The Elder Stateswoman

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Catriona

Catriona keeping everything in order in the Reindeer House office

The heading tells it all. I am the oldest person working at the Reindeer Centre and, at the age of 71 years, it really makes me feel a lot younger mixing with all the youngsters who work there.

Officially, I am the book keeper for the Reindeer Company, but my role involves lots of other jobs from Agony Aunt when hearts are broken, to financial advisor when the young ones are starting out in life and need some good sound motherly advice.

I started working with the Reindeer Company approx 15 years ago, and have seen lots of people coming and going in that time. It is always a lovely family atmosphere at the Centre and throughout all the different years I have made some really good friends.

Sometimes in my job I have to help the staff understand the rules of book keeping but they all seem to accept my advice and “do as they are told” to get it all correct. They dread it when they see me reaching for the RED pen, reminds them of school!

Last Summer my grandson, Christopher, came to work at the Centre for one week doing work experience, and got a gold star for his efforts from Tilly, Alan, Alex and Fiona, so maybe a future generation of my family may carry on working amongst the reindeer.

Some of the shop customers are really envious of us here having such a wonderful view of the Cairngorm Mountains and one lady said you must have the best job in Scotland looking at that view every day. We are indeed very fortunate.

Catriona

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A (very) short history of herding

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Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal which naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in 9 countries; Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. Most importantly of course our small herd here in the Cairngorms!

Eve feeds the herd in a winter storm

Herder Eve feeds the Cairngorm herd in a winter storm (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

There are roughly 30 different reindeer herding cultures (i.e. the Sami in Scandinavia) with up to four million reindeer! (A few more than our 150!). There is often an intimate relationship between herders and their reindeer as well as husbandry, which, wherever practiced is often almost identical.

Reindeer represent one of the only domesticated species with which humans still live to their terms and needs instead of making the reindeer adapt to ours. For example, popping a reindeer in a grassy field prevents them grazing and migrating normally, which is key to a healthy and happy (reindeer) life. Reindeer herding is socially and culturally extremely important as each ‘group’ of herding peoples have unique identities and cultures centring on their way of life with their reindeer. Economically reindeer are also very important as meat and other products make up these cultures’ livelihoods.

Herd of caribou

Herd of hundreds of caribou

In the modern reindeer vernacular you’ll find two terms, ‘reindeer herding’ and ‘reindeer husbandry’ – herding is the much older concept which mainly refers to working with the reindeer whereas the ‘husbandry’ encompasses not only the reindeer but the entire herding industry: socio-economic issues, scientific research and management. As with many traditional occupations around the world the reindeer herding lifestyle is under threat from loss of pasture land, predators and of course climate change, which has an immediate effect on grazing.

As you may know, the Cairngorm herd are a family owned business and this is often true of reindeer herders across the globe where individual owners often work in co-operation with their families, neighbours or villages to care for their reindeer. There are around 100,000 reindeer herders in the circumpolar north today which is a lot more than our 7 full-time members of staff! Reindeer herding varies between different cultures and countries but the one thing which remains constant is the need for herds to migrate between summer and winter pastures. If you’ve visited us here in the summer you’ll know that at this time of year our female reindeer are up and away on the Cairngorm plateau where they find yummy alpine plants and relief from insects; they then return to lower more stable winter pastures where they find their favourite food: lichen.

Reindeer pulling a sleigh

Reindeer pulling a sleigh in Russia (Photo by Elen Schorova, used under CC 2.0)

Reindeer herding is not a 9-5 job but a way of life: here in the Cairngorms, our daily routine is dependent on where the reindeer are, the weather conditions, pasture land and the seasons. In fact, for the Sámi, their yearly calendar is entirely based upon what reindeer are doing during specific seasons. For example, early spring is known as Gijrra – The Season of Returning – winter is ending, snow is melting and the reindeer return to familiar calving grounds for May or Miessemannu – the calf month.

Vicky and Comet

Herder Vicky hanging out with old boy Comet

The lovely thing about reindeer herding is by working with these wonderful (sometimes ridiculous) creatures your work is not only focused by your own goals but it is truly dependent on the reindeer themselves and most importantly the natural world around you.

Abby

Tales from Glenlivet: Another Muckle Spate (Doric for “a big flood”)

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Since Minute terrified himself and the curlew chick  a lot of water has quite literally ‘gone under the bridge’. About 4 weeks ago there was tremendous heavy rainfall in the Cairngorm Mountains which resulted in the River Avon (pronounced locally “A’an”) beside our Glenlivet farm rising 6 feet in just a matter of hours.

Loch A'an

The beautiful Loch A’an

The source of the River Avon is Loch Avon at the back of Cairngorm Mountain, a long slender loch with a beautiful sandy beach and crystal clear water. It is not a popular beach for the family because to get to it you have to climb up on to the Cairngorm Plateau ( about 2,500 ft of climb ) followed by a similar drop down the other side.

The sudden rise in water levels caught out one fisherman on the river who had crossed onto one of the islands to improve his fishing chances. When the river rose so rapidly he hollered for help and luckily one of our neighbours realised the gravity of the situation and called mountain rescue. The first we knew about it was a mountain rescue helicopter arriving and plucking him off to safety.

River A'an in spate

The damage caused by last year’s flood – Moskki the terrier surveying the missing section of road

Just a year ago a similar flood happened in August. Once again heavy rain in the Cairngorms brought havoc to many of the rivers and tributaries and the A’an got its fair share of water with the levels this time rising by about 12 feet. In a space of just 12 hours the heightened water washed trees and debris down and ‘ate away’ at the river bank near our farm before the bank finally gave way, washing 40 metres of the A’anside road downstream. It was six weeks before the road was repaired and re-opened.

If you look back in history there is the famously recorded “muckle spate” of August 2nd to 4th 1829 where heavy rain and thunderstorms in the Cairngorm produced floods which claimed 8 lives, numerous buildings and many cattle and sheep. It would seem that summertime is when these spates occur and it does make you wonder if two floods in the last two years says something about climate change and global warming.

Weather is extremely topical just now with record low temperatures being recorded here. The number of sunny days could almost be counted on one hand during July and there have been times at night when the temperature has dropped to nigh on zero. Not good for the farmer needing his crops to grow, but great for reindeer who struggle in the heat of the day and get frustrated by the buzzing insects that come out in force on warm sunny days.

Summer reindeer

Boys enjoying the cooler summer weather this year

So there is a silver lining in every cloud, whether it be rain, sun or overcast conditions, someone or something will benefit from the topsy turvy weather we seem to get these days.

Tilly

Boris: a reindeer of dubious distinction

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If you’ve visited us in the last couple of years and met Boris up in the hill enclosure, there’s every possibility that he was the reindeer that left the strongest impression on you. However, he’s not, shall we say, our finest specimen in the herd. He’s not particularly big, nor does he grow the most impressive antlers, but he is, without even a shadow of doubt, the ugliest reindeer in the entire Cairngorm herd (if you’ve not met him, have a good long look at the photos before you say ‘awww, poor thing’…).

Boris and his nose through the years

Boris and his nose through the years

Boris was born in 2012, but way out on the mountain free-range rather than in our hill enclosure. We therefore only saw him once in his first summer, and at that stage nobody noticed something rather strange about his face. It was only when he and his mum Foil came into our hill enclosure in the autumn that we realised something was amiss. At first glance it looks like his eyes are wonky, but in reality both are the same distance below his antlers, and it is only below eye level that his nose takes a dive to the right with alarming squint-ness! As Boris has got older and his skull has continued to grow, the nose has become more and more wonky, but it never appears to cause him any problems, and is instead garnering him quite a fan club. Tilly once saw him having a wee sip from a puddle in a neighbouring field that no other reindeer could reach underneath the fence, so perhaps it has its advantages! Somebody who volunteered here a couple of years back once told me they had seen a similar condition in a red deer before, caused by the nasal passages developing in the womb at different rates. I have no idea if this is indeed the case, but anyone reading this has any knowledge on the subject, we’d be delighted to hear from you. We have seen it before, in a lovely male reindeer named Addjá who joined our herd from Sweden in 2004, but his face is barely squint at all in comparison to Boris; he could almost be called handsome! Although I’ve just looked through his photo archive to choose a picture of him – and on second thoughts, perhaps not.

Addja

Our lovely Swedish boy Addjá, with his slightly squint nose

When we take our harness trained reindeer on tour at Christmas time they are trained to pull a sleigh side by side, and as Addjá’s nose bends in the opposite direction to Boris’s, this has led to a bit of a debate here. Should Boris go on the left and Addjá on the right so their noses point into the centre (more stream-lined?) or should it be the other way around? As Addjá is an old boy now and Boris isn’t yet trained to harness, this may be a question we never get to figure out the answer to.

Hen