Memorable reindeer of the past: Comet

Comet was already an old reindeer when I first arrived, but none the less he was still a very visible member of the herd. When our male reindeer get to about 7 or 8, there is a tendency for them to spend more and more time over at our farm where Tilly sees them daily but us lot, based here at the Centre in Glenmore, do so less often. Comet was already 12 when I first met him, but he still spent plenty of time here on a regular basis as he was such a popular character.

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Comet in his heyday.

Comet was a big, white reindeer, born in 1995, the third calf from his mum Ferrari. Ferrari herself was a very memorable reindeer as she didn’t grow any antlers until she reached the age of 9, when she decided to sprout one! That was enough though, and even though she lived until just shy of 17, she never bothered to grow more than one antler a year. She was also a fabulous breeding female, producing 11 calves in her lifetime. This trait runs throughout her family lines, which form a substantial number of reindeer in our herd today.

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Ferrari with her one antler. Behind her is her granddaughter Malawi who didn’t (and still doesn’t) grow any antlers at all!

But I digress. Comet was the loveliest reindeer that you can possibly imagine, tame, friendly, polite and somewhat like a teddy bear. Reindeer in general are not a cuddly animal; they happily tolerate being handled but never seek out affection in the way, for example, a dog might, despite having been domesticated for as long. It’s the reason we have a ‘hands-off’ approach with our reindeer, we handle them enough to make sure they are all happy being in such close proximity to humans, but we never put them in a position where they can be petted against their wishes. On the hill it’s the tamest that come to hand-feed while the shyer have the choice to hang back, and out on Christmas tour they are always provided with enough space to keep out of reach of the public. We’re frequently asked if we can bring a reindeer to the side of the pen to be stroked, and the answer is always ‘no’. If they choose to do so themselves that is fine, but it has to be their choice, on their terms.

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With ex-herder Vicky, contemplating life together.

I digress again – keeping to the subject in hand is not always my strong point. Back to it… Comet was unusual in that he seemed to be completely happy to have a cuddle, and indeed we all took advantage of this regularly – there’s nothing quite like putting your arms around the neck of a reindeer and burying your nose in their hair. Most reindeer would respond with a huff and pull away, but not Comet. He is also responsible for bringing us Paul, our twice yearly volunteer who has been coming for a fortnight at a time for years now (and fixing everything we break) – as he put his nose on Paul’s shoulder (Paul was sitting down, I hasten to add, Comet wasn’t that big…) and leant there for the entirety of a Hill Trip, back in 1998! Paul was hooked on reindeer from then on and 19 years later is still coming to help us out, and thank god, as he is a master joiner… I can hear the power drill whining away as I type – Paul is in residence and mending something.

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In his old age.

One of my best memories of Comet is from the first week that I started here, when Tilly and I took two adult reindeer (one being Comet) and two 6 month old calves out for a walk in Glenmore in order to get the previously unhandled calves used to walking on a halter. On this occasion I can remember squeaking frantically to Tilly as we jogged along towards the Forestry Centre next door as Comet danced, spinning around and bouncing; letting off steam. I was hanging on for dear life but not doing a very good job, until Tilly prudently took Comet off me and gave me her (less excited) reindeer instead. Now I can easily handle such a full-of-beans reindeer, but as a wet-behind-the-ears herder, I was utterly out of my depth. It was a very steep learning curve!

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Mel leading Comet out calf-training, on a day when he was a little less excited!

Within a couple of years after that occasion Comet was well into his old age, and such behaviour was behind him. He lived to the grand old age of nearly 17, and although I saw him less regularly in his doddery old man phase, I still had a ‘Comet Cuddle’ each time I met him again.

Hen

Memorable reindeer of the past: Eco

Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!

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Young bull Eco

Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.

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10 months old

The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.

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Hen and Eco on a Christmas event together

Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.

Always inquisitive and up to something!
Always inquisitive and up to something!
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old
Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.

A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.

Hen

Fergus

Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!

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Fergus looking angelic on the hill

In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!

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Fergus sleeping in a feed bowl, inside Reindeer House.

So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.

Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.

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Fergus and Tiree guarding the door
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Murdo and Fergus on a ride up to the hill
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Trying some different beds out for size

Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!

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Fergus in the news and up on the hill

In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.

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Little Fergus ‘helping out’ on a trek in 2015

Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!

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Fergus having a cuddle with ‘mum’ Mel

Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.

Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.

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Cheeky devil!
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Fergus looking great at 1.5 years old

He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!

Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!

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He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!

Imogen

Rounding up Winter

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Fiona and Feta having a one to one

So as it’s almost summer and I’m having a bit of a phone clear out of all the photos and thought who would most enjoy all my winter reindeer ones… everyone online! It was only 6 months ago I managed to upgrade my trusty old button phone to a smart one so I’ve been making the most of having a camera to hand most of the time.

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The girls walking behind each other to save energy

 

We have had a right mix of weather over the past few months but regardless what it is doing out there we have to go out and locate the herd every morning. This is one good reason I never look at a weather forecast cos I either get excited that there is going to be good weather and it disappoints or I see it’s due to be bad weather so then I don’t look forward to getting a drenching so best just to look out the window on the day and dress appropriately! At least this way there is no expectations.

 

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Mel leading the herd in for breakfast

The girls (reindeer) have been pretty well behaved and we have found them most of the time. I say most because lets face it there is going to be the odd day the hill is storm bound or just too foggy to even begin to find them. We have experienced every terrain under foot from deep snow, mud and ice but to be honest the snow is the easiest one to walk through as we create a lovely packed path that both us and the reindeer use… unless you are the first one to break that path after a fresh dumping in which case a deep thigh high walk out it is!

 

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Abby and the reindeer on a gloriously sunny winter’s morning

They always go through the same pattern every year and they come to a call from far away through January and February but then through March they seem to get quite lazy and expect us to go to them so the walks become further and a little more frustrating, however, when you do get them back to the right place there is a much bigger sense of achievement. Plus it keeps us fit and if the weather is good then there is no better office!

 

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Lace having a stretch, overlooking Loch Morlich

Anyway there is no need for me to say anything else so enjoy my photos of the reindeer this winter.

Fiona

 

 

A Reindeer Herder’s Job in January

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Expectant reindeer – food is always welcome!

You all know Christmas is our busy time of year, however you also know that reindeer are not just for Christmas, so what happens after all the commercial pursuits we undertake and those many visits onto the hill throughout the year…? Well, this is a reindeer herder’s favourite time of the year as the Centre is closed and for once in the year we feel like we can start to get back on top of things!

First and most important job is to get the reindeer into their correct locations for the winter. They are split between the Cromdale hills over near our Glenlivet hill farm and here on Cairngorm. We don’t use our mountain enclosure from January through to April/May (in time for calving). It’s a time of year reindeer are in their absolute element and what this species is all about – the cold, snow and thick winter coats. The split tends to be boys to the Cromdales and girls on Cairngorm however some females do also go onto the Cromdales as well.

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Santana leading the herd up – single file through the snow to save energy.

We still like to see the reindeer everyday so we know where they are and therefore we feed and check them every morning. This means heading up and spying from our various points along the hill road where we get the best views of their hot spots. A reindeer herder’s eye is well trained and can spot the reindeer way before anyone else. A lot of the time we don’t even reach for the binoculars – we just know the lay of the land so well that we know which ‘reindeer shaped rocks’ are indeed rocks and which ones are actually the reindeer! The weather has a big part to play in this so no snow means we find the reindeer quickly, lots of snow means the darker reindeer stick out, however that annoying mottled, patchy snow is the worst to spot reindeer in as they are so camouflaged. High winds keep them off the high tops and closer to the tree line, sunny weather often means they are happy just to have a chilled out day soaking it up… just like us!

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Mel hefting just some of the daily rations – it certainly keeps us fit lugging feed out into the mountains!

So once found we head out and give them a good feed, count and check them. Even the dogs benefit from this part as they get to come part of the way out. Obviously they can’t mix with the reindeer however Sookie and Tiree are both now trained to wait wherever we ask them. Sometimes we are feeding and checking the reindeer and look back to the dogs and all we see is their wee faces poking above the heather watching our every move and the reindeer don’t even notice them!

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Sometimes the dogs look all majestic… (Tiree, Moskki and Sookie)
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… sometimes not so much! Looking windblown – Murdo, Sookie and Tiree

Once the morning is complete and reindeer fed and checked its back down to the centre to complete our long list of ‘January Jobs’. This may be painting the exhibition floor in the paddocks, fixing fences and gates, oiling the Christmas harness (ready to pack away for another year), going through every single event folder and reading all the reports, making up adoption packs, cleaning, packing away the endless decorations put up at Christmas etc, etc, etc… But being closed means we can also make the most of the good weather. If the sun is shining and snow conditions allow some of us keen skiers head for the hills for a day on the snow! Needless to say the dogs like this part too as they get to come along. This does turn us into fair weather skiers, however we spend plenty of time in the hills being blown off our feet and getting soaked to the bone, to pick and choose when we can go skiing only seems fair!

The honeymoon must come to an end though so on the 6th February we re-open our doors and get back to our daily routine of 11am guided tours. It’s all fine and well it being a nice time of year for us herders but we wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for our many visitors to the Centre supporting our lovely herd of reindeer in the Cairngorms!

Fiona

Life on Tour

‘Christmas’ for us reindeer herders, doesn’t just mean Dec 25th, but rather the entire period of November and December. After 7-8 weeks of (organised) chaos, hectic days and usually less than desirable weather, Christmas Day itself always seems a rather incidental event at the end of it all! While tour is frequently great fun, it is also extremely tiring and by the end we’re all ready to heave a huge sigh of relief and pack away everything for another 10 months. Come January, should one more person jokingly ask a herder which one Rudolph is, then so help them God…

Topi has a quick nap on my shoulder whilst waiting for the parade to start
Topi has a quick nap on my shoulder whilst waiting for the parade to start

While up to eight teams of reindeer are away on the weekends in November and December, the weekdays are quieter, and most teams return home. We have around 45 big male castrate reindeer who are trained to harness, four of which will travel to each event along with two 6 to 7 month old calves, making teams of six. So even on the busiest weekends there are still reindeer at home taking their turn to ‘hold the fort’, and no single reindeer will go out to events week upon week. Many teams go out only for a night or two at the weekend, returning home straight away afterwards, while a few head away for longer but 2.5 weeks at a time is always the longest stint we ever do with the same six reindeer.

Spider looking incredibly relaxed at an event

Obviously, being based in the Cairngorms means that most trips away on tour for a ‘long stint’ start with the long haul down the A9 and onward, so a network of ‘bases’ across the UK to keep our travelling time down is a necessity. Our two main big bases are in the Lake District and South Wales, but we also have three in the central and southern Scotland, plus another five or so in England. Most are farms, so the reindeer are housed in a large, airy barn or undercover yard while we herders have accommodation on site too, usually in the form of a self-catering cottage. This then enables us to travel much shorter distances to our events, and (like us!) reindeer require days off while on tour, so the bases provide safe and secure locations for them then.

Origami, Duke, Hamish, Tanner, Aonach and Fyrish chilling out at our Welsh base
Origami, Duke, Hamish, Tanner, Aonach and Fyrish chilling out at our Welsh base
We’ve been visiting some of our bases for years now, so our hosts are well used to their unusual winter guests!
We’ve been visiting some of our bases for years now, so our hosts are well used to their unusual winter guests!

Grass is far too rich for a reindeer’s diet, so while we let them get some grazing each day while exercising them, we don’t leave them on grass for too long at any one time. Our usual routine is to get up and to take the reindeer out for a stretch of the legs first thing. At some bases this involves a run on halters, but at most we can let them loose in a field and they will hurtle around ‘dancing’ (reindeer don’t buck like excited horses, but will leap in the air, spin around and bounce about!). Then it’s back to the barn for their breakfast, while we poo-pick, refill water bowls and sort the lorry ready for the next event. Then it’s breakfast time for us!

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Hamish, Origami, Aonach, Duke and Fyrish (plus Tanner) burst out from the barn, down the field…
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… and away up the next one!
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It’s always reassuring when they come back! We pop their head collars on whilst out exercising in case anyone decides to adventure a little too far, but for the rest of the time at base we take them off.
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After a few minutes thundering around letting off steam, they like to settle down to graze and potter.
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Stalking whichever one of us has the bucket of lichen is their favourite pastime

Aside from looking after the reindeer, base days can go one of two ways, depending on your team partner is. Should it be Mel or Sally (among others) then it might become what has become known as ‘boot-camp’ – an energetic day of walking or cycling. For the lazier or less fit amongst us (primarily pointing the finger at myself here), a day of pottering around local towns, drinking coffee and sight-seeing seems more appealing! We do however, have to help out Reindeer House on occasion, who will sometimes send us lists of letters to write to go into adoption packs – Christmas is a hectic time for those left behind at base.

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Lotti, Hen and Abby on letter writing duty!

And then there are the events. They range from shopping centres to light switch-ons, town centre parades to private functions, and are a way of raising the money needed for the reindeer to continue their free-ranging lifestyle on the Cairngorms. Reindeer are a herd animal, hence why we never take less than four out together (usually six), and as they all go out to events as calves then they are very relaxed when we take them out and about again as full-grown adults, as they’ve seen it all before. They are great fun on tour and we always return home with endless stories from each event: how each reindeer behaved when pulling the sleigh, who fell asleep into their feed bowl, who kept trying to eat the tinsel on the sleigh, and who tried to eat nick a box of Celebrations from the Queen’s head groom at Windsor (stand up and take a bow, Fergus…).

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Fergus… never a dull moment…

Hen

Mel’s Marathon Madness

I have decided to run the Paris Marathon in April 2016, what have I let myself in for!

I will be raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, aiming to reach a target of £1000. Luckily, working as a Reindeer Herder is fantastic fitness training….running around the mountains looking for free-ranging reindeer, carrying feed up the hill, running after non-conforming reindeer!….. and the years of ‘compulsory’ hill-running, prompted by Alan Smith, are going to set me in good stead, I hope! However, I still definitely need to train in long distances and having someone to run with always helps with motivation… and here are some of my eager running partners:

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All the Reindeer House dogs… Tiree, Moskki, Tip, Sookie and Murdo (not pictured… off eating something no doubt!)… they never say no to a run… and of course Fergus!

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Fergus offering some training tips from his months of running experience!

I chose to run for Macmillan as cancer seems to affect so many of us these days, whether directly or indirectly through friends or family. I am running the Marathon with one of my best friends, Ailsa, who hasn’t as much running experience as me but as she lost a friend recently to cancer she has been motivated to give it a go and I think it’s really brave of her so want to support her and raise money for a great cause. Macmillan nurses provide amazing support to people who are fighting cancer and their work is invaluable.

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Fergus is providing fundraising support! I did try to persuade him to come to Paris too but he says he prefers the hills to the cities!

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Fergus counting the donations so far…

If you would like to support me please donate by going to:

https://www.justgiving.com/Melanie-Gaff

Thanks and wish me luck!
Mel

Calf Training 101

October is a fun time of year as it’s when we train this year’s calves as well as harness training our young Christmas reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh. Halter training and handling the calves makes them much tamer and easier to handle for the rest of their lives so even if they don’t end up pulling Santa’s sleigh at least we can catch them if we ever need to when they are out in the hills…well, most of the time anyway, some are always wild…it’s in the genetics!

Luckily reindeer are very food orientated, aren’t we all! So stage one is to get their heads in a bucket full of tasty lichen, chocolate for reindeer!

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Lotti luring the calf into the bucket of delights!

Once the head is ‘inserted’ a sneaky manoeuvre gets the halter on with them barely noticing what’s happened!

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Mel putting on the calf’s halter while Lotti holds the bucket

Once the wee ones are caught we get ourselves a couple of steady old boys to come alongside and ‘teach’ the calves…this day it was Puddock and Parfa’s turn to be the companions. We have found that they are better behaved without their mums, like some children! So mum’s go back up the hill once they have accompanied the calves down to the ‘training centre’ and the big boys take over.

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All haltered up, we are ready for a wee walk around Glenmore to see the new sights and sounds…….
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To try and make the walks a ‘fun’ thing we go off into the woods in search of yummy snacks!
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Enjoying some freshly picked tree lichen from Lotti.
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The boys enjoy the smorgasbord walks just as much as the calves! Puddock nibbling lichen from the trees.
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Fresh birch leaves are another favourite, Grunter snacking on leaves while Lotti feeds the wee calf, Ochil.
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Moose ready to grab a big mouthful of leaves, it’s interesting to watch the technique. They grab the twig some way toward to base and then pull it throw their teeth and hard pad to strip off all the leaves but leave the twig and tip intact so they don’t actually damage it, clever!
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The training/buffet walk finishes with a wee graze of the grass.

Lastly with heads snuggly back in buckets of lichen, halters are carefully removed! After 2 or 3 outings like this they will be pretty much halter trained. The key to winning them round is lots of tasty snacks and pockets full of lichen as you will have seen and a couple of old boys who can be a good influence!

Mel

Introducing Fergus

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Fergus

Many of you may have already heard about our wee orphan reindeer, Fergus, who we have had the joy of hand rearing this summer. Sadly his mum died when he was just 10 days old but he got several very eager human mums instead, not least myself who has gone completely maternal over him, worrying about him on his first day up the hill (like it’s his first day at school!), texting when I’m away to make sure he has had his milk on time and collecting him fine lichens and bouquets of heather when I’m out on walks!

Fergus quickly adapted to life without his reindeer mum and was very tame from the start. He also befriended the dogs! Wolves are reindeer’s biggest natural predator so it’s an unusual relationship to say the least.

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Murdo was besotted with him when he was tiny. Couldn’t take his eyes off him!
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While Murdo’s love faded slightly as Fergus grew (food is always his first love!) he made a lifelong pal with Tiree!

Fergus began his life down at the centre so that we could bottle feed him easily and he hung out with the reindeer in the paddocks, but right from the start Fergus was very happy wandering around the house and quick to seek out a comfy bed!   He tried quite a few…

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A feed bowl was a perfect bed when he was tiny, but the rug on my bedroom floor was better when he needed to really stretch out!

He soon discovered that dog beds were the best bet…

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His favourite one is Tiree’s. The office bed was quickly outgrown.

Fergus loves his milk and is always on the hunt for a possible udder! This involves butting us very violently at times and looking in some unusual places:

Maybe there’s one in the sofa cover? ….or in this duvet?
Maybe there’s one in the sofa cover? ….or in this duvet?

As soon as we could we began taking him up the mountain to spend the day with the herd, to teach him to be a proper reindeer. He loves his walk up the hill first thing and usually does a few wee skips of joy along the way.

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On the path up to the hill enclosure, Sookie leading the way, then trotting over Utsi’s bridge.
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With our volunteer Charlie, walking along with the rest of the herd
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Return transport to the Centre is in the back of the reindeer van, with good company.

He also likes his walks around Glenmore in the evenings; he gets some exercise and some tasty snacks along the way:

Visiting the Pine Marten to fetch some milk, and snacking on lichen lollipops on the way
Visiting the village shop to fetch some milk, and snacking on lichen lollipops on the way

Recently Fergus went on his first half day trek as he needs to get fit for the time when he will go out free-ranging with the herd. He loved it and had a great time eating all the new plants he found along the way.

Fergus trekking to the top of Silvermount, 644m, the highest he has ever been.  He needed a nap half way round!
Fergus trekking to the top of Silver Mount, 644m, the highest he has ever been. He needed a nap half way round!

Fergus is a bit of a local celebrity and has been in two local papers; people come from far and wide to see him….

Fergus 13
Fergus’s story in the Press and Journal. Check this out boys, what is it???

Fergus has been a great source of entertainment and joy to all of us. He is definitely in the “terrible twos” stage at the moment, always up to antics and eating and drinking things he is not supposed to:

Suckling the wine cork and sneaking into the feed mix bag...
Checking out the wine cork and sneaking into the feed mix bag…

Finally, now the rutting season is about to begin and all the boys are busy stripping their velvet and revealing their splendid antlers, we felt Fergus needed a helping hand as his antlers are just tiny wee ones right now…

Fergus 15

But whilst these pictures may give you the impression that Fergus is a house pet, we have to assure you that the majority of his time is now spent with the herd on the mountains – he is a “big boy” now and will very soon spend all his time up there, enjoying the views and the natural life of a Cairngorm Reindeer.

Fergie hill

Mel

Watch this space for more news on the adventures of Fergus!!!

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 structure

Found 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.

Soay sheep at our farm, with their horns. Photo: Alex Smith

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

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