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

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

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

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

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The beautiful Loch A’an

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Boys enjoying the cooler summer weather this year

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

Tilly