No job with animals is entirely “9 til 5”. As reindeer herders, we normally work from 8am to 5pm. In calving season, however, this becomes rather more flexible. When cows are ready to give birth, they tend to head away from the herd to find a nice secluded spot, which in our 1,200 acre enclosure means they can vanish! Every time we feed the herd, we do a head count to check if anyone is missing, work out who they are, then someone will be dispatched to walk round the enclosure looking for them. This means we can hopefully find them not too long after they’ve given birth, check the calf over, spray its navel and put a drizzle of insecticide on their back to protect against ticks. If a reindeer heads off at the morning, this is easy – a herder will walk out. But if a cow is heading away in the afternoon, we take turns to do an “early” – basically starting at the crack of dawn to give ourselves the best chance of an unhurried search of the enclosure.
Now, like several of the other herders, I’m really not a morning person, but I never resent taking my turn at an early. There’s something incredibly special about being alone up the hill as the sun rises and the world wakes up for another day. The potential of being the first person to find a newborn calf is also good motivation! I thought I’d fill you in on a typical early start in the calving season…
5am: Painful as it is, the alarm clock buzzes me out of slumber, and I get up and ready quickly, putting toast on and making up a flask of coffee to take with me. I’m entirely dependent on caffeine, especially when I’m awake unsociably early.
5.15am: Out of the door and on the short commute to Reindeer House. This early in the morning it seems that the rest of mankind is still asleep – all I see are numerous wood pigeons (who seem to love sitting on roads in the early morning) and a roe deer buck.
5.30am: Arrive at Reindeer House and swap into the work van. The night before it was prepared with reindeer feed, binoculars and the all important “baby bag” – stocked with lichen, reindeer food, headcollar, antiseptic spray and emergency chocolate. I then drive round the mountain road – it gives a good view across to the enclosure and a bit of an advance idea of where missing reindeer may be hidden – anything to make it a bit less “needle in a haystack”.
5.45am: Shoulder a sack of feed and the baby bag, and walk up to the enclosure. The sun is just coming up, the woods are alive with birdsong, and the day is already warming up. Whilst some of our reindeer cows calve out on the free-range, we use the enclosure for most of them as it provides a safer environment (away from dogs) and means we can keep a bit of an eye on them. They are great mums and rarely have any problems, but just on occasion we can give them a helping hand.
6am: Most of the herd are already waiting at the gate, back from their night of wandering, aware that we are on “calving time” and there is a chance an early breakfast may be on offer. I let them in to a different part of the enclosure, feed them, then go along the line of munching reindeer, naming them out loud: “Bumble, Clarinet, Enya, Orkney, Morven…” When I reach the end of the line I scan over the list of the reindeer who should be there and note the absentees – in this case four of the females. One of them we have already seen with her new calf, but we haven’t yet got her in to our “nursery” area of the enclosure. The others are potentially away to calve, or perhaps are just a little late in for breakfast!
6.15am: With the herd fed and content, I begin the walk round the enclosure. Everyone ends up with their own favoured route, but in general everyone begins by walking right up and round Silver Mount, the small mountain in the enclosure, before searching the woods. You can expect to be walking for about 2 hours, stopping to peer through binoculars at anything that could be a reindeer (so many reindeer-shaped rocks in this part of the country…). Today it’s already a glorious sunny day and I’ve soon taken off my jumper, but the weather isn’t always so kind – Fiona had the first early of the year in gale force winds and hail! Once I gain the height of the ridge, I spot two of the cows at different places in the woods, but no sign of the third one, so I carry on walking.
7.30am: I’ve almost completed my circuit, and haven’t found the third cow, but have had nice views of a cuckoo, tree pipits and a black grouse. We’re lucky to have a huge amount of wildlife set up home within the enclosure, probably because its mostly free of people (apart from when we’re searching for reindeer!) and dogs. Last week there were even two osprey circling above, though I suspect they decided Black Loch was too small for their purposes!
7.45am: I reach one of the cows I’d spotted from the ridge. She stands up when I call to her and despite shaking a bag of food for her, she heads away from me purposefully. There is no calf following at her heels, but her behaviour suggests that she’s soon to give birth, so I leave her to it.
8am: I find the second cow that I’d spotted, but she is equally as keen to keep her distance, and sadly for me hasn’t calved yet either. Finding a newborn calf is always the highlight, and many of the females are just delighted to get some food, so are completely unconcerned by you checking the gender of the calf, spraying its navel and having a quick cuddle before leading them in to join the group of cows and calves. Some of the cows, however, do turn completely wild once they’ve calved, and won’t come anywhere near you – instinct kicking in to protect the vulnerable calf from any potential danger. Thankfully they tend to calm down after a couple of days.
8.15am: No new calves for me this morning, but I do have the task of getting in the female who calved a few days ago. She isn’t too far from the gateway that I need her to go through, but is in a flighty mood so it is a case of gently herding her in the right direction. I’m lucky that she is happy to go the direction I’d like her to go, as there is no way I can outrun her two-day-old calf! Once through with the group of cows and calves, she immediately comes over for a pile of food – flight mode forgotten!
9am: With the main herd let back out into the main enclosure, and everyone fed, it is time for me to head back down to the Centre. An unsuccessful morning in a way, with no new calves found and one cow successfully hiding from me (shows how massive the enclosure is!), but when the sun is shining and all the reindeer are well, there’s no way I can begrudge the early start.
Later that day Hen was the lucky one to find the first cow I’d come across with a newborn female calf. Maybe I’ll be treated to a newborn calf the next time!