We’re lucky to see some pretty awesome wildlife whilst looking after the reindeer on the mountains, but its less usual to see wildlife in our back porch. We were taken by surprise last week when we glanced out the back door and saw a rather worked up male sparrowhawk, who had somehow flown in then lost the door out… thankfully we were able to sneak past and open up the door for him to “escape”.
We were pretty delighted to see a sparrowhawk close up, as the normal view of them is them dashing over at top speed, and even happier to see him fly safely away!
Summer is well underway with Scottish schools off and English schools just breaking up and here at the Reindeer Centre we have certainly noticed the rise in visitor numbers. We now offer three guided tours onto the hill daily over the next two months with our additional 3.30pm tour on Monday – Fridays. Trekking has been running for a month now and already we have taken over 23 groups made up of 68 people of which two of them were hardy 5 and 6 year olds! It has all gone very smoothly and the reindeer have been absolute stars. On the whole we have been very lucky with the weather with only a couple of wet trekking days but if you come to Scotland to go trekking in the Cairngorm mountains you have to come with the frame of mind that you may experience all four seasons in one day!
The reindeer that have been trekking already this year are – Marley, Puddock, Caribou, Gnu, Topi, Paintpot, Oryx, Grunter, Strudel, Macaroon, Hornet, Beastie, Tanner, Spider, Hamish, Horse, Rummy, Domino, Origami, Monopoly, Bingo, Svalbard, Rubiks, Stenoa, Olympic, Second, Nutkins, Monty, Balmoral, Duke, Minute, Boris, Mo, Orkney, Ost, Drambuie, Jonne, Kota, Gandi, Bovril, Hook, Boxer, Gin, Max and Nutti. Grunter is used for our younger trekkers. He is what I’d describe as a bombproof reindeer. He is quite happy either at the front of the group or at the back. A wee Dutch lad who led him a couple of weeks ago headed off on his own route jumping all the puddles – I think him and Grunter covered almost twice as much ground than us!
They have all got their different characters, some love the attention and a good fuss while others are quite happy to plod along at the back at their own pace. Some reindeer are super cheeky and others know how to ‘take the mick’ out of trekkers who maybe aren’t so confident in their leading so what I always like to do to match up characters of reindeer to the characters of my trekkers and 90% of the time I get it right. I’ll let my previous trekkers work out how I see their characters compared to the reindeer they led 😉 The 10% I get wrong is my fall back excuse!
As well as our additional summer activities we are still doing our day to day work both out on the hill checking the free-ranging herd of cows and calves as well as here in our office putting adoption packs together, so naturally we need a few extra hands at this time of year and therefore employ more staff. Our latest member of the team has taken to the reindeer herding life very well indeed. She is super fit which is great when out in the hills and although still a bit shy with our visitors she is only young so confidence will come and by the end of summer I’m sure she will be on full form. Recently we have been showing her how to set up adoption packs as we have a great support network of adopters all over the world and each pack has its very own hand written letter because we really feel they deserve that personal touch. She does a great job and who knows we may even keep her on after the summer months if she continues to show hard work and commitment to the job in hand. Everybody, meet Tiree! She is my 10 month old Aussie Shepherd pup and is by far the best looking member of our team here…
Although there are only seven species of deer living wild in the UK, there is often confusion as to which species people have seen, not helped by the fact that usually there is only a fleeting glimpse of a fast-moving rump disappearing into the trees! In this week’s blog, I hope to demystify the issue and perhaps raise your curiosity so you keep a closer look-out for your local deer. So from largest to smallest, here are the species to look out for…
Red deer (Cervus elaphus) Height (shoulder): 110-150cm
Our largest species of deer, and in fact our largest land animal, is the red deer. Named for their beautiful reddish brown summer coats, red deer are native to the UK and are a herd animal preferring to live in woodland with open rides. However, as humans have altered the countryside over the centuries, they have adapted to living on moors and heaths, though the red deer of the Scottish highlands rarely grow as big as their cousins in the lowlands. Red deer are found across the UK, and are best recognised by the combination of their large size (they are big!), their buff rump and short tail. They’re also likely to be seen in herds rather than on their own.
Reindeer are by far the most familiar deer species to me, because this is the species we care for here at the Centre. Reindeer were once found free-ranging across much of the UK, but died out due to the pressures of over-hunting and climate change at least 1000 years ago. Our small herd were reintroduced to the Cairngorms in Scotland in 1952, and around 150 reindeer now roam the mountains here. As the only British deer species to be adapted to Arctic conditions, they are comparatively stocky and dumpy, and tend to carry their heads below the horizontal. Their colour ranges from pure white to almost black – variation caused by thousands of years of domestication – and both males and females grow antlers. For most people, they are an easy candidate to rule out, as they are only found roaming in the Cairngorms in Scotland.
Originally Japanese in origin, Sika deer were introduced to the UK from 1860, and can now be found in patches right across the country, though their stronghold is in north-west Scotland. They are similar in appearance to a red deer at first glance, but are slightly smaller, have a dark dorsal stripe and a much darker brown winter coat. Their heart-shaped rump patch is bright white, compared to the buff colour of a red deer, and for much of the year they are solitary, though they will form small groups of 6-7 in the autumn and winter.
The stereotypical “spotty” deer, fallow deer are a common sight grazing in the grounds of stately homes and parkland. There is evidence that fallow once roamed Britain around 400,000 years ago, but today’s population has resulted from escapees from parks. Fallow bucks grow lovely ‘palmate’ (flattened) antlers. The familiar tan “menil” form with white spots is just one of the colours that this variable deer comes in, whilst some individuals are white, some are dark brown with spots that disappear in winter, and some are completely black. The noticeable trait which is the same for all of these colourations is a light coloured rump patch edged with black, with their long tail appearing to split it into two.
The dainty roe deer is another of our native deer species, and perhaps the one you are most likely to spot in woodland and gardens right across the UK, with some individuals becoming incredibly tame due to living in close proximity to humans. The species was driven close to extinction in this country in the 1700s due to overhunting. Roe deer are usually seen alone or in small family groups, are a solid brown colour with a small rump patch and don’t have a noticeable tail. They will ‘bark’ if alarmed, which can be mistaken for the yap of a dog.
Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) Height (shoulder): 50-60cm
Chinese water deer are a primitive species – instead of growing antlers the males grow tusks which can be seen protruding from their mouths. They were introduced to the UK within the last 150 years and have since become established across the Midlands and East Anglia. As their name suggests, their preferred habitat is fens and wetlands, and they are usually seen alone or in small family groups as they are territorial. The most obvious differences setting Chinese water deer apart are the lack of antlers, large mobile ears and the absence of a rump patch.
The smallest of our deer species was introduced around 1900, and is now well established across most of England. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake a Muntjac for a small dog, or perhaps a large hare, as they tend to have a peculiar hunched stance. Muntjac are usually seen alone or in small family groups, and the males are often heard rather than seen as they bark persistently when rutting. Along with the male’s small antlers, both sexes grow tusks, and as they aren’t seasonal breeders, does can be seen with a fawn at any point of the year. Their tiny stature (think collie-dog size) and hunched posture makes Muntjac easy to distinguish.
So there it is, from the largest to the smallest, the seven species of deer that you may encounter in the UK. Hopefully this has helped make the thought of working out who that disappearing rump belonged to a little less daunting! Keep your eyes open, even in parks and gardens in towns and cities, and perhaps you may be surprised by one of these beautiful animals.
First off, I’m not talking about the reindeer in that heading. Reindeer only fly at Christmas time after Santa has given them the magic powder and our lovely reindeer don’t attack.
I am of course talking about the flying mini beasts – flies, bugs and, the worst of the worst, midges. Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland without those little terrors, and they are a sign that summer has finally arrived here in Cairngorm, but they aren’t my friends. We love this infomatic from Mackays Holidays:
No one here likes the midge, including the reindeer. With the heat rising above 20°C and them still having some of their winter coat, our boys are feeling the heat. In hot weather we often give them access to the shed to hide from the heat – you’d be amazed how many come running out at feeding time.
They are also bothered by the flies and midges, but there’s not much we can do there, apart from douse them with fly repellent. As much as I’d like to eradicate midge for both my own and the reindeer’s comfort, they are an important food source for birds, toads and frogs, and bats.
Our boys cope with the midges fairly well; in the paddocks they hide under our shelter shed and up on the hill avoid stagnant pools where midge breed and shake to get rid of the biting bullies. Sometimes it’s like watching a little reindeer dance: they stomp their back foot a few times, then the other, a little shake, a few more stomps, and then if the midges are really ferocious, they’ll burst off in a sprint, jumping and kicking the air. It’s quite funny to watch!
We also spotted Oryx doing something a bit odd. It was the end of a visit, and we were heading to the gate to leave the enclosure. A few boys followed us, no doubt thinking there’d be more food. There’s a large muddy patch just at the gate, which usually the reindeer don’t bother with, but this time Oryx got into the big puddle and just stood there. He seemed pretty content, so he was left to his own devices while Fran and I did some poo picking (the glamorous lives we lead). Eventually he decided his spa treatment was finished and got out of the mud bath. He looked ridiculous with mud socks up to his ankles, but he seemed pretty happy with himself.
It’s known that red deer wallow, or bathe in mud, but the cause for this is still unknown. Some think it may be to reduce ectoparasites, while others believe it is to cool down. I’m not sure it’s ever been recorded in reindeer before (a quick Google search didn’t come up with much) but I think Oryx may have been trying to avoid the midges biting at his legs. Either that or he fancied a quick mud treatment at the ‘Spa de le Cairngorm’.
Every year we reindeer herders have a little flutter into betting around calving time of year – the idea is to pick a reindeer you think is going to calve first and if your reindeer calves last you have to take an icy dip into Loch Morlich. As you can imagine this makes it all the more serious and some proper consideration should always go into picking your ‘bet’ reindeer. This year turned into a two handed contest between Abby and Hen, and it was never going to end well for one of them…
Abby: Last year (my first calving) I took all the advice on board, I learned about families who calve early, I checked out tummy size and I looked at udder size; and ended up with a female who calved pretty near the beginning.
You would think that after a year of reindeer herding I’d enter this year’s bet with a bit more wisdom and expertise: after all, I’ve got to know the reindeer pretty well now. However, I committed the cardinal sin, and chose a reindeer who I just really liked before weighing up the facts properly. A lovely four year old called Hopscotch, and indeed she was pretty rotund looking when I picked her but there was no sign of an udder, but I’d made my choice and had to stick by it.
Hen: Bets have to be in by the end of April, and this year I went with Lulu. I had dutifully peered between hind legs at udders, assessed general belly size, and considered previous calving patterns, and Lulu seemed like a pretty safe bet. Everyone else made sensible bets too, with the exception of Abby. We ripped her to shreds continuously as she was very obviously going to end up in the loch, and deserved to as well – Hopscotch (daft choice, ha!) was looking pretty slim compared to everyone else’s bets, who were waddling around huffing and puffing.
Abby: By the 30th of April it all kicked off and the calving storm began – one by one the females started popping and one by one my colleagues became safe from the dreaded swim. By mid-May most of the females had calved and all that was left from the bet was me with Hopscotch and Hen with Lulu. Lulu was the size of a barge with an udder to match, and was like the vision of doom every time I saw her up the hill. I began to think myself very foolish indeed and resigned myself to the fact that a very cold swim was coming my way as there was no way Hopscotch would calve before an old pro like Lulu!
However, much to my surprise on Monday the 18th of May Hopscotch was missing, I was all a-flutter and stoked thinking that I was free of the swim and off we headed to track down her and her new calfie. We were, however, a wee bit disappointed, finding her on the top of Silver Mount (which is a very popular calving spot) chillin’ like a villain. There would be no calf today it seemed. It’s very common for reindeer to go off and faff about for up to a week before they actually give birth and I resigned myself to fact once again that I’d probably end up in the water. However the next day the same thing happened, no Hopscotch, hopes were high until once again she was found and pootled back to the herd quite happily but by our afternoon visit she was once again gone… this was it I thought. If a female goes missing in the afternoon a herder will head up the hill at the ungodly hour of 5am to track her down and this is just what I did! Once again she was on Silver mount (a bit of a shock for my legs that early in the morning – this is why reindeer herders get through so many biscuits!), but she didn’t look quite right and upon taking her temperature I realised she had an acute case of ‘Man Flu’! She got a wee dose of antibiotics before I popped her in with the cows and calves. 10 yards later she went down and in my head my thoughts ran along the lines of ‘Oh my god, I’ve killed a reindeer!’ until she started huffing and puffing away… she seemed to be going into labour! I left her to it and waited with glee to meet a new calfie in the afternoon.
Hen: I had foolishly chosen this week to have a few days off, and was away from home too. A smug text message on the Monday told me that Hopscotch was away to calve, but frantic texts from me after that, trying to gauge what was happening, mostly seemed to go unanswered or got a cryptic reply that didn’t really tell me what was going on. I started to sweat. Surely I wasn’t going to be beaten by Abby?! Having been here for a year, she is still ‘new’ compared to me – I’ve been a reindeer herder for over seven years and have experienced a lot more calving seasons than Abby, I should have been able to sail through the bet with no problems! Towards the end of the week I started to doubt myself.
Abby: By Wednesday afternoon Hopscotch was acting completely normally and stuffing her face with glee and was most definitely not giving birth. At this point I felt it was all a bit cruel and gave up on the idea of no swim and as Thursday rolled around with still no sign of a calf I decided it was definite.
Hen: I arrived home from my days off to discover Hopscotch had had a temperature but nothing else, and all was back to normal up the hill. Huge relief, false alarm and all that, and I went back to teasing Abby relentlessly about when she was going swimming! I was stupidly overconfident once again that I was completely safe, Lulu must surely calve any minute, but reindeer have a nasty way of bringing you back down to earth and the ringing phone the following morning signalled the end for me… Andi’s voice sounded like she was stifling the giggles, informing me that she’d just found Hopscotch with her new-born male calf. Abby collapsed in relief and I cursed Lulu, Hopscotch, everyone else and to be honest, reindeer in general.
Being as it was about 8°C at this point, I was given until the end of June to swim. Loch Morlich is only a few hundred metres from Reindeer House, but at this time of year consists mainly of snow melt, and I am not someone to throw myself into cold water with abandon unless there’s a damn good reason.
Summer didn’t arrive right until the end of June in the Cairngorms this year, so I bided my time and kept an eye on the forecast. I left my swim right till the bitter end, on 30th June, and at least the dogs had the decency to come in with me, although everyone else stuck to paddling! I don’t appear to have hypothermia either. Or at least not yet. Maybe it’ll be slow onset hypothermia.
Lulu did eventually calve, far too late for Hen of course, completely unaware of everything that had been riding on her!