I love Reindeer herding. And what’s not to love? Fantastic animals in a beautiful environment, surrounded by lovely people. But it wasn’t always this way for me. I came up for my first taste of herding in 2014. Now, a lot has changed in the world since 2014. But a lot has also changed in my personal life …I have qualified as a Physiotherapist, ran the Everest marathon and told many, MANY bad jokes (Editor’s note: Oh my god…the jokes…) . I have lived in multiple places in England since 2014, but this part of the world holds a special place in my heart. I love being up here.
Fortunately, since 2014, there has not been as much change in the splendour of the Reindeer Centre. The reindeer have obviously changed but the Centre itself remains as fantastic as ever. Recently I came across my photos of 2014 and thought this a good opportunity to show off some of my favourites:
The opportunity to be a Reindeer Herder came about from a fellow Herder, Sally, and I’m very glad to be back. I’m not sure whether the future will take me down the Reindeer herding route, the Physio route or maybe a mixture of the two. However, I’d be surprised if it takes me away from this beautiful location with these beautiful animals and people in my life.
I hope to see you all, in good health and spirit, as soon as it is safe to do so.
Emm volunteers with us several times a year usually, and has been doing so for years now. Here’s her story of working in the summer and autumn seasons! Her recent blog about the winter and spring can be found here.
In summer I have been up in both July and August. The visitors are meeting the male reindeer in the hill enclosure. The female reindeer and the calves are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains.
The reindeer’s antlers have done the majority of their growth and the velvet is getting ready to strip away at the end of August. The reindeer are looking smart in their dark summer coats.
The weather can be hot in the summer. The flies bother the reindeer by flying noisily around them, sometimes the reindeer rush around to try to get away from the flies which tend to sit on their antlers as they can sense the blood supply in their growing antlers. We spray the reindeer’s antlers with citronella spray to protect them from the flies. Midges are also a problem in the summer for both reindeer and humans.
In one part of the enclosure, the reindeer have access to a shed for shade. One time when we got up there with the visitors, the reindeer were nowhere in sight. All 41 of them had gone into the small shed. The shed doesn’t look like it can fit 41 reindeer in but it is does, it is like a Doctor Who’s Tardis. One Hill Trip, I was herding them out of the shed, I realised that I hadn’t seen Blue – I found him in a small part of the shed asleep. Blue, who was deaf, didn’t hear his reindeer friends move on. The reason Blue was deaf is because he was leucistic (pure white with blue eyes). Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation. Leucistic reindeer are camouflaged in the snow.
There are three Hill Trips a day (during the week) in the hill enclosure and last year we did ‘Summer Fun’ in the Paddocks which involved feeling the weight of antlers, feeling the weight of a feed sack, Paddock reindeer talks and much more fun (N.B. This will return in 2021!). Reindeer House is busier as the seasonal summer staff are working as there is a lot going on with three Hill Trips a day and Summer Fun in the Paddocks.
One of the jobs in the summer is to water the garden as it is hot.
Last July, Olympic would stand by the gate like he was guarding it and wouldn’t let visitors out of hill enclosure. I kept having to go over to him and move him on.
In the Autumn, I normally come in October half term. The scenery is changing with leaves changing colour and leaves falling off the trees.
The reindeer’s winter coat is growing and most of the velvet has stripped off revealing the hard bone antler underneath.
It is the rutting and breeding season. Normally in different areas of the hill enclosure there is a bull with his girls. My two favourite breeding bulls are Houdini and Kota as they have massive magnificent antlers. When we feed the breeding bulls with their girls we have to be careful as they can be protective over their girls. We don’t take the visitors in with the bulls and their girls.
We do one Hill Trip a day in the hill enclosure. Normally in the afternoons we do sleigh training with the ‘Christmas reindeer’. We put the harnesses on them and harness them up to the sleigh. The reindeer pull the sleigh around Glenmore (where the Reindeer Centre is based). They even go on the road. It is so funny to see people’s faces when they drive past reindeer pulling a sleigh.
We also get to handle the calves to get them used to people. We sometimes take them on a walk around Glenmore in the morning.
I am busy learning the calves names and if I hadn’t been up in May, I am learning which calf belongs to who and meeting all of them. The calves are also getting their new ear tags.
One year, I was lucky enough to help out at a early Christmas parade at the very start of November which was very special. It was at The Cairngorm Mountain. We wore red Christmas jumpers and woolly hats with reindeer on them. The reindeer team were Mo, Spike, Sooty, Aonach and calves Morse and Poirot. Mo and Spike pulled the sleigh with Santa in it. It was so wet and so windy. The wind was 60 miles per hour. Santa was holding his hat on in the sleigh. Not many people turned up. We had to tie things on to the pen railings otherwise they would have flown away.
One of the other jobs in the autumn is to sweep up the leaves. At 4 o’clock it is starting to get dark. So we put the Paddock light on in the Paddocks so the visitors can still see the reindeer. When we put the reindeer to ‘bed’ in the woods and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
My 2 Favourite Seasons
I have two favourite seasons which are autumn and spring.
In the autumn, I love doing the Christmas sleigh training, helping the calves get used to being handled, learning the calves names and seeing the reindeer with their newly formed antlers.
In the spring, I love seeing the newly born calves, seeing the reindeer being mums and hearing the grunts between mum and calf.
A common question we’re asked, usually after spending some time with the reindeer and noticing their beautiful big feet, is whether we need to trim their hooves. Reindeer are endowed with large feet with four toes to each hoof: two main weight bearing toes which do most of the work, plus two smaller and higher up toes which only touch the ground when on soft surfaces (snow or bog), when they spread out like a large snow shoe and mean reindeer can traverse snow drifts a lot easier than humans.
In general our answer is no, we don’t have to routinely trim the hooves of our reindeer. Just like our own nails, the hard outer hoof continues growing constantly throughout their lives, but as they are roaming fair distances each day over rough, rocky and stony mountainous ground, the amount of wear tends to balance this out and means their toes stay nice and neat. Of course there is no one out trimming the hooves of wild caribou and other deer, who get through their entire lives with perfectly shaped hooves, and as our herd are in the correct habitat with plenty of movement, they are usually fine without intervention.
However, there is always the exception to the rule. There are perhaps three reasons why we sometimes do need to dust off the hoof trimmers. First up is that we’re found our pure white reindeer (step forward Blondie and Matto in particular) have hooves that, for whatever reason, seem to grow faster than those of their darker coloured compatriots. Once or twice a year we’ll decide they are a little lengthy and have a trim to keep everything in place. Over-long hooves can cause all kinds of problems, especially putting pressure on their joints as their foot cannot sit correctly, so everything becomes misaligned. There’s an old saying “No foot, no horse”, and it applies equally to reindeer – without happy feet they can’t lead a happy life.
The second reason is if a reindeer has an injury or abnormality meaning a toe or whole hoof doesn’t receive the same amount of wear. Jute has one hoof which tends to grow a bit differently to normal, curving inwards instead of straight, which then prevents the edge wearing down in the usual manner. It’s no problem at all to him as long as we keep an eye on it and trim it as needed, but if we didn’t it could cause him difficulty walking as it grew.
And the third reason, embarrassingly, is pure laziness. This is where I’m going to point the finger squarely at some of our middle-aged males, the ones who can’t always be bothered to head off and graze as a real reindeer should, but who would much rather just lie waiting at the gate for their next meal to be served (Hamish, I’m looking at you). The straightforward reason that their hooves are too long is that they haven’t done anywhere near enough exercise to wear them down in balance with the rate that they’re growing. Perhaps we need to start a fitness club?! Funnily enough, there’s not a single female reindeer who falls into this category…
Thankfully, trimming the hooves of our reindeer is stress free. Every single reindeer in our herd is halter-trained as a calf and is well used to being around humans. That means that if we spot their hooves need some TLC we simply catch them, pop a headcollar on, and whilst one herder occupies them with a bucket of tasty treats, another herder gets to work with a pair of snips to cut back the hard outer hoof. There is no feeling in this section of the foot so no discomfort is caused, and despite the fact that we never work at teaching reindeer to have their feet lifted like you would with a horse, they very quickly cotton on to the fact that nothing bad is happening and just let you get on with it. We never need to use tranquillisers in order to trim hooves, or hold the reindeer in place by force.
My personal favourite technique is to crouch by a front leg, rest their knee on my knee, which leaves me two hands free to trim their hoof! Sometimes two hands are needed to cut through the tough hoof, especially on the old boys (hey, Elvis!) who have real “old man toenails”!
We’re pretty proud of how good our reindeer are at standing to have their hooves trimmed.
Well, we all know what is meant by ‘social distancing’ now after 3 months of lockdown and continued measures for the foreseeable future.
Here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we will be applying the government guidelines to both protect ourselves and our visitors when we re-open next week.
Luckily for us we have helpers, the reindeer themselves, as you can see from the photo above, reindeer are very good at slipping in between groups when we are heading out on to the hill for feed time. The perfect animal to social distance with!
With our own little helpers I decided to ‘measure’ the length of an average-sized adult male reindeer from nose to tail (Beastie ticked all the boxes here) and that comes out on average at 1.8 metres (give or take a little!). And if he (or she) puts her head down the antlers add a little bit more! Ideal for helping people keep the right distance apart when walking along the boardwalk in the hill enclosure.
In fact reindeer as a social herding animal are a very good example of how social distancing can be achieved. Unlike many social animals, reindeer do respect a modicum of social distance. They don’t huddle together; they like their space when they lie down and if another reindeer encroaches into their grazing area, they push them away, with antlers (if they are bony) or feet if their antlers are still growing.
The only close contact between reindeer is usually between close relations, ie a cow and calf. Indeed this close relationship can extend through into their adult lives particularly among females. However last winter that close bond became apparent between an old female and her grown up son. When 9 year old Rubiks joined the Cairngorm herd in January 2020 he ‘found’ his 16 year old mother Fonn and they have been inseparable ever since!
Unfortunately the downside to social distancing for ourselves and our visitors will be that the normal hand feeding that takes place out on the open hillside will not happen. Not only will our visitors be disappointed, but the reindeer will be too. I can think of many of the friendly male reindeer like Olympic, Dr Suess and Aztec who will be extremely confused by the lack of yummy food from everyone!
However a visit to the reindeer will still be an amazing experience (hopefully at least!), with our lovely herd in their natural environment out on the mountainside. Experienced reindeer herders to guide you, answer questions and feed the reindeer, while you all get the opportunity to take photos and enjoy the moment with these gentle creatures.
Emm is one of our regular volunteers, and has sent us this lovely blog. Here’s part one, with another part to come later in the summer!
Over the years volunteering for the reindeer herd, I have experienced the different seasons. I decided to write a blog about it.
In the winter, I normally come up over New Year in the Christmas Holidays. The Reindeer Centre is very busy as people want to see reindeer after Christmas. The last time I was up over New Year which was this year 2020, we had at least 80 people queuing outside the door before we opened 10 o’clock. There is normally one Hill Trip a day. We had to do two trips a day because there were so many people and two trips-worth was selling out by about 10:30am.
In the hill enclosure the visitors are meeting both male and female reindeer. Most of the male reindeer in there are the ‘Christmas reindeer’ which have been to Christmas events and parades in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The reindeer are looking lovely in their winter coat and most of the reindeer have got antlers.
The weather is cold so my thermal hat, gloves and coat keeps me nice and warm. It is getting dark just before 5 o’clock so when we put the reindeer to bed and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
The Reindeer Centre is closed on New Years Day, so I get a day off to explore the area with my mum and dad. This year on New Years Day we went on a long walk to explore An Lochan Uaine (The Green Loch) and the Ryvoan Bothy. It was really nice and everyone we passed wished us a Happy New Year. On the way back, we walked down hill on the path behind the Reindeer Centre and I saw beautiful views of Glenmore and Loch Morlich.
The Reindeer Centre is getting ready to close for a month and the reindeer are getting ready to go free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills.
I help take the Christmas decorations down.
In the spring, I normally come up in April in the Easter Holidays or May or both.
Normally in April there is a Hill Trip once a day onto the free-range where some of the reindeer are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains. The hill enclosure is not normally in use. Every morning some of us go out to find the herd to give them their breakfast and to bring them down to a suitable place where we can do the Hill Trip as they are normally high up. It is a special feeling when you are leading the reindeer down to a suitable place for the trip. One time, I got to see the reindeer leap over a stream which I hadn’t seen before. They leapt over the stream well and they were very springy. That was spectacular to watch. It is magical and special seeing the herd on the free-range knowing they can go where ever they want with no fences stopping them. Reindeer can swim.
After one trip on the flats nelow the ski centre , the reindeer started to move towards the road heading for Windy Ridge which meant they were going to cross the road. Me and Dave parked by the road and he started calling them which they responded to. I stopped the traffic and was the “lollipop lady” in the middle of the road whilst the reindeer crossed and went onto Windy Ridge. Dave was leading them high up there. I went to find the stragglers who were coming up the hill in the ski car park and got them safely onto the ridge.
Most reindeer have lost their antlers and have started to grow new ones. Some reindeer have lost their antlers when I have been there. One year, I found Hopscotch’s antler in the Paddocks wood. The reindeer’s coats are very pale as the sun light over the winter has bleached them. The reindeer are hard to identify as most of them have no antlers and their unique markings have faded. The reindeer antlers are one of the key parts to identify a reindeer as each reindeer has their own unique antler shape. It is like their fingerprint.
Some of the female reindeer are heavily pregnant and their tummies look big. It is amazing to think there is a baby reindeer calf growing.
It is normally the time that the reindeer herders start to reseed the grass in the Paddocks. Sometimes I am in charge to move the sprinkler around the Paddocks. One April, Roman kept coming to the sprinkler and drinking from it or just stood by it like if he was cooling himself down. He even came to drink from the hose.
One April, I did the gardening in the Paddocks and Fergus (who was hand reared) kept following me around and kept kicking my bag thinking there was food inside.
The only time I have seen the reindeer in snow was in April 2018. I have never seen so much snow in my life. The snow was so deep. It was magical and special seeing them in the snow in their natural environment. It was such an exciting time. It was like being in Narnia.
The snow is not a problem for reindeer. The reindeer are at their happiest in the snow. It is their natural environment and their bodies are made for the it.
It was so special seeing their natural behaviours. Seeing them walking in a line one behind the other to save energy. Seeing them dig in the snow with their big splayed hooves to find heather and mosses to eat. The reindeer seemed more excited to see us with the feed sacks as it is an easy meal for them as they will have to work hard digging in the snow to find food. Following their hoof prints in the snow was very exciting.
At the Reindeer Centre, we had to shovel the snow to makes paths as it was very deep and put out grit. Before the Hill Trip, we put down grit on some of the icy parts. We offered people walking poles to help with walking in the snow and it was so lovely seeing visitors helping one another. Walking down hill, we had to dig our heels into the ground to stop us from sliding down the hill.
The frozen tarns and puddles looked spectacular. It was my first time seeing skiers skiing in the mountains.
In May, it’s calving time. I get to see the reindeer being mums to their calves which is lovely and special to see. The calves are so cute and adorable. I get to see the reindeer being more vocal as the mums and the calves grunt to each other to communicate. It is a lovely and special time.
I was very lucky to be up when the twins called Starsky and Hutch were calves. The Reindeer Centre had a lot of interest as a reindeer having twins surviving is a rare thing. There was only one other case in the world of reindeer twins surviving birth which was in Finland. In Finland, they took the reindeer twins away from their mum to hand rear them. Starsky and Hutch stayed with their mum Lulu and Lulu gave them as much milk as she could. We topped up the milk by bottle feeding them. It was special bottle feeding them but they are unfortunately no longer with us.
The reindeer are continuing growing their antlers which are covered by velvet. The reindeer have scruffy coats as they are getting rid of their winter coat. Big clumps of fur come out of their winter coat.
There are two Hill Trips a day and they are in the hill enclosure.
There’ll be more from Emm in a future week, when she’ll tell us what she gets up to while volunteering in the summer and autumn seasons!
Earlier this year I wrote about the two Boris’s, our reindeer Boris and the PM Boris Johnson. Well, in April both have made similar news, in one way or another. Boris Johnson contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised and ridiculously our reindeer Boris also fell ill around the same time!
Thankfully for reindeer they cannot contract Covid-19 but they are susceptible to various parasitic diseases and stomach upsets. In the case of reindeer Boris he showed the symptoms of a sore stomach, which led him to lose his appetite. That is never a good sign in a reindeer and is often linked to a low temperature because the body is ‘shutting down’. Boris didn’t even fancy some of his favourite food lichen. He was in a bad place.
When I first found him unwell, he was lying away from the herd, on his own, always a sure sign a reindeer is poorly. I encouraged him onto his feet and led him across the hill to a small enclosure, beside the shed. This would be where he would stay until he got better. Although reindeer are normally very social animals and want to be with the herd, in Boris’s case he was happy to be alone.
Intensive Care Unit for a reindeer is a bit different to where PM Boris ended up, but for a while it seemed as if the outcome could go either way. Thankfully though both Boris’s turned a corner and recovered and ours has never looked back – his antlers have begun to grow again (antlers are the first thing to stop growing when a reindeer is ill) and he is back to his old self, wonky-nosed, very friendly and very greedy.
Hello everyone! First of all, let me introduce myself for those who have not have met me.
I’m Heather, and I used to be a Reindeer Herder. I like to think I still am really. As we always say, it’s like being a King or Queen of Narnia, once a Reindeer Herder, always a Reindeer Herder!
So, my Reindeer herding career began way back in 1998, when the ‘Sweeties’ year of reindeer were born. I first went to the Centre for work experience from the local High school, and when I arrived for my week’s experience in September, the calves had just been named. Some of you will remember Eclair, Polo and Malteser, to name a few!
As the years rolled by, I worked at the Reindeer Centre off and on for roughly 15 years, in my school and university holidays. And once I graduated from Edinburgh University, with a degree in Geography (using the reindeer as my subject for my 4th year dissertation!), I headed back full time.
After the Reindeer Centre, I worked in a couple of other jobs, before deciding it was time to head into the family business of leather working. My Mum and Dad have been leather workers since before I came along, and while I always helped them in the workshop as a child, it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I really started learning the craft. I now have my own workshop in Carrbridge, not so far from the Reindeer Centre and would now call myself a full time Leathersmith. I run my own business, Loch Ness Leather, and make belts, handbags and hats, along with smaller accessories.
But how is that relevant to the Reindeer Centre now? Well, those who support the herd by adopting a reindeer, will know that each year when you re-adopt your reindeer, you get a lovely pack in the post including amongst other things, a hand written letter, and a selection of gifts. Well, this year, I am in charge of one of those gifts! I have been commissioned to make leather keyrings which will be going into the adoption packs. Each one is made by hand, by myself, in my workshop in Carrbridge. Luckily my workshop is in my garden, so I have been able to carry on working safely during the current situation. And it’s just been a case of handing over a new batch each time the herders pop by with a Wild Farm meat delivery for us!
Each keyring is made of natural vegetable tanned leather. I cut the leather to shape, emboss it with the reindeer design, and then dye it by hand. Layering up the colours to make each one – they’re all very individual! A rivet is then used to attach the ring, and it’s ready to go. And all made within 12 miles of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre.
This year is a tough time for us all, I personally usually sell my wares at Highland Games and other events across Scotland through the summer. However, they have all been cancelled this year, understandably, so I have been focusing on selling online. If you would like to see more of my work, please do visit my website, www.lochnessleather.co.uk. Or of course, you can follow me on Facebook or Instagram. As a thank you for supporting myself, and the Reindeer of course!, I would like to offer you a 10% discount across the whole of my website. To be sent the code for this, please click here to sign up for my newsletter.
You can also keep a look out for more Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and Loch Ness Leather collaborations in the Reindeer Centre online shop, coming soon and throughout the year!
I hope you all enjoy your adoption packs this year!
Thank you all and Stay Safe! Heather Hanshaw (Past Reindeer Herder)
N.B. Because of the way our adoption scheme gifts work, only those re-adopting a reindeer from now until April next year will receive one of Heather’s keyrings with their pack. Adoptions purchased for the first time in this period will receive different gifts. However, if you don’t want to miss out on a keyring, please feel free to get in touch with Heather directly via her website to purchase one!
With all these photos of calves over the last few weeks on our social media pages, I thought I’d dig out some photos of adult reindeer in our herd when they were just a week or two old, as a way of demonstrating their colouration and it’s changes with time. Reindeer are born in an extremely warm winter coat to protect them from the elements, but this calf coat isn’t necessarily the same colour as they will end up.
There’s a very short window from when they are born in May, to when they first moult in July, when they have this lovely calf coat. By July they have a short, darker summer coat, although their legs often retain their calf coat for a few extra weeks, and then their adult winter coat grows in for the first time in early September. At this point onwards they look like mini adults, and have lost the ‘cute’ factor.
We’ll start with Aztec. He was the most common colour for a calf, a gingery brown that we just call ‘normal coloured’. As an adult he’s still ‘normal’ – as common as muck! (But only in colour, not character!).
Roman was also a ‘normal coloured’ calf, although a much richer red colour (NB. it’s not so noticeable in this photo as it was taken on a different camera to the other pics) than the gingery colour of many calves. The rich red look is one of my favourites amongst the calf coats!
Still ticking the ‘normal coloured’ box is Hamish, although you’ll notice the blacker back he had. This photo popped up on my Facebook ‘memories’ for 10 years ago recently – where has the time gone?! Hamish had to be pulled out by Fiona after getting stuck being born – hence the rather weak looking little calf knuckled over and two herders in attendance (trying to assess whether there’s any milk in that udder…).
‘Chocolate brown’ is the next category, darker all over than the others so far. Olympic has grown in to a dark coloured adult, but by no means as dark as they get….
….unlike Lace! Jet black as a calf, she’s always been one of the very darkest reindeer in the herd. Note how dark her bum is compared to Olympic above!
And at the other end of the scale is Mozzarella. If a calf is pure white, whether they are actually leucistic or literally just very white, they will stay that way their whole lives, regardless of the changing of the seasons. Their summer and winter coats are both pretty much the same. Mozzarella has a couple of dark markings on her, and these will change in darkness depending on the season, but not her white hairs.
Olmec and his mum Emmental are both ‘white’ reindeer too, or at least what we would refer to as a white or light coloured reindeer. In August, on the right, (and 3 years later!) they are much greyer, about halfway from summer to winter coats, but reindeer’s coats bleach in the light throughout the winter months, turning them much whiter by spring.
Many light coloured reindeer also have white face markings, as Svalbard demonstrates here. The darker markings on calf coats tend to be much less obvious as adults though – you have to peer closely to see Svalbard’s dark leg nowadays! While he’s not a light coloured reindeer as such now, he’s still on the pale side.
Not all light coloured adults start out light though, as LX and Diamond demonstrate here. White foreheads on a brown calf generally signify a calf will turn white in adulthood though! It’s not a particularly common colouration though – I think these are the only two I remember in my time here (or at least the only two who survived to adulthood – there may have been others).
Finally, there’s always one or two odd ones each year. Above is Brie, a sort of slate-grey colour as a calf with a little white nose, but generally she’s pretty much normal coloured now as an adult, albeit still rather greyish. She was a very pretty calf!
And finally Spartan, again slate grey as a calf but on the darker side as an adult. His pale eyes are a giveaway for his slightly odd colouration though, and as a breeding bull he’s thrown some equally unusual looking calves this spring!
There’s nothing more exciting than walking towards a cow who just calved, having eventually tracked them down – knowing you’re the very first human to lay eyes on that calf. At 8am when reporting from the hill down to Reindeer House, having been on the early shift and out for two or three hours already, I’ve squeaked “You’ll never guess what colour so-and-so’s calf is!” down a phone excitedly many times in the past. Freezing toes, soaked clothes and rumbling belly temporarily forgotten.
When people think of reindeer, they inevitably picture them with a big set of antlers atop their furry heads. Unlike other deer species, this even applies to females, who are the only deer species to routinely grow a lovely pair of bony protrusions each year, in order to help them hold a high enough status within the herd to gain enough access to feed in harsh climates.
Only… some reindeer don’t grow antlers. The official term for this is “polled”. We’ve had a number of individuals over the history of our herd (and this is the case worldwide too) who, year after year, maintain the smooth top to their head, whilst reindeer all around them are tapping away to encourage the velvety growths which finally turn into hard bone at the end of each summer.
This is almost always seen just in females (cows), and when scientists have studied reindeer and caribou herds across the herd it seems that between 0.5 and 5% of cows can be expected to not grow antlers. Why would this be? Antlers are used as weapons when fighting for dominance within the herd – indeed a cow with large antlers is rarely challenged. So surely not having antlers is a disadvantage? On the surface, yes, but by not growing antlers a huge amount of energy is conserved every single year. In some habitats, like the thick forests that forest reindeer and woodland caribou live in, antlers can be a hindrance, and the smaller herd sizes perhaps mean there is less of a need to compete. Antlers are more important for a male in terms of breeding success, as a bull with just one or no antlers at all is unlikely to have the chance to breed.
There seem to be two factors behind refusal to grow antlers. First, there is nutrition. A reindeer who is struggling to find enough food will prioritise body condition over antler size – an adult who is having an unexpected hard year will grow smaller antlers than usual. If this happens to a calf – for example one who is orphaned at a young age, they may not have any antler growth at all in their first year, or perhaps for longer. Our wee reindeer Diddly had a difficult start as her mum Flake didn’t have any milk, and whilst we bottle fed her, we couldn’t match the nutrition reindeer milk would have provided. Perhaps this was the reason she didn’t grow antlers?
The other factor is genetics – as we trace all of the family history of the members of our herd, we can often trace lack of antlers back to an ancestor. It seems to be that the polled characteristic is a recessive one, often carried but only expressed if a calf inherits two copies of the gene. I was interested to find this note when looking back through old diaries from the early days of our herd:
So for Mr Utsi, who founded our herd, polled (antlerless) reindeer were a desirable animal, and I also feel that antlerless females tend to be strong characters – perhaps because they’ve had to hold their own in an antlered world?? As our reindeer have a pretty easy life and we supplement their grazing in winter with feed, any antlerless cows tend to be that way because of their genetics rather than a lack of nutrition, and perhaps with plenty of food available there is no huge detriment to their diet if they happen to be a little further down the pecking order.
Arnish, one of the leaders of the herd when I started work as a herder, never grew an antler in her life, but was well respected among the other reindeer – if challenged she would simply use her front feet in place of antlers! She was also a successful mother, rearing Addax, Jaffa and Svalbard. Jaffa’s daughter Brimick only grew one antler. We also have one-antlered reindeer Dixie in the herd, who inherited this trait from grandmother Cherry.
Ferrari didn’t grow antlers at all until she was nine, then surprised everyone by growing one antler annually (on the same side!) until the end of her days. Interestingly, she’s a direct descendant of polled cow Mitou (mentioned above). From her descendants, her grand-daughter Malawi is in the herd today and has been antlerless so far – she’s currently fifteen so I think she’ll probably not start now! Ferrari’s great-grandson Merrick was also the only male we’ve had yet who grew just one antler, after growing nothing as a calf.
And what about wee Bond, some of you who follow our stories closely may ask. As an orphaned calf, he grew no antlers at all (caused presumably by struggling to get enough nutrition), then last year as a yearling he tapped furiously away at his pedicles (where the antlers grow from) and managed about 1 inch of antler on one side (you had to peer pretty closely to see it!). You’ll have to wait to find out what happens this year…
Coming to visit us in the Cairngorms again when this is all over? Here’s a blog that’s been adjusted slightly from an old newsletter about the wonderful wildlife that surrounds us here in the Cairngorms:
It’s not just reindeer that you might see here, there’s so much more. Around 25% of the UK’s threatened flora and fauna can be found here, and some of it is very easy to spot. The Red Squirrel is perhaps one of the most iconic animals in Scotland, but there’s no need to search too hard for them at Reindeer House as they are usually to be found on the peanut feeders in our garden or in the reindeer paddocks beside the house. Sometimes people soon forget about the reindeer when the squirrels make an appearance!
Another bird feeder highlight is the Crested Tits, a much sought after species for bird watchers due to their rarity. And like the squirrels, look no further than our front garden (but only in the winter months)! Every winter we have absurdly good views from our office window, mere feet away. The bird table is also visited by Siskins, Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks. Among many other species, Crossbills are to be found in the forests around Reindeer House, and Pine Martens are seen regularly right outside the house at nighttime, much to our delight.
Many visitors to our hill enclosure remark upon the Mallards pottering around amongst the reindeer, a somewhat surprising sight it seems, especially so in the snow. The ducks do have an ulterior motive as they are after the barley in the reindeer feed, arriving every day on schedule to clear up after feeding time! They could well be the best fed ducks in Scotland. Other enclosure visitors are the Snow Bunting flocks in winter, having bred up on the high mountain plateau during the summer; and sometimes we have a pair of curlew in summer residence too.
In fact our 1200 acre enclosure on the slopes of the Cairngorms is home to a variety of wildlife all year round, much of it being rather secretive. May expeditions to search for newly born calves at an unsociably early hour result in good views of Black Grouse, displaying right in the middle of the enclosure. However, by the time we take visitors up the hill at 11am the grouse have sensibly retired for the day. The Red Grouse are easier to see, and are a common sight on the reindeer treks in the summer as they nest near our trek routes. Most exciting of the grouse species is the elusive Capercaillie, of which we see a few of each year in the pine forest down near Utsi’s Hut, in the far reaches of the hill enclosure.
And there’s plenty more. We spend hours out on the Cairngorm plateau in the summer, checking the female reindeer and their calves (if we can find them!), and frequently see the most alpine of the grouse species, the Ptarmigan; and Dotterel, rare migrant waders. Golden Eagles are spotted occasionally too.
So while our focus is undoubtedly the reindeer, sometimes they do have to share the limelight with other species. Reindeer were originally native to Scotland, and while we will probably never see the likes of bears, wolves and wolverines roaming free here again, visitors to the Cairngorms can catch a glimpse of the past as the reindeer browse the heathery slopes.