All farmers and animal keepers know the saying. It’s a phrase often learnt the hard way but once learnt, it’s never forgotten. It’s only too easily remembered though when everything, it seems, is going tits up…
‘When you have livestock, you have dead stock’.
The subject of death might seem an odd choice for a blog but it’s part and parcel of working with animals and therefore not something to be hidden, or never mentioned. I feel that in this sort of job, it could be all too easy to brush over losses, but sometimes people do like a little frankness and want to know more (aren’t I brave?!).
Reindeer probably don’t live as long as many people expect, the average age being around 11-13, so naturally there is a turnover of quite a few animals per year. As to be expected, we have years with good survival rates and some with bad, so therefore we purposely vary our calving numbers from year to year in an effort to hold the herd at around 150 animals. This way we control our overall number without ever having to cull.
But animals being animals, they can find all sorts of ways to turn up their toes before their time, and sometimes we do find ourselves fighting a losing battle with a particular reindeer. Though I must say, in recent times there thankfully hasn’t been quite such a dramatic loss as one I unearthed in ancient diaries of Mr Utsi’s, detailing a bull in the 50s who was found drowned, having become accidentally tangled in wire and then blown into a loch – such is the wildness of the winter weather here at times. What a terrible way to go, and an incredibly hard loss for Mr Utsi, especially in the days when the herd was in its infancy. A striking example of the fact that sometimes, accidents do just happen, however much you try to ensure that they don’t.
In latter years, ticks have been the cause of many a loss in the herd. Twenty years or so ago, we lost reindeer after reindeer until we got to grips with a particular illness that reindeer can suffer which is transmitted by ticks, and though we are on top of it nowadays, having learnt which vaccinations do and don’t work and how often they should be used (no veterinary drugs come with detailed instructions specifically for reindeer!), it does still rear its ugly head every now and then. Most of the time we treat the affected reindeer successfully, but we still do lose reindeer to it on occasion, and one such loss hit us particularly hard last autumn. That was Fergus, our big, handsome three year old bull. If you’ve followed us via our blog and social media pages over the last few years, you’ll have heard all about Fergus, hand-reared in 2015 after his mum died. From the underdog in the herd as a calf he had turned into the biggest, most impressive reindeer of his year, so his death really, really hurt.
Spring is often the most difficult time for reindeer, coinciding with the highest concentration of ticks. In spring, before the good grazing appears, the reindeer have just made it through the winter using up their fat reserves as they go, so their bodies are at a low ebb. This makes them more vulnerable to illness, with lowered immune systems, and it’s probably the most problematic time of year for them as a result. Into the summer and they put on weight, rolling in fat by around August, standing them in good stead for the winter months to come. That said, autumn can be hard too with another spike in the tick numbers coupled with a change in diet for many of the reindeer, females in particular, as they drop from the high tops of the mountains to the lower slopes.
You may remember that in 2018 we had live twins born for the first time in the history of the herd, but that in the early autumn we lost the smaller one, Hutch. We think his immune system just wasn’t strong enough to cope with illness after a difficult start in life, and very sadly his twin Starsky also died, about 6 weeks later. The curse of the autumn months, but in hindsight I think we can be pretty proud to have got them right through the summer when they were so much smaller than their compatriots – reindeer aren’t designed to have twins for a reason. We had great fun with them throughout the summer and will look back on their time with happy memories as, I think, will everyone who met them.
I can fully appreciate how upsetting it can be when people have enjoyed meeting a particular reindeer, and later find out that they’ve died. For us, working as closely as we do and investing a huge amount of love, time and effort into each individual, it can be utterly soul destroying when we lose them. In order to work with animals we have to learn to at least deal with death, but coping doesn’t mean we’re hardened to it – the atmosphere in the house when a reindeer has died is subdued and keeping a cheerful attitude with visitors is difficult. Ironically, it’s often on these days that a visitor will announce that we have the “best job in the world” …
One aspect that can make the loss of a reindeer even harder is then having to write to that reindeer’s adopters to let them know the sad news. In particular, my heart will sink when I realise that I have to let so-and-so know when it’s not too long after they have lost a previous adoptee, but this is the way that luck works, and sometimes it does happen. Conversely, when our ancient female Lilac passed away last year, there were a couple of adopters who had adopted her for almost her entire life of 19 years!
We always do our best to address envelopes to the parents of an adopting child in case they want to break the news themselves, and over the years I’ve had a few visiting adopters here at the Centre, small child in tow, gesturing frantically to me over the child’s head, while saying how sad it is that their adopted reindeer has had to move back to Lapland to live with Santa! However, it is easy to make a small mistake on a computer, so if you find yourself one day receiving a letter addressed to your parents but you’re in your 40s, for the love of God let us know because we’ve ticked the wrong box on the database!