Wanna buy some antlers? It’s a complicated business…

Over the years I’ve established myself as ‘chief of antler sales’ here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. As with most reindeer related things, it’s not really a job that is straight-forward but one that has evolved with time, and I’ve tweaked and tweaked each year until it is as workable as possible. But – in usual fashion – the devil is in the details, much of which are in my head and memory and it’s therefore not a job that I will delegate to anyone else at any point.

The dream set of antlers everyone wants… (thanks Spartan).

We’ve always sold antlers from the reindeer herd. But is it as easy as 150 reindeer equals 150 pairs of antlers per year to sell? Of course it isn’t…

Firstly, we only find around 30-40% (at a rough estimate) of the antlers each year. This is because the reindeer roam on a huge area of rough, upland land, and the time of year when most antlers are shed – January to April – is exactly the time that almost the entire herd are roaming completely freely and are not enclosed at all. The proverbial needle in the haystack. (In fact sometimes finding the herd itself can be a needle/haystack situation, let alone their cast antlers!).

So many antlers, so few of them found.

Secondly, whilst around half of our herd are males, we tend to castrate them at around three years old. This means the bone of their antlers doesn’t calcify to the same extent, and they will usually break their antlers off in pieces as a result. So instead of a nice, clean antler, we get broken sections of – to be quite honest – often rather manky antler, still partly covered with the velvet skin that covered it whilst it grew. Smaller pieces disappear into deep vegetation, never to be seen again, far more easily than a whole antler.

A classic bit of antler from a castrated male. This one’s from Frost – the top third of his right hand antler, still with remaining skin and a little velvet hair. But it’s still a bit of Frost none-the-less, regardless of it’s appearance.
Classic antlers from a castrate male in around February – the upright sections have broken off and only the points at the base remain, still with the remnants of the velvet skin and hair. Not particularly glamorous, eh Caribou?!

Once castrated, males also tend to grow relatively smaller antlers than they did as a bull. So we really only get two or three big, mature bull sets of antlers each year. But some of these we keep – for example we have almost all of Sherlock’s antlers, and most of Crann’s. Crann holds the record for the biggest antlers ever in the herd, and as such we’ll never sell them as they are of great nostalgic value to us, even though Crann himself is long gone.

Crann with his 2009 antlers (his second biggest set). They are the ones currently in our shop window that we hang stuff for sale on! COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY: LES WILSON

Antler selling starts in January each year. The mature bulls have dropped their antlers in November/December, and some of our immature bulls then have their antlers cut off in December before they are let out to their winter grazing up on the mountains. This is done for the safety of hill-walkers – a testosterone-charged ‘teenage’ bull could really inflict damage. It’s done long after the feeling in the antler has gone, so causes zero pain.

Two year old bull Domino, looking mighty miffed with his antler stumps.

From (usually) around March onwards the cows start dropping their antlers, but life gets very busy in the spring with the calving season, followed by writing/editing the June newsletter, so it’s often well into the summer before I pick up the antler list once again.

So… here’s some info for those of you now imagining a nice set of antlers adorning your wall.

Firstly, I give members of our reindeer adoption scheme priority for purchasing antlers over ‘unconnected’ members of the public. I feel it’s a privilege someone who supports our business should get. My method for this is to have a waiting list for adopters to add their name for dibs on ‘their’ reindeer’s antlers, which I work my way through gradually as and when I have something suitable. Should you want to add yourself to this list, drop me an email through the contact form on the website FAO Hen (please don’t just comment on the blog/social media – email means I can keep everything together, and gives more chance of a reply one day from me actually reaching you, rather than disappearing into spam).

If you’ve asked to be on the waiting list in the past, no need to get in touch again – you’ll still be there. Well you will as long as your adoption is still current. I’m afraid that I always double-check someone is still an adopter before emailing them, and you’re scratched off the list if your adoption has lapsed. My list, my rules.

If I have no-one on the waiting list for a particular reindeer’s antler(s), then I will send a letter to all of their (UK based) adopters in one go – and it’s first come, first served. Miss out, and you go on the waiting list. This does mean sometime multiple people are all waiting for the same reindeer to shed his/her antlers – which we might never find from year to year anyway. I’m well aware some poor souls have been languishing on the waiting list for years… sorry.

If you aren’t an adopter of a reindeer and are reading this in despair, wondering whether there’s ever a chance of you getting anything, then all is not lost. Email me anyway, and I have a password-protected webpage with any available antlers on that I can give you details of, and on which you can sign up for occasional email alerts when new ones become available (if I get my arse in gear, this is still only about twice a year, so don’t worry about me flooding your inbox. Also, I hate Mailchimp – it’s totally user-unfriendly). I have separate webpages for single antlers and for pairs, and usually have a much better range of single antlers, since finding both sides of a pair is rarer in the first place.

A small, single antler can be very beautiful – size doesn’t always matter 😉

Final info:

Yes, they do cost a lot. The biggest sets we ever get to sell are in the region of (at time of writing in 2024) £300. The single antler in the photo above was about £60. I guess other places with reindeer in the UK maybe also sell their antlers, but I’ve never actually heard of them doing so. I do my best to price antlers fairly though – every single one is utterly unique and in someway it is a snapshot of that reindeer at that particular point of their life. I’m sure I could push up the prices hugely and they would still sell eventually, but that isn’t the point. It’s a balancing act to try and get it right.

If you perhaps can’t afford the antler(s) you been contacted about, it’s still worth going on the waiting list. I might have a glorious £200 set of beautiful antlers one year from him/her, and a single broken-off half antler the next year. But hey, it’s still a piece of antler that your reindeer actually grew, and really it means just as much.

Conversely, you miss out on something small that you had your heart set on. But hey presto you might then be first in line for the potentially much more impressive effort from your reindeer next year. It’s all utterly unpredictable and there’s definitely an element of luck involved.

I can’t post abroad, sorry.

If you can collect your antler(s) rather than me having to package and post them, a) it’s cheaper and b) I love you.

Postage nightmare.

If you receive an ‘antler letter’ through the post – read it properly! I always do my best to describe the antler fully before you phone up to buy it – but have never forgotten the lovely couple who arrived to pick up a set of antlers from their adopted reindeer. The bloke was a bit worried about fitting them in the car. The antlers were about 30cm tall.

Antlers come in all sizes but all shapes too. Forget that classic set of ‘perfect’ shapely reindeer antlers you’ve got in your mind’s eye – they probably aren’t going to look like that… If I’m emailing you directly I’ll attach a photo, and if I’ve sent you a letter, you can ask to see a photo before you decide.

Tall and thin…
…or short and wide?

As mentioned before, we keep some of the biggest bull antlers. Herders also usually have first dibs on their favourite reindeer’s antlers (I’ll add that (depending on the size of antler) we do usually still have to pay for them!), so there are certain reindeer in the herd whose antlers will come up for sale very rarely, if ever. Huge apologies, if you also adopt one of those reindeer… let’s mention no names.

I do also try to be fair to people – if I know you already have multiple antlers from a certain reindeer but are keen for more, I will usually try and give their other adopters a look in at some point.

And if you adopt Juniper, well don’t give up hope. Ferrari was also a ‘polled’ reindeer (one who doesn’t grow antlers at all) and suddenly sprouted one when she reached 9 years old, so all is not lost. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.

Ferrari in her latter years. Just one antler! But what a nice antler, after 8 years of baldness.

And finally, I’m only human so bear with me as the old brain doesn’t get everything right every time. Apologies again to the lovely lady who I posted the entirely wrong set of antlers to a couple of years ago, and then had to go through a whole rigmarole of getting her to post them on to the correct new owner (Editor’s note: we did get permission to pass on the address first!), whilst I sorted out the right set for her. And years ago I died a little bit inside when I realised we’d sold the same antler to two separate people, and I was going to have to make a very awkward phone-call (although in my defence, it wasn’t actually me that forgot to mark that antler as ‘sold’ on the list). Oh, the horror.

Hen

Photo Blog: December 2021

As Ben and Fiona have explained in previous blogs (click here, and here to read), we had a busy December with events and parades up and down the country, as well as a busy Centre here in Glenmore with fully-booked Hill Trips and Christmas Fun paddock slots! Plus hundreds of adoption packs to make up and post out, alongside all the usual office antics.

For this week’s blog, I’ve collated a series of photographs found on my phone during this particularly busy month to give a brief snapshot of what went on in the life of a reindeer herder. Turns out I don’t take many photographs whilst I’m sat in front of a computer answering emails so the photos are quite biased to all the fun times I’ve had out and about. Thankfully this makes for a much more enjoyable blog… lots of pictures of reindeer!

2nd of December – The unmistakable snozzle of Dr Seuss enjoying the fresh snow. The first half of the month was snowy and cold, great for the reindeer but unfortunately this meant we had to cancel some of our Hill Trips. Thankfully the majority were able to go ahead without complications.
3rd of December – Olly and I spying for the free-rangers in a winter wonderland. We watched the herd coming to our call from a couple of kilometers away! Note: stances might not be entirely natural. Photo by herder Sheena.
4th of December – Lotti and I went away for the weekend with this wonderful team of reindeer (Clouseau, Bond, Holy Moley, Trilby and Akubra) seen here having a snooze at the Langholm event.
5th of December – After a night at our Lockerbie base, we headed to Lancaster. Here’s Holy Moley trying to beat-up her own reflection whilst in the pen, much to the amusement of the crowd.
7th of December – the first day of our shiny new Mountain Equipment jackets here modeled by Joe and Lotti, whilst giving the calves some extra feed. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it!
7th of December – Witch having a big stretch after a snooze during Storm Barra! The ice cracked on her side as she stood up and moved – very cool!
8th of December – After one weekend looking dramatic in our paddocks for “Christmas Fun” Sherlock decided he’d had enough and cast his antlers! Here’s Ben modeling the impressive head gear. Soon after, Sherlock and the other young bulls were out free-ranging on the Cromdales.
9th of December – Cowboy, now 7 months old, already knows that tasty snacks are kept in white bags! What a cutie.
12th of December – Fiona and I had an event at a farm near Inverness. Good opportunity to write some adoption letters whilst waiting for people to visit the reindeer!
13th of December – Finding some peace and quiet away from the office by feeding the beautiful free-ranging herd! Note the lack of snow, there was a thaw halfway through the month but still chilly with frosts most mornings which means happy reindeer!
19th of December – Feeding the free-ranging herd again, lovely Sambar leading the herd in whilst busily chewing the cud.
20th of December – Tiree the dog having a snooze in the office, it’s all a bit much for her!
23rd of December – Herder Harry re-joined us again for December. Here he is being all cute surrounded by our cute but greedy calves.
24th of December – Another trip up the mountain to feed the free-rangers. Here’s Puzzle looking great!
26th of December – It was very windy and wild Boxing Day so we dropped down in to the woods to find some shelter on our Hill Trips.
31st of December – Some very snoozy reindeer after the last Hill Trip of 2021! What superstars they are.

Ruth

Reach for the sky! How reindeer antlers grow so fast

They’re the most distinctive feature of the reindeer, and the most incredible. Branching elegantly like the trees which the tundra so sorely misses, and renewing themselves each year, antlers demonstrate nature’s complexity and mystery in one. At this time of year the reindeer’s quickly growing antlers constantly amaze visitors and captivate my own imagination. It occurred to me recently that the cells in growing antlers and the cells used in the Covid-19 vaccine are both the same type of rare cell: undifferentiated stem cells! It might be interesting to join the dots between this.

A line of hungry boys and growing antlers (August 2021)
Nell being inspired to write this blog, surrounded by lots of wonderful antlers (July 2021)

Greater Antlers, Greater Chances…

Large antlers lead to a (sexually selective) advantage in males, and even in females too as those that are better able to defend areas of food in the winter are more likely to produce healthy offspring. A physical advantage in a single characteristic, leading to it’s selection is a process called directional selection. This means that over time, reindeer populations evolve very (VERY) gradually to have larger antlers.

Swedish-born (and the very handsome) Kota, who was used as a breeding bull for several years (August 2017)
The lovely Fly, who tends to grow big antlers for a female (September 2019)

However, large antlers come at a cost, requiring huge amounts of energy to grow in such a short space of time. Reindeer eat lichen, which is fairly low in nutrition and has a long digestive process, as well as other low lying plants, mosses and mushrooms found across sub-arctic areas. As even eating a lot of food won’t make up the energy, the animals shift calcium from parts of the skeleton which don’t carry a lot of weight (such as the ribs) in a process called cyclical reversible osteoporosis, which humans also go through during pregnancy. There are still more adjustments, as the reindeer’s neck and shoulder muscles need to swell in order to carry the bulky weight of the antlers, and movement becomes restrictive. It’s no wonder then that the rutting season becomes so taxing for large bulls that their life is typically shorter than that of a female. Taken to an extreme there is even a theory that the great Irish Elk, or Megalocerous, was partially driven to extinction due to the amount of energy it lost to it’s enormous antlers! I find it unlikely that this will happen to the reindeer but there’s no doubt that these huge organs take a lot for the reindeer to grow.

The Irish Elk or Megaloceros with it’s weighty antlers (image: Biggest. Antlers. Ever. Meet the Irish Elk | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian Magazine)

Shooting for the Skies

Although we know what pushes antlers to grow to such a huge size, it’s truly incredible when we begin to ask how. Antlers are the fastest growing organs in the animal kingdom, potentially growing around three inches a week (dependent on nutrition). This is mainly due to the quick regeneration of stem cells from which they are formed; the only type of cell in a body which can differentiate into any kind of tissue, such as bone, fat or skin. We have some of these cells in our bone marrow, as an important part of our bodily regeneration, and the quick formation of embryos is also due to them. Stem cells are also an important resource in therapies for degenerative diseases or to support the body following certain aggressive cancer treatments. Stem cells have even been used in the creation of several vaccines – including for Covid-19! This, combined with their versatility and potential in lab experiments makes stem cells an extremely valuable resource to medical research. It’s awesome to think that the same cells from which reindeer antlers are formed are what we use to treat life threatening diseases.

Finally, the antlers are not just useful to the reindeer, but also to the other animals in the wider ecosystem. Often when we find an antler which has been out on the hill for a while it will be worn thin and marked by the tooth marks of different animals. In the Paddocks we also see that mice and squirrels chew the antlers in the display area! This is because once they are dropped they are an open source of calcium which sometimes the reindeer, or other animals, (like your own pet dogs) will chew in order to reclaim the minerals. There have even been times that reindeer have chewed each other’s antlers while they’re still on their head!

Reindeer chewing on a cast antler in the enclosure, video by herder Olly

Next spring I plan to photograph the same reindeer once a week from the time it’s antlers are small stumps until they’re fully grown as there really is an incredible difference. There’s so much which is unique and wonderful to say about antlers and I’m looking forward to writing still more about them!

Ryvita (and her lovely antlers) with Nell on the free-range (August 2021)

P.S. What’s the difference between an antler and a horn?…… A horn makes a noise!

Nell

Memorable Reindeer of the past: Indigo

This week’s blog is written by long-term volunteer and reindeer adopter, Sharon. She got so fed up of us never having getting around to featuring Indigo in a ‘Memorable Reindeer’ blog that she decided to write one herself! Other blogs about well-loved reindeer of the past can be found by typing ‘memorable reindeer’ in to the search box to the right.

We started visiting the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre when our two boys, David and Mathew, were 9 and 6 years old in 1996. They have many memories of hand feeding the reindeer and Mathew particularly often recalls being knocked over by a reindeer when he was trying to get out of it’s way! How impatient was that he says?

In 2003 we had a particularly enjoyable and very snowy visit just before Christmas and my husband paid for an adoption of Indigo for my birthday.

Me and Indigo in December 2003

What a pretty girl Indigo was.

Indigo had followed me around on the Hill Trip and had numerous handfuls of feed from me. She constantly searched my hands and my pouch pocket for hand feed and I fell in love with her instantly. I always claim in reality she adopted me! She was such a friendly reindeer, particularly if you had hand-feed, a bit like my current adoptees – cheeky and greedy!

Regularly the owner of a bizarre set of antlers…

…swept back style…

…bonsai style…

We visited as many times as we could, usually at Easter or in December when we came up for two weeks in our caravan for Christmas and to ski at the Lecht which was always popular with our boys. The Christmas Eve torchlight procession through Aviemore was so magical with the reindeer leading. There was always plenty of snow around, not like the rain in more recent years!

Aviemore Christmas parade back in around 2012 or so. It was -12 degrees C during this parade, hence the grimace on Hen’s face – also shaking hands are possibly the reason why the photo is blurry!

In the summer of 2012 I received a letter from Hen asking if I wanted to buy one of Indigo’s antlers. I was on the phone to say yes before I had even read who had written the letter! As a very special treat my husband cut a piece of the antler off and made a pair of earrings for me out of it, another Indigo birthday present. I know now whenever I wear them she is still with me.

My antler – when still on Indigo’s head!

In February 2014 I received a letter from Andi saying that Indigo couldn’t be found and had probably died. I was distraught but continued to adopt. I now adopt Svalbard and Celt who are both very enthusiastic reindeer when it comes to hand feed and my husband adopts Olympic, who is a favourite with all adopters. My adoption certificates are kept neatly in a file with all correspondence from Reindeer House and we have even been to Finland to meet reindeer, although we haven’t found any as well cared for as the Cairngorm herd. So 24 years of visiting the reindeer, 18 years of adopting, 4 years of volunteering and my own ‘reindeer herd’ on the back seat of my car (soft toys only) my addiction continues.  But then it is not the worst addiction in the world to have – is it?

A classic photo of Indigo!

Sharon

 

Polled reindeer

When people think of reindeer, they inevitably picture them with a big set of antlers atop their furry heads. Unlike other deer species, this even applies to females, who are the only deer species to routinely grow a lovely pair of bony protrusions each year, in order to help them hold a high enough status within the herd to gain enough access to feed in harsh climates.

Wapiti, showing off her stunning antlers. No one picks a fight with her…

Only… some reindeer don’t grow antlers. The official term for this is “polled”. We’ve had a number of individuals over the history of our herd (and this is the case worldwide too) who, year after year, maintain the smooth top to their head, whilst reindeer all around them are tapping away to encourage the velvety growths which finally turn into hard bone at the end of each summer.

This is almost always seen just in females (cows), and when scientists have studied reindeer and caribou herds across the herd it seems that between 0.5 and 5% of cows can be expected to not grow antlers. Why would this be? Antlers are used as weapons when fighting for dominance within the herd – indeed a cow with large antlers is rarely challenged. So surely not having antlers is a disadvantage? On the surface, yes, but by not growing antlers a huge amount of energy is conserved every single year. In some habitats, like the thick forests that forest reindeer and woodland caribou live in, antlers can be a hindrance, and the smaller herd sizes perhaps mean there is less of a need to compete. Antlers are more important for a male in terms of breeding success, as a bull with just one or no antlers at all is unlikely to have the chance to breed.

Antlers are hugely important for breeding success for bulls – if you don’t have antlers you won’t win cows.

There seem to be two factors behind refusal to grow antlers. First, there is nutrition. A reindeer who is struggling to find enough food will prioritise body condition over antler size – an adult who is having an unexpected hard year will grow smaller antlers than usual. If this happens to a calf – for example one who is orphaned at a young age, they may not have any antler growth at all in their first year, or perhaps for longer. Our wee reindeer Diddly had a difficult start as her mum Flake didn’t have any milk, and whilst we bottle fed her, we couldn’t match the nutrition reindeer milk would have provided. Perhaps this was the reason she didn’t grow antlers?

Diddly by name, Diddly by nature, and never an antler on her head…

The other factor is genetics – as we trace all of the family history of the members of our herd, we can often trace lack of antlers back to an ancestor. It seems to be that the polled characteristic is a recessive one, often carried but only expressed if a calf inherits two copies of the gene. I was interested to find this note when looking back through old diaries from the early days of our herd:

So for Mr Utsi, who founded our herd, polled (antlerless) reindeer were a desirable animal, and I also feel that antlerless females tend to be strong characters – perhaps because they’ve had to hold their own in an antlered world?? As our reindeer have a pretty easy life and we supplement their grazing in winter with feed, any antlerless cows tend to be that way because of their genetics rather than a lack of nutrition, and perhaps with plenty of food available there is no huge detriment to their diet if they happen to be a little further down the pecking order.

Wonderful Arnish – lack of antlers never got in her way.

Arnish, one of the leaders of the herd when I started work as a herder, never grew an antler in her life, but was well respected among the other reindeer – if challenged she would simply use her front feet in place of antlers! She was also a successful mother, rearing Addax, Jaffa and Svalbard. Jaffa’s daughter Brimick only grew one antler. We also have one-antlered reindeer Dixie in the herd, who inherited this trait from grandmother Cherry.

Dixie, proud of her singular antler.

Ferrari didn’t grow antlers at all until she was nine, then surprised everyone by growing one antler annually (on the same side!) until the end of her days. Interestingly, she’s a direct descendant of polled cow Mitou (mentioned above). From her descendants, her grand-daughter Malawi is in the herd today and has been antlerless so far – she’s currently fifteen so I think she’ll probably not start now! Ferrari’s great-grandson Merrick was also the only male we’ve had yet who grew just one antler, after growing nothing as a calf.

Malawi – not an antler to be seen!

Merrick as a calf with no antlers. Definitely genetic rather than due to a lack of nutrition – he was one hefty calf!

Merrick as a handsome three year old, with one antler.

And what about wee Bond, some of you who follow our stories closely may ask. As an orphaned calf, he grew no antlers at all (caused presumably by struggling to get enough nutrition), then last year as a yearling he tapped furiously away at his pedicles (where the antlers grow from) and managed about 1 inch of antler on one side (you had to peer pretty closely to see it!). You’ll have to wait to find out what happens this year…

Yearling Bond, not the most impressive of headgear…

Andi

Fly’s spring antler growth

Fly’s spring antler growth

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.

Her antlers grew a good 2 inches between week one and two.

About three inches between weeks two and three.

Between weeks three and four the antler started to show its first split into another point on her right antler.

Then between weeks four and five her left antler didn’t the same with about another 2-3 inches growth as well to both antlers.

I think between weeks five and six shows the biggest difference with about 3-4 inches of growth on main branch of antler as well as the first points branching off.

Weeks six to seven her right antler seems to have gained some good height to it growing very tall. At this point her antlers were bigger than one of our main breeding bull, Kota.

Week 8

Week 9

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.

 

Fiona

Differences and Similarities

One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.

Bovril
Bovril in his shaggy old winter coat in June, and looking smart in September

First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.

Olympic
Olympic’s varied coat throughout the same year (2014) – in February, July and September

Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!

Beastie
Young Beastie throughout the same year (2011) – in full winter coat in January, darker summer coat in July, and new winter coat in September

Strudel
Young Strudel throughout the same year (2010) – in old winter coat in May, dark sleek summer coat in August and with new winter coat growing through in September

Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.

Diamond
Diamond as a brown calf with a white forehead, turning silvery later that year, and even lighter as a yearling

Origami
Origami as a calf with a white forehead, and as a silvery white adult

The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.

Caterpillar
Caterpillar with very similar antlers over three consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016.

Puddock
Puddock with his familiar crazy branching antlers over three consecutive years.

There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.

Lulu
Lulu with impressive antlers in 2013, and a rather less impressive set the following year, due to rearing a calf.

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Beautiful Sequin in her prime with a large set of antlers, and with a simpler set in her old age.

It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!

Andi

Spring

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.

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Relaxed reindeer with a glorious backdrop. Jenga has the best start on her new antlers of the females.

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.

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Old girl Lilac still looking superb at nearly 18 years old.

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!

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A group of visitors learning about the reindeer, who are delighted to pose whilst they wait for their dinner.

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!

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Every time I look at Dixie’s belly I worry that I’ve picked the wrong reindeer for the calving bet!

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!

Andi

Memorable reindeer of the past: Eco

Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!

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Young bull Eco

Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.

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10 months old

The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.

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Hen and Eco on a Christmas event together

Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.

Always inquisitive and up to something!
Always inquisitive and up to something!

Eco entertaining the crowds at an event
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old
Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.

A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.

Hen

Two blondes, a truck and 6 reindeer

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!

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Reindeer relaxing on events.Stenoa (top right) fast asleep. Ascot Racecourse (bottom right).

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!

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Days off exercising herders and reindeer. Elvis and Viking (top left).

 

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!

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Days off at bases…Anything for a good photo opportunity!

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.

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Back at base. Morning exercises and hanging out with the stars…And Judi Dench 😉

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!

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Land Rover photo shoot (top left). The zippy horse ‘Haggis’ (pulls your zip up and down), upgrading our lorry for a pink limo…or not! And Monty the terrier from one of our bases.

Fiona

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