At this time of year the reindeer look really scruffy and it’s all down to their thick light coloured winter coat falling away to reveal a short dark summer coat underneath.
There’s many an adjective I could use to describe them, moth-eaten, scruffy, hairy, shabby and when taking to people to see the reindeer at this time of year I always apologise in advance for their appearance.
This recent long dry, windless, hot spell we have been experiencing here in the Highlands of Scotland actually hasn’t helped the process, because it’s really wind and rain that speeds up the process of moulting. Once ready to truly moult the winter coat comes off in handfuls
It’s a long process because while the new summer coat grows in underneath there are two layers of winter coat to fall off at the same time. This close up of Anster’s shoulder shows quite nicely the ‘three’ coats. To the left the thick light coloured winter ‘top coat’ . Then the slightly darker and shorter winter ‘undercoat’. And then finally the new very short and dark summer coat.
It occurs to me that there must be an awful lot happening in the skin of a reindeer at this time of year! The two winter coats cannot start moulting until the new summer coat is growing, so while old hair follicles are falling out new ones are being created. Very complicated!
And so I couldn’t resist this little rhyme!
The moult of a reindeer is a complicated affair
With old coats making way for lots of new hair
The process can sometimes take many a week
With the full summer coat making them look so sleek
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!
The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!
As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)
Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.
Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.
NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.
The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!
Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!
Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!
Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.
First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.
It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!
One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.
We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!
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!