Learning Reindeer Names

“What’s this one called?” “That’s Aonach again..”

 

A scenario similar to this one has occurred many times since I came back to work at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd this summer. In the past blogs have been written about how herders learn the reindeer names, and I desperately read a couple of those in the hopes of finding ways of dealing with all of the reindeer names. People who have worked here for some time seem to be able to recognise a particular reindeer from a fairly long distance or a photograph, whereas I’ve been stuck in the phase of trying to sneak up on a reindeer to be able to read his ear tag number,  after which I can use my cheat sheet to check his name.

To change this the other way around I decided to have a little ID’ing session. Like usual, I sneaked up on a couple of regurgitating reindeer to have a quick look at their ear tag number. I always try to look at the reindeer’s distinct features first, but, to be fair, many look quite similar in the beginning and except from a few very distinct ones it can be really hard to spot something outstanding which tells the reindeer apart from the others. I think I followed reindeer Lomond all the way across the enclosure, trying to read his bloody ear tag number. It’s easier to read when they are eating their food, so while my colleague Hen distributed the food in nice small piles I started to ID them along the line. But, reindeer being animals, they moved about a lot. So it happened a couple of times that I was staring hard at a certain reindeer, hoping for an “aha” moment, not getting one, sneaking around him to check the ear tag number, only to find out I’ve just had him 3 spots back in the line! After going up and down the line a couple of times, with some reindeer encountered at least 10 times and others not once, I decided it was time to call it a day in terms of ID’ing. Unfortunately, as soon as I got back to the centre and looked at a photo I’d made that morning, I realised I couldn’t even identify the reindeer in the photo!! This meant it was time for drastic measures.

ID’ing reindeer is quite important as the first way we know something could be wrong with a reindeer is when he doesn’t show up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Reindeer like their food and just like you and me, if they’re not enthusiastic about eating, something’s the matter. It is then the herder’s duty to quickly go over all the reindeer present to check who’s missing. And since reindeer are not like school children in that they won’t dutifully participate in a role call, the best way to quickly do this is to identify each and every one of them by sight as soon as possible. So there you go, the quicker you learn the names, the better.

As a last resort I decided to consult my own knowledge about learning in general. I’ve just finished my English teacher education at uni, so I’ve learned a lot about how people learn and memorise things. One of the ways people memorise vocabulary best is by creating mnemonic devices. One way to do so is to link the word you’re learning (so what it is) to something that sounds very similar to the word. For example, the French word for to eat is manger (pronounced mahn-zhay). A manger in English is a bowl or trough to put animal food in, link this word to the French word (same in spelling, different pronunciation) and you have your mnemonic device. Here are a few of the things I came up with, some of them made my colleagues chuckle..

 

 

Lomond (901) – Loch Lomond is the 1st landmark you come across when you walk the West Highland Way.

Fyrish (903) – The (F)Irish flag has 3 colours.

 

 

Spartan (004) – Spartans were born for (4) fighting.

 

Olmec (008) – Olmec ate (=8) chocolate (The Olmecs were a Latin American tribe that were the first to consume chocolate!).

Jute (013) – the Jutes brought bad luck (13 = unlucky) to England (the Jutes were a Germanic tribe that invaded England).

Roman (018) – For a lot of Roman stories you have to be 18 or older to be allowed to read them … (The Latin stories about old Rome contain a lot of sexual harassment…).

 

Burns (103) – When you have a 3rd degree burn wound you have to go to the hospital.

 

Now I know most of the reindeer in the hill enclosure!

Manouk

Fyrish and I during a morning IDing session

Spartan looking very handsome

 

Quirky Reindeer! (part one)

Just like humans, reindeer come in all shapes, sizes and colours so here are some of the reindeer in our herd who stand out from the crowd. Whether they grow no antlers, are pure white (which is very rare) or maybe part of their body isn’t quite ‘the norm’, they still fit into the herd just like all the others absolutely fine. If anything it makes them very easy to identify to us herders.

I have split this blog into two parts telling you about the females first and in part two I’ll tell you about the male reindeer. Turns out we have a few quirky reindeer in the herd it’s worth the split. I won’t go into quirky reindeer herders or I’d be here all day 😉

 

Malawi:

At the age of 13, Malawi has been around for a long time. She is fairly aloof in her character and not one to be in your face at hand feeding time. She likes to keep herself to herself. Malawi has never grown any antlers. This isn’t uncommon with female reindeer and in the past we have had a few reindeer not grow any antlers – Arnish and Diddly to name a couple. We have also had cases where certainly females haven’t grown any antlers, then one year they decide to grow one antler. This was the case with Cheery and Ferrari. I think Ferrari was 9 years old when she grew her first antler. This doesn’t seem to affect their position in the herd when it comes to dominance and certainly with Arnish I would say she was one of our more dominant females in her days. I guess when you don’t have antlers to push the other reindeer around you have to think of other ways and Arnish was more like a bulldozer at times, head down and move them on with brute force and confidence. It seemed to work for her!  Malawi is now the only reindeer in our herd with no antlers but I’m sure once she has gone there will be more to come so we will wait and see!

Malawi

Blondie:

She is an old girl now at the age of 12 years and she was actually one of the first ‘pure white’ reindeer to be born into our herd. This is an rare condition within reindeer and it is called Leucism. I believe cats can also be leucitic. With this condition it does mean that Blondie is completely deaf. We have tested this theory many times when we arrive to the herd, very chilled out and relaxed and Blondie is in fact fast asleep. Where the other reindeer wake up when they hear us coming Blondie is still flat out asleep and eyes closed. Until we wake her up gently, so she doesn’t get a fright.  Of course in the wild this would be a massive disadvantage as they wouldn’t hear predators coming or even when they are a calf they would hear their mother calling but having got to the age of 12 Blondie has obviously coped well with her deafness and it doesn’t seem to slow her down. Other pure white and deaf reindeer have included Lego and Blue who are no longer with us.

Blondie, as white as the snow

Meadow:

Meadow has no ears… She wasn’t born like this, this happened when she was a calf on the free range with her mother Maisie. Sometimes when reindeer fall very ill and maybe we aren’t around to give assistance because the herd are free ranging, this can go one of two ways. Their bodies may not be able to cope with the illness in which case they pass away but on the other hand they may be fighters and battle through, even though their body suffers for it. In Meadows case she battled through something (we aren’t sure what) and as a result her body stopped the blood circulation to other parts of her body which didn’t necessarily need it. The tops of her ears were the first place to be affected and the skin dies and falls off. Hooves can also be another part of the body they cast due to lack of blood and the body ‘fixing’ itself. As an adult, Meadow has gone on to live a healthy happy life ad this hasn’t affected her at all, infact I would say she is one of our biggest females in the herd. Another reindeer who has completely lost the tops of his ears is Celt, a two year old young male. Sometimes the don’t lose the whole of the tops of their ears, just the very tip and this is the case with Pony, Wapiti, Jaffa and Gloriana.

 

Meadow on the move

Fiona

Reindeer Diaries: The Interview

Hi my name is Alison (Ali) and I’ve been asked to write a blog.  To be honest I’m not really sure what a blog even is so I’ll do my best (or worst) first blog.  So I might as well start from the very beginning.

 

I am a new reindeer herder at the centre and I have never worked with animals before in my life.  I gained my job apparently as I was good with people (the hard bit) and the reindeer bit I can easily learn.  Reindeer are fascinating animals and I have certainly learnt a lot about them since my first close up encounter with them.

Ali and the twins

My interview involved trudging up a snowy mountain, thigh deep snow in places, looking for a herd of reindeer in the mist.  What a magical moment finding the herd at the top of that hill.

 

Not a bad sight for your first reindeer encounter!

While herding them down we reached a large patch of snow, I was amazed to have 45+ reindeer charging past either side of me, it was as if it they were dancing in delight with legs moving in crazy directions.  This happened each time we reached a large patch of snow.    On one occasion one of the yearlings was so excited he started running in circles as the rest of the herd had confused expressions trying to decide if they should follow him or not.  I remember thinking even if I don’t get the job this experience alone will be a fantastic memory that will stick with me forever.  Luckily I got the job and have had many more tales to tell.

 

Ali (Reindeer Herder)

Bumble!

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Lilibet

 

Whilst wondering what to write about, I happened to flick back through some of our old photos, and Lilibet’s familiar face made me smile, so I thought I’d talk a little about her, as she was such a character in the herd.

Lilibet with mum Glacier, at 3 months old

Lilibet was born in 2002, to mum Glacier, one of the lightest coloured reindeer in the herd. As a young calf, she was brown in colour with a white forehead, which suggested she would turn white as she grew into her adult coat. White reindeer are relatively unusual in our herd, but Lilibet was a proper chip off the old block, and almost the spitting image of her mum. Glacier was a very friendly reindeer and taught her calves to be the same – usually when youngsters see mum marching determinedly towards humans and their bags of feed, they follow suit! Glacier had many calves over the course of her life, several of which were white, and one of which, Blondie, is pure white (leucistic) with blue eyes. 2002 was our 50th anniversary, and it was also the Queen’s golden jubilee, so Lilibet was named with the Queen’s nickname.

Lilibet in her prime

Lilibet went on to have several calves of her own, and has also passed on the “white” genetics to her own calves. Oryx was born in 2008, in the theme of “antlered and horned animals” and was light coloured with a pure white face. He was the first of a trend for Lilibet’s calves – we try to make links with mothers where possible to help us remember who’s related to who – so all of Lilibet’s calves ended up beginning with the letter “O”. Light coloured Oreo and Origami followed in 2009 and 2011 respectively, but then there was a surprise in 2012 when her calf, Olympic, was one of the darkest of the year! He was the dark sheep of the family so to speak, but is a very lovely fellow!

Lilibet with calf Oryx at just a few hours old

Lilibet was always a character within the free-ranging herd, a real friendly face who was delighted to see us (well, the food bag anyway) and very dependable in following along to where you wanted the herd. She had a knack of worming her nose into the feed sack and proving incredibly difficult to extract!

 

As is the case with many of our lovely old females, Lili passed away out on the high tops over summer at the ripe old age of 14. It feels like the right way for them to go, in their natural habitat on the hills that they know so well. She’d been a wonderful member of the herd and her legacy lives on with her sons Oryx, Origami and Olympic still entertaining us with their great natures.

 

Andi

Lilibet with sons Oryx, Oreo and Origami

Tales of a Reindeer Herder: Kate’s first day

For the previous few months we have been joined by a new reindeer herder called Kate who helped us out over the busy calving period. Kate was so brilliant to have around we asked her to stay a little longer until some of our regular summer staff returned through June and July. We expect to have her back at some point in the near future, but for now she has headed off to enjoy some summer wanderings. Before she left Kate wrote some lovely short stories about her time herewith some excellent drawings. Keep an eye out over summer for the next installments of her stories. Hopefully we can have Kate back here at Reindeer House in the autumn!

Kate taking Lulu and the twins out for some grazing accompanied by Glenshee

First day on the job – Lost in the fog

During the first hour as a reindeer herder I had managed to become a very soggy, panting mess who was lost in the fog somewhere on windy ridge with not the foggiest where the herd had gone. I remembered thinking to myself; this has gone terribly wrong- I’m not even going to make it through the first day!

It was mid-April and there were still patches of snow on the hills. My first sighting of the reindeer was brilliant, the whole free range of females were running towards us as we walked over a brow of a hill. It was an amazing sight, and one I won’t forget in a hurry, the reindeer looked beautiful and majestic in full winter white coats and impressive antlers. I was marvelling at what a lovely greeting we got, but Mel pointed out they probably came our way being spooked by something from the opposite direction. Then off we went, it was Mel leading the herd to the lower levels and me bringing u the rear, but unlike the agile reindeer that excitedly skip, gliding over the snow patches I ran behind panting and sank straight into a snow hole (Vicar of Dibley style). Up on my feet again I was wondering how on earth I was to keep up with these four legged creatures when 5 of them decided to go in the opposite direction. Standing in the middle of the groups, I thought I can’t lose reindeer on my first mission and went gallivanting after the strays. Of course being a herd animal , it really says it all , and the wanderers then did a full circle galloping off to join the rest, leaving myself lost in the fog. Luckily it wasn’t long until I found the herd again and the rest of the first day went more smoothly.

Kate

Kate’s first day

Finding the free-ranging females

An incredibly important part of the life of a Cairngorm reindeer is its time free-ranging. For the male reindeer their time to free-range is the cold winter months, where they happily roam the Cromdale hills keeping out of mischief. The life of a female Cairngorm reindeer is even wilder, with almost the entire year spent free-ranging the mountains apart from time in the enclosure during calving and rutting.

Who can spot Dixie? (Clue: she only ever grows one antler)

When the reindeer are free-ranging there are no fences holding them in, and they are able to walk anywhere they chose however they are only meant to be on some of the land. If they venture off our land in search of a tasty bit of lichen we move them back to where they are meant to be. This often involves a day walking in the mountains looking for reindeer and sometimes moving them to a better location. There are a number of ways to move a herd of reindeer. For those of you who have been on our hill trips you will know how keenly they follow a bag of food; however they will only follow food so far. Another good technique is to lead a few of the reindeer on halters and hope that the rest of the herd follow. A week or so ago Fiona came across a group of naughty females reindeer just off our land, she was unable to move the group on her own so we waited for a day clear enough to move them.

Free-rangers found by Fiona the previous week

 

 

On a clear day last week sometime (well mostly clear above the mountains at least) Fi, Tilly, Chris and I headed up to move a group of the free-ranging females from the tops of the northern corries further down the mountains. We headed up in pairs up two separate ridges to maximise ground coverage with the plan to join together when we found reindeer.

Chris and Tilly headed up Cairn Gorm and soon spotted the group of reindeer. So Fi and I headed towards them with Chris catching us up on route. We reached the group of reindeer just in time as the clouds covered us. We decided the distance we wanted to move them was too large to persuade them with a bag of food so instead decided to halter a few of them. Having caught the ten most willing reindeer we headed down to meet Tilly who was coming up from below. We then walked with the reindeer for about an hour till we found the right spot to leave them with a bit of food each in the hope that they will now stay in that area. Tilly went out walking a few days later and didn’t see any reindeer where they weren’t meant to be so it seems our mission was a success.

Fi, Chris and I leading the reindeer down to meet Tilly

Spending a day in the hills is always one of my favourite things to do, but when it involves interacting with the reindeer in their environment it really is a pretty special experience. A day like this has got to be one of the highlights of being a reindeer herder.

 

Lotti

Chris looking grumpy after Gazelle and Merida were being pests on the headcollars. Also because Tilly was leading Inca, one of his favourite reindeer.
How do we get across these boulders?

 

Exciting times ahead!

Mid April here has a definite ‘calm before the storm’ feeling. The area has quietened down as the school holidays have finished and all is peaceful on the reindeer front…but it won’t be for long. At the start of May, all hell will break loose.

A growing belly!

Calving is nearly upon us. Although we know exactly which females ran with bulls during the rut last autumn and should therefore be pregnant now, it’s not easy to tell with a reindeer, and it’s really only into April that bellies start looking that little bit more than just well padded. Scanning them like farmers do with sheep is obviously completely impractical, so all we do is to keep an eye on the possible candidates and watch for rapidly expanding tummies. Literally within a couple of weeks reindeer can go from looking exactly the same as their non-pregnant chums, to looking absolutely enormous! As I write, in mid-April, we’re in the middle of that stage, and every day someone will remark on a particular reindeer’s sudden portliness. The weather has finally warmed up too, and with the reindeer still having their full thick winter coats as well as extra weight to lug about, they are looking like they are starting to find it all a bit of an effort, and there’s lots of huffing and puffing when the herd move from place to place.

A couple of hot and bothered pregnant female reindeer

By the time you read this, we’ll have moved the herd across to our hill enclosure, and will be doing a bit of sorting out. Non-pregnant females will go back out onto the free-range to spend their summer there looking after themselves, while male yearlings will be split from their mums and be moved across to join the other male reindeer at our farm, near Glenlivet. Pregnant females will stay in the hill enclosure until they’ve calved, and then will head out to the hills to join the other females, leaving us to bring male reindeer across to the enclosure from the farm, to duly entertain all the visitors through the busy summer months.

The biggest pregnant belly I’ve ever seen! This is old lass Chime, back in 2010
‘A small hairy udder! Seen here on Emmental, with her now two year old Olmec beside her’

Once bellies give away obviously pregnant reindeer, then the next clue is an udder starting to form. Reindeer don’t have huge udders like cows do, as no arctic animal wants a frost-bitten udder, but instead have much smaller, fur-covered udders and produce smaller volumes of  milk, but much richer in fat than that from a cow.

Any sign of udders yet?

As many of you probably know, all the staff here take part in a calving bet to pick who they think will calve first. Winning doesn’t really matter; it’s not being last that is most important, as a cold swim in the loch awaits the unfortunate loser (as told by myself and Abby on a previous blog:  The Calving Bet. So from now on until the start of May, there will be a lot of inspecting bellies and peering between back legs to be done…

Hen

 

N.B. Details of which reindeer are pregnant will be kept under wraps by us until our June newsletter for our adopters has been published – so don’t ask us whether so-and-so is due to calve this year! If you recognise a reindeer in the photos above, keep it to yourself…