Reindeer as a Species

On our kids quiz in the Paddocks is the question ‘Name a sub-species of reindeer’, and I notice it’s often the one that people get stuck at (despite the fact that the answers are there on the display boards). I’ve realised over the years however, that this is often down to a basis lack of understanding of a percentage of the population of the concept of species and sub-species, rather than anything else. So therefore, allow me to explain.

As a zoology student (all too many years ago, so bear with me if my science is rusty!), the classification of all organic species using a system of ‘taxonomic rank’ was drilled into us. The system still in use today was founded by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 16th Century and brought order and clarity to the then chaotic and disorganised way of naming and categorizing all types of life. No wonder I loved learning about taxonomy – lists and organisation? My kinda thing.

Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778)

The Linnaean system breaks down all living things into 7 major kingdoms, animals being one and plants another, and then each kingdom is broken down further, into different phyla. Then phyla are broken down once more to the next level, which is class, and the system carries on through order; family, genus and finally species. So reindeer can be categorized as such:

Kingdom: Animalia (Common name: Animals)

Phylum: Chordata (Chordates  – meaning ‘possessing a nerve cord’)

Class: Mammalia (Mammals)

Order: Arteriodactyla (Even-toed hooved mammals)

Family: Cervidae (the Deer family)

Genus: Rangifer

Species: tarandus

 

Biological classification chart

The two part ‘binomial’ name Rangifer tarandus is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘Latin name’, and every species in the world has one. You will be familiar with ours as Homo sapiens, and like humans, reindeer are the only species within their genus, Rangifer. A regular question from visitors is ‘So….how are reindeer different from deer?’ Bizarrely, it can be quite hard explaining to people that reindeer are deer. My usual analogy is to get people to think about lions and tigers. Both obviously cats, so therefore members of the cat family (‘Felidae’), but at the same time both clearly different species from each other. So while reindeer are a member of the deer family, they are a different species from other types of deer. For example, moose, red deer and muntjac – all clearly distinguishable in looks from one another, but crucially also genetically different.

But then, as with most things, it all gets a little more complicated. Not content with 7 major divisions, scientists introduced sub-divisions in order to break down everything further. So now there are, among others, sub-classes, sub-families, sub-genera etc. Arghh! While Rangifer has no sub-genus, there are some subspecies to contend with, and this is the relevant info that we hope people will track down in our Paddocks. All seven subspecies of reindeer and caribou are all still Rangifer tarandus, so effectively all genetically the same animal, but a subspecies is shown by adding a third name after the binomial. Just to clarify too, reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. The differences are also geographical, in that reindeer are found in Europe and Asia, while caribou are found in North America and Greenland.

So back to our seven subspecies. We have:

Eurasian Tundra reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus): Open-ground dwelling subspecies, which the majority of all domesticated reindeer belong to, including ours.

Our big bull Crann, a ‘tundra reindeer’

Eurasian Forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus): Boreal forest dwelling subspecies, typically taller than tundra reindeer.

Forest reindeer

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus): Smallest subspecies, endemic to the arctic archipelago of the Svalbard islands. Short legged!

Svalbard reindeer

Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus): Migratory subspecies of open ground. The most similar of the caribous to our tundra reindeer.

Barren-ground caribou

North American woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou): Largest caribou subspecies, often darker in colour. As the name suggests, they live in forests, and generally don’t migrate.

Woodland caribou Copyright Paul Sutherland

Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi): Smallest of the caribou subspecies.

Peary Caribou Copyright Trent University 

Alaskan or Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti): Migratory subspecies most closely resembling the barren-ground caribou, and named after the Porcupine river, which runs through much of their range. The longest migrating land mammal on Earth.

Porcupine caribou

There have been two other subspecies in the past but these have now died out – the East Greenland Caribou and the Queen Charlotte Island Caribou.

So there you go, a brief taxonomy lesson, and congratulations to anyone who has stuck with me, as well as apologies for some slight over-simplifications for any scientists amongst you. Hopefully you’ll have all learnt something though – I’m a big believer of sneaking in educational blogs among the pretty pictures and funny stories we often post! And if it’s all too much and you’d just prefer something a bit more light-hearted, head off and google pictures of Svalbard reindeer. You’ll not be disappointed.

Hen

Volunteering over the Hill!

‘You’re never to old to volunteer at the Reindeer Centre’ said Mel as we walked reindeer around St. Marks garden in the middle of Lincoln. We were helping out with the Christmas event.

 

So we offered. Two, ‘older generation’, only relatively fit people, but willing and still able to do most domestic chores we thought it was a great idea. It has turned out to be exhilarating, enjoyable and far too addictive for words, we have now been back 5 times and still loving it.

 

To put our past experience into context, we have adopted at least one reindeer for the last 17 years and have taken our two boys to visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd since 1989. I started life as an adopter by being adopted by Indigo during one particular hill visit! A calm and lovable character who always had her nose in my pocket even when all feed had disappeared from my hands. I fell in love with her at first sight in 2002. After she died I adopted Cheer. A very quiet and shy reindeer, not an enthusiastic hand feeder like Indigo but easy to spot, which for me is a distinct advantage! For the past 3 years I have adopted Bumble, as far as I’m concerned one of the best reindeer in today’s herd. Colin adopts Olympic, a truly majestic animal who really adopted Colin at a Christmas event we were helping at in 2017 again in Lincoln.

Therefore we were not unfamiliar with the principles of the reindeer centre or being around the reindeer on the hill. We were both very experienced mountaineers and have extensive walking experience in the Cairngorm Mountains. An amazing place when treated with respect, so daily visits to the hill did not come with any apprehension.

 

We rent accommodation in Aviemore for between one and three weeks at a time to make the experience a working as well as a relaxing one, after all we need rest days at our age?

The welcome at Reindeer House is always so wonderful and after a few hours we feel as though we have never been away. There are always plenty of jobs to do but our favourite is still the 11oclock hill visit come rain, shine but preferably deep snow for me.

 

Colin feeding in the paddocks in the morning

 

Each member of staff have their jobs to do and we fit in comfortably. I usually help in the shop from 10oclock with tickets for the hill visit, fetching wellie boots for lending out, usually collecting the size asked for, then the next size up or down until a comfortable agreement is reached. We usually have a variety of socks available for those who need them because wellie boots can be very cold particularly in the snow. However, for some reason visitors always return the wellie boots but not the socks, even though we wash them before re-use. My solution to this problem recently has been a request in our local church’s Pews News asking for unwanted socks and in only four weeks accumulated 230 pairs of socks plus hats and scarves! That should keep Reindeer House well stocked for a while yet.

 

Each day one of the regular herders lead the daily hill trip and Colin and I usually bring up the rear, making sure everyone is making steady progress and closing gates behind the group. It always amazes me how determined some people are to get the opportunity to hand feed the reindeer. Colin and I helped a lady who had recently had knee replacements and was walking with two sticks but she made it up onto the mountain and back in snow and ice such was her determination to succeed and like us she was of the more mature generation.

 

Colin and I usually give out the hand feed after the herders have put out the main feed and counted and checked the reindeer. The visitors hold out their cupped hands as dutifully instructed and before long the same pairs of hands are reappearing! Our challenge is to make sure everyone who wants to has had at least one chance to feed a reindeer, which is why most people come of course. And really, who couldn’t resist the appealing eyes of Saxon? Just 8 months old.

Saxon

Eventually, reindeer well fed and visitors happy the party begins to disperse as visitors head back independently to the car park. Feed bags collected and stuffed into rucksacks we make sure we are last off the hill and the reindeer are settled. We head for Reindeer House and a well deserved lunch.

 

The afternoon jobs usually start off with me clearing the paddocks and overnight woodland area of reindeer droppings ready to be transported to the farm for composting. I often help out in the shop, restocking the shelves or dealing with visitors to the paddocks. Colin usually washes the lunch pots then the wellie boots or you may find him wandering around the paddocks chatting with visitors. December volunteering is the busiest when at the weekends I do crafts with the children in the BBQ hut and Colin keeps the paddocks clean and Santa occupied with excited children.

 

After filling the troughs with feed in the woods and calling the reindeer through, we help tidy and lock up ready for another adventure tomorrow.

Sharon

Welly cleaning, always a popular job!

Feeding the Free-rangers

With Christmas over and the Centre closed to the public for a month, we have put all of our reindeer out to free-range – the males are on the Cromdale mountains and the females are split between there and the Cairngorm mountains. We don’t necessarily see them every day, but where possible we like to catch up with them, feed them and check everyone’s ok. Here’s some photos from feeding the herd the other day:

The herd approaching – they had come to call from the summit of the mountain just to the left of centre.
Sika leading the herd in.
We sometimes feed the herd within the top part of our hill enclosure, out of the way of dogs, and leave the gate open for them to leave when they want to.

We always let the calves get “first dibs” and a crowd of impatient mini-reindeer gather round the bags.
We also use a small bag of feed to go round any of the older or skinnier adults to give them a “top up”. Here is Suidhe, a 3-year-old female, having an extra snack.
6-year-old female Torch.
One of the calves born last May, Nancy.
Ryvita, a 9-year-old female.
At nearly 16 years old, Fonn is one of the oldest reindeer in the herd. She still looks great!
11-year-old Meadow is missing the tips of her ears, and looks even stranger now she’s cast her antlers.
Blondie is one of the most recognizable reindeer in the herd.
Little Galilee is very sweet natured. She’s nearly 5 years old but quite small for her age.
Parmesan (with the white nose) and daughter Blyton are still close, even now Blyton is nearly 2 years old.

Not bad for a place to live, but where is the snow?!?

Andi

 

Santa’s Choice

This Christmas the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre has been given a very fancy Christmas present.  Jaguar cars have given us a 4 x 4 F Pace to drive around free of charge for the next 6 months. Adorned with Cairngorm Reindeer and Jaguar logos it has certainly turned a few heads!

So on Christmas Day when we were just about to do a local reindeer event at the Coylumbridge Hotel, Santa was in a dilemma, there were two modes of transport. A team of reindeer and sleigh, with a hard wooden seat and a team of exhausted reindeer (who had done too much flying on Christmas Eve) – or an extremely comfortable, fully automatic Jaguar F Pace 4 x 4.

He chose the Jag, but of course the children waiting at the hotel would be very disappointed if Santa rocked up in a car so he was ceremoniously booted out and plonked in the sleigh instead!

 

All our reindeer events have gone extremely well this year and everywhere we have gone we have put a smile on people’s faces.  All those reindeer we train to harness are now back on the hills and enjoying a well-deserved rest, and it will not be until next October that we bring out the harness, dig out the sleighs and decorations and prepare for another Christmas season. For the Christmas reindeer it’s not a bad life, 10 months off and 2 months doing some work. I can think of worse jobs!

Nutkins & Anster

 

All our reindeer have now grown their lovely thick winter coats and laid down substantial fat layers to survive the winter. But where is that cold snowy weather, indeed this is one of the mildest Christmases I can remember. Maybe the New Year will bring the snow, we will just have to wait and see.

 

So from all of us here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we hope you had a good one this Hogmanay and best wishes for 2019!

Tilly

Diaries of yesteryear

Ever since the early days of the herd, there has been a “Daily Diary” written, keeping track of the movements of the reindeer, amounts fed, illness and veterinary care, visitors, weather and anything else of note. We still keep this up to this day, though throughout the years this has varied from handwritten to typewritten and now typed on a computer. It is an invaluable record for us, and also really interesting to look back through. I was looking through old records a while ago and started snapping photos of some humorous entries, which I thought were too good not to be shared:

Ah the joys of wet feet… Mikel Utsi on a bad day
All of the random visitors on one day!
Lucky sightings of a bird that’s rarely seen in the UK
Early sketches by Mikel Utsi, identifying the reindeer by their antler shape
Look at this funny looking calf!
In other news…
The standard menu for meals – breakfast sounds good, I’m less convinced by dinner…
Clearly a slow day for working with actual reindeer…

Andi

Tales of a Reindeer Herder: Kate’s first day

For the previous few months we have been joined by a new reindeer herder called Kate who helped us out over the busy calving period. Kate was so brilliant to have around we asked her to stay a little longer until some of our regular summer staff returned through June and July. We expect to have her back at some point in the near future, but for now she has headed off to enjoy some summer wanderings. Before she left Kate wrote some lovely short stories about her time herewith some excellent drawings. Keep an eye out over summer for the next installments of her stories. Hopefully we can have Kate back here at Reindeer House in the autumn!

Kate taking Lulu and the twins out for some grazing accompanied by Glenshee

First day on the job – Lost in the fog

During the first hour as a reindeer herder I had managed to become a very soggy, panting mess who was lost in the fog somewhere on windy ridge with not the foggiest where the herd had gone. I remembered thinking to myself; this has gone terribly wrong- I’m not even going to make it through the first day!

It was mid-April and there were still patches of snow on the hills. My first sighting of the reindeer was brilliant, the whole free range of females were running towards us as we walked over a brow of a hill. It was an amazing sight, and one I won’t forget in a hurry, the reindeer looked beautiful and majestic in full winter white coats and impressive antlers. I was marvelling at what a lovely greeting we got, but Mel pointed out they probably came our way being spooked by something from the opposite direction. Then off we went, it was Mel leading the herd to the lower levels and me bringing u the rear, but unlike the agile reindeer that excitedly skip, gliding over the snow patches I ran behind panting and sank straight into a snow hole (Vicar of Dibley style). Up on my feet again I was wondering how on earth I was to keep up with these four legged creatures when 5 of them decided to go in the opposite direction. Standing in the middle of the groups, I thought I can’t lose reindeer on my first mission and went gallivanting after the strays. Of course being a herd animal , it really says it all , and the wanderers then did a full circle galloping off to join the rest, leaving myself lost in the fog. Luckily it wasn’t long until I found the herd again and the rest of the first day went more smoothly.

Kate

Kate’s first day

Featured Reindeer: Blondie

Blondie

Mother: Glacier

Born 11th May 2006

Blondie in 2017

 

Blondie is different to the vast majority of the herd because not only is she pure white but she is also stone deaf. When she was born in May 2006 she was the first pure white reindeer calf for nearly 40 years, indeed since her great-great-great-grandmother Snowflake, who was born in 1968.  We had no first-hand experience of a reindeer as white as the driven snow and for a while as a calf we thought she was just an incredibly lazy, ‘laid back’ reindeer. While the rest of the herd would eagerly run down the hill when we called them, Blondie would be sleeping! But it didn’t take us long to realise that actually she was deaf. Clapping our hands and shouting into her ear while she was fast asleep did nothing to rouse her; she was quite literally ‘in a world of her own.’

Blondie as a calf with her mother Glacier

We worried over how she would cope out on the free range as she couldn’t hear her mother Glacier grunting to her, nor would she be able to hear the clicking of the reindeer’s tendons as they walk – a constant noise that encourages the herd to stay together. Equally she would not hear a dog barking or people talking and so be unaware of potential danger. Well, our worries were unfounded; she is now 12 years old, has successfully raised a number of calves and is very much alive and kicking. One advantage is she is really easy to spot on the hill, standing out like a sore thumb against the dark hillside, although admittedly in the winter, the white camouflage in deep snow helps to disguise her.

Blondie with a muddy nose!

In 2010, Blondie had a male calf Lego who, like his mum, is pure white and also deaf. Not wanting to have too many deaf reindeer in the herd we decided not to breed from Lego, but at two years old Lego had other plans and managed to be sneaky and mate with Lulu, a seven year old, light coloured female. Lo and behold the next spring Lulu had a pure white male calf Blue, who, yes I am sure you can guess, is deaf too!

Interestingly when we have been out in Swedish Lapland we have often heard the Sámi describe white reindeer as lazy and easily predated on by wolves. I think we can safely give them the answer why!

Tilly

Blondie and her son Lego

Featured Reindeer: Balmoral

Balmoral: Born 16th May 2012

Mother: Fly

Father: Strudel.

Balmoral

For the calves born in 2012 the theme was just ‘2012’ because so much happened that year. It was he Queen’s Jubilee year our 60th anniversary and also the London Olympics. So we had great fun coming up with diverse names to suit the theme and as one of the biggest calves of the year Balmoral was aptly named.

 

Fly and Balmoral

He was, however, a mistake! During the rut of 2011, when Balmoral was conceived, we attempted to restrict the number of cows breeding by leaving them out on the free-range without a bull. That all seemed fine until a young bull, Strudel, went missing in the hill enclosure and turned up a few weeks later on the free range having found ‘heaven’, i.e. lots of reindeer females – even more than your average breeding bull would manage in a season.

Fly was one of those cows left out but ended up in calf to Strudel. But we’re not complaining because there are now some great reindeer in the herd now as a result from that rutting season in 2011.

Naughty/lucky Strudel

During the 35 plus years I have been with the reindeer there have been some iconic bull reindeer who have stood out amongst the rest of the herd. In the early 1980s it had been Troll: great name (from the children’s story Billy Goat’s Gruff – and yes there was a Trip and a Trap too) and an equally great reindeer. His son Gustav, a real gentleman among reindeer, took over from him in the late 80s and early 90s. Then we brought in a young bull from Whipsnade Zoo for new blood and that was Crackle, who featured in many photos, leaflets and articles about the herd. Indeed he was the reindeer on the front cover of the first book I wrote about reindeer, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’.

In 2003, a bull calf named Crann was born and by two years old he showed all the signs of being something special. As a mature breeding bull he grew huge antlers year after year, probably the biggest antlers that have ever been seen in the Cairngorm herd and right up until his last year he continued to grow amazing antlers for his age.

Crann

By 2015, Balmoral was the most promising young bull in the herd, growing huge antlers as a three year old. As a result, we decided to give him a shot as a breeding bull, allowing him to father some calves, rather than being castrated as most of the other three year old males are. In 2016 he looked incredible with even bigger antlers, and ended up being the main breeding bull that autumn, with many of the calves born last spring fathered by him. He’s well and truly spread his genes about! His son Burns, born May 2017, who is big, bold and boisterous may well follow in his footsteps and become a breeding bull in his own right in a couple of years.

Balmoral

Tilly

 

Featured Reindeer: Fly

Fly: Born May 2007
Mother: Fiddle

Calves: Custard 2009, Dragonfly 2010, Domino 2011, Balmoral 2012, Anster 2013, Hudson 2014, Aonach 2015

Fly as a calf, with her mother FIddle during the winter of 2007/08

I was inspired to write about Fly as the featured reindeer for this blog as I followed her back from the far end of the hill enclosure with her new-born male calf back in May 2014. Fly’s name has a tenuous connection to the 2007 theme of the colour green: the gardener’s worst nightmare, greenfly. We shortened her name to Fly.

Fly: Autumn 2017

As I followed her through the wooded slopes of Silver Mount Fly led me a tortuous route up and down the hill through deep heather and thick woodland. I’m not sure who she was testing, me or her calf. Her calf was amazing, struggling through the jungle of rank heather, scaling rough boulders and trying to keep up with his mum as she strode up the hill. I had to keep my wits about me as on a couple of occasions she appeared to completely vanish. Fly by name, fly by nature.

Fly and Hudson, a while after giving Tilly the runaround

There are only a few breeding females in our herd that get the gold star for breeding success and Fly is up there with the best of them. She calved first as a two year old, a strapping female calf who we called Custard (can you guess the link?!). Custard calved for the first time in 2012 then in 2013 she had a beautiful female calf, Cream (clever with linking names eh), so Fly at the age of only five years old became a granny. In the world of reindeer grannies can go on to be mothers too for many years and since having custard Fly has gone on to produce six strapping males: Dragonfly, Domino, Balmoral, Anster, Hudson and Aonach.

Fly with all of her wonderful sons and daughters

Fly is coming up 11 now and having missed out on the rut last year she shouldn’t be calving this year. However, as she’s still one of the biggest and strongest females in the herd it’s possible she may well run in the rut with a male again this autumn if she stays in good health. Fly has maintained a remarkable record of being the first female to come to call every time Fiona has been out to bring in the free-rangers these last couple of months. She is never far from the front of the group when the other herders call the reindeer down but she is always first when Fiona calls!

Tilly

Fly having a well earned rest in the snow

I prefer the less tame reindeer.

I prefer the less tame reindeer…

We have a lot of very sweet reindeer. They come right up to me and stick their noses right into the feed bag I have just carried up the hill…. Bumble, for instance…. I cuddle Dr Seuss and scruff up his nose hairs. Reindeer are wonderful creatures. So powerful and hardy, standing into the gales, looking into the snow that flies across the hill, this is where they live. The likes of Bumble and Dr Seuss have lots of adopters. Everyone loves Bumble. So cheeky, so adorable.

Dr Seuss came over for a cuddle with Reindeer Herder Chris one morning to shelter from the wind!

 

 

Occasionally someone comes into the shop and asks to adopt a real wild reindeer, a rebel, one who knows no boundaries. I breathe a sigh of relief and start rattling of my favourites, because I prefer the less tame reindeer. I prefer the ones at the back that no one ever sees or the ones that elude even us herders. Tambourine, Enya, Wapiti, Chelsea, I say, these are my favourites. These reindeer have a different beauty. These reindeer laugh at us mere humans. These reindeer have few adopters. Who wants to adopt a reindeer that will wallop you, or walk away, if you go near it?

Champagne at home on the hillside.
Bega in the enclosure in late summer 2016.

My favourite when I first arrived was Bega. A pale coloured male that was born on the free-range and a real struggle to train. My other favourite was Champagne, a flighty young female, with distinctive spear like antlers. Both Bega and Champagne died before their time.

I guess this is perhaps what makes the herd so wonderful and interesting – we have both tame and less tame reindeer!

Thanks for reading. Dave