Emm’s Volunteer Blog Part 2: October 2022

This is the second installment of Emm’s fantastic blog. Read part one by clicking HERE. 

Emm and Druid on a Hill Trip.

The Breeding Season

Whilst I was there, there were 2 bulls with their girls in the hill enclosure separated in different areas. One group was Sherlock and his girls over on Silver Mount. He was laid back. Then the other group was Morse and his girls. Morse was a bit more aggressive and would pace the fence grunting. He was very protective of his girls.

Sherlock with his girls.
Morse doing an excellent job as a breeding bull.

Chilling With Reindeer

Fiona, Joe and Andi went to Sherlock and his girls over on Silver Mount, the big hill in the hill enclosure, to check temperatures and do some vaccinations. Lotti and I moved Morse and his girls to a different part of the hill enclosure. We separated him with a few of his girls into a separate pen area so we were safe. Reindeer bulls with their girls can be very aggressive and can charge at you. We had moved them so we could give them vaccinations. Mushy was being chased around by some of the reindeer but it is not good to have them running around before a vaccination so I helped Lotti separate Mushy and Pinto off together into their own area. Suddenly, a mountain hare ran out of the shed and stopped in the middle of the reindeer. It was about 2 metres away from me. It was so exciting. The mountain hare and the reindeer stared at each other for a few seconds then the reindeer charged at it and then it ran away. What a lovely experience. Lotti and I then had to wait for Andi, Fiona and Joe. Whilst we waited, we chilled with the reindeer. I got to spend some quality time with my adopted reindeer called Scully. It was so nice and special spending quality time with her. I hadn’t been able to see her much as she had been in with Morse. Some of Morse’s girls had calves with them and I hadn’t got to know these calves yet so I was able to get to know them whilst Morse was separated. When Fiona, Joe and Andi got to us, some of Morse’s girls got vaccinations. Andi and I put Morse’s and his girls’ breakfast down in their usual part of the hill enclosure and then Morse and his girls were let back out to have their breakfast.

Emm enjoying spending time with Scully who is looking particularly cheeky!

Walking Calves and Reindeer Around Glenmore

To get the calves used to being handled and having head collars on, we take them away from their mums in the hill enclosure for a few days and keep them down in the Paddocks. We take about 2 calves at a time. In the mornings before the Reindeer Centre opens, we take some of the Paddock adult reindeer and the calves out on a walk around Glenmore. We sandwich the calves between the adult reindeer. The adult reindeer are the role models for the calves. One morning, I walked Dr Seuss, Bond and the 2 calves Popsicle and Vanilla to the Pine Martin Bar and back with Hen and Amy. I led Bond. On another morning with Mel and Lisette we walked Athens, Clouseau, Frost, Dr Seuss and the calf called Zoom. This time I led Dr Seuss and Frost.

Reindeer Centre and Office Jobs

There were always lots of jobs to do at the Reindeer Centre. On some afternoons, I poo picked the woods where the Paddock reindeer go at night. If reindeer have been changed in the Paddocks, I switched the reindeer ID cards over in the exhibition so visitors would know who was who. I checked the adopters gift packs to make sure everything was there, tidied and restocked the shop. The magnets and glass reindeer were very popular. Some afternoons, I tidied the exhibition and antler making area and wiped down the surfaces. I put strawboard in the adopters envelopes to protect the adoption gift packs. For the October Newsletter, they put a photo of the reindeer in with the newsletter with a sticky label on the back giving update of what the reindeer have been up to so I stuck the sticky labels onto the back of the photos.

I also talked to visitors in the Paddocks and answered their questions. One afternoon I was talking to a visitor and a child ran to get me as Popsicle the calf had got her antler in a wire mesh bit of the fence. I untangled Popsicle’s antler and she was ok.

Reindeer Off to the Free-range

With Lotti and Cameron we led 5 older girls from the top corridor in the hill enclosure back on to the free range. This was the time of year that the reindeer would be moved to the free-range for the winter. The reindeer were Dixie, Lulu, Fly, Wapiti and Pavlova. Lotti put spot on (protecting from ticks) on to Fly. The other 4 reindeer had already had it. Lotti took a photo of Wapiti for their adoption photo and Dixie came and ate out of the hand feed bag I was holding. When we let them go it was so lovely seeing them go out onto the free-range.

Dixie, Lulu, Pavlova, Fly and Wapiti heading out to free range.

Splitting Calves from their Mums

One morning I helped to move some of the calves around between the Paddocks and hill. First, we took Frost, Clouseau , Sunny and Zoom out of the paddocks and took them up into the hill enclosure and I led Clouseau and Zoom on this occasion. The 2 calves we wanted to take back down were with their mums and the bull Morse so we had to split Morse and his girls first to get the 2 calves and their mums. The 2 calves were Popsicle and Vanilla. Popsicle’s mum is Caterpillar and Vanilla’s mum is Ochil.  After we managed to get them we put  Morse and the rest of his girls back into their part of the hill enclosure. We took Caterpillar and her calf Popsicle, Ochil and her calf Vanilla, as well a 2 other reindeer Bond and Olmec off the hill. When we got to Brenda we loaded Bond, Olmec and the 2 calves into Brenda whilst Andi took the calves’ mums back up the hill to Morse. We then took the reindeer to the Paddocks at the Centre. In the Paddocks, Popsicle and Vanilla grunted for their mums for a bit as it was the first time they had been away from their mums. They would see their mums in a few days time after getting used to be handled and walked on a head collar.

Vanilla before coming down to the Paddocks.

Hill Trips

On the Hill Trips, I often would escort the back of the line of people whilst we walked to the hill enclosure and reindeer. I would sometimes put some food out for the reindeer and then count them to make sure all the reindeer were there. I would sometimes give Sunny his milk.

Emm bottle feeding Sunny.

I sometimes did the hand feed talk to the group of visitors so they knew what to do in hand feeding and what to expect. I gave out the hand feed so they could hand feed the reindeer. I talked to people and answered their questions. I sometimes took photos of visitors if they wanted photos taken with the reindeer.

This all gives you an idea of the many things that I do when volunteering with the reindeer and herders. It is such a special place and I love my time no matter how busy I am. I am really looking forward to my next trip.

Having fun with Ruth, Ben, Zoom and Merida.

Emm

Counting Reindeer – how a reindeer herder falls asleep

Last night I was lying in a tent listening to the wind howling in the trees above and willing myself to fall asleep. I think the general practice for someone who can’t sleep is to count sheep, but as I am a reindeer herder, I sometimes count reindeer. Last night I was imagining counting the reindeer jumping over one of the burns which is exactly what I was doing on the hill in the snow a couple of days before. I took a couple of photos but didn’t quite manage to get one of them actually in mid air as I was trying very hard not to loose count, but here is Dixie taking off and Torch landing!

Dixie taking off!
Torch landing!

Whenever we feed the reindeer it is very important that we count them and make sure everyone is present and eating on the line of feed, this is the reason why we put all their feed out in a long line when we feed them. Once all the reindeer are eating their feed we wander along the line and count the reindeer, which can sometimes be difficult if they are still moving around. Sometimes it’s easier to stand in one place and count them through a gateway or over a river. When I am trying to fall asleep this is usually how I am counting the reindeer.

A long line of reindeer in the enclosure enjoying their breakfast.

It is very important that we know if a reindeer is missing as often when a reindeer heads away from the herd it is because they are feeling unwell. This is something that has evolved because it protects the health of the rest of the herd. If the ill reindeer stays with the herd then it is more likely to pass the disease onto other members of the herd. If we find a reindeer is missing we will set off around the enclosure to try to find them, this is something that invariably happens on a dreich day. I have spent many mornings walking around the enclosure in the rain in search of the missing reindeer. I had a quick search through my phone to find photos from searching around the reindeer enclosure, and inevitably only found ones taken on lovely days, as who wants to take a photo when it’s raining? The lap of the enclosure includes Silver Mount, from which you can look down to Loch Morlich and the woods at the bottom of the enclosure, usually walking past Utsi’s hut. Utsi’s hut has a visitors book and I stayed there the other day and had a read through the book and found it signed by various reindeer herders who were on a lap of the enclosure searching for a missing reindeer.

The lovely view from Silver Mount.
Utsi’s hut… when searching the enclosure for a missing reindeer we often pass here.

When we find the reindeer we will catch them and then try to work out what is wrong with them. This usually involves checking them for injury and then taking their temperature to see if they are ill. If they are poorly we can treat them for whatever they are ill with and bring them back to the herd, so that once they are feeling better they are back with the other reindeer.

So there we go, a wee bit more information about why counting reindeer is so important, and not just for helping me sleep!

Lotti counting – hopefully not asleep on the job!

Lotti

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Bumble

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a “Memorable Reindeer” and I thought we were overdue a bit of reminiscing. And who better to talk about than Bumble? 

Bumble in her prime, 2015

Bumble was born in May 2010, to mum Tjakko. Jack had just started volunteering with the herd, and managed to film the whole birth. By the time the other herders arrived, they found the new mum and calf, along with Jack, all curled up asleep in the heather. It set the scene for how tame Bumble would be for the rest of her life, completely at home in the company of people. Indeed, most of her family are similarly friendly and greedy – including older sisters Dixie and Ibex.

Newborn Bumble with mum Tjakko

That autumn, as the cows and calves began returning from the high tops of the mountain free-range, one unknown little calf came in without her mum. Alone though she was, she didn’t seem scared of us, and was straight into the food. A process of elimination quickly identified her as Tjakko’s calf, orphaned over the summer. We named her Bumble – fitting in the “Bugs and Beasties” theme – and following on from Tjakko’s 2009 calf Crumble. With her silvery legs and confident character, she quickly won us round and stole my heart.

Bumble as a calf, November 2010

Bumble was a marmite reindeer – her confidence and persistence in trying to break into every bag of food either frustrated or amused herders. I found her hilarious. She never grew a “good” set of antlers – they were always simple with basic points pointing in every direction like radio antennae. It just added to her air of goofiness. In general, reindeer aren’t keen on being touched, but Bumble had no sense of personal space and was quite happy being scratched and petted. She even had a starring roll in a commercial we did for Tuffphone, pawing at a food bag and standing squarely on the phone to prove how sturdy it was as if on cue.

If there’s a bag, it has to be checked for food…

Bumble had a reputation for her ample “booty”, earning her the nickname of Beyonce.

 

Typical sighting of Bumble, moving at full pelt towards the feed bag

Like her mum, Bumble had a real stubborn streak, and leading her on a headcollar could be… interesting. Indeed I remember several times being told, “She’s your favourite, you have to lead her”. Thankfully as she got older she became better behaved, but it was definitely unwise to starting a tugging war with her, as she would just dig in her heels!

On the freerange in her summer coat

Bumble had several calves in her life, the first being Biscay, in 2014. While most cows head away from the herd to calve in private, Bumble didn’t think it was worth risking missing a feed, and tended to give birth within sight of the enclosure gate. Her carefree attitude about human company meant she was utterly unphased by us being nearby during and immediately after the birth, and I was lucky enough to watch her give birth to her second calf, using binoculars from a discreet distance. 

Bumble completely unphased by motherhood – with her newborn calf Biscay.

Sally teaching Ben how to check over a new calf, with Bumble lending young Spartan for practice – she’s keeping a close watch to check everything is done correctly.

It’s always fun catching up with the females on the free-range in summer, and one year I found a group including Bumble, who was at the “extreme moulting” stage of the year, and whilst she occupied herself with the bag of food I’d brought, I proceeded to groom off virtually all of the loose fur, leaving her rather lighter and cooler for the hot summer days! If any walkers came across the pile of discarded fur, goodness knows what they’d have thought!

Bumble on the summer free range occupying herself with some food whilst I groomed off her excess old winter coat.

I was always delighted to catch up with Bumble.

Bumble was last seen on the free-range in late 2018, in great condition and her usual cheeky self. The next time that group was seen she wasn’t with them, and whilst I held out hope that she was just off doing her thing and would turn up, it wasn’t to be and, despite searching, she was never seen by us again. It was one of those frustrating occasions where we will never know exactly what happened – she was a big strong lass in the prime of her life and not a reindeer we would expect to lose – but there are risks on the mountains, and it is the payoff for the wonderful natural life our herd lead that occasionally one is unlucky. 

One of the last photos of Bumble, out on the summer free-range – sent to me by Ruth as a “Look who weve found”

Weathering the storm – Bumble in a blizzard.

For me, Bumble was one in a million and there is a little less joy in the herd without her – when I decided to get a new tattoo it was her crazy antlers that I chose to have tattooed on my side. But her line continues through her son Spartan, who ran as a breeding bull in 2019 and fathered a lovely batch of calves. Among them are several unexpectedly tame calves (from shyer mums) who I see a little bit of Bumble in. Life in the herd goes on.

Greedy but gorgeous.

Andi

Winter free range days

From January to May, our whole herd are out roaming free on the mountains, enjoying the wintry weather that they’re so well-equipped for. Whilst it can be ridiculously wild at times, on other days it is completely still, with glorious sunshine. I thought it would be nice to put up a selection of photos from the last month or two to give you a taste of our winter days…

Oslo leading the herd over for breakfast.

Glorious views out over Aviemore on a beautiful day.

Camus, Sika, Brie and Bordeaux. Sika’s not sure about what she just ate!

Origami and the herd on an icy morning.

Ochil wondering if the food is ready yet

Okapi has cast the main uprights of her antlers, leaving her looking a bit like a unicorn!

Spider has found a nice pool for an after dinner drink.

Santana sporting one of her antlers.

Handsome Rubiks posing!

Pavlova is easily recognised with her white tuft of hair on her forehead.

Parmesan with her white face marking, and old lass Fonn in the background.

Olympic is always one of the first to see us.

LX on a grey day…

… and again on a blue sky day!

Fonn is the oldest reindeer in the herd, at nearly 17 years old.

Ryvita and her calf Berlin.

Beautiful Dixie.

Dixie, Fly and Lulu, stalwarts of the herd.

Young Dante.

Camembert, what a star!

Brie, Inca and Meadow.

We always give the calves some preferential feeding out of the bags – it keeps their condition up and keeps them tame – here’s Bordeaux, Florence, Athens and Texel enjoying a snack.

Blyton and Camembert.

Baffin.

Angua and mum Tap. Both are quite shy reindeer but we’ve put lots of effort into feeding them extra feed each day and their confidence has come on in leaps and bounds.

Hen, Lotti and Dave – feeding mission completed!

Happy reindeer eating their feed.

Celt on a windy day.

Little Kiruna.

Andi

Snow has arrived!

Up here on the Cairngorms (as well as many other places in Scotland), the first proper snow has arrived. As much of our blogging and online posts recently have been about our Christmas tours, I thought I would share with you all some photos, to remind you all where our reindeer live for most of the year.

This wild landscape can be cold, cruel and hard, but the reindeer thrive, and love their habitat in the snow. We also love it!

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A chilly but beautiful walk through the woods up to the enclosure.

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The brave souls choosing to come on our hill trip.

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The Alt Mor in the snow.

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Sheena entertaining her visitors with tales of past days.

Its one of the most beautiful times of year to visit the herd, with their wicked antlers still on their heads, long soft winter coats,and furry noses to keep them warm. Reindeer truly love the snow, and if you’re lucky you get to see them dancing about and chasing each other round.

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As we call the reindeer, they appear in the distance, coming down off Silvermount.

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The first of the greedy bunch!

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The reindeers’ view – looking down across the Reindeer Centre, Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and the cold Loch Morlich.

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The beautiful Aral, face blending in with the snow.

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Mmmm.. brunch.

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Dixie and Kara, mother and daughter, sharing their food.

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Bovril’s big antlers carrying snow, looking ready for a snowball fight?

Our Hill Trips are still running each day, at 11am, so if this inspires you to get up and visit the herd, make sure you come properly dressed for a cold encounter and get here in plenty of time. And to sign off, I’m leaving you with a picture of our beautiful Svalbard!

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Svalbard, back on home territory.

Morna

Spring

As the year rolls from March into April, here in the Highlands we start to see more definite signs of spring. The snowdrops have of course been and gone, but now the daffodils are out in their full glory, along with primroses and crocuses. There is a noticeable difference in the grass too – during March there is very little colour in the fields, everything is a washed out browny-yellow. But as April approaches, I start squinting at the verges – is there just a hint of fresh green there? By now there is no doubt, the Paddocks and garden are looking almost lush and their first cut is fast approaching. For all of you down in England, I do appreciate that you’ve probably had the lawnmower out several times already, but we have the longest winters in the UK here – one of the reasons it is still a suitable habitat for reindeer.

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

Up on the mountain, the deer grass is breaking through, and the first migrant birds are arriving back from their winter holidays – there were three ring ouzel squabbling their way along the path as I walked out to feed the herd this morning. I’ve heard tell that the first swallows are in Devon (it’ll still be a few days until they pass by us) and the distinctive osprey pair are back at Loch Garten – we popped along the other day and were glad to see EJ hanging out on the nest, and a brief visit from her long-term partner Odin. Last year I watched a pair circling over the hill enclosure, just checking out Black Loch perhaps before deciding it wasn’t suitable to nest at.

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

April is a fun time to spend with the reindeer, with anticipation in the air. The females tend to be relaxed and lazy, with heavy tummies and enjoying the fresh grazing starting to come through. Their coats have lost their sheen and are starting to moult, and most of last year’s antlers have fallen off, with some making good progress on this year’s set. Slightly less relaxing (for us, but not the reindeer) is the start of the Easter holidays, with its associated rush of visitors. Having a limit on numbers for the Hill Trip has certainly made our lives less stressful though and hopefully improves the experience for our visitors too – just a reminder to come early if you’re coming for the Trip to make sure you get tickets!

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

The other slight bit of stress is that all of us herders are assessing who we should pick for our calving “bet” – the annual game of trying to guess who will calve first. Us herders spend a lot of time peering at bellies and potential developing udders, trying to work out who is pregnant and who is likely to calve early. There isn’t any money put down, and indeed no prize for winning, but the person whose reindeer calves last has to swim in the loch! The decisions are mostly made now, but I’m already slightly apprehensive that I’ve made the wrong choice – suddenly everyone else’s choices appear much rounder in the belly department than mine… I’ll stick to my guns though with fingers crossed!

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

Normally, spring is a welcome relief after a long hard winter… this year I can’t really claim that as it’s been a very easy winter with little snow, but it’s still lovely to see the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, with the promise of a (hopefully) long, glorious summer ahead. Fingers crossed that it’s warm to make for an easier swim if I end up losing the bet!

Andi

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.

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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.

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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

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