As the Membership and Bookings Officer for Waveney & Blyth Arts, I am busy through the summer months taking bookings from people for the ‘Celebrate’ programme. But early in July, I went to volunteer for seven days with the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd in Scotland. The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre offer daily hill trips for visitors to see the herd and I had been on one of these trips in 2015, fallen in love with the reindeer and since then had wanted to return to spend more time with these charming and intriguing animals, and find out more about what goes on at Reindeer Centre, so I applied to volunteer.
The Cairngorm reindeer herd was established in 1952. Mikel Utsi visited Aviemore in the late 1940s and found that the habitat on the Cairngorm Mountain was perfect for reindeer, and had been surprised not to find any there. In fact reindeer had been native to Scotland but had died out, so Mikel Utsi reintroduced reindeer to the Cairngorm mountainside by bringing eight reindeer across from Sweden in 1952 and today the herd is 150 strong.
Reindeer Centre in Glenmore consists of a souvenir shop where visitors go to buy their hill trip tickets, a small office and accommodation for the herders. There is also a paddock and exhibition space so visitors can learn more about the history of the herd and about reindeer in general. There are craft activities to enjoy in this space and talks by herders. Four reindeer are in the paddock each day so that visitors who can’t make the hill trip still have the opportunity to interact with these fabulous animals.
When volunteering there is no guarantee of how much time volunteers get to spend with the herd as there are a variety of jobs to do at Reindeer Centre but I am tremendously grateful that I got to spend a lot of time with the reindeer, up on the hillside and in the paddock, learning about herding, halter training, health checks, and feeding, all of which I got to take part in, it was very exciting.
I was shown how to put food out for the reindeer in the paddock, these reindeer got an extra treat of lichen with their food, Lichen, birch leaves and blueberries, ‘blaeberry’ in Scotland, are all favourite food for the reindeer. Blueberries grow on the mountainside so are one of the things the reindeer have naturally in their diet. Although the reindeer have everything they need to eat on the mountainside their diet is supplemented with a food mix made by the herders at reindeer centre and so I was shown how to mix their food, and this became a task I did regularly. Included in the reindeer food are dark grains, a by-product of the whiskey industry, sheep food, barley and sugar beet.
In the summer months there are three hill trips for visitors a day. Visits to the herd are a car ride and short walk away from reindeer centre. The herders leading the hill trips carry the bags of feed up the mountainside where visitors are given the opportunity to hand feed the reindeer. Feeding the reindeer is a wonderful thing to do, they have furry noses and you can feel their breath on your hands as they feed. One of the things I loved about accompanying visitors on hill trips was seeing the joy on their faces when feeding the reindeer, the same joy I had first experienced when visiting in 2015. Visitors going on the hill trips will often need to hire wellies, so I would help with getting the right size for visitors and then washing off any dirt from the wellies when they were returned. Other general duties were cleaning and topping things up; stock in the shop, bird feeders, the squirrel feeder, water, and craft supplies in the exhibition centre. I swept up pine needles that were dropping from the trees and ‘poo picked’ the paddock. Where there are reindeer there is reindeer poop so scooping poop from the paddock area was one of the first jobs I was shown. This was not a messy job as reindeer poop is like a cluster of rabbit droppings.
Whilst in the paddock area there were often rabbits and pigeons, and on occasion I saw a tiny little mouse and I was also lucky enough to see red squirrels. I was also shown how to set up and close down the exhibition space and paddock area morning and evening and on my last day completed the set up and feed and let the reindeers in to the paddock by myself which was a real treat. What I really enjoyed and felt very privileged to be a part of was the team spirit at reindeer house, everyone working there looked for jobs to do and everyone helped with everything. It was very inspiring.
The striking difference between the Cairngorms and Norfolk is of course the mountains, and the incredible views that accompany a climb up a mountain. I climbed Cairngorm Mountain, which is the sixth highest mountain in the UK, there is a 360 degree view from the top and it did not disappoint, it was phenomenal. My camera battery had run out half way up but I was relieved in a way because it meant I was completely in the moment, absorbing the view of mountains after mountains after mountains for miles in the distance. There was some cloud the day I went up, not enough to obscure the view, just a few near by and when I reached the top it did feel as though I was in the middle of a cloud doughnut at one point, it was very atmospheric.
This was another fascinating aspect of going part way up the mountain on the hill trips, seeing the incredible views of the landscape, different on a daily basis, affected by the changing weather in the distance. I really enjoyed watching rain, mist, sunlight, clouds, and cloud shadows transform and morph the view, sometimes on a minute by minute basis.
Another difference between being in Scotland compared to Norfolk was the light. To be more specific, the hours of daylight. I don’t think I have previously travelled north in summer before as I was really surprised by how light it was late into the evening. With staying there so close to the summer solstice it was particularly noticeable. It was very striking, and as I hadn’t considered that it would be lighter it was a delightful surprise.
As well as enjoying all of the above it was fascinating to learn more facts about the reindeer too. The herders stop at intervals on route to the herd to tell visitors all about the reindeer, so I picked up lots of interesting facts from this as well as from looking around the exhibition space. The most intriguing thing to me is the ability the reindeer have to conserve energy in the challenging weather conditions. In winter they grow a thick cut with an under layer, the long hairs on the outer layer are hollow to trap warmth. They can locate one another in foggy or blizzard conditions from the clicking noise that comes from their heels which is made by tendons snapping over bone, this saves them losing warmth from their bodies, which would happen if they communicated vocally. As well as having furry noses the reindeer have an internal heat exchange system which means air breathed in is warmed before it gets to the lungs and cooled before it is breathed out. The reindeer are very energy efficient. There are lots of other exciting reindeer facts so if you are interested in learning more one thing you could begin by looking up is about their feet, and one book I would recommend is ‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ by Tilly Smith, owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. In this book you will find out about the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd as well as about reindeer in general. I would of course also recommend a visit to the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, for more information and the blog they write this is their website http://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk you can find out interesting things like how they name their reindeer, amongst lots of other things. If you want to see more pictures from my visit you can find them on my Instagram account @katie_ferdinand, but you will need to scroll back as I have posted several other pictures since.
I had an incredible time and am looking forward to going and spending time with the herd at some point again soon, either as a visitor or working with them.