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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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.

Fiona

What reindeer would you…?

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Over the summer during a rather (tipsy) evening, us herders got on to the topic of which reindeer would make good plumbers, friends, travel companions etc… It turned out to be illuminating and hilarious, so here are four of us giving our thoughts – hopefully it’ll be an entertaining insight into our beloved reindeer characters!

…go on a round the world trip with?

Abby: Erm…

Hen: It would have to be a northern hemisphere trip because they’d get too hot otherwise.

Abby: I would take a Swede because they’d know the country so you’d get to see local sights.

Hen: Maybe Bovril, but he might get lost. He gets lost on the Cromdales now…

Abby: Maybe Hook. He’s quite sweet but I think he feels quite worldly. I like Hook.

Hen: I like Hook. I think maybe Strudel, he loves to see new places!

Abby: You might have a fun holiday with Magnus but he’s a bit lazy.

Hen: It’d be more like a beach holiday with Magnus.

Andi: I think I’d take Gloriana, because she’d friendly, and attractive, and looks a bit different, so you’d meet lots of new people and have interesting conversations.

 

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The very beautiful Gloriana

…be trapped on a desert island with?

Abby: Puddock! No, Strudel. Puddock would be good fun. Wapiti would tell you a lot of tales.

Hen: Somebody fat who I could eat…

Andi: I wonder about somebody ingenious… Houdini, escape artist 🙂

Sarah: Somebody older and sensible who would be entertaining but not annoying… maybe Bumble.

Hen: But you’d have to eat your dinner before her as she’s so greedy…

Sarah: Oh yeah…

 

…get to be your interior designer?

Hen: Gandi!

Abby: Yea, definitely Gandi!

Hen: If any reindeer is going to know about wallpaper, it’s Gandi.

Andi: Yep, Gandi. Fashion, it’d be Bajaan because he’s very concerned about his appearance.

Hen: Yes he is!

Andi: When Emily took him out on Christmas tour, he got some mud on him and really didn’t like it so Emily had to brush him, which he really enjoyed!

 

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Gandi, interior designer extraordinaire!

…go camping with?

Hen: I reckon it would have to be a female reindeer. The males are too lazy, they’d expect the tent to be put up, and their dinner made.

Abby: Wapiti. She just likes to wander. I think she’d be quite quiet, maybe too sombre. Merida! She’d be good banter, and useful.

Andi: Lilac, because she’d know all of the best spots to go to.

Sarah: Anster. He’s chilled out and not as lazy as the other males so he’d be useful. He’d also be the sort to enjoy a good ale with.

 

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Lilac would point you in the right direction for a good camping spot

…least like to get in a fight with?

Hen: Lulu.

Abby: Yep Lulu. Even if you didn’t want to fight, she’d be like, ‘fight.’

Sarah: Parmesan. I just don’t think she’d give up.

Abby: She’d use words.

Andi: Bovril, because he’s just massive.

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Lulu (top) vs Parmesan (bottom): Lulu has the inner rage but Parmesan is definitely no pushover

…like to be your heart surgeon?

Hen: I think the lack of opposable thumbs would worry me.

Andi: Dragonfly, because he’s a thinker. He’s very clever, he thinks things through.

Abby: I think Dragonfly for me might be liable to have a hissy fit halfway through; maybe Topi.

Hen: He’s a bit of a joker at times though…

Abby: I’m really not sure on this one. I think Ryvita and Cheese could be the heart surgeon team, because they’re so in sync with each other. Cheese would be the anaesthetist.

Sarah: I think Spider.

Abby: I’d forgotten about Spider!

Sarah: I think he’d be focused with a flourish.

 

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Spider, apparently favourite to be heart surgeon. I would prefer someone (something!) with opposable thumbs, personally

…trust with a dark secret?

Abby: Shinty because he shies away from other people so he’d be too scared to tell anyone.

Hen: I was going to say an old reliable girl like Cailin but I suspect she’d gossip actually.

Sarah: Maybe Fern, I’m not sure she’d join in with the gossiping.

Abby: I think she’d gossip.

Andi: I’d say maybe Duke, he’s like a loyal hound, eager to please.

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Shinty being as shy and furtive as ever

…elect as prime minister?

Hen: Ooh.

Abby: Who’s got a good ministerial name… need someone a bit wise.

Hen: Need someone with a bit more sense than our current government!

Andi: Fly. Sensible. A good leader.

Hen: I’d agree, a good leader.

Abby: I’d say maybe Lilac. She’s been around long enough, she’s stern, and she’d get stuff done.

Hen: But does she speak to the people?

Abby: I don’t know. Probably not…

 

…would be you in a film?

Andi: This could be interesting..

Hen: Ladybird.

Andi: Because she’s small.

Hen: She’s quiet, she doesn’t like to make a fuss about things, she just gets on.

Andi: Okapi.

Abby and Hen: Ooh!

Andi: I love how people are judging here! Friendly, quite sensible. It’s funny how you view yourself! Independent, greedy, a little suspicious at times!

Sarah: Spy? She’s a pretty independent reindeer, knows her own mind, no nonsense, can be stubborn but also fairly willing to do things.

Abby: I think I would be Cheese. She’s a bit frantic at times. And she’s greedy. And she’s needy, she’s with her mum a lot. I don’t like to be alone! Who would Beyonce be?

Andi: Hopper? She’s a bit bolshy and a wee bit of attitude but she’s a really nice character.

 

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Filmstar beauty, Okapi

…go pubbing with?

Abby: You need like an old man reindeer, like Elvis.

Sarah: Elvis!

Andi: Elvis, yea. Or Paintpot.

Abby: Ooh yea! He’s a bit of a grouchy old man, he’d be like, ‘why’s my favourite beer no longer on tap?’

Hen: Topi. Old lad, good lad, he’d have all the gossip. Or Magnus.

 

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Topi, gossip King

…go clubbing with?

Hen: I don’t know, you’d have to pay me a lot of money to get into a club.

Abby: Fergus! I feel like he’d have a funny, mischievous night. You’d have a disaster of a night but it’d be amazing.

Sarah: Maybe Minute. He’d have the moves but he’d be pretty loyal!

Andi: I’d maybe take Chelsea because I reckon she knows the streets.

Abby: I reckon Chelsea might take me to a strip club…

Hen: She’d get you arrested.

Andi: It’d be a good night!

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Fergus being his usual rowdy self and waking up the inhabitants of reindeer house!

Sarah

 

Memorable reindeer: Amber

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Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.

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Amber in 2007 with her awesome antlers

Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.

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Amber in 2009

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Amber looking out over the hills towards Meall a Bhuachaille

Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!

The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.

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Esme in 2009, with yearling Okapi

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Amber with Sambar on the left, in 2008

Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.

Hen

 

 

 

 

In the beginning…

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Throughout much of the western world, the creation story known is that of Adam and Eve, and perhaps this is the most well-known. The Sámi, however, believe that in the beginning there was only the Sun and the Earth. The Sun was the father, and the Earth the mother, and together they created a Son. The home of the Son of the Sun did not have any females, so he set out on a boat to the land of Giants to find a wife. There, he fell in love (or lust), with the daughter of the blind Giant King. With the help of the daughter, he won a game of finger pulling against her father and earned the right to marry her. They were then intimate, and then sailed away. However, they were pursued by her angry brothers who wanted her back. The couple defeated the brothers with her magical handkerchief and the Son’s hot rays, burning the men to death, essentially. They were married, and she soon gave birth to the ancestors of the Sámi, the Gállá-bártnit, who were hunting sons and passed their hunting knowledge down to the Sámi.

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There aren’t many pictures to go with this blog, so I thought I would just put some pretty reindeer as eye candy. This is the beautiful Wapiti.

The Sun and the Earth also had a daughter, which the Sámi believe came to earth to live with the Sámi. She gave the Sámi their reindeer to herd, and looked after them. When she was on her deathbed, she talked about wanting to see her Father, the Sun, again, because the darkness was coming in and she worried for the Sámi people. The story of the Son is all about optimism for the future, whereas the poem about the Daughter is about uncertainty and the need to pray to ensure the future of the Sámi way of life.

The Evenkis of Russia and China believe that the earth was all water and was not inhabited by people, until a maiden with an eight legged reindeer created the land. All the people lived in heaven, and when she refused to marry an old man, she was cast out of heaven, because such refusal was a great sin to the people in heaven. Her late father had left her one reindeer, an eight legged beast who she took with her when she was banished. She cried and cried, and fell asleep on the reindeer as they flew to earth. When she woke up, she realised her reindeer was not flying, but falling. The reindeer spoke to her, telling her to pull out his fur and throw it into the ocean below. She did as was told and logs appeared. The reindeer landed on the biggest one. He told the girl to tie them together to make a raft, so she did. There they floated on the ocean of earth, fishing with hair from the reindeer’s neck made into nets and loops, until the reindeer grew old.

Realising he would soon die, he told the girl to kill him. She wept, not wanting to kill her only friend, but he warned that if she didn’t she too would die. The girl reluctantly did as the reindeer wished. She lay his skin on the water, and it became land. His fur became forests and his skull became mountains. His lice became wild reindeer and his broken bones turned into crackling thunder. Before she lay down to sleep that night, she placed his heart on her left side and his lungs on her right. His heart became a hero and his lungs a boy and a girl. His last breath became the wind.

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The herd running for food

I hope you’ve enjoyed having a read of these little stories and I hope I have told them well. If you know of any others, tell us in the comments below.

Imogen

Filming reindeer

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They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.

A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.

The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.

In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!

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Fiona starring in Highlands Book

 

When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.

The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.

Tilly

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The “Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart” book

We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.

 

 

Fergus

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Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!

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Fergus looking angelic on the hill

In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!

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Fergus sleeping in a feed bowl, inside reindeer house.

So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.

Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.

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Fergus and Tiree guarding the door

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Murdo and Fergus on a ride up to the hill

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Trying some different beds out for size

Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!

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Fergus in the news and up on the hill

In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.

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Little Fergus ‘helping out’ on a trek in 2015

Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!

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Fergus having a cuddle with ‘mum’ Mel

Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.

Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.

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Cheeky devil!

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Fergus looking great at 1.5 years old

He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!

Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!

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He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!

Imogen