Reindeer are good swimmers and today we’ll find out why and how.
Reindeer have spent millennia migrating across continents to access seasonal pastures. Their habitat grows relatively coarse fodder meaning they must travel vast distances for grazing. These migrations tackle many obstacles and one particularly challenging is water. This water body was often a river but also small sections of ocean between the mainland and an island perhaps. Either way the reindeer needed to swim. And Swim they did. And this is how they do it…
Reindeer have miraculous hooves. Their hooves can be used as snowshoes or spades in the winter for dealing with all that snow and flippers for swimming! Their action is a doggy paddle stroke and I feel we should rename this stroke and call it ‘reindeer paddle’.
We know their fur is hollow trapping air to insulate them from winters’ frosts but did we know this air fill coat also acts as a buoyancy aid! How fantastic is that?!
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking yea ok reindeer can cross a river, so can I. I swam across the Spey River once. No, they can really swim. The herds in North America are known for especially large migration routes. These herds swim across huge rivers. The Yukon river flows for over 3000km the Spey just 170km. The Yukon has a volume of 6428 cubic metres per second almost exactly 100 times larger than the Spey. These rivers are big and anything that could swim across would need to be a strong swimmer.
Some people answer to just one name, others like me have a proper name and a nickname. Although given the name Elizabeth as a baby, I was nicknamed Tiddly because I was the youngest ( and so smallest ) in our family of four children.
Tiddly got shortened to either Tids or Tilly and now many 10’s of years on from being Tiddly I am almost universally known as Tilly, although I do sometimes use my ‘real’ name Elizabeth when I want to sound ‘official’.
Having two names has worked to my advantage. Many years ago, when I was still organising all the Christmas Events with our reindeer ( thankfully our daughter Fiona does all that now ) I received a phone call from one of our clients regarding their event. After our conversation I said to the Centre Manager, ‘ I am going away for a couple of weeks and so if you have any other queries it may be best to wait till I get back’. To which the lady replied ‘ that’s no problem if you are not available, I will just ask for Tilly!’ I didn’t let on, but was amused that in this Centre Manager’s eyes there was a Tilly and an Elizabeth!
Tilly was not a common name when I was a child but in recent years I have met quite a few young Tillys! I am not someone who keeps up with changing fashions, indeed my mother used to despair of me always wearing jeans and never putting on makeup! But it would seem that I was ahead of the game when it came to my nickname!
As well as other people being called Tilly I have known of various animals with my name. Years ago I was driving up the Ski road from Aviemore back to Reindeer House and there was a chap with his ‘3 legged black labrador’ trying to hitch a lift. Feeling sorry for the dog I drew up and jumped out to let the dog jump in the back. The chap said ‘ jump in Tilly ‘ which rather took me aback before I realised he was talking to his dog!
In the mid 1980’s we became acquainted with a farmer and his wife from Keilder in Northumberland who ran a small open farm. We became best friends and over the years they both looked after reindeer for us at their farm and helped out with our reindeer events at Christmas time. John was a great stockman and could turn his hand to all types of livestock. He acquired some fallow deer and when the doe had her fawn, she wouldn’t raise it and so John and Shirley hand reared the little mite. The wee fallow became incredibly tame and was a winner with all their visitors. I was well chuffed when they announced they had called her, yup you guessed ——-‘Tilly’.
Not only do we name all our reindeer, but we also name our pedigreed Belted Galloway cattle that live on our farm at Glenlivet. When we name our reindeer calves we choose a theme for that year. Last year it was TV/film detectives, before that poets and authors, ancient civilisations etc etc. But with the cattle we go through the alphabet and in 2018 the letter was T. So strangely enough one of our heifers ( young cows ) is called Balcorrach Tilly.
And then today we received an email from a lady in the USA who had recently bought a copy of my latest book Reindeer, An Arctic Life. It transpires that she has a reindeer farm and this is what she wrote in her email:
‘Your book just arrived today and I am only one chapter in, but I already know I absolutely LOVE it. We would be honored to feature this book in our gift shop at our reindeer farm———– Already planning to name our next calf, Tilly.’
So there we go. I don’t think I ever imagined that I would have namesakes that were as diverse as a 3 legged dog, a fallow deer, a Belted Galloway cow and potentially a reindeer. What an honour. And to cap it all, very close friends had a little girl 2.5 years ago and not only did they ask me to be her Godmother but they also named her Tilly!
On our kids quiz in the Paddocks is the question ‘Name a sub-species of reindeer’, and I notice it’s often the one that people get stuck at (despite the fact that the answers are there on the display boards). I’ve realised over the years however, that this is often down to a basis lack of understanding of a percentage of the population of the concept of species and sub-species, rather than anything else. So therefore, allow me to explain.
As a zoology student (all too many years ago, so bear with me if my science is rusty!), the classification of all organic species using a system of ‘taxonomic rank’ was drilled into us. The system still in use today was founded by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 16th Century and brought order and clarity to the then chaotic and disorganised way of naming and categorizing all types of life. No wonder I loved learning about taxonomy – lists and organisation? My kinda thing.
The Linnaean system breaks down all living things into 7 major kingdoms, animals being one and plants another, and then each kingdom is broken down further, into different phyla. Then phyla are broken down once more to the next level, which is class, and the system carries on through order; family, genus and finally species. So reindeer can be categorized as such:
Kingdom: Animalia (Common name: Animals)
Phylum: Chordata (Chordates – meaning ‘possessing a nerve cord’)
Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Order: Arteriodactyla (Even-toed hooved mammals)
Family: Cervidae (the Deer family)
The two part ‘binomial’ name Rangifer tarandus is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘Latin name’, and every species in the world has one. You will be familiar with ours as Homo sapiens, and like humans, reindeer are the only species within their genus, Rangifer. A regular question from visitors is ‘So….how are reindeer different from deer?’ Bizarrely, it can be quite hard explaining to people that reindeer are deer. My usual analogy is to get people to think about lions and tigers. Both obviously cats, so therefore members of the cat family (‘Felidae’), but at the same time both clearly different species from each other. So while reindeer are a member of the deer family, they are a different species from other types of deer. For example, moose, red deer and muntjac – all clearly distinguishable in looks from one another, but crucially also genetically different.
But then, as with most things, it all gets a little more complicated. Not content with 7 major divisions, scientists introduced sub-divisions in order to break down everything further. So now there are, among others, sub-classes, sub-families, sub-genera etc. Arghh! While Rangifer has no sub-genus, there are some subspecies to contend with, and this is the relevant info that we hope people will track down in our Paddocks. All seven subspecies of reindeer and caribou are all still Rangifer tarandus, so effectively all genetically the same animal, but a subspecies is shown by adding a third name after the binomial. Just to clarify too, reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. The differences are also geographical, in that reindeer are found in Europe and Asia, while caribou are found in North America and Greenland.
So back to our seven subspecies. We have:
Eurasian Tundra reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus): Open-ground dwelling subspecies, which the majority of all domesticated reindeer belong to, including ours.
Eurasian Forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus): Boreal forest dwelling subspecies, typically taller than tundra reindeer.
Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus): Smallest subspecies, endemic to the arctic archipelago of the Svalbard islands. Short legged!
Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus): Migratory subspecies of open ground. The most similar of the caribous to our tundra reindeer.
North American woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou): Largest caribou subspecies, often darker in colour. As the name suggests, they live in forests, and generally don’t migrate.
Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi): Smallest of the caribou subspecies.
Alaskan or Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti): Migratory subspecies most closely resembling the barren-ground caribou, and named after the Porcupine river, which runs through much of their range. The longest migrating land mammal on Earth.
There have been two other subspecies in the past but these have now died out – the East Greenland Caribou and the Queen Charlotte Island Caribou.
So there you go, a brief taxonomy lesson, and congratulations to anyone who has stuck with me, as well as apologies for some slight over-simplifications for any scientists amongst you. Hopefully you’ll have all learnt something though – I’m a big believer of sneaking in educational blogs among the pretty pictures and funny stories we often post! And if it’s all too much and you’d just prefer something a bit more light-hearted, head off and google pictures of Svalbard reindeer. You’ll not be disappointed.
Why Adopt a Reindeer?
People often ask me ‘why do you adopt a reindeer of all things?’ Little do they know I could spend the next 6 hours explaining why; just how lovely they are, relaxing to be with and such gentle creatures to watch. You get free hill trips where you can walk on to the hill and hand feed them, you get certificates and photographs and surprise goodies in your adoption packs every year. You get newsletters twice per year and the adoption money goes straight to supporting the herd, I could go on……but I don’t.
If the truth be known I’ve never adopted a reindeer – they always adopt me, I just pay for the privilege. My first adoptee was Indigo back in 2003. A calm and lovable character who always had her nose in my pocket even when all feed had disappeared from my hands. I fell in love with her at first sight and continued with the adoption until her sad demise. I was lucky enough to be offered one of Indigo’s antlers which my husband, Colin, made a pair of earrings out of for me – I will treasure those forever. After Indigo died I adopted Cheer in 2014, Indigo’s great granddaughter. A very quiet and shy reindeer, not an enthusiastic hand feeder like Indigo but easy to spot, which for me is a distinct advantage! For the past 3 years I have adopted Bumble, as far as I’m concerned one of the best reindeer there has been in the herd.
However, Colin disagrees as his adopted reindeer is the majestic Olympic who adopted Colin at a Lincoln Christmas event in 2017. On this occasion Colin and I just have to agree to disagree.
This month I have adopted another impressive character Svalbard. I have spent these two weeks volunteering by hand feeding him and getting to know his lovable if not occasionally grumpy ways with people. He’s an enthusiastic hand feeder but when the food has gone he’s on his way, thank you! Although his antlers aren’t yet up to his normal impressive spread they are growing so fast you could almost sit and watch them grow to maturity.
I am currently a student at Salford University in greater Manchester, where I study wildlife conservation and practical conservation. At the university I was part of the climbing club and use to go climbing regularly to the cCairngorm National Park during the summer and winter months. During our time up there I had always wanted to visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, but just never really had the opportunity to go visit the centre and the herd.
Until around two summers ago, me and my mum had been travelling the north east coast of Scotland and were making our way up to Inverness. Once we had reached Aviemore I finally got the chance to visit the reindeer up in the hill enclosure. The first reindeer herders that I met were Dave and Lottie and the first reindeer that I fully remember meeting were Glenshee and Viking.
After visiting I wanted to spend more time with the reindeer and the people who managed the herd, so I applied to be a volunteer. Whilst I was a volunteer I had amazing hands on experience with the reindeer and learnt more about how they can live and thrive in the Cairngorm Mountains. I was lucky enough to spend time with the reindeer twins, as well as with some of the male reindeer during the time the velvet was beginning to strip from their antlers.
After my week volunteering I went on my university placement year, and managed to finish my 9 months of placement earlier than expected, and therefore I could accept a job at the reindeer centre. I am currently working as a reindeer herder for the summer. I have been living and working at the centre now for a couple of months now and I absolutely love it.
This week I’d like to talk about Tambourine and her extensive family. Tambourine was born in 2000, in our musical instruments theme. She was a distinctive looking reindeer, slightly on the petite side, with particularly pointy ears. I didn’t know her in her youth, but my memory of her in her latter years was as a rather suspicious lass with plenty of wiles and a furious expression! As a bit of a shier reindeer, she was perhaps not very well known amongst visitors, though she did have an adopter who branded their car with reindeer logos!
Tambourine was a prolific breeder, producing 12 calves over the course of her life, many of which have gone on to be good breeding reindeer themselves. Her wild streak has been passed on to her offspring, and we’ve always known that reindeer from her family will need lots of extra bribery and calm gentle handling to win their trust as calves. That said, her sons Allt, Gnu and Ost all went on to be solid, steady Christmas reindeer, not batting an eyelid at crowds and bright lights. Though they never wanted to be stroked!
Tambourine’s daughters Hobnob, Spy, Rain and Tap have all gone on to become mothers themselves. Hobnob has had three daughters (Swiss, Ocean, and this year’s as-yet-unnamed calf) and a son (Carnethy); and Spy has the same count of three daughters (Morven, Dante, and this year’s calf) and a son (Nok). Rain has reared a son (Koro) and is rearing a daughter this year. And Tap did a great job with her first calf last year, daughter Angua.
Whilst we ran both Gnu and Ost for one season as breeding bulls, we can’t say for definite that either fathered a calf. They then joined our Christmas team instead – a much more peaceful way of life!
Tambourine’s sisters Lorn and Tuppence were also successful mothers, with many descendants between them, and sister Flake attempted motherhood rather less prolifically, but I think I’ll talk about them another time – otherwise I should have titled this blog ‘Dynasties: Talisker’ and focused on their mum!
Tambourine lived to a ripe old age, finally passing away out on the mountains at 17 years old. She surpassed the average lifespan of a reindeer by several years, and leaves behind a strong family line which will hopefully continue for many years to come.
Bagheera was born in 1994 when we named the reindeer calves that year after story book characters, Bagheera being the black panther in the Jungle Book which, hands down is one of my favourites! His mother, Sami, was a very sweet and very dark reindeer. She only ever grew one antler so stood out from the crowd and like most reindeer in our herd, loved her food! She was my first memory of having a favourite reindeer in the herd. His brother Dubh was actually hand reared by ourselves as poor old Sami passed away as an old lady. He was a real character in but very different to Bagheera and also much paler in colour so he must have got that from his fathers side.
Bagheera was your classic ‘bomb proof’ Christmas reindeer. He toured the country in November and December joining a team of other reindeer and herders spreading the Christmas joy. He was always a great role model to the other younger Christmas reindeer and he grew the most impressive antlers with so many points. His super dark colouring was really quite striking and in the summer months when their coat is much finer and darker he was almost jet black.
Bagheera grew old gracefully and lived to the grand age of 17 which considering they live 12-14 years he was doing really well and just passed away of old age. Some reindeer don’t live as long as we would like and trust me some reindeer live longer than we would like 😉 Nah kidding, they are all characters and make up this wonderful herd in their own way whether it be the nicest most docile Christmas reindeer or the wildest most timid one who gives us the run around when we are herding on the Cairngorms… there is always one. I guess it keeps us fit!
Around mid March Fly, one of our mature female reindeer started to grow her antlers. March is pretty early but I suspect due to a warmer winter than we usually have and possibly the growth of vegetation starting earlier this has brought on an early antler growth in some reindeer. Fly has certainly grown some of the biggest antlers we have seen in female reindeer over the years, as well as producing some of our biggest calves so she’s certainly an asset to our herd and is now the grand age of 12… yet still looking amazing!
Here is a sequence of photos over 9 weeks showing how incredibly fast Fly’s antlers were growing.
So there you have it, a nine week antler growth process. It really is amazing how fast antler can grow and this is proof in the pudding. Thank you Fly for being such a great candidate.
Congo was one of those reindeer who all of us (older herders) here at the Centre remember so well and wish we had more time with him. However the time we did have with him was definitely quality as he was such a lovely reindeer. One of his claims to fame was, after being trained as a three year old to wear harness and pull the sleigh he was so good that one year later he was the trainer. So the new Christmas reindeer that year would be trained alongside Congo as he was such a pro.
Born in 2005, Congo’s mum was a lovely female called Lady. She was named after the Disney cartoon ‘Lady and the Tramp’ and lived to a great age. His father was a really dark male we brought over from Sweden in 2004 called Sarek. Like Lady he also had a lovely nature so Congo had everything going for him really. Congo was a really beautiful reindeer, dark features, lovely shapely antlers and the perfect character to go with it. I had him in my team during one of the earlier years I took part in the Christmas tour. In fact it was the first Christmas I did having just passed my HGV driving test so I hope I drove him around the country comfortably!
I wasn’t actually around during Congo’s younger years as I was working away and travelling the world and considering he died at only 6 years old he made a big impact on me so it just shows how special he was. Unfortunately there are no close relations through his mothers line and it’s much harder to tell through his father’s line as back in the day our record keeping wasn’t quite as up-to-scratch as it is now. That would be thanks to Hen and her methodical office work and not my blasé nature!
Unfortunately at the age of 6 years Congo picked up a disease transmitted by ticks (the bane of our reindeer lives!) called Louping-ill. It was something we hadn’t seen before in our reindeer so it was a real worry at the time and how to deal with it and more importantly how to fix it. Unfortunately Congo wasn’t the only one in autumn 2011 we lost to this particular disease so there must have been a vicious strain of it going around at the time.
So here’s to Congo. A true gent in the reindeer world and a favourite amongst us herders. It’s always nice to remember such characters who have come and gone through the herd, even if it was short lived.
‘You’re never to old to volunteer at the Reindeer Centre’ said Mel as we walked reindeer around St. Marks garden in the middle of Lincoln. We were helping out with the Christmas event.
So we offered. Two, ‘older generation’, only relatively fit people, but willing and still able to do most domestic chores we thought it was a great idea. It has turned out to be exhilarating, enjoyable and far too addictive for words, we have now been back 5 times and still loving it.
To put our past experience into context, we have adopted at least one reindeer for the last 17 years and have taken our two boys to visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd since 1989. I started life as an adopter by being adopted by Indigo during one particular hill visit! A calm and lovable character who always had her nose in my pocket even when all feed had disappeared from my hands. I fell in love with her at first sight in 2002. After she died I adopted Cheer. A very quiet and shy reindeer, not an enthusiastic hand feeder like Indigo but easy to spot, which for me is a distinct advantage! For the past 3 years I have adopted Bumble, as far as I’m concerned one of the best reindeer in today’s herd. Colin adopts Olympic, a truly majestic animal who really adopted Colin at a Christmas event we were helping at in 2017 again in Lincoln.
Therefore we were not unfamiliar with the principles of the reindeer centre or being around the reindeer on the hill. We were both very experienced mountaineers and have extensive walking experience in the Cairngorm Mountains. An amazing place when treated with respect, so daily visits to the hill did not come with any apprehension.
We rent accommodation in Aviemore for between one and three weeks at a time to make the experience a working as well as a relaxing one, after all we need rest days at our age?
The welcome at Reindeer House is always so wonderful and after a few hours we feel as though we have never been away. There are always plenty of jobs to do but our favourite is still the 11oclock hill visit come rain, shine but preferably deep snow for me.
Each member of staff have their jobs to do and we fit in comfortably. I usually help in the shop from 10oclock with tickets for the hill visit, fetching wellie boots for lending out, usually collecting the size asked for, then the next size up or down until a comfortable agreement is reached. We usually have a variety of socks available for those who need them because wellie boots can be very cold particularly in the snow. However, for some reason visitors always return the wellie boots but not the socks, even though we wash them before re-use. My solution to this problem recently has been a request in our local church’s Pews News asking for unwanted socks and in only four weeks accumulated 230 pairs of socks plus hats and scarves! That should keep Reindeer House well stocked for a while yet.
Each day one of the regular herders lead the daily hill trip and Colin and I usually bring up the rear, making sure everyone is making steady progress and closing gates behind the group. It always amazes me how determined some people are to get the opportunity to hand feed the reindeer. Colin and I helped a lady who had recently had knee replacements and was walking with two sticks but she made it up onto the mountain and back in snow and ice such was her determination to succeed and like us she was of the more mature generation.
Colin and I usually give out the hand feed after the herders have put out the main feed and counted and checked the reindeer. The visitors hold out their cupped hands as dutifully instructed and before long the same pairs of hands are reappearing! Our challenge is to make sure everyone who wants to has had at least one chance to feed a reindeer, which is why most people come of course. And really, who couldn’t resist the appealing eyes of Saxon? Just 8 months old.
Eventually, reindeer well fed and visitors happy the party begins to disperse as visitors head back independently to the car park. Feed bags collected and stuffed into rucksacks we make sure we are last off the hill and the reindeer are settled. We head for Reindeer House and a well deserved lunch.
The afternoon jobs usually start off with me clearing the paddocks and overnight woodland area of reindeer droppings ready to be transported to the farm for composting. I often help out in the shop, restocking the shelves or dealing with visitors to the paddocks. Colin usually washes the lunch pots then the wellie boots or you may find him wandering around the paddocks chatting with visitors. December volunteering is the busiest when at the weekends I do crafts with the children in the BBQ hut and Colin keeps the paddocks clean and Santa occupied with excited children.
After filling the troughs with feed in the woods and calling the reindeer through, we help tidy and lock up ready for another adventure tomorrow.