about once or twice a year.

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I live in the county of Worcestershire in a little village called Astwood Bank with my mum and dad. I am normally a very anxious and shy person who gets mentally tired very easily. It takes me more time to process things  e.g. what is being said to me. I have a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome. It also affects how I interact with people and I find it very hard socializing. I normally work as Teaching Assistant at a local school teaching children to read or helping the children who have special education needs, but usually can only work part time as full time work is too much for me.

However, when I get into Reindeer House and become a reindeer herder, I become a totally different person. Being at Reindeer House is brilliant; the herders are like my second family. Everyone is so friendly and it is like seeing your very old friends again and I fit in perfectly.

It is a very special feeling and I feel I am understood. I feel I don’t have the same challenges as normal, and that I can be myself with the herders – even saying jokes and speaking much more than I normally do at home. The reindeer herders bring the best out of me and my mum and dad are amazed with the change in me.

I really love reindeer and everything I do as a reindeer herder has given me so much more confidence.

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The changes in me are huge. As a reindeer herder I do things that I can’t do at home.

These include:

  • Working 9 hours a day every day for 7 days
  • Being around and speaking to large groups of new people
  • Being myself at reindeer house and not masking how I am feeling
  • Trying new things, going into new situations and adapting to changes in the life of a reindeer herder
  • Answering the phone
  • Taking parts of the tour, explaining things to a group of new people
  • Being able to say if I am confused or don’t understand an instruction or don’t know what to do
  • Working in a team and feeling comfortable and confident
  • Going out for a meal with my colleagues

My time at reindeer house this time was in my October half term for a week. The Saturday and Sunday was the 65th Adopters Weekend which was very busy and had lots of activities going on during both days (see last week’s blog). This included one day at the reindeer centre and one day at Tilly’s and Alan’s farm. It was a very special and lovely weekend meeting different adopters and hearing their stories and finding out who they adopt. I felt very honoured to help out and even had my own name badge!

Afterwards, me and the reindeer herders went out for a meal at Glenmore Lodge to celebrate which Tilly had treated us to it to say a massive thank you for working hard at the 65th Adopters Weekend!

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Our lovely meal out at Glenmore Lodge with some of the reindeer herders.

A couple of examples of reindeer herding duties, that I really improved on:

Teamwork and Achievement

After a hill visit, me and Morna went to the bottom of Silver Mount as the female reindeer Chelsea and her calf Shakespeare didn’t want to come in with the herd.  Shakespeare also looked thin and had a history of having a leg injury.

When we got to the bottom of Silver Mount, Chelsea wasn’t interested in the food Morna had. Chelsea is a very shy reindeer and has a wild side to her. So the only option was to herd Chelsea and Shakespeare to the tempory holding pen. Firstly we herded them through the gate into the bottom bit of the East Enclosure. By using our body language, speed and movement, me and Morna herded them across the East Enclosure. It was very breath-taking as one false move could startle them and they could have ran off into the wrong direction. I felt like a sheep dog and I found it amazing that we managed to herd them where we wanted them to be by just using ourselves.  Morna and me were so happy and felt we have both achieved such a massive thing, it was such a very special feeling.

After getting Chelsea and Shakespeare in to the tempory pen, we had to take Shakespeare’s temperature as he looked thin and didn’t come in with the rest of the herd. That could be a sign that a reindeer is poorly. Earlier that day I had learnt to take a reindeer’s temperature and I had taken Bovril’s temperature with Morna’s help whilst Olly held Bovril in place. But now came the real test.

Catching a calf who has a mother who has a wild side could be difficult. Both of them wasn’t interested with the food Morna had so Morna decided to put the food on the floor. Morna managed to get close to Shakespare and then get hold of him. It was up to me to independently find Shakespeare’s bottom hole to put the thermometer in so we can find out his temperature. I managed to do it and held the theomter in place till it beeped which meant it was ready. I felt a huge sense of achievement and was so proud of myself.

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Happy faces after a successful morning with Morna on the hill!

Having an Audience of Lots of People

I have never done a sleigh training session with the reindeer so I was excited to see how it was all done. For part of the Adoption Weekend, I helped out with 2 sleigh training sessions.

I helped to catch the reindeer in the paddocks and I led the male reindeer North out. There were lots of people waiting to watch the sleigh training session. I felt a bit nervous of the amount of people but it was ok as we had the reindeer and I was there to help and learn. It was lovely to see the people’s reactions when they saw the reindeer getting their harnesses on and then pulling the sleigh which then relaxed me.

I passed the harnesses to Fiona and Tilly who put them on the reindeer. I got to hold 2 reindeers lead ropes whilst the harnesses were being put on. I then tied North to the back of the sleigh. Bovril was being a bit stubborn pulling the sleigh so I walked behind him and Fiona had taught me to touch his tail to get him moving again if he stopped. Tilly and Fiona taught me how to detached the reindeer from the front of the sleigh and then attach them to the sleigh and also take the harnesses on and off.

I also got a turn of being behind the sleigh with 2 reindeer and also led the sleigh which was such an amazing feeling. It was so brilliant being part of the sleigh training team doing a display to show how we train the Christmas Reindeer.

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Me leading a sleigh, giving rides to 6 children!

Answering the phone

I also tried to get my confidence up with answering the phone which I find terrifying as I don’t know who is at the other end.  If I am not sure what to say, I now know I can pass the phone on to someone else. I decided to give it as go a few times.

The first time was an enquiry about the 11am hill trip. Unfortunately I had to tell them that it was fully booked and that we couldn’t take any more cars on as we had 30 cars going. I also told them that there was a paddock talk which was happing in the paddocks at 11am. Olly had heard me on the phone and said afterwards I was a superstar. He said that I said what I had to say about the hill visit being booked up.

The second time I answered the phone, it was a person asking for Fiona who wasn’t working that day. I told the person that Fiona wasn’t working and that I could take a message or a name and number.

New People and Busy Groups

I normally find meeting new people and busy crowds terrifying. The groups we take up to see the reindeer are quite busy and are full of new people.

I found it scary on my first day the first time with the amount but then I got use to it. Taking people up to see the reindeer is amazing as some people haven’t seen reindeer before. I love seeing people’s reactions when they see the reindeer or are hand feeding them and it is so lovely being part of their magical experencice being with the reindeer.

As everyone loved reindeer, I found it so much easier to relate to people. It is great as I could answer their questions and it was lovely to see people’s reactions when I had taught them some new facts about reindeer!

It was so interesting to find out where people had come from as lot was in Scotland on holiday. One trip, I found out a family lived near me and I found out that they have the same dentist as me! It is such a small world!

In the past I have taken part of the tour and given the starter talk and the herd history talk to the hill visit people. A very massive achievement for me which gave me lots of confidence.

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A large group on the tour, stopped down at Utsi bridge to listen to Dave.

Being around the reindeer and being around the brilliant company at reindeer house brings the best out of me and makes my anxiety go away and makes my thoughts more manageable. It makes me reach goals and achievements which would be harder for me to achieve at home.

I feel I can relate to life and things become less daunting for me! I become a happier person too! It is also like living my mindfulness which I do a lot of at home!

It is such a very special feeling when you have a herd of reindeer following you up the board walk whilst carrying their breakfast on your back or a herd of reindeer running down the mountain towards you responding to your call as they know that you have got their breakfast to give them!

I learn so much from everyone at reindeer house about handling reindeer, being around reindeer and dealing with people. It makes me realise the good in life and makes me realise that I can achieve things when I push myself!

Fiona said people come and people go from reindeer house but reindeer house is always an open door for everyone and that everyone is welcome back anytime!

On my last day I was really sad to leave and it was so hard to say goodbye to everyone, Mo (my adopted reindeer), the reindeer and dogs! Fiona said that Mo, the reindeer, the dogs and everyone will be waiting for me to come back again which will be hopefully soon!

Emm

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Adopter’s 65th Anniversary Weekend: Part 2

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Adopters and reindeer relaxing in the garden (Photo by Andi Probert)

Here’s a wee round up of day two of our 65th Anniversary weekend…

After a good night’s kip we were all up bright and early (well, early at least, not sure about the bright!) for another day of fun, this time over at our Glenlivet hill farm. We have a second base there, about an hour’s drive from the Reindeer Centre, where some of our male reindeer spend the summer months, and which also gives us access to the Cromdale mountains for brilliant winter grazing.

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Hamish looking at the view (Photo by Barbara Butters)

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It’s a tough life! (Photo by Andrew Smith)

Hen and myself headed straight over to help Tilly set up at the farm, collecting some fallen branches covered with lichen for visitors to feed to our reindeer on the way. We arrived to find everything already looking quite organised, but the first big job was to move some of the reindeer from their normal daytime area – a sloping field with access to a large airy barn – down to the garden ready to meet their adopters. Hen was primed with a list of which reindeer had someone coming to see them, and we both made our way through the reindeer, who were munching away at their breakfast, popping head collars on the first 10, who we distributed between the various helpers we had, before we led them down the yard and let them loose in the fenced garden. The reindeer thought this was thoroughly exciting, and Blue in particular went leaping and bucking off down the hill! We went back for a second run, and a partial third run, before leaving the shier and older reindeer to relax in the peaceful barn for the day.

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Reindeer socialising in the garden (Photo by Yvonne Bannister)

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Aye Coffee providing caffeine and sugar to keep everyone warm! (Photo by Andi Probert)

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Happy iron age pigs delighted to have fresh ground to root around in

By now, much to my delight, Aye Coffee had arrived to provide me with my vital caffeine intake for the day and were setting up their van, Derek was prepping the meat for the BBQ (low food miles indeed!) and Alan had moved a group of the Iron Age pigs down to a pen near the garden for the day, which they were cheerfully rooting up. Alan then quickly made himself scarce, not to be seen for the rest of the day (probably busy running up a hill somewhere!). The first adopters were arriving and the drizzle was just starting to dry up. There was a roaring fire going in the BBQ hut, which was the perfect antidote to any chilly fingers.

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Lovely toasty BBQ hut(/sauna!)

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Derek (background) serving up burgers and sausages from the farm.

As adopters arrived, we tracked down reindeer for them and made introductions. October is peak rutting season, so all of our young bulls were in a separate pen, and we mostly headed in ourselves and brought adopted reindeer down to meet their adopters at the gate, to save anyone accidentally getting caught between teenage bulls who were full of hormones!

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Young bulls tussling.

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Feeding lichen lollipops to greedy reindeer! (Photo by Andi Probert)

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“I’ll have that!” says Scrabble

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Oryx meeting his adopters

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Spider delighted to meet adopters! (Photo by Linda Hoejland)

In the garden, everyone was handing out lichen lollipops, and the reindeer were very relaxed – by the afternoon most of them were lying down fast asleep between groups of visitors. Tilly had arranged tractor and trailer tours, but had underestimated their popularity, so the first tour was one tractor and trailer, but by the last tour there was a progression of tractor and trailer, landrover, and quad bike and trailer! Despite our slight lack of organisation with them, everyone seemed to have a blast and most people who wanted to go on it did (possibly with the exception of myself!).

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One of the tractor and trailer tours setting off (Photo by Carola de Raaf)

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Inquisitive red deer hinds and calves (Photo by Colin Brazier)

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Beautiful setting for our red deer herd (Photo by Andrew Smith)

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There was even cake!

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Busy making badges to show who their adopted reindeer is.

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Highland cattle wondering what on earth is going on! (Photo by Yvonne Bannister)

By 4pm, the BBQ was finished, the coffee van packing away, and the last adopters were heading home. There wasn’t too much to do except pack away the information boards, run the reindeer from the garden back up to the hill, lead the herd up onto the open hill for the night, and feed the bulls. And then, most importantly, head out for a celebratory meal ourselves! (Thanks Tilly!)

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Puddock bonding with herders Fiona and Morna (Fiona just may have been plaiting his beard…)

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Reindeer licking lichen off the walls! (Photo by Joanne Jewers)

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It’s all too much for Moose! He was mid-dream at this point!

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One of this year’s hand-reared red deer calves (Photo by Kirstin Kerr)

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Big pig! (Photo by Yvonne Bannister)

We certainly had a lovely weekend, and great to meet so many people (old friends and new). We hope you all enjoyed yourselves too. We’ll do it all again for our 70th (once we’ve forgotten how much organisation it all took…)

Andi

Adopters’ Open Day at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre

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Back in 2012, when we got to the 60th year of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, we thought we ought to mark the occasion in some way. Therefore, in the October of that year, we ran a special weekend aimed at all our amazing reindeer adopters, who show us so much support from year to year, and without whom we couldn’t continue in the way we do today. As the weekend finally rolled around, the sun shone, the adopters flocked our way and everything ran like a dream. And somehow, somehow, the stress of organising such a big event (bang in the middle of the run up to our hectic Christmas season) faded into the past… So in March this year, when Tilly announced that as we were 65 years old now we should do a similar event, I blithely said “Ok Tilly! Whatever you say, Tilly.” More fool me.

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About a week later, I realised that I was going to have to be in charge of the organisation. The Sunday at the farm could mainly be left to Tilly, but the Saturday here at Reindeer House was going to be mostly my domain – whether I liked it or not – with Andi as my trusty sidekick. Heather organised the 2012 do, but isn’t working here anymore; Fiona would be far too busy organising the annual Christmas tour; and all the other staff have started here much more recently. Damn. Even just choosing the weekend proved problematical. It had to be October, but the ‘usual’ weekend clashed with the Aviemore Half-Marathon, and another clashed with the Craggy Island Triathlon, where half the staff decamp to each year. The weekend before, at the very beginning of the month? Tilly’s first grand-child would be due then… It would have to be the 21st and 22nd (ironically, the baby then resolutely refused to put in an appearance until 2.5 weeks after his due date, meaning Tilly’s son Alex had bigger fish to fry by the time we got to the Open Day. Granny Smith (haha) is delighted though).

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Bumble making a new friend!

The spring and summer passed in a hectic haze of the usual reindeer related activities and millions of visitors, and we managed to get the Save the Date cards out, and then the general info out with the June newsletters. Thankfully Heather had done a great job of organising everything the first time around and much of the stuff was still filed away on the computers here, just need updating a bit. As time passed I started to get more and more twitchy, and in the final couple of weeks was starting to sweat a little. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not always the calmest under pressure! I started making lists, and delegating left, right and centre, but gradually it all started to come together. It probably helped that I had a couple of days off in the week running up to the event, although I did insist on working on Fri 20th to save everyone from a day of answering the phone the find a squawking Hen on the other end, worrying about whether such and such had been done yet! But everyone here was absolutely awesome, and I needn’t have worried at all as everything came together perfectly. In fact I was barely needed…

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The back shed all ready for the big day

We opened at 8.30am on the Saturday, and started off the day with a Hill Trip at 9am, followed by another at 11am. All the reindeer who had visitors coming were in the nearest part of the enclosure (the ‘Bottom Corridor’), which made life easier without having to trail around all over the various parts of the enclosure to show everyone ‘their’ reindeer. Kota, the breeding bull on the hill, still in full rut mode, was just over a fence with his girls and ensured that everyone got to see just how impressive he was as he grunted at anything that moved, peed on his legs and charged about…and tried to climb the fence once or twice. Eeek. Thankfully he remained the right side of the fence all day long.

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Kota looking super handsome! Photo: Belinda Beattie

Down at the Reindeer Centre, sleigh training demonstrations were in full swing, and everyone could try their hand at lassoing, Sami-style (not on a real reindeer but rather on a skull mounted on a post!). We had set up a little marquee beside the shop to provide some cover in case of awful weather, so lots of people parked themselves in there with a tea or a coffee and caught up with old friends, or made new ones! Visitors could also walk to Utsi’s Hut, the wee cabin in the woods built from the crates the first reindeer arrived in back in 1952, and Fiona did a special hill run in the afternoon up Meall a Bhuachaille behind Reindeer House, with everyone guessing her time for a donation towards the Everest Marathon Fund. Overall, there was a lovely atmosphere and it was all very relaxed, with people pottering around and just enjoying being here. And the weather was relatively kind to us too! It was mild, not windy, and only a little bit of rain at times…

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In the afternoon we trialled an ‘Open Hill’ system where visitors collected their tickets and maps, and made their own way to the hill enclosure, to be met by a herder on the gate, and a couple of herders in with the reindeer who could show them who was who and answer any questions. This seemed very popular too, although the weather deteriorated a bit as the afternoon went on.

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Fiona and Tilly doing a sleigh training demo. Photo: Barbara and Martin Butters

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Fiona setting off on her hill run! Photo: Belinda Beattie

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Reindeer harnessed up and ready!

And then on to Tilly’s talks at Glenmore Lodge! She ran one at 5pm and another at 6pm, and both went very well apart from some technical issues with the powerpoint, meaning some of the photos didn’t show up. This probably made the 6pm talk a little smoother, as at least she was prepared for the issues! Tilly also played a wonderful 20 minute film made in the 50s for the BBC about Mikel Utsi, the man who started it all, bringing reindeer back to their rightful home in Scotland after a 2000 year absence – thankfully the technology gods were with us for this one and it played fine!

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Tilly’s talk at Glenmore Lodge. Photo: Belinda Beattie

So all in all it was a wonderful day, but most thanks must go to our wonderful reindeer adopters, who give us so much support from year to year. We all went home exhausted on Saturday evening, but the fun didn’t stop there as most folks met up again the following day over at our farm, along with a few new faces too who hadn’t made it to the Saturday. But the blog does stop here, as Sunday’s write up can wait for another week!

Although first here’s some more photos…enjoy!

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Enjoying a walk to Utsi’s Hut. Photo: Matt and Toni O’Gorman

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Paintpot (and LX) meets one of his adopters! Photo: Martin and Barbara Butters

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Oatcake

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Tilly and Fiona. Photo: Clare Stokes

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Strudel and North. Photo: Carola de Raaf

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Kara meets her adopter Candice! Photo: Candice Bell

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Santa’s little helpers! Photo: Candice Bell

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Making friends on the hill. Photo: Belinda Beattie

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Sooty and his adopter. Photo: Belinda Beattie

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Jonas and Fiona

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First glimpse of Utsi Hut (Photo by Karen Sinclair)

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Utsi’s Hut. Photo: Martin and Barbara Butters

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Welcome to the hut! (Photo by Karen Sinclair)

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Sookie tried to go home with someone! Photo: Martin and Barbara Butters

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Cheer

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All too much for some reindeer by the end of the day! Photo: Belinda Beattie

Boomerang reindeer

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After all summer wandering out on the free range, the females come back to the enclosure and we check them and separate who we need for the rut and who can go back out. This year, three of the girls going back out were Sambar, Okapi, and Cailin. They have been known to return occasionally, and this is the story of one time where the toublesome trio turned up almost daily and would be outside the enclosure and need to be pushed out..

Take 1: 30th September 12:30pm ish

Morna and I had just finished the hill trip and were checking the reindeer in the other enclosures, where there were bulls and cows.

“Silver mount – fine, top corridor – fine, bottom corridor – three extra?”

Okapi, Sambar, and Cailin had waited outside the gate used their big brown eyes and fluttered their eyelashes to trick an unsuspecting visitor to let them in, much to Bandy’s delight. We separated them and pushed them back out on the hill.

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Bandy and his herd of girls

Take 2: 3rd October  08:20am

Hen, Andi, and myself  checked the roads in the morning as we always do, and found Okapi and Cailin standing at the side of the road staring down in to the enclosure like a golden eagle on a levrit, scheeming.  Sambar was found the day before alone outside the enclosure and so we took her in until we could find her some company out on the free range. Maybe they were scheeming, taking turns going in to the enclosure a day at a time! So we lead the two girls into the enclosure, reunited them with Sambar, and once again pushed them out.

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Okapi looking moody in the mist

Take 3: 4th October 16:3pm

RTC (reindeer traffic control) were called out as the troublesome trio were causing a blockage on the Cairngorm road. Morna and I headed out to move them, and after a small discussion of the question we seem to be asking a lot recently “take them up or down?”, we moved them up on to windy-ridge. There was a glimmer of hope as they walked over the summit, that they were finally heading into the hills.

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Sambar, happy to be back?

Take 4: 5th October 08:1am

The three girls are once again found below Cairngorm road and I volunteered to take them out to ‘the flats’ (that is the plateau area below the northern corries) and I was determined to take them out where they wouldn’t come back. I had a bucket of feed, wellies and flat cap, but unfortunately no gloves, which I soon regretted as my hands felt as if they were being pierced by shards of dry ice. We walked through a glen, over a river, dodged the bogs (which are always deeper than your wellies). Eventually I stumbled onto a deer track that was poached with Roe deer, Red deer, and now Reindeer tracks. We eventually stopped at the base of Lurcher’s crag, I scaned my surroundings to see if there was a road, footpaths or anything else nearby where the reindeer could be a nuisance. But we were enclosed by the over-towering hills. I gave them some feed and after a one-to-one with them about why they should head in to the hills, I headed back.

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A good shot of Cailin, with her characteristic hair tuft between her antlers!

“I hope that’s the last I see of them for a while”, I thought to myself as I left…… but I doubt it!

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How does Svalbard get his name?

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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…

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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).

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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!

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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!

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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.

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

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

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

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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…

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

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Svalbard – perhaps I can see the short legs here?

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Svalbard in his gangly teenage phase?

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

 

Ruth

 

Why the reindeer loves its mushrooms

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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!

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A beautiful arrangement of Fly Agarics. Photo from Wikipedia.

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Hmmm..

Morna

All Silent On The Hill

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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.

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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.

Helen