The School of Tour

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I added up how many years I’d been involved in Christmas tour with the reindeer the other day, and was astounded to realise that this was my eighth season. As I frequently tell visitors, “I only came for the summer!” but I seem to have fallen under the spell of the reindeer and the Cairngorms. Hen has been here even longer than me. So with several new herders this year, Fiona sent us off with Morna, with the idea that we’d show her the ropes as it were. Morna has been working with the herd all year, so knew the reindeer very well, but Christmas tour brings its own challenges which can take some adjusting to.

Over the months running up to Christmas, we’d been fairly entertained by the enthusiasm of Morna, Ruth and Olly about tour, and wondered how long it would take for the novelty to wear off! But spirits were certainly high as we got ready to set off for our week away, and we had great fun working out our team name: usually we’re just Handi, but this time we would be even MORHANDI!

I hope you enjoy the photos below – we certainly enjoyed our week, and it was really odd when we dropped Morna off to visit her family and were left with just two of us in the cab… it felt like we’d lost part of our team!

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Leading our team off the hill

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Quick pose for a team photo – unintentionally matching outfits!

Hen driving

As Morna couldn’t drive the truck, her task was to keep Hen and me entertained and hence alert, primarily through some good DJ and karaoke work!

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Reindeer happy in their overnight accommodation. Riding arenas aren’t just for horses…

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We went for a look round the stables and met all the ponies and assorted menagerie that live there.

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One of the ponies, Haggis, is a legend amongst herders as he just loves to play with zips. Problem is, he’s small and brown, like most of the ponies. Our solution is to walk round offering our jacket to every pony until we find a taker!

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Hard frost the next morning.

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We exercise the reindeer loose every morning – here they are having a trot round the field. Sometimes they have more “bounce” than others!

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Why lead two reindeer each when Hen can lead the lot?!

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The drive down to Wales was all too much for Morna

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Lovely welcome from our hosts at the Welsh base

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We took the reindeer for a run in the field, but first Morna had to escape the attentions of some grown-up pet lambs!

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Ready for the parade! This was Matto’s (the white one) and Morna’s first ever parade in public, and he didn’t put a foot wrong. She did alright too!

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The reindeer are always happy to load and travel brilliantly – they are loose in the back of the truck and frequently lie down and have a snooze, as seen here.

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One of the perks to tour – you sometimes have time to cook a lovely breakfast!

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Here’s Morna doing a great job (with Matto again) leading the parade at Stockeld park. Though she was trying to redeem herself after breaking the decorations and a (non-essential) part of the sleigh in the same morning!

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The team were incredibly relaxed and loving their enormous pen at the event.

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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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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

Differences and Similarities

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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!

Andi

Reindeer calving: Can we predict whether there will be more males or females born?

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It has been an exceptionally mild winter here in the Cairngorms; the ski season never really seemed to kick off, the herders are missing the snow and it has just felt a bit wetter and warmer than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed how early the snowdrops and daffodils seem to have emerged and we have noticed that the hills are looking a bit greener with the heather and deer sedge starting to grow already. Looking at the Met Office summary for winter 2016-2017, temperatures are up about 3.0°C on average (average being data from 1981-2010) in the UK.

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This blog is really just an excuse to look at cute calves. Here’s a reindeer and a red deer calf, both being hand reared.

For the reindeer, this warming winter could have lots of effects, and we have recently heard of the reindeer in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia, starving to death due to increased rainfall in the autumn freezing and leaving a thick layer of ice impenetrable to them for foraging.

Our reindeer seem to be coping just fine and it has not frozen here enough for them not to reach their favourite food, lichen. However, research done by previous reindeer herder Heather Hanshaw has shown that weather conditions do definitely affect the proportion of male to female calves born in the spring. Since calving will soon be upon us, I thought it might interest you to know about this research and what our mild winter may mean for us in the upcoming weeks.

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Newborn calf

Heather studied Physical Geography at Edinburgh University and in her final year needed a project to study. Of course, having an interest in climate as well as reindeer, and having worked at the Reindeer Centre, a project about how climate affects them was a natural interest to Heather. She knew that Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren had been very meticulous about the data kept on calves born in the Cairngorm herd, and climate data was easily enough accessed, so Heather devised a project determining if weather (temperature and rainfall) had any effect on the proportion of male to female reindeer calves born. A similar study was conducted with Red deer on the Isle of Rum, and their study found that milder winters led to more male calves. Would it be the same or opposite of Rum, or would weather have no effect on the Reindeer?

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The famous Fergus, asleep on Mel’s rug

It turns out that Reindeer are similar to Red deer and when the winter temperature increases, so does the proportion of male calves. So, will that turn out to be true this year? With only a few weeks until calving begins, it will be interesting to look at whether we have lots of male calves this year.

Last year the winter seemed fairly average, possibly on the warm side a little, and our calving ratio was almost perfectly 1 male to 1 female, so it will be really interesting to see if this mild winter has had an effect on what will be born this May.

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Hopscotch and calf

Please find sources below.

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries/2017/winter

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112958-80000-reindeer-have-starved-to-death-as-arctic-sea-ice-retreats/

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6735/abs/399459a0.html

Imogen

 

 

Spring

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As the year rolls from March into April, here in the Highlands we start to see more definite signs of spring. The snowdrops have of course been and gone, but now the daffodils are out in their full glory, along with primroses and crocuses. There is a noticeable difference in the grass too – during March there is very little colour in the fields, everything is a washed out browny-yellow. But as April approaches, I start squinting at the verges – is there just a hint of fresh green there? By now there is no doubt, the Paddocks and garden are looking almost lush and their first cut is fast approaching. For all of you down in England, I do appreciate that you’ve probably had the lawnmower out several times already, but we have the longest winters in the UK here – one of the reasons it is still a suitable habitat for reindeer.

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Relaxed reindeer with a glorious backdrop. Jenga has the best start on her new antlers of the females.

Up on the mountain, the deer grass is breaking through, and the first migrant birds are arriving back from their winter holidays – there were three ring ouzel squabbling their way along the path as I walked out to feed the herd this morning. I’ve heard tell that the first swallows are in Devon (it’ll still be a few days until they pass by us) and the distinctive osprey pair are back at Loch Garten – we popped along the other day and were glad to see EJ hanging out on the nest, and a brief visit from her long-term partner Odin. Last year I watched a pair circling over the hill enclosure, just checking out Black Loch perhaps before deciding it wasn’t suitable to nest at.

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Old girl Lilac still looking superb at nearly 18 years old.

April is a fun time to spend with the reindeer, with anticipation in the air. The females tend to be relaxed and lazy, with heavy tummies and enjoying the fresh grazing starting to come through. Their coats have lost their sheen and are starting to moult, and most of last year’s antlers have fallen off, with some making good progress on this year’s set. Slightly less relaxing (for us, but not the reindeer) is the start of the Easter holidays, with its associated rush of visitors. Having a limit on numbers for the Hill Trip has certainly made our lives less stressful though and hopefully improves the experience for our visitors too – just a reminder to come early if you’re coming for the Trip to make sure you get tickets!

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A group of visitors learning about the reindeer, who are delighted to pose whilst they wait for their dinner.

The other slight bit of stress is that all of us herders are assessing who we should pick for our calving “bet” – the annual game of trying to guess who will calve first. Us herders spend a lot of time peering at bellies and potential developing udders, trying to work out who is pregnant and who is likely to calve early. There isn’t any money put down, and indeed no prize for winning, but the person whose reindeer calves last has to swim in the loch! The decisions are mostly made now, but I’m already slightly apprehensive that I’ve made the wrong choice – suddenly everyone else’s choices appear much rounder in the belly department than mine… I’ll stick to my guns though with fingers crossed!

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Every time I look at Dixie’s belly I worry that I’ve picked the wrong reindeer for the calving bet!

Normally, spring is a welcome relief after a long hard winter… this year I can’t really claim that as it’s been a very easy winter with little snow, but it’s still lovely to see the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, with the promise of a (hopefully) long, glorious summer ahead. Fingers crossed that it’s warm to make for an easier swim if I end up losing the bet!

Andi

Scottish Rural Awards

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A few months ago, we found out that we had been nominated for an award for rural tourism at the Scottish Rural Awards ceremony being held mid-March at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. We still aren’t entirely sure who nominated us so if anyone can shed light on this please do. There were 13 awards altogether given out during the night. Some of the categories were Education, Conservation and the Environment, Artisan food and drink, agriculture and more… It was a black tie event so for those of you who know us, you’ll know that black tie isn’t something we do on a regular basis but we made an effort and myself, Tilly, Alex and Emily went down to Edinburgh for it.

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Ex-herder Heather let us stay at her house in Edinburgh so it was all very easy. Tilly and I had our first experience of Uber Taxi’s… When in Rome and all! So we made our way to Dynamic Earth in our posh frocks and kilt to be greeted by many more posh frocks and kilts. There was even quite a few tartan trousers! We were certainly out of our comfort zone, considering that morning all four of us were up on either the Cromdale hills or the Cairngorms being blasted by the wind and feeding the reindeer… oh how things changed. Free champagne on arrival… ye-ha! Then we sat down at our tables as guest speaker and Scottish comedian Fred MacAulay opened the night. He certainly knew how to capture an audience. We then had our three-course meal, which was super and afterwards the awards commenced.

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You know it’s posh when there’s more than one set of fork and knife, and doubly posh when you get three wine glasses!

We weren’t really sure what to expect but with 150-200 people there, all in their glad rags making the most of a night out it was certainly a good atmosphere all round. The Rural Tourism award came up towards the end and so Fred called out all the finalists. Other business’s we were up against were – Isle of Aaron Distillers, Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, The Famous Grouse Experience, Luss Estates Company, Oban Winter Festival, The Enchanted Forest, Aaron The Island and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Logan. So after all the finalists were announced they came to the three who had won. Cairngorm Reindeer got the highly commended award, runners up were Oban Winter Festival and the winners were Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, so a representative for each went up onto stage to collect their award. Naturally Tilly was our representative so off she went with a big smile on her face to collect our award from Fred MacAulay. Fred also mentioned that many years ago he worked on Cairngorm Mountain and during that time came across the reindeer and that they enjoyed a bit of shieling pie!

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Tilly accepting the Highly Commended award for Rural Tourism

This really is a great reflection on what the Cairngorm Reindeer and Wild Farm mean to Rural Scotland and this recognition means so much to all of us so thank you to whoever nominated us! I hope Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren, founders of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, are smiling from above and that we have done them proud.

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Fiona

Memorable reindeer of the past: Eco

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Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!

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Young bull Eco

Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.

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10 months old

The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.

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Hen and Eco on a Christmas event together

Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.

Always inquisitive and up to something!

Always inquisitive and up to something!

Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.

A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.

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