Bulls Over The Years


The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd was established in 1952 so over the past 65 years there have been many main breeding bulls so here is a little sum up. I can only tell you about the ones I remember but there were many bulls before my time as well. I’ll try to inspire Tilly (or Alan) to write a blog on the ones before my time.

The first bull I remember when I was very young was Gustav and he was born in 1985, the same year as my brother. You could not get a more gentle reindeer, if he was a human he would be the perfect gentleman! I suspect nowadays we have lots of reindeer in the herd like Gustav but back in the day he was certainly one of a kind! You may find this morbid but a few years after Gustav died we found his skull so we hung it up in our shed on the hill so we feel like he watches over us when we bring the herd in for handling. He was the main breeding bull in 1989, 1990 and 1991.

The next one to memory was Crackle who came to us from Whipsnade zoo in 1991 along with two others, Snap and Pop (Who remembers Snap, Crackle and Pop from Kellogg’s Rice Krispies?). Being new blood we obviously wanted to breed from him. He was also a very good looking reindeer, grew lovely antlers and had a great temperament so all good things to go back into our herd. He featured on the front cover of Tilly’s first book ‘Velvet Antlers Velvet Noses’ and lived to a grand age of 16. He was also photographed by wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell and recently we have acquired some posters from Laurie which were printed many years ago when Crackle was in his prime which we are selling in our shop.

After Crackle was Utsi who was born in 1998. He was hand reared by Alan, my dad. Utsi’s mum Pepper died when he was very young so we bottle fed him milk and he was Alan’s shadow around the hill and farm. I had a love/hate relationship with Utsi… and not because we fought over Alan’s attention, he well and truly had that 😉 When I was in my mid-teens on the hill one day with mum, we fed the herd and I was walking back counting them. At that point Utis was rutting and decided I was a few steps too close to his females and he completely flattened me. There were no injuries, infact I managed to get myself in-between his antlers while on the ground and held him into me as mum came over flapping an empty food sack to shoo him away. He headed off leaving me in a wee pile on the ground, but un-injured! The trouble when reindeer are hand-reared is they see us as part of their herd and being totally comfortable in our company he wasn’t scared to give me a telling off for getting too close so it’s a fair one really. I’ve learnt from my mistakes and how to act around rutting bulls so there have been no incidents since. The same year Utsi was a breeding bull we also had Cluster who was the same age. He was very different, kept himself to himself but grew lovely big antlers. We also had Red who was another gentleman, good looking with a super nature!


Utsi behaving himself on the Cromdale hills


Cluster with his beautiful antlers in velvet

We then had a spell where we used bulls we brought in from Sweden in 2004. This was new blood in the herd which is very important but it meant there wasn’t necessarily one main breeding bull. Some of these bulls were Sarek, Sirkas, Jokkmokk, Ritsem, Västra, Ola, Moskki and Porjus.

Then there was Crann!!! If you haven’t heard of Crann I’d be very surprised. He has been the pin up boy of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd for quite some time now and although a very old man at 14 years he is still with us… though not looking as quite as good as he once was. None of the past or future bulls have matched the size of Crann’s antlers, he still holds the record and I suspect will for a long time to come. He was truly magnificent in his prime and his photograph has been in many national newspapers as well as our own advertising and images on various items of shop stock. He is certainly enjoying full retirement now at our hill farm over at Glenlivet, and quite rightly too!


One of the many photos of Crann, a truly majestic bull

So in the more recent years we have had more reindeer joining us from Sweden. In 2008 we brought over Pelle, Jaska, Bajaan and Magnus who were the main breeding bulls around 2009, 2010 and 2011. Then there was Gandi, Bovril, Jara, Lalle, Boxer, Kota, Houdini, Pera, Bandy and Nutti who joined us in 2011. The most recent Scottish bulls are Balmoral and Ost. Both from very strong family lines and they have lovely natures and grow beautiful antlers… everything you want in a reindeer!



Fergus comes to visit..


The reindeer all take turns throughout the year to do a two week spell in the paddocks and this time it was Fergus’s turn. We planned it so it was around Mel’s birthday, as being his adopted mother two years ago we thought she’d like a wee visit from him. We didn’t tell her he was here and when she got back from work we brought him round from the paddocks to the back of the house where all the reindeer related outside prep happens. He acted as though he had never left and bee-lined straight for the feed sack and lichen bucket!


Fergus outside the kitchen, with Fiona and Tiree making sure he behaves!


Nothing like helping youself to some dinner!

Mel was of course delighted but he did not stop there. He had a wee jolly into the garden and as cars passed they certainly took a double take. Then he cottoned on that the house door was open. As a calf (collie dog sized) Fergus would regularly come into the house but we weren’t sure if he had out grown that. Turns out he hadn’t! He was straight in, having a good look around. He drank out of the dog bowl, and he visited (what used to be) Mel’s bedroom as when he was a calf he used to fall asleep on her bedroom floor. Tiree and Sookie, our dogs took it all in their stride and totally accepted that their old friend was back to visit. Neither animal was bothered by one another.


Fergus in Mel’s old bedroom, much to the delight of the herder who now lives there…


And wee snack in the kitchen! How thoughtful of us to provide food, eh?

He spent about 3-4 hours just helping himself to feed, going into the garden to graze the grass and coming into the house and falling asleep on the living room floor. Ruth, our newest recruit at the Reindeer Centre, was totally surprised after spending most of the day on the high tops checking our free ranging herd, when she came home to find a reindeer in the living room. Needless to say her face was a picture.


Sleeping on your snozzle. Not sure it’ll catch on, it sure doesn’t look too comfortable.

Night time came and Fergus had to go back into the paddocks with the other reindeer. I doubt this will be the last time Fergus will be in Reindeer House. It’s a good job we aren’t too house proud!


Differences and Similarities


One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.


Bovril in his shaggy old winter coat in June, and looking smart in September

First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.


Olympic’s varied coat throughout the same year (2014) – in February, July and September

Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!


Young Beastie throughout the same year (2011) – in full winter coat in January, darker summer coat in July, and new winter coat in September


Young Strudel throughout the same year (2010) – in old winter coat in May, dark sleek summer coat in August and with new winter coat growing through in September

Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.


Diamond as a brown calf with a white forehead, turning silvery later that year, and even lighter as a yearling


Origami as a calf with a white forehead, and as a silvery white adult

The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.


Caterpillar with very similar antlers over three consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016.


Puddock with his familiar crazy branching antlers over three consecutive years.

There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.


Lulu with impressive antlers in 2013, and a rather less impressive set the following year, due to rearing a calf.


Beautiful Sequin in her prime with a large set of antlers, and with a simpler set in her old age.

It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!


Who’s who at Reindeer House (Part 1)


Times are a-changing and we thought we’d keep all you lovely readers informed with who is working here at Reindeer House. People have left, people have arrived, but the reindeer herding goes on…

So here goes:

Imogen and Abby (aka The Fierce and The Fluff) who both worked here for a few years have left in the last couple of months, moving on to new places and new adventures. We miss them both greatly (and their banter!), and for all of you out there who knew them as herders, we know you’ll miss their characters too..


Abby on a beautiful day with Lace.


A sunny winter’s day surrounded by reindeer is enough to make anyone, Imogen included, smile!

Ruth is our newest member of staff, who joined us during May. As a redhead she has gone through so much sun-cream since arriving that we’ve decided there should be a redhead grant from the government to cover the cost of this, so you can wish us luck on this venture. Ruth has a fantastic knowledge of the plants and animals of Scotland, and makes tours out to see the reindeer a whole new learning experience for both visitors and others herders!


Ruth with one of our calves from this year.

Olly is back! Olly has worked at the reindeer centre on and off seasonally over the last few years, but is finally here to stay (we just can’t keep him away). Known for his flamboyant shirts and braces and excellent (and probably early-morning-sleep-related) comments, Olly is just great. Full of enthusiasm, knowledge, practical skills and creativity, Olly keeps us amused and is an excellent man to have about.


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Olly amongst a hungry herd of reindeer.

After having been here only four months Morna has proved she can handle the most difficult of situations. She wears many hats – equally skilled with hammer or pen, paint brush or calculator. Her calmness is appreciated by the reindeer who are at ease in her presence and us herders appreciate her love for life. Growing up on the Orkney Isles she is at home in wild places (but whatever you do don’t start a snow ball fight with her as she is likely to hurt herself).


Morna enjoying her first calving season.

Dave has been here now for just over a year, so is a well-known bearded face at Reindeer House. Our only resident New-Zealander, Dave has worked on his Scottish reindeer call to make sure the reindeer can understand him, which makes us all chuckle here at the Centre. Dave never seems to get fazed or frazzled, and is one of those genuinely lovely people who calms the rest of us down simply by being around, and visitors seem to come away from the hill trip in a much more relaxed mood than they began in. And although he has been here for over a year, the secret finally slipped out that Dave has never mixed a bag of hand feed…


Dave finds time for a moment of quiet contemplation on the hill.

Hen and Andi have both been here for a good number of years, and make sure everything runs smoothly here at the Centre. They are in charge of everything from our whole reindeer adoption database, to creating new road signs, to making sure the reindeer get the right amount of food, and to keeping us newbies in line. As Hen has been confined to crutches for the next few months, she is currently being our office-extraordinaire and we are all on orders to take photos of the reindeer down so she can keep up with how they are doing. Andi has taken up the slack of the missing Hen’s ID knowledge on the hill, and is providing a fountain of knowledge and tips for who is who. Andi is the herder to go to for all our stupid questions, and keeps us in line with her patience and loveliness.


Hen on Christmas tour, with a sleepy Topi on her shoulder.

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Andi leading the herd of calves and other females out onto the hill.

Catriona is the oracle: our accountant, organiser, keeper of records, and all other hosts of jobs that need an experienced hand. She has been keeping the reindeer centre in line for longer than a few of us have been alive, and I’m not sure how the centre would work without her.

Sheena is a friend of the reindeer centre and has been around for over 25 years. She works on and off, filling in days here and there. She is the master of badge-making and incredibly full of energy at all times.

Stella and Ann are our long-term regular volunteers. They have helped out in many a sticky situation, have known the Reindeer Centre and all the staff over the years, and never fail to cheer us up with an odd packet of jaffa-cakes or biscuits turning up on the table.

And last, but of course by no means least, come the rest of the Smith family. Tilly and Alan, the owners of the company, are kept busy both here at the Reindeer Centre and over on their farm, working with not only reindeer but a whole host of animals, including Soay sheep, Wild Boar and Belted Galloway Cows. Over on the farm there is also Derek and Colin (brothers of Alan), and Alex (son of Tilly and Alan). Emily is Alex’s wife and, showing the reindeer centre to be a true family business, also works here for the odd day here and there.

Fiona, as many of you will know, is the backbone of the reindeer centre. Along with her brother Alex, they make the first native Scottish reindeer herders and her knowledge of the reindeer and how to work with them is long-ingrained. Fiona ensures that the whole of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre organisation runs smoothly and the reindeer are happy and healthy all year round. Fiona also takes on much of the behind-the-scenes work, along with the hectic job of organising the whole of the Christmas period…


An inquisitive girl!

We have too many volunteers and occasional staff to mention by name who turn up and massively help us out on a weekly basis, but who without, many jobs would go undone. So a big shout out to them all, for their fantastic help over the years. And of course, there are a whole host of others, family and friends of the Reindeer Centre, who work on and off or just help out, and are there to cheer us up if the occasion arises!

Yellow’s on the Broom


This is the title of a Scottish song about the Travellers (sometimes called Tinkers) who lived a nomadic life which often settled for a short while during the harder winter months. The lyrics show the Traveller anxious for Spring and a new start to traveling.

The guided walk out to the reindeer herd at this time of year is particularly colourful because the broom is in full flower with its multitude of bright yellow flowers. After the muted colours of winter, old heather and deciduous trees without leaves the flowering broom brings splashes of colour into the hills. I can understand why the yellow Broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller.


The hill visit group paused for a breather at Utsi’s Bridge, about to cross the Allt Mhor Burn. The yellow Broom flowers light up the valley at this time of year.

In fact the daily hill visit to the reindeer which takes us across the Allt Mhor Burn to the summer grazing of part of the herd is incredibly picturesque just now, perhaps making up for the reindeer themselves who can look quite scruffy at this time of year as they lose their winter coats to reveal their short dark summer coats underneath.

Picture of a really scruffy reindeer

From a distance Broom can look really quite similar to Gorse, another shrub which has lurid yellow flowers.  Both plants tend to grow in the same kinds of places; heathlands, uncultivated land, roadsides etc. In a dense clump where both are found, it can be hard to tell where the Gorse ends and the Broom begins.

However once you get up close you immediately see the difference, Broom is a large, deciduous shrub, like Gorse, but without the spines. You would never push your way through a gorse bush in shorts, that’s for sure.


The soft stems of broom give no barrier to the hill wanderer.


In contrast, gorse is virtually impossible to pass through without a full coat of proection against those spines. Photo by Nigel Mykura.

For me, my personal preference is definitely Broom, with no sharp, jaggy spines and a slightly lighter coloured yellow flower, but it is a mystery to me why some areas are dominated by Gorse and others by Broom.

Perhaps a more learned person than me can come up with the answer..


Memorable reindeer of the past: Comet


Comet was already an old reindeer when I first arrived, but none the less he was still a very visible member of the herd. When our male reindeer get to about 7 or 8, there is a tendency for them to spend more and more time over at our farm where Tilly sees them daily but us lot, based here at the Centre in Glenmore, do so less often. Comet was already 12 when I first met him, but he still spent plenty of time here on a regular basis as he was such a popular character.

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Comet in his heyday.

Comet was a big, white reindeer, born in 1995, the third calf from his mum Ferrari. Ferrari herself was a very memorable reindeer as she didn’t grow any antlers until she reached the age of 9, when she decided to sprout one! That was enough though, and even though she lived until just shy of 17, she never bothered to grow more than one antler a year. She was also a fabulous breeding female, producing 11 calves in her lifetime. This trait runs throughout her family lines, which form a substantial number of reindeer in our herd today.

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Ferrari with her one antler. Behind her is her granddaughter Malawi who didn’t (and still doesn’t) grow any antlers at all!

But I digress. Comet was the loveliest reindeer that you can possibly imagine, tame, friendly, polite and somewhat like a teddy bear. Reindeer in general are not a cuddly animal; they happily tolerate being handled but never seek out affection in the way, for example, a dog might, despite having been domesticated for as long. It’s the reason we have a ‘hands-off’ approach with our reindeer, we handle them enough to make sure they are all happy being in such close proximity to humans, but we never put them in a position where they can be petted against their wishes. On the hill it’s the tamest that come to hand-feed while the shyer have the choice to hang back, and out on Christmas tour they are always provided with enough space to keep out of reach of the public. We’re frequently asked if we can bring a reindeer to the side of the pen to be stroked, and the answer is always ‘no’. If they choose to do so themselves that is fine, but it has to be their choice, on their terms.

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With ex-herder Vicky, contemplating life together.

I digress again – keeping to the subject in hand is not always my strong point. Back to it… Comet was unusual in that he seemed to be completely happy to have a cuddle, and indeed we all took advantage of this regularly – there’s nothing quite like putting your arms around the neck of a reindeer and burying your nose in their hair. Most reindeer would respond with a huff and pull away, but not Comet. He is also responsible for bringing us Paul, our twice yearly volunteer who has been coming for a fortnight at a time for years now (and fixing everything we break) – as he put his nose on Paul’s shoulder (Paul was sitting down, I hasten to add, Comet wasn’t that big…) and leant there for the entirety of a Hill Trip, back in 1998! Paul was hooked on reindeer from then on and 19 years later is still coming to help us out, and thank god, as he is a master joiner… I can hear the power drill whining away as I type – Paul is in residence and mending something.

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In his old age.

One of my best memories of Comet is from the first week that I started here, when Tilly and I took two adult reindeer (one being Comet) and two 6 month old calves out for a walk in Glenmore in order to get the previously unhandled calves used to walking on a halter. On this occasion I can remember squeaking frantically to Tilly as we jogged along towards the Forestry Centre next door as Comet danced, spinning around and bouncing; letting off steam. I was hanging on for dear life but not doing a very good job, until Tilly prudently took Comet off me and gave me her (less excited) reindeer instead. Now I can easily handle such a full of beans reindeer, but as a wet-behind-the-ears herder, I was utterly out of my depth. It was a very steep learning curve!

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Mel leading Comet out calf-training, on a day when he was a little less excited!

Within a couple of years after that occasion Comet was well into his old age, and such behaviour was behind him. He lived to the grand old age of nearly 17, and although I saw him less regularly in his doddery old man phase, I still had a ‘Comet Cuddle’ each time I met him again.


Guess the theme: Trees and Antlers


It’s amazing what useless facts you can come across and one such fact was in a booklet I was thumbing through about farm woodlands. In the ‘did you know’ section was the fastest growing tree in the world, the Royal Empress or Foxglove Tree Paulownia tomentosa . Native to central and western China the tree can grow up to 6 metres a year, or 30 cm in three weeks.


A Paulownia tomentosa in flower. Photo by Meneerke Bloem.

Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdoms with a mature reindeer bull growing his full set of antlers in just 5 months to a length of approx 1 metres. Luckily for the reindeer the antlers then stop growing, the velvet skin peels off and the boney antlers are then used to fight with. Lets face it a bull reindeer would struggle with 6 metres of antlers waving around on the top of his head!

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In China, Paulownia tomentosa is traditionally planted at the birth of a girl. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry. Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. The soft, lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese porcelain exporters in the 19th century, before the development of polystyrene packaging.

Continuing along the Chinese theme the antler velvet from all species of deer is rich in growth hormone and highly prized in China where it is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The velvet antler however must be harvested from the deer while it is still growing, thus requiring a surgical process to cut the antlers off humanely. It is a practice not permitted in the UK but is an important revenue from deer and deer farming in other countries.

Strangely enough antlers of many deer species generally have a tree like structure to them, with a main beam or trunk, which then branches into smaller tines. Perhaps it is this familiar structure that sometimes leads people to ask the question ‘are the antlers made of wood’! I guess these misled people were never very good at biology at school!