On the last Friday of each month throughout 2023 I have shared photos that I’ve taken on my phone to hopefully give everyone an idea of the goings on at the Reindeer Centre. What a complete mix bag of photos this is to finish the year off! December has seen me up and down the A9 and dotting around locally with beautiful teams of reindeer for lots of Christmas events. I’ve done the odd day at the Centre too catching up with the goings on here, with just enough office time to put together this blog. My wonderful colleagues have also been ridiculously busy on events and at the Centre keeping everything going. Getting through gazillions of adoptions packs, leading fully booked Hill Trips and of course Christmas Fun in the Paddocks. This selection of photos doesn’t really do December justice, but it’s a snap shot of what I’ve been up to at least.
I was over at the hill farm recently helping to feed our bulls and was pleased to see how good yearling Zoom was looking. And that reminded me that I’d promised Ruth I would write a blog telling the story of when we found him last year.
Zoom was born on the 8th May 2022 to mum Angua, one of the shier members of the herd. He had white face markings, like dad Spartan, and in fact was almost identical to full sister Chickpea. After a couple of weeks bonding with Angua in the enclosure, the pair of them headed to the high tops of the mountains for summer.
We get out as often as possible over the warmer months to check on the cows and calves, but inevitably the weather and other factors sometimes get in the way of this, and as the reindeer move around a lot too we can go for weeks or months without seeing a particular individual. I saw Angua and her calf high on the mountains in mid-July – both looking very scruffy as they were moulting out their winter coat, but otherwise looking grand.
As the autumn came round, cows and calves started returning to the hill enclosure, and we went out to different areas too to fetch back some who had wandered too far. Whilst we don’t worry too much about not seeing a reindeer for a few months, by late September, the main stand out reindeer we hadn’t seen were Angua, her calf (now newly christened Zoom) and also her 2-year-old daughter Chickpea.
October rolled round and we were rushed off our feet preparing for the Adopter’s Weekend, celebrating our 70th anniversary. Typically, it was on the Friday, the day before the weekend, when we received a phone call from a hill walker, Richard, letting us know that his group had met a lone reindeer, and it had started following them. Reindeer are a herd animal so it is unusual to find one alone, and as we knew there were very few out on the mountains, Lotti and I scrambled to head out and try to catch them. We loaded up two of our steady Christmas reindeer, Olympic and Clouseau, from the Paddocks and drove the 35 minutes or so to the walkers’ car park nearest to Richard’s location. He called to update us that he had been up near the summit but had turned round to escort the reindeer back down to meet us – “Please hurry!”.
Olympic and Clouseau were delighted to be out on an adventure and we hurriedly popped their headcollars on, unloaded them and set off up the path through the forest. As we walked we debated which reindeer it could be. Richard hadn’t been able to spot an eartag, which suggested it may be a calf, but a calf was unlikely to have had enough exposure to humans to choose to follow one… We wondered how we would go about catching them too. The idea behind bringing along two tame lads was that even a shy reindeer was likely to want to come up and join other reindeer if alone, and this would hopefully give us a chance to get hold of them – sometimes this involves reaching beneath the tame reindeer’s belly to get hold of a leg, then holding on until your colleague can pop on a headcollar – not the way we’d prefer to do things but sometimes the only option. But if the lone reindeer was very wild it would be hard to get that close…
Much sooner than anticipated, we spied movement ahead, and all of our assumptions were blown out of the water. Not only was the lone reindeer in question indeed a calf, Richard was hurrying down the path literally with his arm over their neck, hand gently guiding on their shoulder. For a species that tends not to like contact, and for a calf that was basically unhandled, this was incredible! No need to worry about how we were going to catch them! We could immediately see from the white face markings and size that this was Angua’s calf, Zoom – rather scrawny and a little underweight, but otherwise looking healthy. It was a simple matter to pop a headcollar on Zoom (for the first time in his life) and after thanking Richard profusely, we headed our separate ways – us back down the track with our extra reindeer, and Richard back up the mountain.
Reindeer usually protest a little the first time they are on a headcollar, but wee Zoom just seemed relieved to have found some friends, and Lotti & I had an easy walk back to the truck, still both astounded at the turn of circumstance. We arrived back at the Centre before the end of the day and Zoom quickly looked at home. Any adopters who visited us that weekend might have seen him, already friendly and confident. He buddied up with Sunny, who had been orphaned and hand-reared, and was often closely following Clouseau, latching onto him perhaps because he was the first reindeer he’d seen after being all alone. We joked about how Clouseau had got a calf of his own (despite being a castrate!).
Sadly we never saw Angua again, and the probable explanation is that she must have died at some point in the autumn, leaving poor Zoom to wander on his own. But animals are resourceful and he did exactly the right thing – putting his trust in the right kind human – thankfully Richard was good enough to get in touch with us and go out of his way to get Zoom down – we still talk of the special “Richard Ruffle” that he used to guide Zoom at his side.
The other good news was that Zoom’s sister Chickpea made it home too, though it wasn’t for several months. There was the occasional report, and even a photo of her, at the far extent of the reindeer range, but every time we went out searching, there was no sign. Then in February, when we called in the free-ranging herd for breakfast, there she was – she’d found her own way back. She had clearly been unwell at some point – her coat was scruffy and she’d already cast her antlers – but she was otherwise her normal cheeky self.
2023 has been a much better year for both of them, and Zoom and Chickpea are looking fantastic.
Reindeer identification is definitely one of the most challenging aspects of the work here at the Reindeer Centre. Of course there are a few individual reindeer that are very distinctive and easy to spot like Sherlock with those enormous antlers and Dr Suess with his with white nose. I’m also pretty confident telling apart the two white yearling males (99 and Mr Whippy) as long as they’re not too far away!
I’ve been taking as many opportunities as I can to try to get to know who’s who for the less obvious members of the herd. During the summer months while I’m here, the hill enclosure is home to a lovely smaller herd made up of some of the bulls. It’s a good time to try to learn a few reindeer while they’re part of a smaller group and I can see them most days.
The ear tags on the reindeer are colour coded depending on the year they are born, for example last years calves all have red ear tags (I was lucky enough to be volunteering the day they were tagged!). As a rule, I tend to look for any distinguishing features first like coat colour, markings, antler shape and size, and body size. After that, I’ll try to spot what colour the ear tag is. Some of the older reindeer are easier because there are fewer to choose from with that year’s colour ear tag.
As well as the more obvious physical features, its been really helpful to speak to the other herders to get hints and tips on how they remember who’s who. For example, Sheena pointed out that Poirot’s antlers come out straight from his forehead like two fingers or the number “11” and his number is “211”. Isla told me how she remembers Arta’s name because the pattern on his nose looks like artwork and Mollie told me that Cicero has the biggest of the silvery coloured antlers.
This week I learned that Merida, Dr. Suess’ mum, also has a lovely white face and I was able to spot my personal favourite, Beanie, thanks to her lovely speckly nose and the fact that she was with a group of two cows with their calves.
However, often, just when I get the hang of this ID game, things start to change. The boys summer coats don’t really last more that a few weeks it seems so no sooner was I was feeling very confident identifying Lupin and Kernel with their beautiful dark summer coats they’re both already growing their winter coats! We’re also bringing some of the girls into the enclosure which is adding ever more complexity to the task. My ID skills are definitely a work in progress and I’m loving taking every opportunity to watch the herd and learn who everybody is.
I was recently looking back over photos from the calving season in 2020. This was the first calving season I had worked and it was in the middle of lockdown with fewer staff working so I was very lucky to be totally immersed in what was a very busy month! The calves born in 2020 are now three years old and some of them have had their own calves for the first time this year. I thought it would be nice to look back on a few favourites and how they have changed over the last few years.
Note: This started out being a fairly short blog just going through a couple of my favourite calves but very soon became longer and longer… Turns out I have a real soft-spot for the 2020 calves with lots and lots of favourites amongst them! I decided to split the males and females and make it into two blogs otherwise there was no way anyone would read all the way to the bottom. Part 2 is now online too.
First and foremost, Holy Moley was the first calf born in 2020, the first new-born calf I had ever seen, and still to this day, I maintain she was the most beautiful calf ever to be born. Not that I’m biased.
Anyone who watched ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’ (Channel 4, first broadcast on Christmas Eve 2020) will be well aware that Holy Moley didn’t have the easiest start but she’s done really well over the last couple of years and has grown up into a strong, feisty and very cheeky young reindeer! Her name is often accompanied by the word ‘diva’ which I think explains a lot.
The most distinguishing feature I remember about Sunflower when she was a calf was the perfect arrow pointing along her back towards her head. We joked that the arrow was to show to ‘insert food here’.
Sunflower’s arrow sadly didn’t stay longer than her calf coat but luckily we’re pretty well practiced at which end reindeer food goes! Sunflower has grown up to be such a lovely lass. She’s tame but not pushy. She’s also one of the tallest of the female reindeer her age, go Sunflower!!
When Pumpkin was a day or so old it was time to bring her from where she was born to a bit closer by and into our creche area to keep an eye on her. Me and Olly went to fetch Pagan and Pumpkin but about half-way through the walk Pumpkin was getting tired, as it was a long walk for brand new legs, so instead I had to carry her in, what a hardship!!!
Pumpkin is very greedy much like the rest of her family. She’s usually one of the first in line for handfeeding, so if any of you reading this have been on a hill trip in the winter, you’ve probably met her.
Ibex, Flax’s mum, was another experienced mum who was totally chilled out around us as we treated and checked her calf. She was also the first reindeer who I’d watched eat her afterbirth which was amazing to see! Flax was born on a beautiful sunny day so we enjoyed ten minutes or so hanging out with the two of them before leaving Ibex to finish her lichen in peace.
Flax is Ibex’s last calf, so she’s not been pushed away after the birth of a younger sibling. As a result, Flax and Ibex are as thick as thieves and usually still at each other’s sides. Flax can be bossy and greedy just like her mum!
Pip was Kipling’s first ever calf and motherhood definitely took a little getting used to for Kipling. For the first couple of days when we went to feed them Kipling would come charging over for the feed and we would spend the next five minutes searching for her calf who would be left behind somewhere totally unaware that her mother seemed to have chosen feed over her. After the first week or so, Pip was mobile enough to stick with Kipling easily though. Kipling is Joe’s favourite reindeer and he caught and treated Pip when she was first born so when it came to naming Joe asked if he could name her Pip in memory of his dog who had had the same name.
Pip has grown up into a very independent young female, she’s rarely with the rest of her family and is quite different from them in personality. Her mum Kipling is probably one of the tamest reindeer in our herd whereas Pip has a wee bit of a wild streak. Ruth thinks that if Pip was a human she’d be a real party girl and I think she’s right!
At the end of calving in 2020, Angua was the only cows left to calve. When we went to feed the herd one morning she wasn’t with the herd, so we set off around the enclosure to try to find her and her new-born calf, unfortunately no luck! She was nowhere to be seen! We continued to search for the next few days without any success and were all getting more and more worried, particularly as it was Angua’s first time calving. A couple of days later, after lots of searching, we were bringing the herd in for their breakfast and suddenly realised there was one extra calf than the day before!
Chickpea is fairly shy in nature, so we’ve spent lots of time over the last three years bribing her with food. This has definitely worked; you can now see her licking her lips whenever one of the herders approaches with a bag of extra tasty food.
Now Peanut came as a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t actually thought that her mum, Roule, was pregnant. Then as we were splitting the pregnant females to stay in the enclosure and the non-pregnant ones to go back out we took a second look at her and decided that her belly looked rather wide, sure enough a few weeks later, Peanut was born.
Peanut has become tamer and tamer over the last three years and in 2022 she also surprised us by having her first calf who we have named Nuii. Nuii is definitely one of my favourite of our ice-creams – she’s a real sweetie!
A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.
Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.
Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.
The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.
This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.
By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.
Don’t you ever wish you could just lie down and take a snooze if things are taking too long?? With their thick coats, that’s exactly what reindeer do – everywhere can be a bed! Here’s some shots of them having a snooze in the snow a few weeks ago…