We associate reindeer with Lapland and Father Christmas but did you know that Rudolph has many friends who live all year round right here in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park? What’s On spoke to Reindeer Herder, Hen Robinson, before she set off on a Christmas tour with reindeer from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre at Glenmore, Aviemore.
So, how many reindeer are in the herd? There are roughly 150 reindeer in the herd which has grown from the 25 originally imported in the 50s. Reindeer are actually native to Scotland, but died out at some point in the past, so our herd were re-introduced from Sweden in 1952 by a Sami reindeer herder named Mikel Utsi.
What’s their age range? Reindeer calves are born in May so the youngest are 6-7 months old just now, while the oldest can be around 16.
How do you decide on names? Every reindeer in the herd has a name. We choose a theme each year and name the calves accordingly. This helps us to remember an individual reindeer’s age but it’s also fun! One year we named the youngsters after Seas, Bays and Oceans, so we have Pacific, North, Baltic, Biscay and Hudson among others!
But how can you tell one reindeer from another? There is quite a lot of colour variation between the reindeer which helps us recognise who is who, and some have distinctive face markings. Like people they also have different features; some have particularly big ears for example, or longer noses. Then there are their antlers, which tend to grow in a specific shape each year so they are a bit like an individual fingerprint. If all else fails, they each have a different ear tag number!
What do they eat – and do they like carrots? Their main diet is lichen, which grows up on the mountains. In the summer they also browse on growing heather shoots, sedges, grasses and blueberry plants. And, in autumn they are partial to a mushroom or two! When they are in our hill enclosure or in the paddocks beside the Reindeer Centre we also give them an additional feed three times a day, whatever the weather so that’s a lot of work, especially in the snow. No carrots though – reindeer don’t have the right kind of teeth to be able to chew a carrot!
How much care do reindeer need? Very little really, as a native species in their natural habitat they can get everything they need from their environment, particularly so when they are completely free on the mountains.
Don’t they feel the cold? My favourite reindeer fact is that each hair of their thick winter coat is hollow. This traps the warm air around their body which is vital in their sub-Arctic environment, and reindeer can survive down to -70°C. Their coats are so efficient at not letting any valuable body heat escape that reindeer don’t show up on thermal imaging cameras – undeniably a pretty cool fact!
Are the reindeer people-friendly? They are all tame, although it varies from reindeer to reindeer in the same way that some people are shy while others are more outgoing. Each reindeer in the herd is trained to walk on a head collar, and some of the adult males are trained to pull a sleigh. However, as they spend a lot of the year living as natural a life as possible, free-ranging on the mountains, their natural behaviours and instincts are still very evident.
Do they cope well with public appearances? They do amazingly well! We always take reindeer to public events in small groups; they are a herd animal and it would be unfair to separate them so they have comfort in numbers, but also as they are used to being handled they are very relaxed. The male reindeer can spend almost the entire year up on the hills and then be taken to a Christmas parade in the middle of a town, and they’ll just amble along, chewing the cud and not batting an eyelid!
How much training is needed for Christmas parades? For most reindeer it’ll take no more than two or three short sessions to teach them to pull a sleigh. We train alongside older reindeer who have done it all before, so the younger ones can see there is nothing to worry about and feed off their confidence. The calves will go to a couple of parades when around 6 months old too, so when they reach the age that they are ready to pull a sleigh, it’s familiar territory.
But some must be less comfortable than others appearing in public? As we work with the reindeer all year round we can read their body language in any particular situation; we would never want to take them out of their comfort zone.
So where can people see a reindeer-drawn sleigh this month? December parades take us a bit further afield; local ones usually take place nearer the big day. Normally we make appearances at Grantown-on-Spey, Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore in the days leading up to Christmas.
What do the reindeer do for the rest of the year? Once Christmas is over every reindeer in the herd will head onto the mountains to free-range and enjoy well-earned peace and quiet. In May, some will come into our hill enclosure for the summer where we take visitors to meet them daily. Our hill enclosure is about 1200 acres in size – the equivalent of 1200 football pitches! Even so, no reindeer will remain inside it all year round – each one will spend a good part of the year roaming completely freely.
Do you have a favourite reindeer? Each reindeer is completely different in character in the same way that humans are, and I’m not sure that I have a particular favourite. There’s plenty on my shortlist though, including Puddock, Eco and Jåkkå!
How many are in the human team? Most of the year there are 4-6 of us living and working at the Reindeer Centre, although that can increase at busy times such as the Christmas season and the summer holidays. I’ve been here for 7 years and my background is a degree in zoology, but others range from qualifications in animal care and animal training, through to my manager, who was born into reindeer herding!
The best thing about working with the herd? Probably the fact that my job is constantly changing throughout the year with no two days exactly the same; and the Cairngorms National Park is a pretty good office to work in! Dealing with animals keeps you on your toes; working closely with any animal species is rewarding as you get to know each individual so well, but it is especially good to work with the reindeer, to observe their character develop as they mature and see them change in appearance according to the season: they are so incredibly suited to their environment and they put us humans to shame in the depths of winter.
You may be interested to learn you can “Adopt a Reindeer”; how about that for a Christmas present with a difference? Find out more at www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk
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