Santa’s annual mission to fulfill the wishes of children all across the land depend on his trusty reindeer being fit, strong and healthy. He couldn’t deliver all those presents without the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre to help him on his biggest night of the year.
For herder Fiona Smith, who is part of the team that tends Britain’s only reindeer herd near Aviemore, the animals are for life, not just Christmas.
Fiona, 28, was born into the family reindeer business run by her parents Alan and Tilly Smith. It’s a pretty special job to have, but it takes on extra significance over the festive season when Santa’s sleigh pullers are to the fore and the Cairngorms National Park becomes a genuine winter wonderland.
The reindeer reside in one of Scotland’s most spectacular natural landscapes, and Fiona admits that it is a great environment in which to live and work.
She said: “It’s pretty good office to have. We obviously have to put up with all sorts of weather but that’s ok. I certainly couldn’t be stuck in an office.”
Christmastime sees the reindeer become stars in their own right, appearing in towns and cities at winter festivals and lights switch on ceremonies all over the UK.
Back at the Cairngorms, there are treks where visitors can meet and feed the free-ranging reindeer in their mountain home and reindeer breakfasts at the paddocks and visits from Santa at weekends. But the magnificent animals – and the stunning location of the Cairngorms National Park - are a draw to visitors all year round.
When Santa’s sleigh bells are no longer ringing and children have returned to school after the winter holidays, the centre closes for a few weeks. But other than that, it operates all year round, seven days a week, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. A herder’s job is one that changes with the seasons.
Fiona said: “There is no set routine to being a reindeer herder which is part of the joy of it. The calving season is always a great time of year, and we head out early morning to see which females have calved and welcome the new bundle into our herd.
“Summer time is actually one of our busiest times with tourists and we take them up on the hill where they can get in among the reindeer and hand feed them. There is nothing like seeing them out there on their own living naturally.
“In the rutting season in autumn the reindeer look spectacular. The bulls are romping around trying to impress the cows, and this is the time of year we train our new Christmas reindeer and calves. During the Christmas season we could be doing events as far north as Thurso or as far south as Truro. We head out with our team of six reindeer joining in various Christmas events. The reindeer that take part in Christmas events have been specially trained, so are at ease with the work they do. They are comfortable on these events and show all the natural behaviours I would see on the hill side so for me as their handler this is re-assuring.
“Once Christmas is done however the reindeer themselves don't keep us too busy over the winter months. We will either do maintenance, office work, more guided tours heading for the hills to check on them or training.”
The Cairngorms National Park, in the heart of the Highlands, is the largest National Park in the UK and is made up of five different areas – Aviemore and Cairngorms; Angus Glens; Atholl and Glenshee; Tomintoul and Glenlivet; and Royal Deeside and Donside. To find out where to stay, what to do and what’s happening in the Cairngorms National Park this winter visit www.visitcairngorms.com