Reindeer Identification

What a lovely herd, but how do you learn all their names?

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!

Sherlock is a very distinctive boy with big antlers.
Most visitors to the hill will be able to recognise Dr Seuss within a few mins of meeting him.

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.

Zoom showing off his red ear tag. But it’s his white face markings and cheeky character which give his identity away!

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.

Poirot having a snooze in the Paddocks. The unique shape of his left antler helps Fran identify him.

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.

Merida on the left has a very distinctive white hourglass face markings. But who are the others?! Chickpea is in the middle and Solero on the right.

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.

Lupin in his short dark summer coat at the end of June…
…2 months later at the end of August, Lupin is growing through his winter coat and is looking more silvery.
Fran helping to bring some more free ranging girls into the enclosure. Yet more names to learn!

Fran

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…

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

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