It’s the time of the year when…

It’s the time of the year when…

…our reindeer turn into cows… Not quite, but it is the time of the year when they are casting their antlers, and beginning to look perhaps a little like people imagine a reindeer to.

Oh dear Spider! Spider always casts his antlers early – usually by the end of November.
Jonas cast his upright parts of the antlers about six weeks ago but is holding on to his blade and front points.

Casting antlers is a completely natural process, and is one of the huge differences between antlers and horns (no deer in the world have horns!). Reindeer grow their antlers from scratch every year, from an area on the top of their skull called the pedicle. The growth period is from about March to the end of Summer, at which point it calcifies into solid bone, with no feeling remaining. After use in the autumn rut, the males cast their antlers, meaning they don’t have to carry a heavy weight through the winter snows, and leaving the coast clear to start their new set in Spring.

Jonne is one of the few castrated reindeer still with a full set of antlers on his head in late December.

This means that from November antlers drop off on a regular basis, sometimes at the most inopportune moments (in the middle of a Hill Trip for example, causing panic among visitors and frantic reassurances of “It’s normal, it’s ok!” from the herder!). As we get nearer to Christmas, our choice of which reindeer join a Christmas event team becomes more and more influenced by who still has antlers on their head – event organisers can be a little grumpy if a team turns up with just one antler between six reindeer!

LX has been lopsided for about a fortnight now, whereas Scolty cast the upright of his left antler just a few days ago.
Bingo cast his whole right antler a few days ago.

Most of our males are castrated at 3 years old, helping to prevent inbreeding and giving them a much calmer life in general. A side effect of castration is that the antlers are not as dense as the bulls’, and tend to be cast in sections rather than in one piece. Hence we end up with reindeer with “One and a half” antlers, or often just the front points remaining after the more top-heavy upright points are cast. It’s interesting that members of the public often don’t realise that a reindeer with their front points has actually got any antler missing, whereas a reindeer who has cast all of one antler but none of the other looks more lopsided and draws many more questions of “Did they lose it fighting?”

With his front point remaining, Duke gets less concerned comments than reindeer who still have one entire antler on their head. In the background, Stuc still has his full (small) antlers.

Sometimes antlers are lost in squabbles, but only when they’re ready to fall off anyway, and I think as many go from being bumped against a tree (or a herder’s backside!). And whilst there is sometimes a little residual blood on the pedicle when the antler is cast, it isn’t a painful process, the only insult being to their pride, as they often drop down the pecking order. But this is often when a bully gets their comeuppance, as the other reindeer they’ve pushed around see the tables turned and get their own back. So don’t feel too sorry for them!


Cartoon Freerangers

Each autumn we bring in most of the freeranging females to either run them with a bull if they didn’t calve in the previous spring or to begin getting their calves used to being handled. Most of the girls turn themselves in voluntarily as they seem to know the score but every year there seems to be a hardcore group of girls that do not want to come back to the hill enclosure so we have to spend a while locating them and subsequently rounding them up.

One morning in late September Chris and I were sent to check in on them on our way in to Glenmore. Luckily there were a few greedy girls in the group that couldn’t turn down a tasty bit of handfeed! Here’s what went down….


Boot Camp

As the rut has now come to a close and we move into winter, us reindeer herders are feeling particularly strong. For most of the year the female reindeer in our herd spend their days free-ranging the Cairngorms. However during the autumn we have all the reindeer that we want to breed from in our 1,200 acre hill enclosure. This is to ensure that we know which bulls have bred with which females and to ensure there is no inbreeding. This does however mean we have many more reindeer to feed than usual. As this is their natural habitat, when the reindeer free-roam they find all their own food and we don’t feed them at all. Whilst there is plenty of natural grazing in the hill enclosure we also give them supplementary food to make sure that the grazing replenishes each year. At the peak of the rut we were both mixing and carrying a lot of food up to the reindeer. In fact on the days when the most reindeer have been in the enclosure we are carrying 144 kg a day or a tonne a week.

Houdini and his girls

Mixing feed can be a real work out as it involves lugging around 20kg bags of various grains, measuring out the right amounts and throwing them into a cement mixer. The reindeer food is made from a mix of barley, sugar beet, sheep mix, dark grains (a by-product of whisky distilling) and hay soaked in garlic. As you can’t buy reindeer food here in Scotland, we mix up the food from lots of different things to give the reindeer the right nutrition.

Izzy mixing feed

And then once the feed is mixed, actually getting it to the reindeer is no mean feat. Normally the food is packed into roughly 15kg sacs and carried up to the reindeer enclosure on our shoulders. We have however also been asking visitors to help carry smaller bags (no more than 6kg) of reindeer food up the hill. If you have helped us carry food, thanks again from everyone here at the centre, both two and four legged.

You certainly won’t find a reindeer herder in the gym, especially not during the rut. Mixing and carrying feed (as well as unloading the feed lorry) is a very good work out and justifies the copious amounts of cake we all eat. I also know that all the reindeer herders, especially the women, take great joy in easily flinging a large bag of reindeer food onto our backs as a visit of people look on amazed. This summer I heard a man ask my colleague Nell if she needed a big strong man to help her carry her bag, to which she responded very politely “I’m a little strong woman and I’ll be just fine”. Go Nell!


The Course of a Life

Chris has been on at me to write another blog, but with Christmas round the corner (at time of writing) I’m a bit pushed for time, so have been racking my brain for a blog that is mostly photos… Which to be honest, I think a lot of the time is all people really want to see, rather than read a load of text.

With the loss of old lad Paintpot this autumn, I thought I’d show you all the course of a reindeer’s life, from baby calf to OAP. At 11 years old he didn’t make it as long as some reindeer manage, but 11 is still a perfectly respectable age for a reindeer, especially a male.

Paintpot was born in 2009, in the year that we named reindeer after animals with horns or antlers. Yes, I see your confusion. As a calf Paintpot was white but with one black foreleg, as if he’d stepped in a pot of paint – a nickname that stuck. I couldn’t find a photo of him as a really little calf so have resorted to freeze-framing our DVD, hence the poor resolution.

At two months old, Paintpot’s calf coat is already beginning to fade, his face marking not so visible. Here he is with his mum Shine, out free-ranging on the mountains for his first summer, and just starting to grow his very first set of antlers.

The calves moult their baby coats in the summer and when their new winter coat grows in again in the autumn they look more like mini adults. The cute baby look is sadly gone. At 7 months old, his adult winter coat is showing his markings more clearly.

From now on the photos are all taken in September of each year, as I do the photos for the adoption certificates in this month, when reindeer look at their best, full grown antlers and fresh winter coats. At a year and a half old, below, Paintpot definitely has the look of a naughty child about him, full of mischief and wanting to poke anyone and everyone with those sharp point antlers…anything to be a general pest…

At two Paintpot has grown a huge amount, his antlers are much larger and his ego and testosterone level has gone up too! Two year old bulls are generally a total pain, confident enough to be awkward should they choose to challenge us, and ruled by their hormones. Teenagers…

Reindeer reach fully grown as three year olds, height-wise at least. Like humans, after that it’s generally outward growth rather than upward! At three Paintpot is pretty impressive with enormous antlers, although not particularly elaborate ones (you’ll see throughout the whole series of photos that his antlers are always relatively simple – that was just his antler shape). Three years old is when we castrate our male reindeer too, so you’ll see the big change here is that Paintpot’s antlers are no longer ‘clean’, the velvet skin remaining right into the winter rather than stripping away cleanly in early September. Castrating reindeer changes their hormone balance, and antler growth is controlled by hormones, hence the different appearance between bulls and castrates throughout each autumn.

The next two photos below, taken in 2012 and 2013, show Paintpot as a young castrate, his antlers smaller than before (another ‘side-effect’ of castration) but still a decent size, his coat smooth and sleek and the alert face of a youngster.

But then, as Paintpot reaches middle-age at 6, there is a bit of a change noticeable. Still excellent antlers (good grazing that year, obviously!), but his coat isn’t quite as sleek as before and he just has a general look of a reindeer not quite so much in the flush of youth. I know how he feels at this point.


And in 2015, below, there is an obvious change yet again. The antlers are much smaller and not so clean cut, with more points lower down looking a bit scruffy. More ‘castrate-y’. Bulls and young reindeer have neat and tidy antlers in general, while older castrates have smaller, ‘busier’ antlers.

This trend continues in 2016 as Paintpot reaches age 8, and he has by now adopted his default expression (‘grumpy toad.…). I always thought his dad Sirkas looked like a toad, and here he is the spitting image. What an expression!

By age 9, Paintpot has aged enormously, and now looks like an old reindeer. Some reindeer seem to reach this stage relatively early, like Paintpot, while some reindeer spend ages in the middle aged stage with no obvious visual sign that they are getting on a bit. It just varies from animal to animal.

The last photo I have of Paintpot, taken in September 2018, shows him aged 10. An old lad and very definitely in the OAP category, but still looking well. In fact he looks exactly the same as the previous year, as if the photo had just been taken from the other side!

So there you go. Paintpot lived for another year after that last photo, but I never did get a final photo of him before he passed away. But there’s the course of a life right in front of you, fast-forwarded, yet ticking all the boxes that advancing age throws at us. Slightly different boxes to a human perhaps, but none the less recognisable.

As it turns out, I just can’t write a short blog. I really do try, but the words keep coming. But I’ve had an enjoyable hour reminiscing about a favourite buddy of mine which was a nice break away from the (probably more important) things I should have been doing, so thank you Paintpot for the memories, and Chris for hassling me into writing a blog once again!


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