First impressions of a new reindeer herder

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As a new herder asked to write a blog post, I thought I would share a few of my first impressions of the herd with you all. There has been a lot to learn and a lot still to learn, but one thing’s for certain: the life of a reindeer herder is never boring…

Things I have learnt so far:

  1. The title of reindeer herder does not just include herding reindeer. In the last few months, I have not only found out how to very slowly herd reindeer down a hill and keep the attention of a group of 50 people through a health and safety talk, but have also found myself painting arctic scenes, fixing fences, hoovering, carrying wood up a hill, lighting fires, fixing biomass boilers and hand-writing many a letter. Reindeer herding also includes, much to my delight, drinking copious amounts of tea and, on sunny days, eating lunch outside whilst bathing in the sun. Days can be both hectic and peaceful, split between manning a bustling shop to walking down a quiet hillside with a herd of reindeer in tow.

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  2. There are a lot of reindeer in the herd, and so A LOT of reindeer names to learn! Much of my time on the hill until now has been spent squinting at different reindeer and racking my brains to try to remember who on earth it is. With some hints from other herders, and no help from the reindeer losing their antlers at any given opportunity, I am finally on my way to recognising the 60 that we have here on the Cairngorms at this time of year. But alas, the day the rest of the herd turning up is near approaching..

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    Now who is she?

  3. Reindeer are constantly full of surprises! Some days they come bouncing down the hill at the slightest whisper of a call, some days they stubbornly sit and stare you out from an unreachable hill, and some days they just cannot be found. They are characterful, frustrating, lovable and peaceful animals all at once, and I feel the luckiest person to be able to work with and around them.

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    The 67 reindeer here on the Cairngorms coming down to our call, on a sunny friday morning.

  4. There are a lot of words in the English language that I do not know. Before becoming a reindeer herder, I never knew it was possible to ‘groak’, ‘twattle’, ‘lunt’ or be a ‘sluberdegullion’. But with a board in the office that lists all the words you never thought you’d need, I am learning the true meaning of being a herder..

Morna

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What happens in the office stays in the office…

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I thought for a wee change I’d write a bit about one of the most important parts of the reindeer company, without which we could not function as a business and place of many a giggle and frustrated sigh. It is… The Office.

Reindeer herding is an unparalleled job for variety and us herders cover the whole job, we serve visitors in the shop, take visits, cover the paperwork, walk reindeer, train reindeer as well as heading out on tour with reindeer over the festive period. All in all there’s a lot to be done on a daily basis and the office is no exception and we all have our little niche that we’re responsible for. Myself, it’s adoption renewals and advertising, some of you may have come across Hen who is the lady to speak to if you’re buying antlers, or this blog itself which is under the firm control of Imogen.

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Imogen showing how she will imprison us if we don’t supply her with blogs

The office is often a hive of activity and the festive period is no exception, over a period of two months we made over 500 adoption packs. That means over 500 handwritten certificates, ID cards, letters (lots of letters), special requests and addresses… all in all a lot of writing. The calligraphy pens become very coveted at this time of year, woe betide you if you blunt a nib! All in all, we do industriously enjoy our office time and our wee nook is the epicentre of everything reindeer. In one tiny room all adopt records are filed, reindeer movements are noted alongside vet records, locations and family trees.

Our trusty computers must every day wake up and download the day’s queries and requests and today the great delight of an email informing us that our order of replacement mop heads has been dispatched which was a triumphant feeling as it took a surprising amount of online mop education to finally locate just what type of mop head was required. Has anyone else heard of the Kentucky mop…?

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The Famous Kentucky Mop

There’s always a new something in the office too whether it’s my mound of weird snacks (chia pudding being my current favourite), Hen on her ball, there have been around 5 ‘on the ball’ puns per minute since the appearance of said green sphere! After a trip away on yoga teacher training I’ve been attempting to share some of the cool wee things I’ve learned including myofascial release with a tennis ball.

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Hen on her ball

Here’s Andi working on her back!

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Andi looking to be in a little pain!

All in all it’s a pretty weird place to be in at times… as i write this I’m being serenaded by Boyz 2 Men (& Imogen) singing ‘I’ll make love to you’…. need anymore be said…

Abby

A Jolly January!

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As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.

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Olly and I leading the reindeer out of the mountain enclosure for the winter. Tiree, my collie, adding another skill to reindeer dogs by carrying a wee bit of reindeer food to help lighten my load.

Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉

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Tiree and Frankie waiting while we go off to feed the reindeer (top left). Fiona leading Okapi with an improvised head collar (top right). Tiree and Sookie doing office work with me (bottom left). Three of the oldest girls in the her – Tambourine (17 years old), Tuppence (16) and Lilac (18).

On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!

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Feeding the herd on a beautiful sunny day with the northern corries in the background (top left). Moskki, Tiree and Murdoch enjoying their mountain runs (top right). Fiona with Moskki in a rucksack as Moski tries to have a lick of an antler while still attached to the reindeer’s head (bottom left). Hill running with the hounds (bottom right).

So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.

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Back in business

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Well, we’ve had our annual month of closure to the public and are now open again for hill trips! The weather hasn’t been too horrendous this winter and most of us here are really missing the snow; we are all considering going off to the Alps for our skiing and snow fix!

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Of course, it is now the February half term so we are back with a bang and having busy hill trips, even reaching our limit of numbers on some days. Most of us have had a slight panic at the beginning of our first visit: “What do I say again?” “Where do I go again?” “What is a reindeer?(!)” Luckily, once you are faced with a whole load of expectant tourists most of your talk comes flooding back to you and you manage to muddle through, getting the important safety and history information in.

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Although it is not that snowy at the moment, it is relatively cold and we have had some quite windy days too. Most folks have been well enough dressed that they’ve managed to keep the cold out and have enjoyed the trips. If you would like to come visit us in the near future, please remember to dress up warmly, and give us a call in the morning to make sure we definitely are going ahead with the trip. The reindeer are completely free-ranging at the moment, so both they and the weather mean that we can’t always run the trip!

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Imogen

Emm Cassidy Volunteer Blog 3

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The final installment of Emm’s blog from volunteering with us in the summer. It was great working with Emm and we’re looking forward to seeing her later in the year. I’m sure Mo is too! Thanks for writing such wonderful blogs Emm, and we’ll see you soon!

Day 5

In the morning, we went to check on Boxer and Kota who were doing a lot better. Boxer had his infected antler cleaned again and started to associate the head collar with people poking his antler so he wasn’t a very happy reindeer but he was very brave and loved the lichen we gave him. I helped Fran take the tracking radio collars off the 6 reindeer as her research had finished. The reindeer got fly spray put on their antlers again.

Me and Julia got the job of cleaning out and hoovering the hire car they used for hill trips as it was nearly time to give the hire car back. We made a good team. I got all the mats out and shook them off and swept them. I got the stones off the floor in the car and swept the car floor. Meanwhile, we had Sookie and Murdo wanting to play with us. Sookie kept dropping pine cones and sticks behind me hinting she wanted me to throw it and Murdo kept wanting to attack the broom and play with it and voiced his opinions about wanting to play. It was funny. The tourists found it funny too.

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Murdo who wanted to play with me while I was cleaning the hire car, and Sookie in the background who had given up

At the 2:30pm hill trip, I did the introduction talk and the history talk. I was so proud of myself. By this day, I knew most of the reindeer by name. The herders were very impressed.

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My finished reindeer herd list

When I adopted Dylan, I did a folder about him and his life. I stuck all the emails the herders wrote about what Dylan had been up to and all his adopters letters, photos, his family trees and any information about him. This included newsletters and anything we had done with the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. I am doing one for Mo and I took it in and showed everyone and they were all very impressed with it. They remembered seeing Dylan’s Folder at 60th Reindeer Anniversary Adopters’ Weekend in October 2012.

Day 6

In the morning, me, Andi and Julia checked on Boxer and Kota. They were doing so much better. We then fed them, we just sat and chilled with the reindeer and did selfies which was brilliant and amazing. It is such a magical experience chilling and relaxing with the reindeer. I couldn’t believe it was my last day, it had all gone so fast. I would really miss being up there with the reindeer and herders as it was such a magical experience.

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Selfie with North, Byron (Mo’s second cousin), Bhuachaille and Fyrish

Today Mum, Dad and David (my brother) came on the 2:30pm hill trip. I got them to carry the hand feed bags up. I did the introduction talk and the herd history talk at Utsi’s Bridge. It was the busiest hill trip which I have done my talks on. There was about 50 people. I felt like a brilliant reindeer herder and they were so impressed with me with how I dealt with the reindeer, the people and said how I did so well with my talks. I stayed on the 3:30pm tour and chilled with the reindeer.

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In my element!

Before we went home, I spent one day visiting everyone and the dogs at Reindeer House and went on 2 hill trips to say bye to the reindeer. I had lunch with them all and met the volunteer reindeer herder for that week.

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Leading the reindeer into the East Enclosure

Being a reindeer herder is such a magical experience and meant so much to me. Mo, the other reindeer, the reindeer herders and the dogs are so special to me. They are like a second family to me and being there is such a relaxing and brilliant place to be where I feel I can be myself. On the hill trips, it was a brilliant feeling telling the people all about the reindeer as I was sharing my passion about reindeer with me knowing I was teaching something they didn’t know. Seeing people’s reactions when they first saw the reindeer and hand fed and stroked them was a special and rewarding feeling and experience as a lot of the people hadn’t ever seen reindeer before.  On the hill trips, I really enjoyed finding out where the people had come from and they told me about their lives and interests. On these hill trips, I met people from Australia, New Zealand (one man owned a Red Deer Farm out there), Israel, Germany, Spain, France, USA, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy, Romania and lots more places. I even met a family who had come from the area I live in and they lived near the hospital I was born in.

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Doing my history talk at Utsi’s bridge

6 reindeer spring to mind who always seemed to be around me or follow me when I had the hand feed bag and they were Cambozola, Glenshee, Fyrish, Blue, Merrick and Anster. They were really eager and try to stick their head into the bag or kick it or try to get the feed mid-air whilst I was giving the feed to someone and then their mouth would be excitedly eating the feed from their hand. Bless them!

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Atlantic chilling

I was so impressed when really tiny young children who wanted to get out of their parent’s arms and onto the ground to give the reindeer hand feed. It was so lovely giving out hand feed to children and adults and to see their faces when they feed the reindeer.  On most of the hill trips, a lot of people are really interested in Blue as he is the only leucistic (pure white with blue eyes) reindeer in the enclosure and Merrick who has only 1 antler. They take a special interest in them and ask all about them. They are always surprised to find out that Blue is deaf as all leucistic reindeer are. A lot of people asked me to take photos of them and it was so lovely to see people taking selfies with the reindeer. My favourite selfies with reindeer are with Mo (my very special adopted reindeer), Glenshee and the selfie with the 4 reindeer.

Update on Boxer

The last hill trip which I went on, Boxer was well enough to be in the herd again. I didn’t recognise him at first as his poorly antler had fallen off and he was left with one antler bless him. But he made a full recovery. Don’t worry, he will still grow 2 antlers next year.

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Boxer with 1 antler

Emm

Landrovers and lovely locations

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Here at the reindeer centre, unsurprisingly, requests for some modelling reindeer are not uncommon, particularly around the Christmas season. Of course a change of scenery is always exciting for both reindeer and herders, most of the photo shoots and filming sets can be of a similar ilk. However, when we got a call from Land Rover, asking if a few members of our herd could star in a photo shoot up in the hills on the banks of Loch Ordie, we felt that this was something neither us, nor the reindeer, should miss out on.

 

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Loch Ordie

And so on a beautiful, frosty and cold morning, off we set with four Christmas boys, two herders and two dogs, with a very optimistic, yet slightly unrealistic hope of coming away with a brand spanking new Land Rover.

 

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Fiona and Origami admiring the view

Two hours south on the A9 and 6 miles of forest track later in Land Rover convoy, we arrived on set to find a wee flat-pack log cabin (much like a tent, yet wooden making it slightly more cumbersome, and a little more painful if you sat up quickly whilst in bed), two small children in reindeer onesies, an incredibly tall elf and a very sparkly (and reflective) Land Rover sport.

 

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Jonas getting into the festive spirit with Christmas lights

After the reindeer experienced several hours of tempting handfuls of lichen, reflection admiring/ suspicious glances, manoeuvring and a lot of snapping, darkness began to set in and it was time to head from one hill and back to another.

 

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Tiree waiting patiently to get home

We were careful to make sure we loaded the actual reindeer as opposed to the imposters.

 

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Which reindeer are we supposed to be loading again?

Our hairy team shone out as being the most patient of all the models there, captivating everyone on set, especially the two antler-less ones, who were over the moon when they got to charge down some of the forest track.

 

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Tiree and Sookie after their run

So at the end of the day, alas no new Land Rover, but two very proud reindeer herders!

Eve

Olympic

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We all have favourite reindeer in the herd and over the years I had a very special reindeer, Beauty, who I hand-reared, back in 1993. Beauty’s mother Sorrel died when Beauty was born and I became her mother, a relationship which lasted her whole life even though she had calves of her own. Indeed I felt a bit like a granny as a result!

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Beauty

Beauty died an old lady and for many, many years there was never really a reindeer for me who filled the gap. There have been some great characters since Beauty but none of them were really special enough to replace her. Various reindeer were hand-reared, but not solely by me and although each reindeer has a distinct character there was no real favourite. But over the last 4 years a reindeer has grown on me and now I can honestly say, I have a favourite again.

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Baby Olympic

Olympic was born in 2012, in the year of the London Olympics, hence his name. His mother Glacier came from a long line of white reindeer and so when Olympic was born dark coloured, that was a bit of a surprise to say the least.

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Olympic with mother, Glacier

So he was the ‘black sheep of the family’. He grew tame and friendly like all the other calves once they are handled, indeed Olympic became quite outrageous when it came to hand-feeding, terrorising many an unsuspecting visitor on the hill visits. Which meant, in time Olympic was banished to the quieter life at our Glenlivet Farm, where visitors to the herd are less frequent and so life with Olympic and hand-feeding became manageable.

Strangely enough although Olympic is a very bold reindeer and eagerly comes up to us, amongst the reindeer he seems to be quite low down in the pecking order, almost to the point that he is a little bullied! Although he is a big strong reindeer he is just a big softy and another reindeer only has to so much look at him and he’s off. So Olympic often seeks out human companionship and whenever I am bringing the reindeer down off the hill for the daily feed Olympic is often right there beside me.  So we have developed a close relationship and as time has gone on Olympic has grown on me and become my new special reindeer.

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Olympic as a yearling

Last autumn we trained Olympic to harness and he joined the teams at Christmas time. Handling reindeer, gaining their confidence and harnessing them to pull a sleigh is a real joy for me. I love the close contact with the Christmas reindeer, feeling so responsible for them when away from home and proud of them as they delight the crowds who come to see them. Olympic was a delight to train and looks fantastic in full harness. He is as much at ease pulling the sleigh alongside another reindeer as pottering along at the back of the sleigh with the 6 month old calves. And I think Fiona, who organises Christmas now and decides which reindeer goes where made sure I had Olympic in my team! Thanks Fi!

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Big boy Olympic, in 2015

 Tilly