For those of you who have been up on our hill trips you will know that we carry hessian sacks of reindeer food up with us each day. We do this partially to ensure we don’t over graze our hill enclosure and partially as a bribe so we know the reindeer will show up on our visits (it wouldn’t be quite the same without them). Over the past few weeks I have noticed less and less reindeer food in my sack and more and more down the back of my t shirt. After repeatedly tying up holes in the bag we decided to get to the route of the problem! Mice!
We found these two lovely mice in the bottom of the bins where we keep the food in the hill enclosure. They must have been living in absolute heaven, more food than they could eat in a life time. Unless I wanted my job title to change from reindeer herder to full time sack darner we needed to get those mice out. At this point Olly gave me a choice, either we could catch the Mice and move them far enough away that they wouldn’t find their way home or we could more permanently remove them from the bin (in the quickest, kindest and most humane way possible). Have spent my whole life a vegetarian I of course opted for the first option.
At the end of our hill trip Julia and I (assisted by Chris and Geri) attempted to catch the mice. After first making sure to punch breathing holes in the top of a shortbread tin we attempted to get both mice inside. This was more difficult than anticipated but eventually we succeeded.
We thought that if we put a fair bit of mountain and a river in between the mice and the feed bin they would be unlikely to return so we decided to drive them to the Ciste car park (slightly further up the ski road than our hill enclosure).
Upon opening the tin we found they were both alive and well. They stayed in the tin for just long enough for us to take a photo before scampering off through the undergrowth. I think that will be the last time we see those mice but secretly I hope it’s not, they were so sweet!
Whilst many of our visitors come and meet some of our reindeer, mostly the males, in our hill enclosure, it’s great to remember that our herd all get to free-range for part of the year. The males, who are a little lazy at times and can’t be relied on to actually go and be reindeer, rather than hanging out on the car parks, do most of their free-ranging on the Cromdale mountains (which are a little more isolated) over the winter months – December-May. The females, however, are out and about for most of the year on the Cairngorms. Their range is vast, with our leased land covering thousands of acres on the high ground.
When they reach the boundary though, there is no fence, nothing to stop them, so on occasion a small group of reindeer will wander a little further than they should. Thankfully most of our neighbours are pretty understanding, and we do our best to retrieve any “wanderers” as soon as possible. So it was that Fiona and I set off on a showery morning across to Glen Feshie, where we’d received a report of some of our girls hanging out on one of the hills. Glen Feshie is perhaps eight miles away from the hill enclosure, as the crow flies – a thirty minute drive by road.
First up, we spied at the hills using a telescope from a good vantage point, and it was only a minute before Fiona spotted a reindeer, then two, then three. Fantastic! It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack at times, so we were off to a good start! We then drove to the car park and set off walking up the track through the woods, an easy trail to follow but all uphill. Fiona has been keeping pretty fit with lots of running recently, whereas I have not, so I was certainly feeling my inferior fitness! We had Tiree with us, Fiona’s dog, who we can use to push the reindeer in the right direction if necessary. She was bouncing around, full of energy and excited about being somewhere new!
It took us about 45 minutes to get clear of the trees, but once we were, we quickly spotted the naughty reindeer just a few hundred metres ahead. They were loving the good grazing and plentiful lichen – no wonder they’d decided it was a good spot to hang out. Time for a plan of action! We left Tiree waiting off to one side, blending perfectly into the hillside, and I skirted round towards the females, shaking a small bag of feed and calling. Three heads shot up in the air, suspicious, but it wasn’t long before one decided I was friend not foe and started making her way over, swiftly followed by the others. Peering at each, we identified them as Fern, Cailin and Clootie. Fiona was close behind me with three headcollars tucked into her jacket, and it was perhaps the easiest time either of us had ever had catching females: offer bag of food, reindeer nose goes in, arm round neck, headcollar on. Within 2 minutes we had our three lassies on headcollars, looking slightly betrayed by their greed! Of course when we got back we told a slightly different tale to the other herders, about how they were only captured due to our extreme skill and herding prowess (which wasn’t believed for a second…).
Before starting down, we sat and had a spot of lunch (the reindeer too), admiring the view, then Fiona went on ahead with Tiree back to the car park (reindeer and dogs not being a good mix as they resemble wolves, their natural predator) and I pottered along behind with the reindeer.
Fiona then ran back up to join me and help with the girls, who didn’t seem too fussed by the unexpected change to their day, and were enjoying all of the mushrooms alongside the track – especially Cailin!
With only one quick detour off the path to avoid a hillwalker with a dog, we soon reached the car park, and about two minutes later Tilly arrived with the cattle truck to transport the reindeer back to the right side of the mountains.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled up beside the road, led the girls back out and up to our hill enclosure for the night, where they enjoyed a good feed (hopefully reminding them that it’s a good area to stay near!), before going back out to free range the next day. Hopefully they’ll now stay in the area they are meant to be in!
Once or twice each day, we take a group of people up the hill to see the reindeer in their natural habitat. Many people cannot believe how friendly and inquisitive (and often greedy!) they are, and it can be wonderful for us to see visitors’ reactions to these wonderful creatures.
Its interesting for us to hear how our visitors percieve the hill trip, and so this week, our blog post comes not from us, but from a blog written by a couple of our visitors. Click on this link to view the post on the ‘Find Yourself Lost’ blog by John and Holly.
The photos capture incredibly well the natural beauty and wildness of the Cairngorms, and we thank John and Holly for their willingness for us to share their post.
Having been brought up with the reindeer I have had numerous favourites during that time, one of which was Minstrel. He was a dark coloured male and born in 1998 into the sweetie and chocolates theme. I was 11 when he was born. I remember when he was just 1-2 years old he became quite unwell but with lots of TLC and extra lichen he pulled through and made a full recovery. I think having spent this time with him getting better I grew a soft spot for him.
He was a very greedy reindeer which meant he was also super tame… especially as he had the extra handling when he was unwell. If he ever got his head in the bag of food it was an absolute mission to get it back out again! When he got to the age of 4 he became a Christmas reindeer and from the moment we trained him to harness and pulling the sleigh he was an absolute pro! For many years we would call on his expertise to help train new Christmas reindeer who were learning the ropes.
Minstrel went from being young to old, there never seemed to be a middle part. So even though he was middle aged for a long time he was always referred to as an ‘old boy’! On Christmas events he would take part in a parade, whether it be pulling the sleigh or walking at the back being the perfect role model, then as soon as the team went into a display pen Minstrel would eat his food (or mainly all the lichen off the top of all the food bowls) then take position right in the middle of the bed of straw for the next couple of hours. He has even been known to completely fall asleep, mid event, out on his side even with a potential snore in there!
He had a lovely nature and lived to a good age. He would eat anything offered to him, even a banana flapjack as someone once witnessed. He is one of those legend reindeer we will always talk fondly and forever compare other reindeer if they are misbehaving, wishing they would be more like him.
We always encourage questions on our Hill Trips; some are simple to answer whilst others get us thinking more and this particular question even inspired me to write a blog!
“Are reindeer colour blind?”
The simple answer is… no. Reindeer, like other species of deer, are not colour blind, although they do see the world in a different way to us humans.
If you take a look at the visible spectrum below, reindeer can only see the colours at one end of it. They only see the short (blue) and middle (green) wavelength colours. This means they can distinguish blue from red, but not green from red, or orange from red. Therefore, their vision is thought to be similar to a human with red-green colour blindness.
So, when us Reindeer Herders go out for a Hill Trip wearing our bright red waterproof jackets, the reindeer would think we were camouflaged with the green hillside behind us. And there was I thinking we stand out!
To get a little bit more scientific this is because humans have three different kinds of cone cells in the retina which can detect the entire visible light spectrum. However, deer only have two sets of cones meaning that they cannot distinguish the longer wavelengths.
However, as I discovered this is not the end of the story of how a reindeer sees the world…. fascinatingly, they are one of only a tiny number of mammals which can also see ultraviolet!
Humans can’t see UV light but it is in sunlight so we are exposed to it every day; suntans (or in my case freckling and sunburn!) are familiar effects of our exposure to it!
So this led me to ponder the question “why have reindeer evolved to have UV vision?”
Researchers think that reindeer have adapted to see in UV as they live in a very UV-rich world. It’s thought that snow reflects around 90% of the UV light that hits it, compared to snow-free land which usually only reflects a few per cent.
Therefore, reindeer have adapted to their white world and have taken full advantage of it! Their special ability to see in UV allows them to spot things that other mammals would miss and helps them to find food and stay safe.
In the frozen white Arctic where the vast majority of the landscape would reflect the UV light, there are a few things which would absorb it. Predators, such as wolves, who to us would appear camouflaged actually stand out to a reindeer as their fur (and also their urine – a sign of a potential predator!) absorbs the UV light making them appear dark grey/black against the white, snowy background. Clever!
Similarly lichen, a major food source for reindeer in the winter months, also absorbs UV light. So if there was a tuft of lichen sticking up above the snow it would also appears very dark allowing the reindeer to see it clearly, in stark contrast to the UV-reflecting snow.
Therefore, they can avoid animals which might want to eat them and instead find lots of delicious lichen to devour for themselves!
We’re always getting lots of interesting questions and I look forward to the next one which gets me hitting the books… and maybe even writing another blog!