When the border patrol agent asked us the nature of our visit and what we planed on doing in Scotland, I replied, “Um, visit a sheepdog farm, see falcons and — oh — reindeer!”
I may not have known all the details of our trip, but I did know which animals we’d be visiting. My only requests to Meghan were that we pet sheepdogs, fly falcons and visit the reindeer. For this part, we copied Emily and Tommy’s trip exactly, and thankfully they had found the best sheepdogs, falcons and reindeer you could ask for.
First up, Sheep and Border Collies
For the second portion of the trip we ended up renting a car. Meghan quickly got the hang of driving on the left side of the road and figured out those dang roundabouts. We will not speak of the first five minutes out of the Enterprise parking lot (during which the parking brake was on), nor during the side-swiped car mirror incident. Alls well that ends well.
We drove through the Scottish Highlands and, near the town of Aviemore, we arrived at Leault Farm for our working sheepdog demonstration. The minute we got out of the car we were swarmed by happy Border Collies and instantly I knew it’d be better than I even imagined.
The shepherd put the puppies in the truck so they wouldn’t disrupt the show and then led us to the fields. The older dogs gathered around him and at his command one would sprint away, miraculously returning a short while later with a herd of sheep running towards us in a tight circle.
The dog would be sprinting at full speed and if the shepherd said to stop, the dog would abruptly pause and lie down. It was like magic! Each command was short and simple and the dogs always executed them.They understood whether to go left or right, how to split a pack of sheep into two groups and to turn around and catch a runaway. There was even a blind dog who performed just as perfectly as his companions. As you can see the dogs were all incredibly excited to be out there herding sheep. The shepherd wasn’t as outwardly enthusiastic but said he was doing his dream job. Of course, it was great fun to see someone and his dogs do their job so well and with such excitement.
After that amazing show, the shepherd grabbed one of the sheep and we each took a turn shearing the poor fellow. Though it looked like he was in a compromising position he was calm and looked quite pleased as he pranced away in his lighter coat. I now have a newfound interest in buying wool sweaters.
Afterwards, we bottle fed the sheep. And as if that wasn’t enough we got to cuddle the newborn puppies as the shepherd answered our questions about sheepdogs.
I wish I could’ve carried this little runt home with me, but he’s destined for greater things in the fields of Scotland.
Next up, we have reindeer!We braved the sub-arctic weather of the Cairngorm Mountains to visit the only free-ranging herd of reindeer in Britain. Though once native to this part of Scotland, the reindeer became extinct and were not brought back until 1952.
A guide led us on a short hike through a beautiful valley until we reached the fields where the reindeer were waiting. They have caught on to the fact that guides and tourists bring bags of food every day at 11 a.m. We were given handfuls of a grain mixture to feed the very impatient reindeer. As we waited for our rations, both Meghan and I were knocked from behind. We turned around to glare at the pushy tourist only to find a hungry reindeer instead.
The local whisky distilleries sell the by-products of the malted barley to farms to feed cattle and, in this case, reindeer. They are non-alcoholic of course, but I imagine they are akin to the marshmallows in Lucky Charms.
The guides (reindeer shepherds) were very knowledgable and passionate about reindeer. We learned lots of interesting facts about how well reindeer maintain their body temperature. For example, their urine and breath leaves their body cold because they extract all the heat from it before they expel it. In fact they emit so little body heat that they can lie on snow without melting it! When I relayed these fun facts to Mom, she texted back, “But do they do anything besides not melt snow?” Tough crowd.
OK, so they don’t actually pull Santa’s sleigh or do any tricks, but they were quite beautiful and soft. Their fur has up to 5,000 hairs per square inch. Sadly, reindeer do not interpret petting as a sign of affection, so we were lucky to run our hands once through their incredibly soft coat before they walked away.
We stayed late to ask the guide more reindeer questions. After the fourth question about reindeer birthing, breastfeeding (I didn’t know the equivalent animal term) and weaning, he asked us if we were farmers. Though very flattered, we admitted we were nurses. It was truly surreal to be on this beautiful mountain with reindeer (I mean before this I wasn’t even 100% sure they were real animals who existed outside of the North Pole). However, our toes and hands started to get numb so we reluctantly left in search of hot chocolate and toasted cheese sandwiches.
And finally we have falcons, owls and eagles.
This was my third attempt at visiting a falconry. The first was in England, which turned out to be shut down. The second was in Vermont, which was closed for the season. But third time’s the charm! The Phoenix Falconry was well worth the wait. Those birds may not look like much but each one is worth about 250,000 pounds. The master falconer explained during our introduction that he sells falcons to wealthy men in the United Arab Emirates for racing. I was slightly dubious after writing that but a quick Google search confirmed that the UAE really loves falcons. They have a hospital solely for falcons! They even issue little falcon UAE passports!
This guy is the master falconer and owner. He has forty years experience under his belt and seems to know everything about falcons. He can even start an IV on a bird (I asked)! His birds are so well trained that they’ve starred in movies. The Harry Potter movies had him bring one of his falcons to the studios so they could digitalize the movements of the bird for the hippogriff.
Here is his apprentice. They were both very charming and passionate about falcons. The apprentice first got a hawk as a young boy because he was obsessed with dinosaurs. When he learned that birds are descendants of dinosaurs he realized he could buy a bird and (kinda) own a dinosaur.
We began the lesson with a hawk. In all honestly it was incredibly easy. A stick could do it. All you do it walk into the middle of the open field and the falconer places meat in your hand. Then you just hold your arm out and be the best possible tree branch that you can be. The hawk spots the meat and swoops down to perch on your arm. Easy peasy. You can’t freak out and lower your arm because then the bird, thinking you are a falling tree branch, will walk up your arm on to your head. Admittedly I was a bit nervous at first and had Meghan go first.
Pictured above, the apprentice demonstrated how skilled and precise hawks are at flying. He had Meghan hold her arms in a tipi above her head. He then held a treat (a dead baby chick) behind her and the hawk dove from a treetop and went through her arms! Meghan is a brave soul. We were a bit nervous about the Bald Eagle after we had to put on even thicker gloves to withstand his fierce talons. They are incredibly large, so holding your arm out straight with them perched at the end proved to be very difficult. If I were holding the same size weight at a gym class I would’ve dropped my arm long ago. But, in this case, with the threat of a giant bird on my head, I stayed strong. My shoulder and sides suffered as he enjoyed his dinner. Despite the workout, it really was nice to meet a fellow American out in Scotland. We felt a special kinship with him. I’m sure he felt likewise.
This dolly little owl was our favorite. He hopped back and forth on this fence as if he were dancing. Owls are also skilled hunters, but sadly enough this fellow flew right into a sign much to the surprise of the apprentice. Thankfully, his face is already flat so he didn’t sustain any damage.
The final lesson got high tech as he demonstrated how they have incorporated drones into the training of falcons. Sure, falcons have gotten along just fine before the invention of drones, but it was a sight to see.
At the end, the master falconer begrudgingly said that it was now time for the unpleasant part: paying. When the bill came to 80 pounds a person I exclaimed, “Oh that’s a great deal, you should charge more!” Meghan muttered, “Shut up” under her breath and the falconer admitted he’d never gotten that response before.
Really though, it seemed very reasonable for two hours of one-on-one instruction from two very skilled, knowledgable and enthusiastic falconers. I will definitely be returning the next time I’m in Scotland. Perhaps next time I will join them on an afternoon hunting trip. Guns are not included — because why would you need a silly gun when you have a falcon and a dog? They told us their favorite hunting trip included two vegans who ended up eating the rabbit because the rabbit had lived a happy life in the forest and died in a natural way.
Anyways, I really could go on and on about the amazing sheepdogs, reindeer and falcons, but I think everyone should go visit for themselves. Spend your money on experiences and you’ll have a very memorable, informative vacation.