Around mid March Fly, one of our mature female reindeer started to grow her antlers. March is pretty early but I suspect due to a warmer winter than we usually have and possibly the growth of vegetation starting earlier this has brought on an early antler growth in some reindeer. Fly has certainly grown some of the biggest antlers we have seen in female reindeer over the years, as well as producing some of our biggest calves so she’s certainly an asset to our herd and is now the grand age of 12… yet still looking amazing!
Here is a sequence of photos over 9 weeks showing how incredibly fast Fly’s antlers were growing.
So there you have it, a nine week antler growth process. It really is amazing how fast antler can grow and this is proof in the pudding. Thank you Fly for being such a great candidate.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Visitors are often surprised to find that every reindeer in our 150-strong herd has a name, and borderline astounded that we can identify them all at a glance. It’s important to us that we do know them as well as we do, as if one is a little under the weather it means we can all know who to keep an eye on. I thought I’d try to explain a little some of the features that help us work out just who is who.
First up, and perhaps most obviously, reindeer vary in colour. This is most apparent in summer, when they have shorter, richer coloured coats, and hardest in late spring when the elements have bleached their thick winter coats to a pale washed out cream. Domestication has led to reindeer coming in all colours – pure white through to almost black, some with white facial markings and an occasional one with white on other parts of their body. People have a tendency to select for interesting colours, whilst nature does the opposite and tends towards normality, hence the caribou of North America (which have never been domesticated) show little variation.
The next big pointer (though only for part of the year) is the shape and size of the antlers. Reindeer are unique amongst deer species in being the only one where females and calves grow antlers as well as the males. The size of the antlers is determined chiefly by age – getting bigger each year until their prime and then smaller again – and also by body condition – a reindeer in poor condition will only grow tiny antlers. The shape is determined genetically, which is very helpful to us herders – once you learn the shape of an adult’s antlers, you have a good chance of recognising the antler shape the following year. Unfortunately antlers aren’t something you can rely on too much though, as every year they fall off to make way for a new set. Once we get to about April we are confronted by a sea of antler-less reindeer, and it’s a real test of how well you actually know them!
Character is a big part of working out who is who – certain reindeer will always be mugging you for food, whilst others prefer to keep their distance. Approaching an unknown reindeer with a handful of food will often narrow down who they could be – some will turn away whilst others will come charging over. Thankfully character changes very little from season to season and year to year, so it’s a good marker.
Once you’ve worked with the herd for a few years, you start to recognise certain reindeer by their individual face shape, their mannerisms, or just a particular ‘look’ that they have. This can be the most awkward thing to try to explain to a new herder who is learning the names – “Why is that Lilac?” “It just… is…” It took me over a year of working here before I suddenly recognised the resemblance in a particular family line – there is a silvery tint to their coats that, once you’ve seen it, is very obvious. It can be great fun watching as youngsters mature into adults and suddenly looking at them one day and realising they look just like their mum! I often catch myself glancing round the hillside and rattling off names when I’ve only seen part of a reindeer – you learn to trust your instincts! You know you’ve worked here too long when you can guess with confidence who the reindeer silhouetted half a mile away is!
Finally, if you can get close enough, every reindeer has a unique ear tag. We use a different colour for each year, so even from a distance you can usually see which year they’re from. There is then a number on each tag, though these aren’t always so easy to read, especially on shy reindeer with hairy ears – there can be a lot of peering at them through binoculars, or occasionally taking a photo so you can zoom in on it!
So there you are – it’s not really as impressive as it sounds, and even most of our summer volunteers surprise themselves with how many reindeer they can name after a week – we give them a ‘herd list’ which they annotate with comments to help them remember distinctive features – “really greedy”, “tiny antlers”, “pointy ears”. I’m always reminded of sheep farmers who can identify individuals out of (to me) identical faces, and it really shows that, given enough time and effort you really can work out the little differences in anything. It’s perhaps a sign that I need to get out more, but I’m pretty proud that I know the reindeer as well as I do.
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.
2016 has been a very busy year for us here at the Reindeer Centre for both us herders and the reindeer. Of course, the reindeer have been the stars of the show and us herders have just played background roles, so I thought to end the year we would have a little blog with some great pictures of the superstars themselves.
I have included pictures from our Trip advisor page as well as our Instagram account and people who have tagged us on Instagram and Facebook, and our own personal images. I have tried to credit the rightful owner but if anyone sees their picture and it is not credited, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to rectify this.
Thanks for such a great 2016 and hopefully 2017 will be just as successful!
Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.
Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.
Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!
The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.
Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.