Spring is flying by – the trees are finally in leaf and the flowers are poking their heads out here on the Cairngorms – but the passing of time is never more obvious than in the growing of the calves.
When the females calve, we move them and their calves into the nursery area up on the hill. Here the mothers get to relax, have uninterupted access to their food and lichen, and the calves mix with the others. As they find their feet, they also seem to discover the love of jumping, leaping and running, and will often be spotted playing in groups with other calves. They have a lot of energy, and will often stray away from the mothers, but a grunt from their own mother sends them scampering back to safety by her side.
The mothers and calves stay within the nursery area for a couple of weeks, growing nice and strong and getting used to keeping up with their herd. After a couple of weeks, it is time for them to test their newfound skills, by heading out to the freerange for a summer on the hill ground of the Cairngorms National Park.
So a couple of nights ago saw 5 of us herders heading up the hill to the nursery enclosure at about 9pm – everyone wanted to wave them goodbye! We choose to do the moving of the cows and calves late in the day to avoid any unwelcome escapades with hillwalkers’ dogs, and so this means a later finish to the working day than usual..
The mothers seems to know what the plan is, and are keen to get going. One of the main issues is negotiating the enclosure gate – calves don’t understand gates at this young age! Tilly leads the way, and the other 4 of us herders take the back and make sure everyone sticks together.
We lead the herd only a short way from the enclosure as they know the ground themselves well, navigating the nearby burns and steep slopes, sometimes fast but more often slow, and then we say goodbye to the group, and off they go…
We watch for a long while, and then navigate our own way back, enjoying the darkening of the sky and the thought of our beds waiting, and the possibility of a wee dram before bed to send the reindeer off in style.
Here at the Reindeer Centre we spend much of our time working with reindeer and teaching people about them. It therefore came as a surprise to many of us how much reindeer taxonomy we didn’t know! Because of this, I’ve put together a blog to teach everyone all they need to know about where our reindeer come from and who they are related to..
Reindeer (and Caribou) are members of the Deer family, Cervidae. Their latin/scientific name is Rangifer tarandus and there are a number of different types or subspecies which are geographically spread across the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of the northern hemisphere.
Through these higher latitudes there is a huge range of different ecosystems from northern boreal forest and tundra on the mainland to the far north high arctic islands. Reindeer and Caribou occupy all of these areas.
In the New World, Alaska and North Canada, Rangifer tarandus is referred to as Caribou and these are completely wild animals that have never been domesticated by man. Broadly speaking there are Barren Ground Caribou (R.t groenlandicus), Alaskan Caribou (R.t.granti) and North American Woodland Caribou (R.t caribou). The Barren Ground Caribou are famous for the annual migration of massive herds from the forest to the arctic ocean whereas the North American Woodland Caribou live close to or in the boreal forest are often secretive and hard to find. They are locally known as ‘the grey ghosts of the forest’.
In the Old World, North Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia, these same animals are called Reindeer and here there are both wild and domesticated herds. The domestic herds far outnumber the wild herds in all areas. There are two sub-species: Eurasian Tundra Reindeer (R.t.tarandus) and Eurasian Forest Reindeer (R.t.fennicus). As their names suggest the tundra reindeer belong to the more northern areas of Russia and Scandinavia and the Forest reindeer are found only in the Russia taiga, or northern boreal forest.
In the high Arctic there are two island living subspecies of Rangifer tarandus Peary Caribou (R.t.pearyi) who are restricted to the high arctic Queen Elizabeth Islands of arctic Canada and Svalbard Reindeer (R.t.platyrhynchus), from the Norwegian owned islands of Spitzbergen. The high arctic island reindeer, like the North American Caribou have never been domesticated.
Antler shape has been used to split the genus Rangifer into two main groups. The group Cylindricornis have antler beams which are rounded in cross section and they occur in the tundra and mountain environments. The second group, Compressicornis, have flattened antler beams and are generally found in forests and woodlands.
So what are our Scottish reindeer? Our reindeer originate from Swedish Lapland and so are Rangifer tarandus tarandus and they fall into the Cylindricornis group, as described above. All reindeer in Swedish Lapland are domesticated and have been for a few hundred years. There have been various introductions into the herd, all from Scandinavia except for a bull Kivi who was from Russian and Finnish lineage. He was a prolific breeding bull who fathered a large number of calves in the 1970’s. So today our Scottish-bred herd of reindeer have a fair amount of Russian blood in them too.
It has been 65 years since the reindeer came to Scotland and undoubtedly in that time they have ‘adapted’ to their windswept Cairngorm environment. Maybe sometime in the future we will have our very own ‘sub-species’ Rangifer tarandus scotica’…?
This blog has been written using information from the following two books:
The Real Rudolph. A Natural History of the Reindeer by Tilly Smith (out of print but still available on Amazon)
Hoofprints. Sixty years of reindeer on the Cairngorms by Emily Singleton (still in print and available from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre)
May is here, and with it comes the first of our reindeer calves of the year! They are long-legged and lovely, stumbling around finding their feet and flopping down in a heap of fur and legs on the heather.
As with many animals, the reindeer seem to prefer calving early morning. So much to our delight, we start at 5am, a couple of us heading up the hill to search out females absent from their dinner the night before. To find them we walk round the 1200acre enclosure, scanning through binoculars for sight of a lone female. On a beautiful morning this is a delight, the Cairngorms behind us tipped red and gold, and the sky turning from white to blue. On a miserable morning this is more of a rain-drenched, hair-dripping, squelchy-shoe, wet-through-to-the-pants kind of job.
After finding her, we check the cow and calf are healthy and if possible, bring them back to our calving enclosure to join the nursery and allow us to keep and eye on them for a few days. So far we have had an equal number of male and female calves, from almost pure black to white, speckled to striped.
Reindeer calves are pretty tough little things, having to get up on their feet and keep up with the herd just a few hours after being born. To help with this they are born with seemingly very long legs for such small bodies, and so keeping balance often makes for a steep learning curve..
Unfortunately, rules are rules and we don’t reveal names of reindeer who have calved until our newsletter in June. So until then, you must wait with baited breath to hear who has had what, and in June we will reveal all!
2017 is our 65th anniversary, and just lately I’ve been trawling through the records of the reindeer herd for one reason or another. As such I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and think it is time I started another occasional blog series, this time about the history of our herd.
If you’ve been on a Hill Trip with us, you may know the basic story. Sami reindeer herder Mikel Utsi visited the Highlands of Scotland in 1947, and was immediately struck by the similarities to his homeland of northern Sweden.
“Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore, on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures. Travel in the Highlands showed that many species of ground, rock and tree lichens which are elsewhere the chief reindeer food were plentiful and of little use to other animals. Red deer and domesticated animals graze on plants and fodder than reindeer seldom eat. The Orkneyinga saga tells us that about 800 years ago red deer and reindeer were hunted together, in Caithness, by the Jarls of Orkney.”
Mikel Utsi decided it was time that reindeer once again roamed the mountains of Scotland, and five years later, that dream became a reality. The Ministry of Agriculture gave permission for Mr Utsi and his Swedish-American wife Dr Ethel Lindgren (an anthropologist who had studied in China and Mongolia as well as Swedish Lapland) to bring the first consignment of reindeer over to Scotland, and at first they were granted an area of around 300 acres near Moormore in the Rothiemurchus forest, which was completely fenced to contain them. Moormore is now better known as the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre. Mr Utsi knew this was not ideal for the reindeer however, and had his eye on the higher ground of the Cairngorms themselves – much more suitable reindeer habitat.
The first consignment of 8 reindeer landed at Clydebank in Glasgow on the 12th April 1952, having travelled on the S.S. Sarek from Sweden, which had been somewhat rough four day crossing. The group consisted of two bull reindeer (Aviemore and Murjek), four cows (Mona, Kristina, Margaret and Rowena), and a castrated male who was named Sarek. After a month in quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo, the reindeer finally made their way north to the Cairngorms to the Moormore enclosure.
It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start, with the reindeer struggling to cope with the low ground and the insects, but in 1954 Mr Utsi finally got permission from the Forestry Commission to lease Silver Mount, which many of you will know as the hill at the far end of the current reindeer enclosure, the back drop to the majority of our guided tours throughout the year. Later the same year free-grazing up to the summits of the northern corries of the Cairngorms was finally allowed, as well as the continued use of the Silver Mount enclosure. Finally the reindeer could escape the insects and the herd began to thrive. Further groups had been introduced from Sweden too; Inge, Alice, Anne, Pelle, Assa, Ella, Ina, Maja, Siri and Tilla in October 1952; Nuolja, Kirtik, Ranak, Neita, Noki, Rovva and Vilda in early 1954. Bulls Fritzen and Ruski followed in 1955.
To keep a closer eye on his herd, Mr Utsi felt it was important to be on site as much as possible. He made a hut at ‘Road End Camp’ in the 50s, tucked away in the woods at the base of Silver Mount, building it from the wood from the crates that the reindeer had been transported to Scotland in. This made life much easier as there was no bridge across the Allt Mor at that time, or indeed, a road up to where the Ski Centre is now, so for Mr Utsi the herd was now much more accessible. Today, the hut still stands, and some of you may have even been there – in recent years we used to stop for a rest at Utsi’s Hut on some of our half-day treks with visitors. A shelter was also built at the top of Silver Mount, and although this no longer stands, there are still a few old, weathered, pieces of planks lying around up there, which are the last remnant of the shelter.
By the mid-fifties the herd had grown to around 20 animals, and the herd was doing well. There’s lots more to tell you, but it’s a story for another day! However, if your appetite to learn more of our history has been whetted, we have a lovely book called ‘Hoofprints’ in our online shop on our website which is all about the history of the herd with loads of beautiful photos, so pop over there for a wee look.