Another summer has come to an end and we have had to say goodbye to Julia once again. Her parting gift to me after her fourth summer working at the Reindeer Centre was lots of lovely photos to make up a couple of blogs out of. Julia is a talented photographer so I hope you enjoy her photos from this summer. See you soon Julia, we miss you already!
04/07 (2) The reindeer gang with Pict leading. They were all on their way to the shed but were a bit wary of me, stopping just for a second before heading into the shade to escape the hot sun. At this point in the summer we had the most amazing hot, sunny weather which was sometimes a bit too hot for the reindeer!
23/07 (1) The herd running for their breakfast. (left: Mo, centre: Atlantic, right: Baffin).
Since it was quite the internet sensation, we’re assuming most of you may have heard about the disappearance and relieving retrieving of Sookie, our in-house dog at the Reindeer Centre. Many people helped in the search by sharing our story, looking out for her, sending us tips and reports, and by offering us help in all kinds of other ways. With this blog we’ll give an overview of the timeline of Sookie’s wee adventure, and take the opportunity to thank everyone involved in the search!
It was a nice Monday morning when one of Sookie’s favourite hill walk partners Mike pulled up in the driveway next to Reindeer House to collect her for a good day in the hills. He had planned to take Sookie up the munro Ben Lawers that day, which is a munro he’d walked before in his challenge to climb all of the munros. Once there they set off, near the summit of Beinn Ghlas, Sookie got a whiff of a smell of some kind of wildlife and took off. Mike, having walked Sookie many a day in the past, was not worried in any way, as she does so quite often but always returns shortly. This time however, it took a wee bit longer than usual for her to return..
After eating his lunch, waiting for her and calling for her for some time, Sookie still hadn’t returned. Mike decided to walk back to the carpark, hoping she’d be there, but unfortunately this was not the case. Mike climbed up the hill again, but still no Sookie. After it got too late to look for her, he stayed in his car overnight at the carpark, and we hoped she’d turn up the next day.
Tuesday morning there was still no sign of Sookie, either at the carpark and or on the mountain itself. The next few days, different search parties consisting of herders, friends, and volunteers, went to the area and came back with no luck. On Wednesday, Robert McComb, an incredibly nice man who had contacted us via Facebook, made his way up from as far as Glasgow to help us out with a drone! Unfortunately it was too cloudy to be able to see a lot of the area with it. Then throughout Thursday, the Reindeer Centre got 4 calls from people who’d heard barks in the same area near Loch Tay. The people at the Centre marked off an area on the map according to these people’s reports and the search continued, along with other herding dog Tiree who might be able to lure Sookie out with her barks or find her by smelling her. While the barks were heard again, it was too dark and too far away to find her. The next morning, Friday, which was already 4 days after she’d been last seen, the barking was heard again for some time, and eventually the Centre received a phone call from local ranger Andy. Sookie had turned herself in! Full of ticks, slightly underweight rather than covered in her usual bit of bodily winter reserves, and completely and utterly exhausted, was she returned to us. I was the lucky one to be in the area around that time, and had the delightful experience of driving her back to the Centre, where all the herders got quite emotional reuniting with her. Sookie’s doing well in her recovery. She’s slowly gaining weight and liveliness, and is certainly very happy to be back.
We would like to thank everyone who has shared our Facebook posts, everyone who has offered to help us search for her, everyone who has wished us well, and everyone who has shown support in any other way. We were overwhelmed by all of your kindness. We would like to express special thanks to Andy, the ranger who contacted us and reunited us with Sookie, and to Dicky and Raina, the people who managed to hold on to Sookie after she’d shown up on their land, and who then contacted Andy. We’d also like to express thanks to Christine Parkinson, who offered me a place to stay on Thursday night to make the search easier, to Graham Jones who was out searching with his dog Mack and of course to Robert McComb, who helped out with the drone.
Mr Wonky Nose was born a little bit squint. From when he was a calf Boris has always had a slightly wonky nose. Apparently its from when he was growing in the womb he must have been pushed up against one side, only allowing the other side to grow normally. This has in no way affected him in a negative way, he’s just not the prettiest of reindeer. Though I know lots of people who would argue otherwise so I think in this case beauty is in the eye of the beholder! We have one other reindeer in the herd with a slightly wonky nose and his name is Addja. He joined us from Sweden in 2004 and is now the oldest male in the herd so this shows there is no negative implication.
Where most of my ‘Quirky Reindeer’ stories are of reindeer who have been born with something different, Atlantic fits into this story from something that happened to him a few years ago. He has always been one of the biggest reindeer in his year, growing lovely antlers and always in fantastic condition. Two years ago, while out on the winter free range on the Cromdale Hills we were catching up and checking the herd and found Atlantic with a very sore foot. It was so sore he couldn’t put any weight on it at all and he was going around on three legs. We immediately took him off the hill to our farm to treat as we didn’t want to risk losing him out there. The vet came numerous times to check him over, we administered various different antibiotics and cleaned his foot trying to get rid of the infection, however, the infection was so bad and right up in the joint of his toe of one of his front hooves that nothing was working. Having done our best his foot still wasn’t getting better so our local vet suggested we remove his toe. He said he has done this on cattle before and being cloven hooved (two toes per foot) they get by fine with just one toe. So it was decided, we would remove one of Atlantics toes and he has never looked back. In 2017 he was one of our main breeding bulls and he remains one of the biggest in his year. It just shows how animals, and humans, can adapt to a new situation and their quality of life doesn’t need to change.
As a calf Merrick came back from free ranging on the Cairngorms with his mother, Nepal. The calves only have very small antlers at that age and in Merricks case he only had a little stump on top of his head. It wasn’t until a year later, when they grow their antlers between March and August that we realised Merrick’s quirk! He only grew one antler! We have seen this before but only in female reindeer, never in the male reindeer. In fact Dixie a 12 year old female only grows one antler and also Brimick, a female reindeer the same age as Merrick only grows one antler as well as reindeer from the past – Ferrari, Cherry and Walnut. This is the first time we have seen this in a male and now he is 3 years old he looks rather silly just growing one antler. The female reindeer don’t grow antlers quite as big as the males so who knows what size it will get to. Will it only grow the same size as a normal antler or will the growth of two antlers go into the one… We have no idea?!?! Even though he grows just the one we still see him tapping the top of head where the other antler should grow so maybe one day, if he taps enough, he might grow another antler… Watch this space!
Starsky and Hutch:
No doubt you will all know about the twins by now and how rare it is within reindeer to have twins. In May 2018 we had our first pair of surviving twins, Starsky and Hutch. Their mother, Lulu, was an older female and seemed to take them on no bother at all. Like human twins, although they looked quite similar their characters were completely different from one another – this isn’t something I can necessarily describe in writing but when us herders spend everyday with them and we get to know their characters inside out we can tell that the two of them were very different. Sadly we didn’t get the many years of enjoying them together as we lost Hutch very recently, at 4 months old, but it was first for the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and very rare in reindeer herds across the world. Our attention will now be focused on looking after Starsky.
I took photos with the purpose of writing this blog in September 2017, and then everything got too busy and I didn’t manage to actually write it. But here it is finally, so late that the subject matter has effectively come back into fashion once again! All the photos below are from last year (or earlier), rather than this year however.
Reindeer antler is made of bone, and bone needs a blood supply for it to grow. Antlers start growing in the spring and at this point the soft, growing bone is covered with a layer of ‘velvet’ – a thin, hair-covered skin which is full of blood vessels and nerves. Late August and September are the months when reindeer finish growing their antlers each year, the bone hardens up, and then the ‘velvet’ skin strips away. Now, this can be a bit of a gory affair if you don’t know what to expect, so read on with caution if inclined to be a little squeamish. Although depending on what size of computer or phone screen you’re reading this on… it might be too late already. Sorry.
I could write all day about antlers, but to cut a long story short (for now at least), the antlers reach full grown at the end of the summer and then the bone hardens up, and finally the blood supply to them cuts off right at the base. This means that the velvet skin is effectively then just dead tissue, and that dead tissue needs to come away. You can’t be a big scary bull during the breeding season if you have cute fluffy antlers on your head…
The first reindeer to ‘strip’ their velvet each year are the mature bulls, starting at the end of August. They are followed but the younger bulls in early September, and then the cows will strips their throughout the rest of September and into October. The castrated males, or ‘Christmas reindeer’ as we call them, are slightly different as they no longer have a hormonal trigger to strip the velvet away as their hormone balance has changed. They do still strip their velvet, but slowly and over the course of months as opposed to the space of a couple of days.
Although the blood supply to the velvet has cut off, there is still residual blood remaining in the blood vessels of the velvet, so stripping can be a gruesome affair at times. There is no feeling left in the antlers by this point however so it is completely painless, and this is a fact we have to drum into to all visitors before they come face to face with a reindeer whose skin appears to be falling off! It’s not a good look. But for those visitors who are feeling brave, I take great delight in showing them a section of freshly stripped velvet as the blood vessels are visible, making it easier to explain the process of the antler’s growth. I find kids are generally well impressed and want to poke at the bloody skin, whereas adults are often a little grossed-out and not keen to touch!
Once the antlers are clean of velvet, they tend to be a bit red-tinted from the blood until there’s been a rain shower, and then they are a more normal, ‘bone’ colour. And then it’s time for all hell to break loose, as the young bulls start squaring up to each other and the big bulls have to be separated from the herd for the safety of the visitors each day, until they can be split up and moved to closed off sections of the hill enclosure with a group of females apiece. The rut has arrived!