It’s the time of the year when…
…our reindeer turn into cows… Not quite, but it is the time of the year when they are casting their antlers, and beginning to look perhaps a little like people imagine a reindeer to.
Casting antlers is a completely natural process, and is one of the huge differences between antlers and horns (no deer in the world have horns!). Reindeer grow their antlers from scratch every year, from an area on the top of their skull called the pedicle. The growth period is from about March to the end of Summer, at which point it calcifies into solid bone, with no feeling remaining. After use in the autumn rut, the males cast their antlers, meaning they don’t have to carry a heavy weight through the winter snows, and leaving the coast clear to start their new set in Spring.
This means that from November antlers drop off on a regular basis, sometimes at the most inopportune moments (in the middle of a Hill Trip for example, causing panic among visitors and frantic reassurances of “It’s normal, it’s ok!” from the herder!). As we get nearer to Christmas, our choice of which reindeer join a Christmas event team becomes more and more influenced by who still has antlers on their head – event organisers can be a little grumpy if a team turns up with just one antler between six reindeer!
Most of our males are castrated at 3 years old, helping to prevent inbreeding and giving them a much calmer life in general. A side effect of castration is that the antlers are not as dense as the bulls’, and tend to be cast in sections rather than in one piece. Hence we end up with reindeer with “One and a half” antlers, or often just the front points remaining after the more top-heavy upright points are cast. It’s interesting that members of the public often don’t realise that a reindeer with their front points has actually got any antler missing, whereas a reindeer who has cast all of one antler but none of the other looks more lopsided and draws many more questions of “Did they lose it fighting?”
Sometimes antlers are lost in squabbles, but only when they’re ready to fall off anyway, and I think as many go from being bumped against a tree (or a herder’s backside!). And whilst there is sometimes a little residual blood on the pedicle when the antler is cast, it isn’t a painful process, the only insult being to their pride, as they often drop down the pecking order. But this is often when a bully gets their comeuppance, as the other reindeer they’ve pushed around see the tables turned and get their own back. So don’t feel too sorry for them!