Pedicures for reindeer

Hooves are important – got to keep them clean!

A common question we’re asked, usually after spending some time with the reindeer and noticing their beautiful big feet, is whether we need to trim their hooves. Reindeer are endowed with large feet with four toes to each hoof: two main weight bearing toes which do most of the work, plus two smaller and higher up toes which only touch the ground when on soft surfaces (snow or bog), when they spread out like a large snow shoe and mean reindeer can traverse snow drifts a lot easier than humans.

Okapi showing off how well her hooves serve her on snow.
Reindeer find snow way easier than us humans.
Fly says “It’s snow problem!”

In general our answer is no, we don’t have to routinely trim the hooves of our reindeer. Just like our own nails, the hard outer hoof continues growing constantly throughout their lives, but as they are roaming fair distances each day over rough, rocky and stony mountainous ground, the amount of wear tends to balance this out and means their toes stay nice and neat. Of course there is no one out trimming the hooves of wild caribou and other deer, who get through their entire lives with perfectly shaped hooves, and as our herd are in the correct habitat with plenty of movement, they are usually fine without intervention.

Wapiti grazing on short vegetation with gravel and rocks beneath it.
Spending much of their time on hard ground like this wears hooves down correctly.
Oatcake has beautiful feet!

However, there is always the exception to the rule. There are perhaps three reasons why we sometimes do need to dust off the hoof trimmers. First up is that we’re found our pure white reindeer (step forward Blondie and Matto in particular) have hooves that, for whatever reason, seem to grow faster than those of their darker coloured compatriots. Once or twice a year we’ll decide they are a little lengthy and have a trim to keep everything in place. Over-long hooves can cause all kinds of problems, especially putting pressure on their joints as their foot cannot sit correctly, so everything becomes misaligned. There’s an old saying “No foot, no horse”, and it applies equally to reindeer – without happy feet they can’t lead a happy life.

On white hooves you can see through to the bony structure of the foot beneath, and the hoof appears pink as you can see through to where the blood vessels are.
Matto joined our herd from Sweden, but despite not getting handled until he was a bit older he is an absolute star when we need to trim his feet. He’s busy moulting in this photo so looks a bit scruffy!
This hoof needs a wee trim…
Blondie barely needs a halter while her feet are trimmed as long as there’s a bag of feed. Olympic can’t believe that she is getting breakfast before him – the weariness has left him without strength to even hold up his head…

The second reason is if a reindeer has an injury or abnormality meaning a toe or whole hoof doesn’t receive the same amount of wear. Jute has one hoof which tends to grow a bit differently to normal, curving inwards instead of straight, which then prevents the edge wearing down in the usual manner. It’s no problem at all to him as long as we keep an eye on it and trim it as needed, but if we didn’t it could cause him difficulty walking as it grew.

And the third reason, embarrassingly, is pure laziness. This is where I’m going to point the finger squarely at some of our middle-aged males, the ones who can’t always be bothered to head off and graze as a real reindeer should, but who would much rather just lie waiting at the gate for their next meal to be served (Hamish, I’m looking at you). The straightforward reason that their hooves are too long is that they haven’t done anywhere near enough exercise to wear them down in balance with the rate that they’re growing. Perhaps we need to start a fitness club?! Funnily enough, there’s not a single female reindeer who falls into this category…

Hamish’s feet in his younger days (aged 4) when they were neat and pristine. Alas, in the last year or two laziness has caught up with him and they have a tendency to grow a little longer than this now…

Thankfully, trimming the hooves of our reindeer is stress free. Every single reindeer in our herd is halter-trained as a calf and is well used to being around humans. That means that if we spot their hooves need some TLC we simply catch them, pop a headcollar on, and whilst one herder occupies them with a bucket of tasty treats, another herder gets to work with a pair of snips to cut back the hard outer hoof. There is no feeling in this section of the foot so no discomfort is caused, and despite the fact that we never work at teaching reindeer to have their feet lifted like you would with a horse, they very quickly cotton on to the fact that nothing bad is happening and just let you get on with it. We never need to use tranquillisers in order to trim hooves, or hold the reindeer in place by force.

Hamish (mid-moult) contenting himself with a snack in the trough while I deal with his hooves. You may note that the lead rope has been abandoned entirely in order for the photograph to be taken!
Perfecting the crouch – balance their knee – trim action

My personal favourite technique is to crouch by a front leg, rest their knee on my knee, which leaves me two hands free to trim their hoof! Sometimes two hands are needed to cut through the tough hoof, especially on the old boys (hey, Elvis!) who have real “old man toenails”!

Sometimes two hands are needed!

We’re pretty proud of how good our reindeer are at standing to have their hooves trimmed.

Andi

Dressed for Winter

‘There is no such thing as bad weather, merely unsuitable clothing’. It’s a great phrase this and one that is on display in the Reindeer Centre, to warn people to be well prepared for the hill visit to the reindeer (even in summer sometimes!).

In the animal kingdom, a number of the arctic animals change their coats in winter and in the case of reindeer they not only grow thicker coats but also their coats turn lighter in colour, in some cases pure white.

Reindeer on snow
Reindeer snoozing comfortably in the snow – Lilac (right) is currently our oldest reindeer at nearly 17 years old

The change in colour is associated with shortening day length and there are obvious benefits from being white or very light coloured when it comes to camouflage in snow. But it is also the case that white hair is more insulating than dark hair. White hair lacks pigmentation and nothing replaces this, leaving pockets of air, a very good insulator. So I suppose that means that when the reindeer grow their winter coats they have more airy hair! Indeed the reindeer never cease to amaze me, on the coldest of days, they are high up in the snow, on the exposed ridges, lying around, resting, ruminating and I suspect positively enjoying the weather which we shelter from in our warm houses.

Harry, Minto and Bajaan Dec 08
White reindeer – this photo was taken back in 2008 of male reindeer Harry, Minto and Bajaan

In the herd we do have a few reindeer who are actually pure white: Blondie, Lego and Blue to name just three of them. Knowing that white hair has more insulation does that mean they have the warmest coats? They certainly always look very comfortable in the snow.

Mountain hare
A mountain hare in its winter coat, spotted whilst I was completing my 146th munro!

Over the last few weeks I have regularly seen mountain hares, which live in a similar habitat to our reindeer but are also quite widespread across many of the Scottish hills. They too turn white in winter and like the reindeer have relatively large feet which act as snowshoes making running seem effortless as they hurry across snowfields.

1024px-Lagopus_muta_2_Iceland_Snaefellsnes_April_2012
Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta). Photo by Boaworm [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two other animals found in Scotland that also turn white: the ptarmigan, an arctic grouse that is found in many of the Scottish mountains above 2,000 – 2,500ft, and the stoat, which depending on how far north it lives also turns white, when it is then called stoat in ermine.

Stoat in ermine
Stoat in ermine – white with a black tail tip. Photo by Steven Hint [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like the reindeer and mountain hare, the reason the ptarmigan plumage turns white is for camouflage and warmth but I do sometimes wonder about the stoat in ermine. Although I have seen them in snow around the farm, all too often there is not a flake of snow to be found and they ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. But they are a very clever predator, predating mainly on rabbits. They are incredibly quick, will catch and kill prey 10 times bigger than themselves and appear to be completely fearless. They are sometimes thought to ‘hypnotise’ their prey, maybe the white coat and black tip to their tail somehow confuses the rabbit!

Tilly

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