A Pied Wagtail story

Up on the hill in our 1200 acre enclosure there is a shed. We use the shed to house sick reindeer, catch the wild ones, and store all our hill-working tools and materials.

For the last couple of months we have had a visitor in our shed on the hill. A little female Pied Wagtail decided that the shed made an excellent house to hold her nest, and it even came supplied with a renewing source of insulation – reindeer hair!

Tucked neatly out of the way, hidden behind some spare fencing wire, Mrs Pied Wagtail laid her second-of-the-year clutch of four teeny-tiny Pied Wagtail eggs. With the reindeer hair lining, and her body warmth for much of the day, the eggs were kept nice and toasty through the variable Scottish summer.

Can you spot the nest?
Mrs Pied Wagtail has used her initiative and used all the spare winter-coat reindeer hair to line her nest. Each reindeer hair is hollow, making it an excellent insulator.

On the morning of the 18th of July, we walked into the shed to the shed to find four little chicks huddled up against the nest. A couple of days later we were greeted by the sound of cheeping, and were delighted to find 4 yellow open beaks hungrily competing for food. It is of course incredibly important not to disturb the mother on her nest, or the chicks whilst they are alone, so these photos were taken quickly whilst the mother was already away.

18 July
The newly hatched chicks, huddled up keeping warm whilst Mamma Wagtail is away.
Wagtail chicks (fleg 31)
Four little chicks on the 24th July, hungrily asking for food.
Wagtail chicks 30th July.jpeg
After 2 weeks in the nest, the chicks are noticably bigger and ready to fledge!

Pied Wagtails are a common British bird, often known by slightly unusual nicknames such as ‘Polly Washdish’, or ‘Dishwasher’. These names are thought to come from olden days when women would wash dishes in streams where Pied Wagtails were common. They are lovely, sprightly birds that appear very cheerful and eager with their wagging tails and chirping call.

A fully gown Pied Wagtail. Photo by Albert Bridge.

By the 31st of July, the chicks had fledged, and are now off in the big bad world, where we wish them all the best. We are always happy to see birds and beasts using our shed for shelter, and hope to see our little female Pied Wagtail back next year!


Identifying reindeer: A summer guide

Every reindeer has their own name, based on a different theme every year. Last year the theme was ancient civilisations but we have also had more ridiculous themes such as pop stars (Elvis, Marley, Blondie) and cheeses (Feta, Mozzarella, Brie). However, with almost 160 reindeer in the herd, there is a lot of reindeer to identify and name! I work as a herder during the summer which is a bit easier for identifying the reindeer, so this blog will describe how I go about naming them.

In the summer the reindeer’s antlers are nearly fully grown and most have distinctive shapes which grow back the same every year. The big breeding bulls usually have huge antlers that stand out amongst the crowd, for example Bovril, who has large dark antlers with two big blades at the front (the blade is the part of the antler witch grows downwards over their face to protect it). The Christmas reindeer (those who have been castrated to control the breeding) usually grow smaller but more ‘messy’ antlers that go off in all directions. This year Nutkins, a very friendly five year old, has small antlers that have parts growing in around seven directions!


Bovril 0815.JPG
Bovril has huge dark antlers when covered in velvet. He is also one of the biggest and darkest reindeer in the herd.
Nutkins searching over my shoulder for some food.

Another main difference for the reindeer at this time is they have moulted their thick winter coats to reveal their much thinner and darker summer coats. There is a lot more variety in colours between these, some being very dark, such as Orkney, or much lighter like Origami. A few also have interesting facial markings such as Laptev who has a pink nose. These reindeer are all so distinctive that they can be identified from a distance.


Orkney 0814.JPG
Orkney can be easily identified by his dark coat and greedy personality!
Processed with VSCO with a8 preset

Origami saving some energy walking on the board walk. He has completely moulted his winter coat in this picture, which is almost pure white in places, unusual for a summer coat on a reindeer.

Laptev with his very distinct pink nose.

All the reindeer have different personalities. On hill trips it is usually the same group of four or five reindeer that come up for hand feeding and don’t leave until all the food is gone! This means that all us herders can easily identify the greediest reindeer in the herd (such as Orkney as mentioned before).

If the reindeer is normal coloured with ordinary antlers and a shy personality, identifying them can be harder. In this case we can get a bit closer to the reindeer and look at their left ear which will have a coloured ear tag. Every year has a different colour of tag and a different theme for naming (eg. 2013 was a yellow tag and the theme was cheeses). There is usually only three or four reindeer from each year so it is easier to narrow it down and work out the differences between them in each year.

If all else fails, we can cheat! Every ear tag has a different number and each herder has a herds list so we can easily look up who it is we are struggling to identify.

Most of the reindeer mentioned in this blog are currently up in our hill enclosure so if you’re planning a visit soon why not try and identify one for yourself!



A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Hello, my name is Olly; I’ve been working at the Reindeer Centre (on and off) for about 3 years now. I first came up volunteering for work experience when I was studying Countryside conservation and Wildlife management at Sparsholt College. I started once more this season in May and since being here there hasn’t been a dull moment.

I keep on being badgered to write a blog but I have never been sure what to say. I am also dyslexic and so unfortunately writing is not one of my favourite things to do, but… I do like to take pictures! So here are some photos of mine that I have taken since I have been back with my perspective on them. And as they say, “a picture paints a thousand words”..

Picture 1: May time is calving time, which means its time for 5am starts, in our search for the newborns out on the hill. I often like an early start (as long as I have a strong coffee) as you’re seizing the day. What a day it was, not a cloud in sight and just a soft cooling breeze with the hill alight with the morning sun. I was also excited to see Black Grouse lekking in the enclosure. We eventually found the new mother Gazelle and her wee one, who was a strong healthy male.

Black Loch looking out to Creag Chalamein


Picture 2: One thing I love about it here are all the lochs and rivers, as a few of us at the Reindeer Centre made a New Year’s resolution to jump in a fresh body of water once a month or week. Trying to do this down south was rather difficult and I had to go to the coast to achieve it. But now in Scotland there’s somewhere to swim around every corner. Since being back I have been in 5 different lochs and a couple of rivers. It may be cold at times but you’re surprisingly warm once you’re out, athough I’m usually on a run when I do jump in so the blood is pumping. But I highly recommend an occasional dip.

Nothing like a quick dip to warm (or cool) the cockles of your heart.


Picture 3 and 4: The long socks and trainers were on, my belly was full of stew and the calf was well rested…. It was time for the cows and calves to head out on the free range. We headed out late in the evening to lessen the chances of us bumping into dogs and as we came over the brow of the hill the hills were looking fierce, but the show must go on.

With Tilly leading one of the females (Fern) on a halter; myself, Fiona, Morna, and Ceris followed from the sides and the back in case the reindeer decide to go their own way. At one point they did, but we managed to get them on the right path in the end.

Pushing them out wasn’t so bad. All you had to do was keep the right distance – far enough not to scare them but close enough to keep them moving. Apart from almost falling off the edge of a scree at one point it was just a case of getting them far out in to the hills. As we let them run off, it was rewarding to see calves running up in to the hills alongside their mothers.

Now came the race against the light! We were lucky and just as it became pitch black we made it back to the van, although going through the trees past Utsi’s bridge was rather eerie. We eventually got back to Reindeer House and celebrated with a wee dram.

The clouds looming low over the hills as we set off.
The cows and calves silhouetted against the low cloud.


Picture 5: The woman in this photo herding the reindeer is called Sally. She often wears a shirt with a sunflower design on it which suits her personality to a T. She brings sunshine to Reindeer House as she is a true pleasure to work with, and has to be one of the jolliest people I have ever met.

Sally closely followed by the herd.


Picture 6: Though our days are busy and the hills and forestry tracks are a hive of activity, once the clock reaches 5:30pm Glenmore turns into a ghost town. With the sun setting late in the evening, we go to the hills. It is treat to have this on your doorstep and is a grand way to end the day, by gazing into the distance of this colossal landscape. It really makes you think how small we all are.

The hills shining and bright as the sun goes down. We feel like the only ones alive.



All you ever want to know about leucism

So what’s the deal with leucism?

Are all white reindeer leucistic?

Are all leucistic reindeer deaf?

How is leucism passed on?

How is leucism different to Albinism?

These are questions I have pondered while fixing the boardwalk, closely accompanied by Blue, our male leucistic reindeer. The subject of leucism is quite hotly debated and seems only those with a Doctorate in Pathology may comment, but here goes:

Blue inspecting my handiwork.

Leucism (pronounced loo-kiz-im) is a genetic peculiarity which gives a white colour. The condition is recessive. It is a defect in the skin, not the pigment cells. Leucistic animals are all perfectly white. It seems however that there are differing levels of the condition – partial and full.

One other characteristic of leucism is deafness, however is seems that this is not always the case. Leucism is developed during the early stages of embryonic development and can influence the central nervous system. It therefore most commonly affects sight and hearing.

Blondie, a leucistic (and deaf) female, sleeping peacefully and completly unaware that the rest of the herd has walked away and we are standing nearby.

If a condition is recessive it means that the offspring must receive the leucism gene from both parents to develop the condition. We have leucism in the herd. It doesn’t affect the carriers at all but if they breed with a carrier there is 25% chance that their offspring with have leucism. We currently have two leucistic Reindeer that are both deaf – Blue and Blondie.

Blondie’s(ll) father was Sirkas (Ll) and mother was Glacier(Ll) both carriers, therefore there was a 25% chance that Blondie was born with leucism. Glacier had nine calves of which only one was born with leucism but of course several carriers.

Blondie and Lego 2 0511
Blondie and her calf Lego, both pure white.
Blondie Dec 08
Blondie nicely camoflauged against the snow. Leucism does have its advantages!

Blue’s(ll) father is Lego who had leucism (ll), Blue’s mother is Lulu who was a carrier (Ll). There was therefore 50% chance that Blue would be born with leucism.

Blue 0613
A baby Blue, very obviously un-camoflauged against the heather (but very cute).

Albinism is a total deficiency of melanin producing cells in the skin. It is a skin mutation. There is a total lack of pigment. Albino animals have pink/red eyes. The pigment (colour) that would normally be seen in our eyes is missing so the blood vessels behind are seen in the eye, given the appearance that the eye is red in colour.

As I do not have a Doctorate in anything (except drinking tea) these are not comments but merely my interpretation of several articles written by Doctors of Science.


Book Now