All the colours of the rainbow (Part One)

Visitors often ask if the different coloured reindeer in our herd are different breeds, or even different species. The answer is no, they’re all reindeer just the same – they can vary in colour like horses, dogs and cats do. I thought I’d show a range of the colours found in our herd. Through the process of domestication, humans tend to select for colour variation, leading to a greater variety in domesticated species than wild ones. They stay the same colour throughout their life, though the colour is richer in their summer coat and lighter in winter.

Reindeer can also have white markings – I’ll look at this in a future blog!

Blondie – as white as they get, with blue eyes
Matto – white with a dusting of darker hairs
Chelsea – what we call a “white” reindeer (as opposed to “pure white” like Blondie)
Emmental – light coloured
Silk – creamy hint to her normal colouration
Elvis – normal coloured with silver highlights
Hopscotch – “normal” coloured
Druid – a dark coloured reindeer
Spider
Pratchett – so dark even his beard is dark!

Andi

Pedicures for reindeer

Hooves are important – got to keep them clean!

A common question we’re asked, usually after spending some time with the reindeer and noticing their beautiful big feet, is whether we need to trim their hooves. Reindeer are endowed with large feet with four toes to each hoof: two main weight bearing toes which do most of the work, plus two smaller and higher up toes which only touch the ground when on soft surfaces (snow or bog), when they spread out like a large snow shoe and mean reindeer can traverse snow drifts a lot easier than humans.

Okapi showing off how well her hooves serve her on snow.
Reindeer find snow way easier than us humans.
Fly says “It’s snow problem!”

In general our answer is no, we don’t have to routinely trim the hooves of our reindeer. Just like our own nails, the hard outer hoof continues growing constantly throughout their lives, but as they are roaming fair distances each day over rough, rocky and stony mountainous ground, the amount of wear tends to balance this out and means their toes stay nice and neat. Of course there is no one out trimming the hooves of wild caribou and other deer, who get through their entire lives with perfectly shaped hooves, and as our herd are in the correct habitat with plenty of movement, they are usually fine without intervention.

Wapiti grazing on short vegetation with gravel and rocks beneath it.
Spending much of their time on hard ground like this wears hooves down correctly.
Oatcake has beautiful feet!

However, there is always the exception to the rule. There are perhaps three reasons why we sometimes do need to dust off the hoof trimmers. First up is that we’re found our pure white reindeer (step forward Blondie and Matto in particular) have hooves that, for whatever reason, seem to grow faster than those of their darker coloured compatriots. Once or twice a year we’ll decide they are a little lengthy and have a trim to keep everything in place. Over-long hooves can cause all kinds of problems, especially putting pressure on their joints as their foot cannot sit correctly, so everything becomes misaligned. There’s an old saying “No foot, no horse”, and it applies equally to reindeer – without happy feet they can’t lead a happy life.

On white hooves you can see through to the bony structure of the foot beneath, and the hoof appears pink as you can see through to where the blood vessels are.
Matto joined our herd from Sweden, but despite not getting handled until he was a bit older he is an absolute star when we need to trim his feet. He’s busy moulting in this photo so looks a bit scruffy!
This hoof needs a wee trim…
Blondie barely needs a halter while her feet are trimmed as long as there’s a bag of feed. Olympic can’t believe that she is getting breakfast before him – the weariness has left him without strength to even hold up his head…

The second reason is if a reindeer has an injury or abnormality meaning a toe or whole hoof doesn’t receive the same amount of wear. Jute has one hoof which tends to grow a bit differently to normal, curving inwards instead of straight, which then prevents the edge wearing down in the usual manner. It’s no problem at all to him as long as we keep an eye on it and trim it as needed, but if we didn’t it could cause him difficulty walking as it grew.

And the third reason, embarrassingly, is pure laziness. This is where I’m going to point the finger squarely at some of our middle-aged males, the ones who can’t always be bothered to head off and graze as a real reindeer should, but who would much rather just lie waiting at the gate for their next meal to be served (Hamish, I’m looking at you). The straightforward reason that their hooves are too long is that they haven’t done anywhere near enough exercise to wear them down in balance with the rate that they’re growing. Perhaps we need to start a fitness club?! Funnily enough, there’s not a single female reindeer who falls into this category…

Hamish’s feet in his younger days (aged 4) when they were neat and pristine. Alas, in the last year or two laziness has caught up with him and they have a tendency to grow a little longer than this now…

Thankfully, trimming the hooves of our reindeer is stress free. Every single reindeer in our herd is halter-trained as a calf and is well used to being around humans. That means that if we spot their hooves need some TLC we simply catch them, pop a headcollar on, and whilst one herder occupies them with a bucket of tasty treats, another herder gets to work with a pair of snips to cut back the hard outer hoof. There is no feeling in this section of the foot so no discomfort is caused, and despite the fact that we never work at teaching reindeer to have their feet lifted like you would with a horse, they very quickly cotton on to the fact that nothing bad is happening and just let you get on with it. We never need to use tranquillisers in order to trim hooves, or hold the reindeer in place by force.

Hamish (mid-moult) contenting himself with a snack in the trough while I deal with his hooves. You may note that the lead rope has been abandoned entirely in order for the photograph to be taken!
Perfecting the crouch – balance their knee – trim action

My personal favourite technique is to crouch by a front leg, rest their knee on my knee, which leaves me two hands free to trim their hoof! Sometimes two hands are needed to cut through the tough hoof, especially on the old boys (hey, Elvis!) who have real “old man toenails”!

Sometimes two hands are needed!

We’re pretty proud of how good our reindeer are at standing to have their hooves trimmed.

Andi

Feeding the Free-rangers

With Christmas over and the Centre closed to the public for a month, we have put all of our reindeer out to free-range – the males are on the Cromdale mountains and the females are split between there and the Cairngorm mountains. We don’t necessarily see them every day, but where possible we like to catch up with them, feed them and check everyone’s ok. Here’s some photos from feeding the herd the other day:

The herd approaching – they had come to call from the summit of the mountain just to the left of centre.
Sika leading the herd in.
We sometimes feed the herd within the top part of our hill enclosure, out of the way of dogs, and leave the gate open for them to leave when they want to.

We always let the calves get “first dibs” and a crowd of impatient mini-reindeer gather round the bags.
We also use a small bag of feed to go round any of the older or skinnier adults to give them a “top up”. Here is Suidhe, a 3-year-old female, having an extra snack.
6-year-old female Torch.
One of the calves born last May, Nancy.
Ryvita, a 9-year-old female.
At nearly 16 years old, Fonn is one of the oldest reindeer in the herd. She still looks great!
11-year-old Meadow is missing the tips of her ears, and looks even stranger now she’s cast her antlers.
Blondie is one of the most recognizable reindeer in the herd.
Little Galilee is very sweet natured. She’s nearly 5 years old but quite small for her age.
Parmesan (with the white nose) and daughter Blyton are still close, even now Blyton is nearly 2 years old.

Not bad for a place to live, but where is the snow?!?

Andi

 

All you ever want to know about leucism

So what’s the deal with leucism?

Are all white reindeer leucistic?

Are all leucistic reindeer deaf?

How is leucism passed on?

How is leucism different to Albinism?

These are questions I have pondered while fixing the boardwalk, closely accompanied by Blue, our male leucistic reindeer. The subject of leucism is quite hotly debated and seems only those with a Doctorate in Pathology may comment, but here goes:

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Blue inspecting my handiwork.

Leucism (pronounced loo-kiz-im) is a genetic peculiarity which gives a white colour. The condition is recessive. It is a defect in the skin, not the pigment cells. Leucistic animals are all perfectly white. It seems however that there are differing levels of the condition – partial and full.

One other characteristic of leucism is deafness, however is seems that this is not always the case. Leucism is developed during the early stages of embryonic development and can influence the central nervous system. It therefore most commonly affects sight and hearing.

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Blondie, a leucistic (and deaf) female, sleeping peacefully and completly unaware that the rest of the herd has walked away and we are standing nearby.

If a condition is recessive it means that the offspring must receive the leucism gene from both parents to develop the condition. We have leucism in the herd. It doesn’t affect the carriers at all but if they breed with a carrier there is 25% chance that their offspring with have leucism. We currently have two leucistic Reindeer that are both deaf – Blue and Blondie.

Blondie’s(ll) father was Sirkas (Ll) and mother was Glacier(Ll) both carriers, therefore there was a 25% chance that Blondie was born with leucism. Glacier had nine calves of which only one was born with leucism but of course several carriers.

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Blondie and her calf Lego, both pure white.
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Blondie nicely camoflauged against the snow. Leucism does have its advantages!

Blue’s(ll) father is Lego who had leucism (ll), Blue’s mother is Lulu who was a carrier (Ll). There was therefore 50% chance that Blue would be born with leucism.

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A baby Blue, very obviously un-camoflauged against the heather (but very cute).

Albinism is a total deficiency of melanin producing cells in the skin. It is a skin mutation. There is a total lack of pigment. Albino animals have pink/red eyes. The pigment (colour) that would normally be seen in our eyes is missing so the blood vessels behind are seen in the eye, given the appearance that the eye is red in colour.

As I do not have a Doctorate in anything (except drinking tea) these are not comments but merely my interpretation of several articles written by Doctors of Science.

Dave

Who’s Who

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.

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Gloriana showing off her distinctive white nose

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.

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Blondie standing out (or blending in!) beside the more normal coloured Kara

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!

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By April, there is barely an antler to be seen and their coats are bleached out – the hardest time to ID reindeer!

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.

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Let’s just say that this ISN’T one of the shy reindeer… Viking.

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!

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Antler shape is of no help here, but that long nose could only belong to Shinty.

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.

Andi

Superstitions

Since it’s Friday the 13th, I thought I would try to write up a blog about superstitions from reindeer herders around the world. I thought it would be a fairly easy subject to research, but it turns out it is rather difficult and trying to determine what was actually believed way back when, and what has been made up for the tourist industry is exceedingly difficult. I have tried my best to be as accurate as possible and only report on reliable information, but do feel free to correct me if any of what is said below is wrong. Sámi shamanism, traditions, superstitions etc. are very difficult to come by because up until the mid-20th century, the Sámi underwent ‘Norwegeniasation’. The Sámi were not allowed to speak their own languages, were converted to Christianity by missionaries and it was shameful to have Sámi roots. Attitudes have now changed and it is cool to be a Sámi now. There is even a festival in Norway called Riddu Riđđu where people can explore and enjoy their Sámi roots. Anyway, here are some little snippets of traditions and beliefs of reindeer herders around the world.

 

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A band at Riddu Riđđ,  holding a Sámi flag on stage. (Photo from norwayfestivals.com)

The Chukchi, a group of reindeer herders from Siberia, thought it akin (bad) to sell a live reindeer, but would happily sell a dead reindeer. There is a book called ‘In a Far Country’, by John Taliaferro, which is a true story describing how, after whaling ships were trapped on Alaska’s north coast by ice, a missionary named Top Lopp decided to herd reindeer out to the 200+ whalers who would otherwise starve to death, with the help of 7 Eskimo herders, in the late 1800’s. The book describes the troubles that the men faced in trying to purchase live reindeer to herd across the Bering strait to the men stranded in Alaska. It talks about the Chukchi being offered a fortune in tobacco and cloth, but they would always refuse. The Chukchi would sell dead reindeer at 75 cents apiece, up to 500 at a time, but never a live reindeer.

Chukchi reindeer herder, Sergei Elevye, with one of his bull reindeer
Chukchi reindeer herder, Sergei Elevye, with one of his bull reindeer. (Photo from mediastorehouse.com)

The Sámi had and have a very close bond with nature, and natural phenomenon which nowadays can be easily explained by science, were of course much more exciting/terrifying occurrences. The aurora borealis, or Northern lights are of course one of the most fascinating and obvious phenomena in the north. Some northern Finnish reindeer herders used to believe that they were caused by a fox running extremely fast across the sky, whipping up the colours with her tail. The Sámi of Sweden feared the lights and would even hide away from it, or at least try to cover themselves if they could not hide. It is also extremely bad luck to mock, or even make notice of the lights, to some. It was believed that if you whistled at the lights, they would swoop down and kill you. However, if they did try to kill you, you could clap your hands and they would leave you alone.

This close connection with the natural world often meant that they would pray and give sacrifices to many different Gods. They also believed that everything had a spirit including certain trees and rocks. There were often stones that people would have to greet, otherwise the stone could get angry and come down on them. Unusual landforms, especially rocks, were often called seidi‘s and were worshipped to bring the worshipper protection. They were also seen as gateways to the underworld.

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A seidi in Balsfjord (Image from wikipedia.com)

It is also believed that white reindeer bring good luck and all herders should have a white reindeer in their herd. Luckily, we have quite a few in our own herd, including Blondie, and her son Lego. Fiona has also heard that if you see a white reindeer, the sun and the moon all at the same time, it brings good luck. So have a look out next time you come on one of our visits!

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Blondie, relaxing on a sunny day.

The Sámi also joik, a form of acapella singing; its themes usually include animals, people and special occasions in life. The Sámi also joik about Stállo, who is a mythical being, very rich and very smart, and who is able to change shape and can even change the landscape so people become lost. He is an evil entity, and often the joiks describe how to trick Stállo.

We haven’t had many reindeer born on Friday 13th, since it really is only May that the reindeer calve. We did have one handsome male reindeer born, called Peru. He lived up until around 8 years old, and was a ‘Christmas reindeer’. There are actually only 4 reindeer still alive who were born in 2005 with Peru, so I think he did ok to get to 8 years old. Obviously, I don’t know if one has been born today or not, but it doesn’t seem to be too bad an omen for the reindeer.

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Peru looking handsome in his summer coat.

 

Imogen

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