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 delegate to anyone else.

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 300 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 around February time- 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 February or March onwards the cows start dropping their antlers, but for me 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 better 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 two or three times 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 some way 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.

For adopters, 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 your reindeer, and a single broken-off – much cheaper – 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 years ago. 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

Hot hot hot!

Whilst we’re lucky enough to live here in the Cairngorms, the only area of sub-arctic ecosystem left in the UK, and generally associated with snow and winter sports, we do (occasionally!) get some glorious sunny weather too. Loch Morlich beach turns into a resort, people are braving a dip in the water, and ice creams are being consumed.

A sunny day at Loch Morlich, © Mike McBey, shared under licence CC by 2.0

But what happens to those arctic survival specialists that we look after, the reindeer? I have to say whilst I look forward to the sun, my heart also sinks a little that the herd are going to be unimpressed.

Reindeer are native to this area and habitat, as well as being found right across Scandinavia and Russia. And although those areas experience extreme cold, the summer temperatures rise to a similar level as here at Cairngorm. I actually looked up some average temperatures of prime reindeer herding locations in Sweden (Kvikkjokk by Sarek National Park) and Norway (Tromso) and compared them to Cairngorm.

Cairngorm, Scotland – thanks to worldweatheronline.com
Kvikkjokk, Sweden – thanks to worldweatheronline.com
Tromso, Norway – thanks to worldweatheronline.com

It was interesting to see that their average summer temperatures actually exceed ours here, though they have much colder, and longer, winters. So, reindeer are definitely able to cope with the warmer temperatures – how do they do this?

Crann moulting his winter coat, with a little human assistance

Firstly, the reindeer have a much shorter, cooler summer coat than their insanely thick winter coat. From May they are moulting rapidly, looking like shaggy beasts with bad hair-dos, though with so much fur to lose it can take them until July to be fully into their sleek summer outfit. This must be much nicer for the sunny days – like when you’ve had a haircut and can feel the breeze on your neck!

Male reindeer in their short summer coats

Whilst reindeer don’t sweat like humans, they instead act like (large, overgrown, funny looking) dogs – flopping down and panting. This can look quite dramatic as their whole body moves with each breath, but it does seem to work. They do like the shade and will often sardine themselves into the shed in our Hill enclosure!

Another technique is to pee… a lot! By peeing, hot liquid is expelled from the body, and is replaced with cooler water as they drink to replace it, almost like an internal cooling system.

Anster can pee for Scotland! © Hen Robinson

Reindeer also become “Beasts of the Bog” and disappear into muddy ditches and hollows, often lying down to cool their bellies. They will occasionally wade into pools and have even been known to swim in the loch – they are of course marvellous swimmers with their huge hooves.

Calves learn the art of bog wallowing at a young age © Lotti PB

The herd also tend to naturally choose the higher ground on hot days – in general there is a 1ºC drop in temperature for every 100 m gain in height (due to the lower air density), and this, along with the greater likelihood of a breeze to cool them, means the ridges and high tops of mountains are preferred when the sun is out. Up there, there is also more chance of late-lying snow drifts – even as late as August here in the Cairngorms, which are the ultimate cool bed to lie on!

Reindeer on a last snow patch © Gary Hodgson Photography of www.tarmachan-mountaineering.org.uk

So, while I do feel sorry for our reindeer on hot cloudless summer days, as they would much prefer the snows of winter, it turns out that they are pretty well adapted to cope with whatever the weather throws at them!

Andi

Bulls Over The Years

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd was established in 1952 so over the past 65 years there have been many main breeding bulls so here is a little sum up. I can only tell you about the ones I remember but there were many bulls before my time as well. I’ll try to inspire Tilly (or Alan) to write a blog on the ones before my time.

The first bull I remember when I was very young was Gustav and he was born in 1985, the same year as my brother. You could not get a more gentle reindeer, if he was a human he would be the perfect gentleman! I suspect nowadays we have lots of reindeer in the herd like Gustav but back in the day he was certainly one of a kind! You may find this morbid but a few years after Gustav died we found his skull so we hung it up in our shed on the hill so we feel like he watches over us when we bring the herd in for handling. He was the main breeding bull in 1989, 1990 and 1991.

The next one to memory was Crackle who came to us from Whipsnade zoo in 1991 along with two others, Snap and Pop (Who remembers Snap, Crackle and Pop from Kellogg’s Rice Krispies?). Being new blood we obviously wanted to breed from him. He was also a very good looking reindeer, grew lovely antlers and had a great temperament so all good things to go back into our herd. He featured on the front cover of Tilly’s first book ‘Velvet Antlers Velvet Noses’ and lived to a grand age of 16. He was also photographed by wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell and recently we have acquired some posters from Laurie which were printed many years ago when Crackle was in his prime which we are selling in our shop.

After Crackle was Utsi who was born in 1998. He was hand reared by Alan, my dad. Utsi’s mum Pepper died when he was very young so we bottle fed him milk and he was Alan’s shadow around the hill and farm. I had a love/hate relationship with Utsi… and not because we fought over Alan’s attention, he well and truly had that 😉 When I was in my mid-teens on the hill one day with mum, we fed the herd and I was walking back counting them. At that point Utis was rutting and decided I was a few steps too close to his females and he completely flattened me. There were no injuries, infact I managed to get myself in-between his antlers while on the ground and held him into me as mum came over flapping an empty food sack to shoo him away. He headed off leaving me in a wee pile on the ground, but un-injured! The trouble when reindeer are hand-reared is they see us as part of their herd and being totally comfortable in our company he wasn’t scared to give me a telling off for getting too close so it’s a fair one really. I’ve learnt from my mistakes and how to act around rutting bulls so there have been no incidents since. The same year Utsi was a breeding bull we also had Cluster who was the same age. He was very different, kept himself to himself but grew lovely big antlers. We also had Red who was another gentleman, good looking with a super nature!

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Utsi behaving himself on the Cromdale hills

Cluster.jpg
Cluster with his beautiful antlers in velvet

We then had a spell where we used bulls we brought in from Sweden in 2004. This was new blood in the herd which is very important but it meant there wasn’t necessarily one main breeding bull. Some of these bulls were Sarek, Sirkas, Jokkmokk, Ritsem, Västra, Ola, Moskki and Porjus.

Then there was Crann!!! If you haven’t heard of Crann I’d be very surprised. He has been the pin up boy of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd for quite some time now and although a very old man at 14 years he is still with us… though not looking as quite as good as he once was. None of the past or future bulls have matched the size of Crann’s antlers, he still holds the record and I suspect will for a long time to come. He was truly magnificent in his prime and his photograph has been in many national newspapers as well as our own advertising and images on various items of shop stock. He is certainly enjoying full retirement now at our hill farm over at Glenlivet, and quite rightly too!

Crann.JPG
One of the many photos of Crann, a truly majestic bull

So in the more recent years we have had more reindeer joining us from Sweden. In 2008 we brought over Pelle, Jaska, Bajaan and Magnus who were the main breeding bulls around 2009, 2010 and 2011. Then there was Gandi, Bovril, Jara, Lalle, Boxer, Kota, Houdini, Pera, Bandy and Nutti who joined us in 2011. The most recent Scottish bulls are Balmoral and Ost. Both from very strong family lines and they have lovely natures and grow beautiful antlers… everything you want in a reindeer!

Fiona

Spring Buds

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.

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Yearling reindeer Fly a few years ago, with new antlers just starting to ‘bud’.

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!

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Fly a few days ago having cast an antler a little early, and presumably with ‘help’ from another reindeer. Antlers cast naturally  in Spring don’t normally bleed.

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.

crann-08
Mature bull Crann in his heydey, with antlers starting to grow long before the end of winter.

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.

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Crann in May with half-grown antlers…

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…and in August the same year, with full grown antlers.

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!

Tilly

Antlers vs Horns – What is the difference?

Many people who come and visit the reindeer want to know the answer to this very question: What is the difference between antler and horn?

Antlers

First of all, just in case you are in any doubt, reindeer grow antlers, not horns! Many folk ask us what antlers are made of and ‘are they made of wood?’ is a surprisingly common question which always amuses us!

Antlers are an extension of the animals skull, found on members of the family Cervidae (i.e. deer). They are made of bone, are a single structure and are shed and regrown every year. Antlers grow from pedicles – bony supporting structures that develop on the skull. Sometimes, the pedicles get damaged and you get a lopsided set of antlers like one of our female reindeer, Hopscotch. Occasionally, they don’t develop on one side at all, for example Dixie who only ever grows one antler.

Dixie and Arnish
Dixie with her one antler, and antlerless Arnish

Generally they are only grown on males but, of course, reindeer are the exception to the rule. Male reindeer lose their antlers shortly after the rut, the breeding season, in autumn. Female reindeer hold on to their antlers over the winter because access to food is critical during winter pregnancy. Having antlers generally makes you more dominant so you can push the antler-less boys off the good food patches! However there are always exceptions… Arnish, who is no longer with us, was a ‘mega hard’ reindeer and never grew a single antler but she was as tough as old boots and just battered other reindeer with her front hooves when required!

Reindeer start to grow new antlers again in the spring and its incredibly fast growing, up to an inch in a week. On some of the big boys, like Crann, you have a few days off and return to see a massively noticeable difference in his antler size. While the antlers are growing, the bone is encased in super soft velvet, hair covered skin, which covers the nerves and the blood vessels feeding the antlers from the tip. Once the antlers are fully grown, end of August for reindeer, the blood supply cuts off and the velvet starts to dry and crack and come away from the bone. The reindeer help this process by rubbing their antlers against vegetation and what ever is about, like a fence post! They can look a bit gory at this stage as flaps of bloody velvet dangle off them like dread locks! Once its all peeled away they are left with solid bone antlers which the bulls now use during the rut to impress females and fight off other bulls.

Crann
Crann and his huge set of antlers

They lose them, as already mentioned, shortly after the rut or after winter for females and then the whole process restarts the following spring…pretty clever!

Horns

Horn structureFound on sheep, bison, cows, pronghorn and antelopes, horns are made of two parts. They have an interior of bone (also an extension of the skull) covered by an outer keratinized sheath made of a very similar material to your fingernails.

Soays
Soay sheep at our Glenlivet hill farm, showing off their horns

One pair of horns is typical but some species of sheep have two or more pairs for example Jacobs sheep. Horns are usually spiral or curved in shape and often have ridges on them.

Impala
Male impala with impressive horns

Horns start to grow soon after birth and grow continually through the life of the animal and are never shed, with the exception of the Pronghorn which sheds and regrows its horny sheath every year, but retains its bony core. Unlike antlers, horns are never branched and although more commonly grown on males of the species, several females grow them too.

So hopefully that has shed (no pun intended!) some light on the subject. Come and visit the reindeer at different times of the year to see how the antlers change with the seasons. By the end of winter/start of spring, barely any will have antlers still attached and they do look a little strange compared to when they have the magnificent bony antlers of autumn. Just now the reindeer are all growing their new antlers so they are covered in lovely super soft velvet and are about half way to complete size.

Mel

So much hair!

Crann Moulting
Crann with just some of his moulted hair

As the milder weather is finally arriving, the reindeer are looking extremely scruffy as they moult out their old thick winter coat, allowing the new shorter darker summer coat to come through. A reindeer’s winter coat can have an incredible 2000 hairs per square inch of coat, consisting of a dense wooly undercoat and long hollow guard hairs, which keep a reindeer snug and not even feeling the cold til about -30C. They have even been documented surviving to -72C!

Of course in summer, even in Scotland, its much warmer than that, so the reindeer grow a much shorter, sleeker coat to keep cool. But with so much hair to lose, at this time of year it can seem like its snowing if they give themselves a shake! Whilst most of the hair drops off by itself, the reindeer will groom themselves a little to remove more, and we sometimes give them a hand, stroking handfuls out at a time. This photo of our lovely old boy Crann, from this time last year, illustrates this perfectly!

Andi

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