The weather here has been chilly but there really hasn’t been more than a sprinkling of the white stuff – maybe it’s all being saved up for February but it has to be the most snow-free January I’ve had up here. We had a few days with a dusting of snow on the ground on the hill, but with a mild day today much of it has melted. The reindeer don’t mind, and are enjoying the cool temperatures whilst having easy access to the grazing still.
There’s a forecast for more snow in the next week though, so we’ll wait and see!
For the calves born in 2012 the theme was just ‘2012’ because so much happened that year. It was he Queen’s Jubilee year our 60th anniversary and also the London Olympics. So we had great fun coming up with diverse names to suit the theme and as one of the biggest calves of the year Balmoral was aptly named.
He was, however, a mistake! During the rut of 2011, when Balmoral was conceived, we attempted to restrict the number of cows breeding by leaving them out on the free-range without a bull. That all seemed fine until a young bull, Strudel, went missing in the hill enclosure and turned up a few weeks later on the free range having found ‘heaven’, i.e. lots of reindeer females – even more than your average breeding bull would manage in a season.
Fly was one of those cows left out but ended up in calf to Strudel. But we’re not complaining because there are now some great reindeer in the herd now as a result from that rutting season in 2011.
During the 35 plus years I have been with the reindeer there have been some iconic bull reindeer who have stood out amongst the rest of the herd. In the early 1980s it had been Troll: great name (from the children’s story Billy Goat’s Gruff – and yes there was a Trip and a Trap too) and an equally great reindeer. His son Gustav, a real gentleman among reindeer, took over from him in the late 80s and early 90s. Then we brought in a young bull from Whipsnade Zoo for new blood and that was Crackle, who featured in many photos, leaflets and articles about the herd. Indeed he was the reindeer on the front cover of the first book I wrote about reindeer, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’.
In 2003, a bull calf named Crann was born and by two years old he showed all the signs of being something special. As a mature breeding bull he grew huge antlers year after year, probably the biggest antlers that have ever been seen in the Cairngorm herd and right up until his last year he continued to grow amazing antlers for his age.
By 2015, Balmoral was the most promising young bull in the herd, growing huge antlers as a three year old. As a result, we decided to give him a shot as a breeding bull, allowing him to father some calves, rather than being castrated as most of the other three year old males are. In 2016 he looked incredible with even bigger antlers, and ended up being the main breeding bull that autumn, with many of the calves born last spring fathered by him. He’s well and truly spread his genes about! His son Burns, born May 2017, who is big, bold and boisterous may well follow in his footsteps and become a breeding bull in his own right in a couple of years.
As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…
Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.
Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.
While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.
From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.
But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.
Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…
So apparently a 2 day stint of volunteering at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre earns someone the dubious honour of writing a blog!!
We have been visiting the reindeer for 14 years or so now. On our first visit we fell in love with a gorgeous calf called Java, immediately sponsored him and the rest as they say is history! We currently adopt Sambar and Orkney for ourselves and a further 3 reindeer for family members at Christmas, Scrabble, Jaffa and Gazelle.
I have been up to reindeer house previously to volunteer, allegedly to help out, but probably cause as much of a hindrance! But I have never been in the snow, so when the opportunity came up this year I jumped at the chance. Although I was away for 4 days, I was only able to be at the centre for 2 days as coming up from Leeds I needed a day travelling at either end.
I arrived at 9am, as instructed, on a gorgeous, cold Tuesday morning to be met by the lovely Chris, Andi and Olly, who were only too keen to introduce me to the delights of being a volunteer reindeer herder. Apparently the most important job, and I really have no issue with this, is making tea! This however can only be done after clearing up the reindeer poo from the paddock area, followed by a quick guide of where all the necessary switches for the fab information displays are, oh and checking the videos are on, stationary filled up, water heater switched on and a general tidy up, and I thought I was kind of on holiday!! Thankfully there was an ‘idiots guide’ for all this, as the next day I ended up doing it on my own! Including bringing the reindeer out of the woods at the side of the paddock into the display area, thankfully, as any of you who have visited the herd will know, all you really have to do is show them some food and they will follow you anywhere!
All that done and tea made and drunk, I was lucky enough to go on the hill visit with Chris and Olly, leaving Andi holding the fort at reindeer house. It was a stunningly beautiful day and the reindeer behaved impeccably, although it had taken Alex some time to bring them down off the mountains, where they had been free ranging, to the enclosure on the hill. I have, as I said, visited a number of times before but have never seen so many people on a hill trip, it is all good for the centre as they obviously need to make money to look after the reindeer and this is such a lovely way to generate income.
When we got back off the hill there was time for a quick bite to eat at the café next door (well worth a visit) and then back to the hard work. My next job was to mix the reindeer feed. Oats, hay, beets, molasses and sheep feed….mmmm lovely. I do have to mention here that the hay is coated with garlic, apparently this helps protect the reindeer from biting insects in summer and is generally good for them. It is also very good at making your hands and clothes very smelly, I suspect I will not have to worry about vampires for some time to come!
I joined the other team members in the office after that. I really would love to have the view out of my office window that they are lucky enough to have there…wow! My suggestion of some form of office Winter Olympics fell on deaf ears, I’m sure chair ice hockey would have been a sure fire hit….think they were too busy though. It did open my eyes as to how much work goes into running the business. Andi has just re-done the website, and a great job she has made of it. Chris was arranging all the Adoption requests that were coming in online and Olly was hammering lots of nails into the wall…think he just likes making a noise! All the day to day stuff does take a lot of time and then there are the reindeer to be looked after too, a herders work is never done.
On my drive back to my accommodation at the end of the day, I joined the steady stream of traffic coming off the mountain from a day skiing. As we were approaching Loch Morlich, everyone was braking and pulling into the side of the road, being the nosey person I am, I followed. I was rewarded with the most amazing sunset over the mountains and loch, absolutely incredible.
Day 2 of my visit was a bit chaotic in the morning. Chris and Olly had gone to bring the herd down from the mountain for the visitors to see in the enclosure, which left poor Dave alone with me at the centre. While he was dealing with everyone in the shop wanting to book on the tour, I opened up the enclosure, following my idiots guide to the letter…no one complained, so I think I did it right. Reindeer were in the right place at the right time anyway! The herd on the mountains, however, were not so obliging this morning and really took a lot of persuasion to move, the hill visit had to be delayed until 12, but no one seemed to mind and it was all worth it in the end.
I did the hill tour with Dave and Chris. It is interesting to look on and see how the different herders give such great tours, but in a different way to each other, they say the same thing but put their own take on it. Dave had to cope with one or 2 interesting questions from a few of the children on the visit and was very patient when one youngster kept putting him right on his pronunciation of ‘lichen’, he is a New Zealander so deserves a bit of stick (Fiona originally wrote ‘slack’ but we think he deserves some stick for it!). When it was time to come down off the hill, we were obviously last out of the paddock, but as there was a bit of a queue in front of us, and we were all hungry, alternative methods of getting down the snowy valley sides were explored. Dave and Chris just ran down the side to the bottom near the river, I’m not sure they actually expected me, a middle aged Yorkshire woman to follow them….but of course I did. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was that their legs are considerably longer and younger than mine, so although I managed to run about 5 steps straight down, I ended up on my backside for the rest of it…my own version of the luge afterall! It was great fun until I was aware the river was fast approaching but thankfully managed to stop in time!
The rest of the day was less of an adrenalin rush thankfully! I was in the office having a fuss with the dogs and generally chilling out until it was time to leave.
I had such a wonderful time in my 2 days there, I will always be grateful to the herders, firstly for letting me spend time there but also for their patience, time and guidance. They are a great group of people and do an amazing job, giving us all the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in their natural environment. Thanks guys!
Burns Suppers celebrate the life and work of the Scots poet Robert Burns. More commonly known as Burns Night the suppers take place on or around his birthday, 25th January and are effectively a second national day in Scotland. Here at Reindeer House we just love any excuse to get together and eat some fantastic food with some great company! For those of you that don’t know about the Burns Supper tradition here’s a brief overview of what we got up to last night at our Burns Supper, along with some tales of our reindeer named Burns, seeing as this is a reindeer blog after all!
Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, Ayshire and lived until he was 37. He is known and celebrated worldwide for his poetry much of which was written in the Scots language or Scots dialect. Whilst many of his poems were of the Romanticism style he lived through a period of political repression. His work often reflected or commented upon this and some considered him to be a radical and revolutionary which perhaps helped give him such a huge following during and after his lifetime.
The poem and song “Auld Lang Syne” is sung all over the world on Hogmanay and is one of Rabbie Burns’ most famous works. Other well known work by him includes “Scots Wha Hae”, a patriotic song which became an unofficial national anthem for Scotland. It was written in the form of a speech from Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 where Scotland defeated England in Battle. Romantic work included (My Love is Like) “A Red, Red Rose” whilst “Tam o’ Shanter” and “To a Mouse” reflect on his upbringing as a tenant farmer. For us though at Reindeer House his “My Heart’s in the Highlands” seems most appropriate!
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer; Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Farewell to the mountains, high-cover’d with snow, Farewell to the straths and green vallies below; Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods, Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods. My heart’s in the Highlands.
If you needed further persuasion of Robert Burns’ stature then did you know he won a contest run by STV to be called “The Greatest Scot” of all time in 2009? It is a rather impressive feat to have beaten Mel Gibson (William Wallace) to the title don’t you think? Perhaps he was aided by some of his extremely impressive nicknames that make him sound more like a cross between a rap artist and a boxer:
– The Bard of Ayrshire
– The Ploughman Poet
– Or just plain Rabbie Burns
Burns Suppers have been taking place for over two centuries with the evenings format barely changing over the years. There is usually a general welcome followed by the “Selkirk Grace”
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
Supper usually then begins with a soup dish such as Scotch broth or Cullen skink before everyone stands for the “Piping” of the haggis (this is exactly how it sounds). We stand whilst the haggis is brought into the room by the cook whilst a piper plays a tune such as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” written by Burns. Before you can eat the haggis though, you must first address it! “Address to a Haggis” is a poem written to a haggis with the opening line of Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face” (translated as Nice seeing your honest, chubby face). At last we can eat the haggis! Served with neeps (swede) and tatties (potatoes) our meal last night was delicious! The evening concludes with an often amusing “Toast to the Lassies” and a reply for the laddies before a vote of thanks is given and everyone stands to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.
As you can see we had a fantastic evening, but back to the reindeer!
As well as giving us an excuse for a party at the end of January, Rabbie Burns is of particular importance to us because we have a reindeer named after him! This year our calves were named after authors, writers and poets so we obviously had to name one Burns. He has turned out to be one of the biggest, strongest and healthiest calves of the year. He is extremely tame and bold and quickly became quite a cheeky chappy. We have him marked down, along with Dr Seuss, as being one of the biggest characters of the next few year but hopefully neither of them will misbehave too much in the following years as young bulls like Fergus did.
When he came in off the free range in late summer with his mother Gazelle he had broken one of his antlers and it was growing over his face making it difficult for him to feed. We called out the vet who cut away the antler from his face and after a short while with a bandage in the shed he recovered well to become the strong healthy calf that he is. We are interested to see next year whether his antler will grow back in a more “normal” direction and shape or whether the pedicle from which the antler grows has been damaged and Burns will perhaps always grow one antler in a funny shape and direction.
It has been an exceptionally mild winter here in the Cairngorms; the ski season never really seemed to kick off, the herders are missing the snow and it has just felt a bit wetter and warmer than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed how early the snowdrops and daffodils seem to have emerged and we have noticed that the hills are looking a bit greener with the heather and deer sedge starting to grow already. Looking at the Met Office summary for winter 2016-2017, temperatures are up about 3.0°C on average (average being data from 1981-2010) in the UK.
For the reindeer, this warming winter could have lots of effects, and we have recently heard of the reindeer in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia, starving to death due to increased rainfall in the autumn freezing and leaving a thick layer of ice impenetrable to them for foraging.
Our reindeer seem to be coping just fine and it has not frozen here enough for them not to reach their favourite food, lichen. However, research done by previous reindeer herder Heather Hanshaw has shown that weather conditions do definitely affect the proportion of male to female calves born in the spring. Since calving will soon be upon us, I thought it might interest you to know about this research and what our mild winter may mean for us in the upcoming weeks.
Heather studied Physical Geography at Edinburgh University and in her final year needed a project to study. Of course, having an interest in climate as well as reindeer, and having worked at the Reindeer Centre, a project about how climate affects them was a natural interest to Heather. She knew that Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren had been very meticulous about the data kept on calves born in the Cairngorm herd, and climate data was easily enough accessed, so Heather devised a project determining if weather (temperature and rainfall) had any effect on the proportion of male to female reindeer calves born. A similar study was conducted with Red deer on the Isle of Rum, and their study found that milder winters led to more male calves. Would it be the same or opposite of Rum, or would weather have no effect on the Reindeer?
It turns out that Reindeer are similar to Red deer and when the winter temperature increases, so does the proportion of male calves. So, will that turn out to be true this year? With only a few weeks until calving begins, it will be interesting to look at whether we have lots of male calves this year.
Last year the winter seemed fairly average, possibly on the warm side a little, and our calving ratio was almost perfectly 1 male to 1 female, so it will be really interesting to see if this mild winter has had an effect on what will be born this May.
As the year rolls from March into April, here in the Highlands we start to see more definite signs of spring. The snowdrops have of course been and gone, but now the daffodils are out in their full glory, along with primroses and crocuses. There is a noticeable difference in the grass too – during March there is very little colour in the fields, everything is a washed out browny-yellow. But as April approaches, I start squinting at the verges – is there just a hint of fresh green there? By now there is no doubt, the Paddocks and garden are looking almost lush and their first cut is fast approaching. For all of you down in England, I do appreciate that you’ve probably had the lawnmower out several times already, but we have the longest winters in the UK here – one of the reasons it is still a suitable habitat for reindeer.
Up on the mountain, the deer grass is breaking through, and the first migrant birds are arriving back from their winter holidays – there were three ring ouzel squabbling their way along the path as I walked out to feed the herd this morning. I’ve heard tell that the first swallows are in Devon (it’ll still be a few days until they pass by us) and the distinctive osprey pair are back at Loch Garten – we popped along the other day and were glad to see EJ hanging out on the nest, and a brief visit from her long-term partner Odin. Last year I watched a pair circling over the hill enclosure, just checking out Black Loch perhaps before deciding it wasn’t suitable to nest at.
April is a fun time to spend with the reindeer, with anticipation in the air. The females tend to be relaxed and lazy, with heavy tummies and enjoying the fresh grazing starting to come through. Their coats have lost their sheen and are starting to moult, and most of last year’s antlers have fallen off, with some making good progress on this year’s set. Slightly less relaxing (for us, but not the reindeer) is the start of the Easter holidays, with its associated rush of visitors. Having a limit on numbers for the Hill Trip has certainly made our lives less stressful though and hopefully improves the experience for our visitors too – just a reminder to come early if you’re coming for the Trip to make sure you get tickets!
The other slight bit of stress is that all of us herders are assessing who we should pick for our calving “bet” – the annual game of trying to guess who will calve first. Us herders spend a lot of time peering at bellies and potential developing udders, trying to work out who is pregnant and who is likely to calve early. There isn’t any money put down, and indeed no prize for winning, but the person whose reindeer calves last has to swim in the loch! The decisions are mostly made now, but I’m already slightly apprehensive that I’ve made the wrong choice – suddenly everyone else’s choices appear much rounder in the belly department than mine… I’ll stick to my guns though with fingers crossed!
Normally, spring is a welcome relief after a long hard winter… this year I can’t really claim that as it’s been a very easy winter with little snow, but it’s still lovely to see the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, with the promise of a (hopefully) long, glorious summer ahead. Fingers crossed that it’s warm to make for an easier swim if I end up losing the bet!
So you’ve all heard a bit from ‘Team Handi’ (Hen and Andi) on tour at Christmas but thought I’d do a wee write up of my travels round the country during November and December 2016. For my main stint away I was with newbie truck driver, but not newbie reindeer herder, Eve. We set off with our six lovely reindeer – Elvis, Oryx, Rummy, Stenoa, Viking and Pict, sleigh, decorations, reindeer feed and bowls, yoga mat, smoothie maker (priorities), and a cab full of delicious snacks for along the way… Houmous and dark chocolate (not together) being a very important part of this!
So we had some lovely reindeer and of course being away with them for a couple of weeks you really get to know their characters. Elvis is our poser of the group. He is always super inquisitive, first over for his food and certainly doesn’t act his age which is ten (nearly 11 now). Oryx is Mr Sensible. He’s a total professional in his field (harness and sleigh pulling) and is a great role model to the new Christmas reindeer. Rummy is the grumpy (not so old) man of the group, though is very chilled out and usually first to lie down once he’s had a good feed and finally Stenoa, who tells off humans who aren’t reindeer herders which is amusing for us. He is the youngest of the four adults we had away. This was his second Christmas so having seen the bright lights before he was a good boy and took it all in his stride. Our calves were Viking, who was THE BEST! – he has a cheeky yet solid character… an ‘Oryx’ in the making I think, and the other calf was Pict who was such a little sweetie. Pict was probably one of the more timid calves of the year so we wanted to make sure he had a good time away with us. His progress was excellent and it didn’t take long for him to just be like the others… but with such great role models it’s not hard!
Our travels took us as far south as Chatham and Basingstoke so we spent a few days round the Cambridge area staying at a farm run by friends of ours. If we weren’t off to do an event our daily routine would be firstly to take the reindeer for some exercise. This was in a horse paddock beside the houses so we would walk them round on head collars then once in the paddock we could let them all off and give them a good run around. This also exercised us quite nicely too! We even found a ball which Viking and Rummy were very curious about. The others obviously aren’t football fans! We’d then walk them back to their yard and barn for breakfast which was more like them leading us back… they really do love their food the reindeer. After breakfast and yard cleaning duties we then had the day to ourselves which usually involved a nice walk somewhere or a trip into town. Two country girls in the middle of Cambridge is quite hilarious. Just a little bit out of our comfort zone!
On one occasion after our morning duties we had quite the treat lined up. David Mills, conservationist from the British Wildlife Centre was visiting with his partner Dame Judi Dench. The connection was through the two charities, the CRT (Countryside Restoration Trust) and the British Wildlife Centre. We have had strong connections with the CRT for many years now with Tilly being a trustee of the charity, and David and Judi were coming up to visit our friends but also coming to see the reindeer. The couple were really lovely and I think quite taken by the reindeer… lets face it who isn’t! Elvis, Oryx and Viking were the stars of the show… Of course. And this wasn’t the last time we were to meet David and Judi as we were doing an event at Ascot Racecourse closer to Christmas and who wanders over to the pen? Again it was lovely to have a chat, but this time with a different team of reindeer as we had been home with our first team and come south with a different team so they got to meet some other members of the herd.
During our first trip away we only had 5 events to do over two weeks and for the first 4 events we had volunteers coming to help out. Lesley, Yvonne and Paul turned up at our events and helped for the day which was great… except we got to our 5th event and suddenly we had to do everything ourselves. That was a wakeup call! Lol.
Folk music rocked out of our lorry cab. It’s important to have a team mate with a similar taste in music! We’d pick up words and phrases along the way that only we understood what they meant… This did mean when someone else joined our team or we met up with another reindeer team they were sure we were bonkers. We’d talk to the reindeer like they were one of us, naturally of course (it’s ok we know we are completely mad). We were called sisters constantly – but just cos we have blonde hair doesn’t mean we are related. All in all we had a great time away, the reindeer, as always, were absolute stars. They make us so proud. Needless to say they were delighted when they got home, as were we! I like going south but it is very different to the Highlands of Scotland so I will stick to doing it for a couple of weeks in the year. There is no place like home!
If I was a gardener I would be looking out for the first signs of spring, daffodils pushing out of the ground and buds beginning to form on the trees. But I’m not. I’m a reindeer herder so the buds of spring I look out for are the newly growing reindeer antlers which begin to grow first among the mature bulls.
Having lost their old antlers at the end of last year our mature bulls, like Balmoral, Bovril and Pera have spent the last few months antlerless which is not a good place to be because with no antlers you are at the bottom of the peck order. Even the wee calves, only 10 months old, still have their antlers and can boss any antlerless reindeer around!
Mature bull reindeer grow the largest antlers in the herd and so to achieve this they need to start growing their antlers early. Despite still being winter here the bulls will divert food resources to growing these new antlers and this week I have just noticed the first buds of velvet antler appearing on their heads.
Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdom and from nothing on their heads these bull reindeer will have fully grown antlers, measuring up to 1 metre in length and weighing anything up to 10kg by the middle of August. Although the rate of growth will be slow just now, by the spring/summer the antlers visibly grow each day, with a growth rate of about 1cm/day.
Antlers are entirely composed of bone and to grow need a blood supply to the growing tip. The blood supply is carried by the velvet skin covering the developing bone and the velvet skin also acts as a protective cover. The velvet is also full of nerves, which make the growing antlers sensitive to contact, so protecting the soft growing tissue from injury.
Because the blood is so close to the surface the antlers always feel warm and radiate considerable heat. Indeed some scientists suggest that the antlers are important radiators of heat that help reindeer to ‘keep cool’ in the summer time.
The ultimate size of the bulls antlers depends on a number of factors but genetics and nutrition are the most important ones. The more they eat the bigger their antlers grow and if they come from parents who grew big antlers then they will more than likely grow large ones themselves. Crann has grown the biggest antlers ever in our herd and that is partly due to his parentage, his mother Burgundy grew extremely big antlers for a female. But also Crann has an insatiable appetite, always there for extra food, despite being an old reindeer now!
As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.
Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉
On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!
So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.