Sherlock’s Antlers

Sherlock in September 2022.

Despite spending the last 40+ years devoting my life to the Cairngorm Reindeer I am still fascinated by the annual cycle of reindeer growing their new velvet antlers, then stripping the velvet to reveal hard bony antlers and finally casting their antlers and growing a new set next year.

It is an amazing process, hugely demanding on their resources, but very beneficial to the individual whether they are males competing for females in the rut or females and young males competing for food in the winter.

The older mature males grow the most impressive antlers and for them the process of growing their new velvet antlers begins before the end of the winter and continues until they strip the velvet from the antlers around the middle of August, in preparation for the rutting season. The bigger the antlers the more likely they are to ‘win’ a fight and so claim a harem of females, so big antlers are important.

Sherlock – 8th of April 2023.
Sherlock – 9th of May 2023.
Sherlock – 6th of June 2023.

One of our main breeding bulls Sherlock showed all the signs of growing a pretty big set of antlers last year and by the autumn he didn’t disappoint us. Luckily for us he is a real gentleman among reindeer and although he sported these great weapons on his head, he was never aggressive towards us and we could still safely go in beside him and his breeding females on a daily basis to feed and check them all.

Sherlock – 29th of August 2023 – stripping the velvet.
Sherlock in the rut with Bordeaux in front of him on the 2nd of October 2023.

But their glory doesn’t last long and having spent 5 ½ months growing their antlers the breeding males are the first to cast their antlers at the end of the rut and before the winter sets in. So only about 10-12 weeks of glory with big hard antlers to fight with!

Spartan, who is a couple of years older than Sherlock was first to cast his antlers in the middle of November so I knew it wouldn’t be long before Sherlock was antlerless too. Two weeks later and off came one of Sherlock’s antlers making him very lopsided! Then a couple more days and the other one had fallen.

So now we are in 2024 and Sherlock, who was so dominant in the autumn, has been at the bottom of the pecking order over the winter.

Sherlock with no antlers in January 2024.
Sherlock just beginning to grow his antlers on the 28th February 2024.
Sherlock on the left on the with his lovely velvet antlers growing well, still free roaming in the hills – 30th of March 2024.
It’s in the genes! Sherlock’s mum, Caddis, grew very large antlers for a female.

Tilly

Memorable reindeer: Lute

My chosen reindeer to write about this time is Lute, who was already a middle-aged female when I first started as a reindeer herder, back in 2007. She died quite a few years back now so the younger staff here won’t remember her at all. But I do, and writing these blogs is not only a nice way to get something written down about a reindeer who may otherwise gradually fade from the mists of memory, but also an enjoyable excursion for me in to my own memories.

January 2011
Lute with one of her calves, Ludo, displaying her typical squint stance. To add to the overall ‘odd’ look, she also had quite bulgy eyes!

Bit of a nuisance for a reindeer, come to think of it, as they normally conserve energy by their hind feet tracking right into the hoofprints left by their forefeet, saving energy when walking in snow for example. Perhaps Lute always made sure to walk in the middle of the herd where her hind hooves could follow someone else’s tracks? Despite her ‘disability’, Lute never really seemed to have any issue keeping up with the herd, so it had just become a quirk specific to her by the time I arrived on the scene. It did mean you could pick her out amongst the herd a couple of miles away through binoculars sometimes, making you look good in front of unsuspecting visitors/volunteers/new staff members when you said knowingly about the dots running down the hillside ‘ah yes, there’s Lute’.

Lute also stood out that first winter for me as she’d grown excellent, enormous antlers for a female reindeer. There must have been something in the water that year, as many of the females had incredible antlers, some despite also having a calf at foot (which normally saps their energy enough to reduce their antler growth). Most years, in the second half of her life anyway, she tended towards growing rather twisted, oddly-shaped antlers. Matching her twisted, odd gait!

Lute when I first knew her – her tall antlers contrasting nicely with Polo’s rounded ones, and Ring’s much smaller, simpler ones.

Good genetics ran in the family, it seems. Lute was one of 11 calves for her mum Ferrari, back in the days when we would let reindeer breed every year. Nowadays we tend to give them a year off from time to time. But Ferrari popped out calf after calf no bother, with Lute being the eighth. Lute herself went on to be a very productive cow too, also with 11 calves to her name, although not all of them survived to adulthood. When I started she had Bean at foot, and then in 2010 her calf Lace was the first newborn reindeer I ever saw. Lace is still with us today, now nearly 14, and has become a real leader amongst the herd. By this I actually mean ‘dominant and bossy’. She’s a much bolder character than her mum ever was – I don’t really remember Lute being anything other than gentle and mild, a real sweetheart.

Lute with Lace as a calf. Presumably mum Ferrari never taught her not to pee in the pool?

Lute bred some relatively shy offspring too, in particular Fada. But characteristics seem to skip generations sometimes, as Fada bred lovely calves usually, the standout being Hopscotch. Hopscotch is still with us today and is now the matriarch of a dynasty of reindeer, including Busby, Pip, Tub and Juniper among others. Quite a legacy for Lute’s family line!

Granddaughter Hopscotch and great-granddaughter Kipling.

Born in 2000, Lute (who was named in the ‘musical’ theme), lived to a good age, passing away out on the mountains in the autumn or early winter of 2013. Daughter Lace is a little older than that now herself, and another daughter, Wapiti, got to around 15 years old, so there are some good long-living genes running in the family still!

Hen

Why can’t I touch the reindeer?!

Reindeer have a hugely thick coat as they are designed to survive Arctic and sub-Arctic winters, and they are one of the only mammals to have hair covering every part of their body, even including their noses. So they look incredibly cuddly and visitors are usually desperate to stroke them. If you’ve been on one of our Hill Trips pre March 2020, you might remember being allowed to stroke them too, but now we have stopped this direct contact between visitor and reindeer. But why?

Reindeer and visitors mingling

First, some background information about reindeer’s behaviour to each other without influence of human presence. Reindeer are not a ‘tactile’ animal, despite their strong herding instinct. Because of their thick coat they have no need to huddle together for warmth at any point, so the only time you see direct contact between them – such as resting their heads on each other – is affection between mother and calf. Calves stay with their mums for a year only (usually), but after this that close bond is broken and direct contact stops.

Contact like this is only between mother and offspring in general. Although I’m not sure Sitini wanted her face cleaned by mum Hippo in this picture!

Living in an incredibly harsh environment also means it’s critical to establish a hierarchy, as reindeer need to be able to compete for food when winter is at it’s hardest – hence the presence of antlers on both males and females. Males are bigger in body size so they lose their antlers first, leaving the smaller females at the top of the pecking order through the winter months when food is at it’s scarcest, and when they are likely to be pregnant too. This means that the herds constantly establish dominance between each other, pushing each other around and chasing less dominant reindeer away from good grazing spots.

Come on a Hill Trip and look around you, and you’re unlikely to see any reindeer nuzzling each other, but it’s almost guaranteed you’ll see reindeer pushing each other around. So a reindeer touching another is generally an agressive action, with antlers – or front feet – used as weapons. The way I like to phrase it to visitors is that we are entering the reindeer’s natural territory, so we therefore play by their rules – touch is a negative thing so we aren’t going to do so.

The main way a reindeer ‘touches’ another – antlers first! Oatcake demonstrating a reindeer’s way of getting another to move on.
Another example of contact between two of the young reindeer, Darling and Elbe – it’s not friendly!

However, pre-covid, we didn’t have a hard-and-fast rule about not touching the reindeer. It was never something we encouraged, but not something we outright banned. As our reindeer are incredibly tame, many did actually tolerate a gentle stroke or pat, and the ones that didn’t had space to move away from visitors. However, some reindeer were well known for standing there looking beautiful and luring visitors in close, only to try and clobber them. This led to us having to have eyes in the back of our heads as guides, and I found myself frequently – often mid-sentence – having to suddenly holler across the hillside: ‘just stand back from that one!’ / ‘don’t try and touch him!’ / ‘oops, sorry about that… are you ok?’. I found this happening more and more too, as our visitor number increased considerably over recent years. Coupled with that, was people’s inability to read reindeer body language – which is perfectly understandable for those not used to being around animals. Generally a grumpy reindeer will warn visitors to keep their distance before going a step further and insisting that they do, but this is often lost in translation from reindeer to humans. Clear as day to those of us who are well-versed in reindeer, but not to all.

Lace. Looks like a supermodel with her glam dark coat and elegant tall antlers – but acts like a thug. To both other reindeer, and visitors, at times.

But covid brought about a change that, in hindsight, needed to happen anyway. For months no-one was allowed to touch anything – reindeer included – and we realised just how much more relaxed the herd were with the new ‘hands-off’ rule. The ‘background’ reindeer of the herd – shyer members who would normally keep themselves a good distance away – started wandering in amongst everyone, sometimes within arms reach, but safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be patted unexpectedly. Everyone was more relaxed and this included us as guides – since our rules changed I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to rescue an unsuspecting visitor from a reindeer who got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. I’m not going to lie – it does still happen sometimes as animals are always unpredictable, but with far less frequency.

Turtle’s reputation precedes her amongst herders – she’s not earned the nickname ‘Snapping Turtle’ for nothing!

So ‘hands-off’ was here to stay. Once covid guidelines relaxed enough we started allowing visitors to hand-feed the reindeer once again, albeit in a more controlled fashion and allowing one turn per person only. This generally keeps manners better amongst the greediest members of the herd, meaning they only barge around for a short time period before settling down, but it does allow one small bit of contact that visitors crave.

Okapi and Hippo – always enthusiastic hand-feeders!

As far as we know, folks who have visited both before and after seem happy with the changes, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the reindeer are more relaxed and that their welfare is utmost. And of course, reindeer don’t read the rulebooks so they sometimes choose to touch visitors themselves, which is fine – it’s on their terms. A visitor finding a furry nose suddenly sniffing them, whiskers tickling their skin, is a happy visitor indeed.

Wee visitor Oakley getting special attention from Aztec! Photo: Candice Bell

It’s perhaps important to add that whilst we don’t – and have never – patted or stroked reindeer unnecessarily, we do have to handle them ourselves, but we do so without ‘fussing’ them. We we need to be able to handle them for veterinary care, worming and vaccinations etc., and this needs to be as unstressful for the animals as possible so we do put work into each individual to make sure they are comfortable being handled in this way. We also need to be able to move reindeer from place to place, so every single animal in the herd is trained to walk on a halter at around 5-6 months old, and a lot of effort goes into getting them easy to catch and halter. If we can’t catch a reindeer we run the risk of not being able to catch them at a critical point, i.e. if ill. Nowadays pretty much all of our reindeer aged 7 or less are catchable with ease as we have put more work into this aspect of training in latter years; but there are admittedly still some wily old reindeer who have to be brought into a shed to get hold of them! Looking at you, Sika…

Still one of the wildest reindeer in the herd, even at 16! Click the link above to read another of Hen’s blog’s, this time about Sika herself.

More work goes into our male reindeer overall, as they help to keep our business afloat by taking part in Christmas parades and events, earning income that helps to pay for their grazing leases etc. But again this is all done in a sensitive way and we work as a partnership with them, and touch is – as ever – kept to the minimum; the reindeer know their job and we know ours, and any reindeer that isn’t comfortable with the situation just stays at home.

Topi demonstrating how totally relaxed he is, even when harnessed up to the sleigh in the centre of Edinburgh – taking his opportunity for a quick nap on my shoulder before a parade many years ago. Note he’s the one choosing to rest his head on my shoulder, I’m just holding on to the lead-ropes!

So hopefully that gives an overview of why we have stuck to the change we made to Hill Trips in 2020. Initially I was worried we’d have a huge negative backlash from visitors, but there never has been really, and whilst we do know how tempting it is to stroke them, we hugely appreciate everyone’s efforts in not doing so. As we say, if struggling to resist the urge, stick your hands in your pockets!

Hen

Wanna buy some antlers? It’s a complicated business…

Over the years I’ve established myself as ‘chief of antler sales’ here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. As with most reindeer related things, it’s not really a job that is straight-forward but one that has evolved with time, and I’ve tweaked and tweaked each year until it is as workable as possible. But – in usual fashion – the devil is in the details, much of which are in my head and memory and it’s therefore not a job that I delegate to anyone else.

The dream set of antlers everyone wants… (thanks Spartan).

We’ve always sold antlers from the reindeer herd. But is it as easy as 150 reindeer equals 300 antlers per year to sell? Of course it isn’t…

Firstly, we only find around 30-40% (at a rough estimate) of the antlers each year. This is because the reindeer roam on a huge area of rough, upland land, and the time of year when most antlers are shed – January to April – is exactly the time that almost the entire herd are roaming completely freely and are not enclosed at all. The proverbial needle in the haystack. (In fact sometimes finding the herd itself can be a needle/haystack situation, let alone their cast antlers!).

So many antlers, so few of them found.

Secondly, whilst around half of our herd are males, we tend to castrate them at around three years old. This means the bone of their antlers doesn’t calcify to the same extent, and they will usually break their antlers off in pieces as a result. So instead of a nice, clean antler, we get broken sections of – to be quite honest – often rather manky antler, still partly covered with the velvet skin that covered it whilst it grew. Smaller pieces disappear into deep vegetation – never to be seen again – far more easily than a whole antler.

A classic bit of antler from a castrated male. This one’s from Frost – the top third of his right hand antler, still with remaining skin and a little velvet hair. But it’s still a bit of Frost none-the-less, regardless of it’s appearance.
Classic antlers from a castrate male around February time- the upright sections have broken off and only the points at the base remain, still with the remnants of the velvet skin and hair. Not particularly glamorous, eh Caribou?!

Once castrated, males also tend to grow relatively smaller antlers than they did as a bull. So we really only get two or three big, mature bull sets of antlers each year. But some of these we keep – for example we have almost all of Sherlock’s antlers, and most of Crann’s. Crann holds the record for the biggest antlers ever in the herd, and as such we’ll never sell them as they are of great nostalgic value to us, even though Crann himself is long gone.

Crann with his 2009 antlers (his second biggest set). They are the ones currently in our shop window that we hang stuff for sale on! COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY: LES WILSON

Antler selling starts in January each year. The mature bulls have dropped their antlers in November/December, and some of our immature bulls then have their antlers cut off in December before they are let out to their winter grazing up on the mountains. This is done for the safety of hill-walkers – a testosterone-charged ‘teenage’ bull could really inflict damage. It’s done long after the feeling in the antler has gone, so causes zero pain.

Two year old bull Domino, looking mighty miffed with his antler stumps.

From (usually) around February or March onwards the cows start dropping their antlers, but for me life gets very busy in the spring with the calving season, followed by writing/editing the June newsletter, so it’s often well into the summer before I pick up the antler list once again.

So… here’s some info for those of you now imagining a nice set of antlers adorning your wall.

Firstly, I give members of our reindeer adoption scheme priority for purchasing antlers over ‘unconnected’ members of the public. I feel it’s a privilege someone who supports our business should get. My method for this is to have a waiting list for adopters to add their name for dibs on ‘their’ reindeer’s antlers, which I work my way through gradually as and when I have something suitable. Should you want to add yourself to this list, drop me an email through the contact form on the website FAO Hen (please don’t just comment on the blog/social media – email means I can keep everything together, and gives better chance of a reply one day from me actually reaching you, rather than disappearing into spam).

If you’ve asked to be on the waiting list in the past, no need to get in touch again – you’ll still be there. Well you will as long as your adoption is still current. I’m afraid that I always double-check someone is still an adopter before emailing them, and you’re scratched off the list if your adoption has lapsed. My list, my rules.

If I have no-one on the waiting list for a particular reindeer’s antler(s), then I will send a letter to all of their (UK based) adopters in one go – and it’s first come, first served. Miss out, and you go on the waiting list. This does mean sometime multiple people are all waiting for the same reindeer to shed his/her antlers – which we might never find from year to year anyway. I’m well aware some poor souls have been languishing on the waiting list for years… sorry.

If you aren’t an adopter of a reindeer and are reading this in despair, wondering whether there’s ever a chance of you getting anything, then all is not lost. Email me anyway, and I have a password-protected webpage with any available antlers on that I can give you details of, and on which you can sign up for occasional email alerts when new ones become available (if I get my arse in gear, this is still only two or three times a year, so don’t worry about me flooding your inbox. (Also, I hate Mailchimp – it’s totally user-unfriendly)). I have separate webpages for single antlers and for pairs, and usually have a much better range of single antlers, since finding both sides of a pair is rarer in the first place.

A small, single antler can be very beautiful – size doesn’t always matter 😉

Final info:

Yes, they do cost a lot. The biggest sets we ever get to sell are in the region of (at time of writing in 2024) £300. The single antler in the photo above was about £60. I guess other places with reindeer in the UK maybe also sell their antlers, but I’ve never actually heard of them doing so. I do my best to price antlers fairly though – every single one is utterly unique and in some way it is a snapshot of that reindeer at that particular point of their life. I’m sure I could push up the prices hugely and they would still sell eventually, but that isn’t the point. It’s a balancing act to try and get it right.

For adopters, if you perhaps can’t afford the antler(s) you been contacted about, it’s still worth going on the waiting list. I might have a glorious £200 set of beautiful antlers one year from your reindeer, and a single broken-off – much cheaper – half antler the next year. But hey, it’s still a piece of antler that your reindeer actually grew, and really it means just as much.

Conversely, you miss out on something small that you had your heart set on. But hey presto you might then be first in line for the potentially much more impressive effort from your reindeer next year. It’s all utterly unpredictable and there’s definitely an element of luck involved.

I can’t post abroad, sorry.

If you can collect your antler(s) rather than me having to package and post them, a) it’s cheaper and b) I love you.

Postage nightmare.

If you receive an ‘antler letter’ through the post – read it properly! I always do my best to describe the antler fully before you phone up to buy it – but have never forgotten the lovely couple who arrived to pick up a set of antlers from their adopted reindeer years ago. The bloke was a bit worried about fitting them in the car. The antlers were about 30cm tall.

Antlers come in all sizes but all shapes too. Forget that classic set of ‘perfect’ shapely reindeer antlers you’ve got in your mind’s eye – they probably aren’t going to look like that… If I’m emailing you directly I’ll attach a photo, and if I’ve sent you a letter, you can ask to see a photo before you decide.

Tall and thin…
…or short and wide?

As mentioned before, we keep some of the biggest bull antlers. Herders also usually have first dibs on their favourite reindeer’s antlers (I’ll add that (depending on the size of antler) we do usually still have to pay for them!), so there are certain reindeer in the herd whose antlers will come up for sale very rarely, if ever. Huge apologies, if you also adopt one of those reindeer… let’s mention no names.

I do also try to be fair to people – if I know you already have multiple antlers from a certain reindeer but are keen for more, I will usually try and give their other adopters a look in at some point.

And if you adopt Juniper, well don’t give up hope. Ferrari was also a ‘polled’ reindeer (one who doesn’t grow antlers at all) and suddenly sprouted one when she reached 9 years old, so all is not lost. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.

Ferrari in her latter years. Just one antler! But what a nice antler, after 8 years of baldness.

And finally, I’m only human so bear with me as the old brain doesn’t get everything right every time. Apologies again to the lovely lady who I posted the entirely wrong set of antlers to a couple of years ago, and then had to go through a whole rigmarole of getting her to post them on to the correct new owner (Editor’s note: we did get permission to pass on the address first!), whilst I sorted out the right set for her. And years ago I died a little bit inside when I realised we’d sold the same antler to two separate people, and I was going to have to make a very awkward phone-call (although in my defence, it wasn’t actually me that forgot to mark that antler as ‘sold’ on the list). Oh, the horror.

Hen

A Brand New Reindeer Centre!

On 4th August 1989 Alan and I took over the ownership and management of the Cairngorm Reindeer. We had both been working for the family who owned the herd for a number of years and when Mr Utsi and then Dr Lindgren passed away the opportunity arose for us to buy the herd.

Back when Alan and Tilly took over the Reindeer Centre in the late 80s (and Alan had more hair!)

To this day the 4th August is etched on my brain. Our children were 3 and 4 years old and we had never had our own business, Alan had been employed by Dr Lindgren and I was initially a volunteer. But we had lots of ideas and we had a beautiful herd of reindeer.

The requisite Smith family photo – Tilly and Alan with Alex and Fiona, and obligatory reindeer.

We immediately converted part of Reindeer House into the ‘Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’, with reception, shop and office at one end leaving the rest of the house for living in with our young family and friends, many of whom who were volunteer reindeer herders. The reindeer paddocks beside the house became a display area for visitors to see a small group of reindeer, along with the 11am Hill Trips to the herd on the mountains.

The shop and reception area, in what was once the living room of Reindeer House.

Nearly 35 years later and the status quo continues. The only difference is that we’ve all got older; Alan and I moved out to our new ventures at Glenlivet (although still closely involved with the reindeer) and our daughter Fiona is living at Reindeer House with many of the other herders (they’re paid now though!). We attract more visitors and there are extra daily visits onto the hill to the herd.

The Paddocks in recent years.

The set-up has worked really well and the homespun infrastructure and hard working herders, along with a unique herd of free ranging reindeer, has been a great story. I have written three books around the life of reindeer and our journey with them and the herd is still looked after by us along with a band of enthusiastic, caring and clever people. Our herders today have brought with them tremendous life skills which have hugely progressed the way the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is run from day to day. But most importantly the welfare and care of the reindeer is still at the heart of everything we all do on a daily basis.

Looking after the herd. Photo: Alex Smith
Tilly with Scrabble. Reindeer are the heart of the business, and always will be, regardless of the changes around them. Photo: John Paul

In the summer of 2021 we received an incredibly generous donation from a long term reindeer adopter who asked that the monies they donated be put towards upgrading the current facilities at Reindeer House, which would involve returning the house to a domestic property and constructing a stand alone building for our reindeer shop, exhibition and office.

Exhibition displays. They’ve improved a lot over the years, but the building housing them was definitely getting shabbier and shabbier!

The following January we engaged with an architect and since then we have been going through the process of agreeing plans and applying for planning permission and the building warrant. With all the statutory requirements in place we began work last September, building a 16 bay car-park close to the Paddocks. The car-park is now nearly finished (but not available for parking in yet) and work is due to start on the new building in early February, which will be situated in our existing Paddock area.

The artist’s impression of the shiny new building!The existing Reindeer House building can be seen at the left hand side here, with the entrance to the new car-park on the right hand side.

As normal we closed for a few weeks on 8th January 2024 and immediately our son Alex, with help from herders, began to demolish the wooden structures in the Paddocks to make space for the new construction. There is a tinge of sadness seeing the old buildings (that we built ourselves) coming down but I suspect the improvements are long overdue and we are imagining a really special place for visitors to come to learn about our wonderful herd of reindeer alongside new displays, children’s activities and of course reindeer. Most importantly the new Centre will be access to all abilities.

We closed to the public on Monday 8th January. By Friday the 12th the Paddocks looked like this!

So exciting (and expensive!) times ahead. Unfortunately a bit disruptive too as the Paddocks will not be available for viewing reindeer while the building is constructed. However once we re-open to the public on 10th February we will otherwise still operate as normal with reception, shop and office where they have always been and the daily Hill Trips to the herd will continue as usual.

Hill Trips will continue as normal – tickets available on our website (from 30 days in advance)!

To check out what is available and how you can still come and visit do keep an eye on our website for updates and once construction gets underway we will have a better idea of how things are progressing, and more of an idea of the duration of the work.

Tilly

Old lady Okapi

I’m lacking in inspiration, motivation and time to think of a new and so-far unused blog topic, so this week I’m going for the old tried-and-tested method – pick a reindeer and write about him/her.

This week’s subject is Okapi. I’ve known Okapi her entire life, and at 15 and a half years old, it’s a long life indeed. Whilst not right up there in my very, very top favourite reindeer, she’s always been in the upper echelons of the reindeer herd, and I reckon most other herders would agree – collectively amongst us, she’s held in extremely high affection.

Okapi was born in 2008, her mum Esme’s third calf. Esme was a lovely reindeer, and was actually the subject of our very first blog, back in 2015! I first met Okapi at a few months old, at which point she was easily distinguishable from the other 2008 calves by the silver hairs on her face, giving her the appearance of wearing war-paint.

Those silver hairs eventually spread across the rest of Okapi’s body, and although she is still want we would call ‘normal-coloured’, she’s a much greyer colour than many of the other reindeer in the same colour category. Coat colour runs in family lines – Esme was on the silvery side too, as were many other members of the family, most notably Okapi’s big brother Elvis. Elvis became a legendary reindeer in our herd, living to 17 and only passing away a few months ago.

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

Okapi has always been a ‘leader’ in the herd, a relatively dominant female and generally one of the first to start moving in the right direction when we call the herd from a distance, leading them towards us. Reindeer like this are worth their weight in gold to us as a lot of the winter season is spent bellowing towards specks on a distant hill, and wondering whether they are going to come to us or we are going to have to go to them… It needs a dominant reindeer to sigh, stand up and start moving to get the rest of the herd underway too.

As a youngster, out free-ranging up on the mountains.

We usually like to breed from our loveliest female reindeer multiple times, but Okapi had a bit of a hitch in this respect. She had two lovely calves, in 2012 and 2013, Murray and Oka. Murray had the best set of antlers that we’ve seen on a calf in our herd, and we were very excited for what he would grow into in the future. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he passed away at about a year old. Win some and lose some with animals, but this felt like a particularly hard loss.

Okapi with 8 month old Murray – look at those calf antlers!

Okapi’s second calf, Oka, was also lovely, but again didn’t survive long term – dying at about 2 years old. A huge shame, as a female she should have gone on to continue Okapi’s genetic line, but hey ho. Again these things happen, but it feels unfair for Okapi to have lost both her calves.

Oka

And that was that for Okapi’s motherhood career, as a few months after Oka’s birth she suffered a prolapse. This came completely out of the blue and we never knew what – if anything – triggered it, but the end result was that everything had to be pushed back into place more than once, and eventually permanent stitches were inserted by the vet to keep poor old Okapi’s bits where they should be. This meant no more calves for her – a real shame for a lovely 5 year old female in her prime.

Okapi’s classic pose – she’s a reindeer who almost always has her ears pricked. This is how I will remember her when she’s no longer with us.

But life as a permanently ‘single lady’ has meant Okapi has since been a lady of leisure, all her energy going into her own body each year, and quite possibly has contributed to her longevity. Almost every year she’s grown pretty big antlers, and it’s only really in the last couple of years she’s started to look ‘old’.

Never having calves at foot means that Okapi also spends a higher ratio of her time free-ranging out on the mountains, as there’s never really a reason for her to spend any length of time in our hill enclosure. She will come in now and then for a few days as all our reindeer need vaccinating a couple of times of year, or sometimes we’ll hold particularly friendly reindeer back in the enclosure so they can be part of a the group for filming, for example. But on average, I’d say Okapi spends 11.5 months a year out living a completely free lifestyle – pretty nice!

A life of luxury!

And finally, Okapi had one particular starring role – on the cover of our Naked Reindeer Herders charity calendar in 2023. But I don’t think too many people were looking at the reindeer, if I’m honest…

Okapi on the right,with Ochil, Ruth, Fiona, Marple and Lotti, left to right. What a line up!

Hen

How Isla became a reindeer herder…

The lovely Isla with one of her favourite reindeer – Busby!

The first time I met the reindeer here at Cairngorm, I was just four years old and a bridesmaid at my mum’s wedding. Mum, being as extravagant as she is, decided she wanted the reindeer to pull the sleigh for us from the service to the party venue. Once we were on the sleigh I was quickly alarmed about the health and safety, as there were no seatbelts on board. Four-year-old me obviously thinking the reindeer would be flying us there! As we were just setting off, I whispered to my cousin “hold on tight, we are about to take off” but was quickly relived and slightly disappointed when I realised the reindeer would just be walking us there.

Four year old Isla – closest to the camera holding on tightly to her cousin. The reindeer is Wallace.
The sleigh firmly attached to the ground, phew!
The happy couple off to the party.

After the wedding it then became a tradition to come and visit the reindeer before Christmas. Even adopting Elvis as a two-year-old boy and always loving getting my certificate through the post before Christmas. Elvis lived to be one of the oldest males in the herd, before sadly passing away this August at the impressive age of 17!

Elvis as a two year old bull in 2008 – the year Isla adopted him.

During the spring this year, just as I was leaving school. I went round to visit my ‘Fairy God Mother’ Sheena, one of the herders here at the Reindeer Center. After explaining to her that I wasn’t sure what to do after school and fancied a change she suggested I got in touch to see if I could work the summer here with the reindeer.

So, after a few back and forth emails (me not being the best at replying during my exams), we eventually arranged a trial day for me to come and meet some of the herders and the reindeer of course. I was pretty nervous but was instantly put at ease when greeted by Ruth and Lisette with big smiles on their faces. I was thrown right in at the deep end as my first task was going up the hill to help give one of the reindeer an injection as she had a sore foot. I quickly realised that having dogs and occasionally helping my granny muck out her horse maybe didn’t quite qualify as having experience working with animals! But I like to think I’m a quick learner. And was super eager to get stuck as I loved the idea of walking up the hills everyday to look after the herd.

Not a bad office!

After a successful trial day, I was then offered to come work the summer here at the Centre which I was super excited for! I started at the end of May, and the weather was amazing! Blue skies everyday for about a month, eventually this bubble did bust. And I then had the proper Scottish herder experience. But even in the rain I still couldn’t believe that it was my job to walk up hills and find reindeer. I even didn’t mind taking a reindeer’s temperature (let’s just say it doesn’t go in their mouths) if it meant I could spend the morning up the hill with the herd! Over the summer I learnt so many new skills and everyone was so patient with me helping me to learn about these beautiful animals.

When Isla first started it was weeks of sunshine and moulting reindeer.
It’s a tough job getting to know all the calves when they come back into the enclosure in the autumn, like wee Shannon here.
Isla this time not sitting on the sleigh but working alongside Druid and Haricot at the back of it this autumn.
Breeding bull Kernel this autumn,
Reindeer during the first decent snow of 2023.

When chatting in the office I let it slip about the reindeer being at mum’s wedding, Our resident Blog Queen Ruth was insistent that it would make the perfect Christmassy blog!

We also realised that Hen, another one of the herders here, was at the wedding as well leading the sleigh! Which is hilarious, looking back on the wedding photos we actually found one of her at the front of the sleigh! (Note from Hen: also a way to make her feel really, really old…)

The back of Hen’s head at the wedding!

I have had the best 7 months here at the Centre and have loved getting to know all the reindeer and the herders of course! I’m off for a new adventure in the New Year but I’m sure I’ll be back soon!! If they’ll have me 😉

Druid thinks Isla should definitely return!
Isla chilling out with Cicero.

Isla

A Family Affair

I thought I’d write a bit about the family trees of our herd for this week’s blog, since they work a little differently from a ‘standard’ human family tree. Those of you who have been adopting an individual reindeer within our herd for a while will probably have received a family tree at some point, as we send them out with adoption packs in even years of sponsorship (2nd, 4th, 6th etc) normally. I say ‘will probably have received’ however, as the Swedish born reindeer in our herd obviously don’t have them, and if you’ve only ever adopted the herd as a whole then you’ll not have seen one before.

We record the lineage of the reindeer born here in the herd, stretching back to the original ones imported from Sweden in the 50s, through the maternal line only (on the trees at least – of course we record the father of each calf on our database to keep track of their genetics). More dimensions than a sheet of A4 can offer would be required for anything more than the maternal line in this form however. Let’s look at a sample of a tree (apologies, you’ll probably have to zoom in to see it properly):

(no, I didn’t mean to scan in a leaf as well as the tree…)

This tree (above) is the one currently in use for the living descendants of female reindeer Russia (highlighted in red), born in 2005. As an example, you would receive this particular tree if you adopt Morse – you can see that he is the second of four calves for his mum Torch, herself the first of three offspring for Pavlova. Pavlova’s mum was Russia, Russia’s mum was Cherry, and so on. This goes right the way back to Vilda at the top, one of the reindeer brought over to Scotland in the 3rd consignment to join the growing herd, back in 1954. This particular family tree currently stands at 10 generations in the maternal line. In reality it’s actually more than that, as Morse himself is a breeding bull with multiple offspring, but let’s just stick to the maternal line and not confuse matters!

Vilda in 1955, aged 2 years old. The ancestor of many, many members of our herd!

But again A4 paper has it’s limitations, and as Russia’s mum Cherry (highlighted green on the tree above) was such a productive breeding female then this tree has had to be split into multiple ones once all her calves started calving themselves and we ran out of space. So Cherry’s descendants are now on three separate trees, the top halves of which are all identical until Cherry and her nine calves, but then different below. So Cherry’s daughter Cello (highlighted red below) went on to lots of descendants mainly via her daughter Fonn, who are on this tree:

…whilst another daughter, Tjakko (highlighted red below), was also very productive, as seen on this version of the tree:

This explains why sometimes we chat away about a relative of your reindeer in your adoption letter – who doesn’t seem to exist on the tree you’ve also received in your pack. We haven’t made them up – they’re just on an adjacent branch of their tree that you don’t have!

At times we get a family line that effectively runs out of breeding females – a so-called ‘dead line’. Not the nicest of names perhaps, but it is what is says on the tin… Tjakko’s tree, above, is an example of this – the only living female still remaining on it is Ibex, now too old to breed, so this tree will never change. As a result in this situation we stop sending the trees out to adopters once they’ve received it in it’s final state, as there’s no point receiving it again and again with no additions. Ibex does actually have descendants but they are on yet another permutation of this tree, showing her offspring and those of Bumble.

Within the animal world, there is quite a ‘flexible’, shall we say, approach to age and generations, in comparison to humans at least. We tend to breed our female reindeer up to the age of around 12 or 13, but usually only with a bull aged 3-5. This is because we castrate our male reindeer at this age, but females are never castrated as there’s no need for us to do so. Reindeer calve first (usually) at age 3, so a 3 year old bull could be three generations younger than some of his ladies, if he has a 12 year old cow in his harem. Questionable, in the human world anyway, but no reindeer eyebrows are raised. 

5 year old bull Sherlock during this year’s rut, with his older ladies (left to right) Feta (10), Jenga (12) and Torch (11).

The shortest family tree I can find is that of Okapi, consisting of only 8 generations in total including Vilda back in 1954. But again this is a family that has calved itself into a breeding cul-de-sac, as it were, with no new additions since 2013. In contrast, the most generations in a tree is 13, with two year old Sombrero and yearling Solero the most recent of the generations.

Okapi’s family tree (she has outlived both of her calves).

I thought that as a final part to this blog – and a way of getting some photos of actual reindeer into it – here’s some photo evidence of the 8 generations of Okapi’s tree. Vilda we’ve seen already, and I can’t actually find a photo of Sarah. We will no doubt have one in the albums, but we’ve only digitised up to the early 60s so far so I don’t have one to hand… But then comes Eidart, who was apparently the first reindeer that herd owner Tilly ever met, when she arrived here in 1981:

Eidart, with one of her calves

Eidart’s final calf was Trout, who held the joint record for oldest ever member of the herd (aged 18) for many years, until 19 year old Lilac stole her crown.

Trout in her latter years

Trout was an extremely productive female, with 11 calves to her name, the final one being Amber:

Amber

…whose first calf was Esme….

Esme

…the mother of Okapi.

Okapi

And finally – the end of the line – came Oka. Sadly she died before producing any offspring herself, effectively bringing this line of reindeer to an abrupt end.

Oka

So there you have it, a bit of info about our family trees. So should you get one in your next adoption pack, you can think about all those reindeer who came before your lovely adoptee.

Hen

Photo Blog: A Typical Sleigh Training Session

Our adult ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrated males) are trained to harness at around 3 or 4 years old, so they can take part in a few events and parades in November and December each year, bringing in part of the income that then supports the herd for the rest of the year. About 25 of our males are trained so this enables them to take their turn at events, most of which are at weekends, and no-one is overworked at Christmas time (except, perhaps, us…)! Between weekends all the reindeer are back on the mountainside getting some good grazing and some downtime.

What happens during a training session? This photo blog will hopefully give you a taster of what we get up to during afternoons in October and early November here in Glenmore in preparation for Christmas tour.

These photos have all been collated over the past few days over several training sessions involving different reindeer and reindeer herders.

Step 1: Ready the sleigh! Here Lisette and Sheena are unloading the sleigh and trace. We also get the harness all laid out, ready to put straight on.
Step 2 (a): Retrieve your reindeer! We bring down reindeer from the hill enclosure and they spend a short spell in the Paddocks whilst we undertake sleigh training. At least two of the adults will be highly experienced sleigh-pullers who show the new recruits how it’s done. Here is a Christmas team (four adults and two calves) chilling in the Paddocks just before a training session.
Step 2 (b): Catching the slightly shyer reindeer in order to put halters on often involves a bucket of lichen! Thankfully their greed usually wins them over very quickly.
Step 3: Reindeer are caught, herders are attached to their ropes and off we go… Athens is the owner of the very wide antlers closest to the camera.
Step 4: Take them for a wee walk and jog to get rid of any extra energy they may have before putting their harness on.
Step 5 (a): Harness gets put on outside the shop. The “trainer” is the most experienced reindeer who stands next to the less experienced reindeer. In this photo 8-year-old Scolty is teaching 4-year-old Athens that all is calm and there’s nothing to worry about whilst Hen puts on their harness.
Step 5 (b): With Scolty’s harness on, it’s now Athens’s turn.
Step 5 (c): Reindeer like to be together in herds so whilst Scolty and Athens are getting their harness on the other boys and calves are right behind, patiently waiting for their turn.
Step 5 (d): After getting used to wearing a halter and going for wee walks around Glenmore, we can put harness on the calves too. Having their heads in a bucket of tasty lichen definitely helps the process! This is 6-month-old Yangtze having harness on for the very first time – completely unfazed!
Step 6: Once all reindeer are wearing their harness we go for another short walk to give the reindeer the opportunity to get used to their bells and how everything feels. Alba is the calf at the back wearing her harness for the second time.
Step 7: Attach the two sleigh-pulling reindeer to the ‘trace’. Here Frost is closest to the camera. The trace then gets attached to the sleigh.
Step 8: The four ‘back reindeer’ now get tied to the sleigh. Here Sheena is at the back with Morse and Jelly (both of whom have cast their antlers already). The calves are sandwiched between the big boys to make them feel safe.
Step 9 (a): All attached and ready to go! But Clouseau is asleep already!
Step 9 (b): Off we go! Here we have Clouseau pulling closest to camera, and Frost at the back.
Step 9 (b): The view from behind – lots of lovely bottoms! Along with the two herders who walk at the front and back of the sleigh, one person walks ahead and one person walks behind in hi-vis slowing down any traffic.
Step 10: Having a pause. Practicing patience is equally as important as practicing walking. Here Lupin is closest to the camera and is doing a super job for his 4th ever go at pulling the sleigh.
Step 11: Add weight to the sleigh! If we have a fifth person helping us out, we sometimes get them to sit in the sleigh to make sure the front reindeer are actually pulling. On a real event they will have Father Christmas in the sleigh who can weigh quite a lot!
Step 12: All done for Lupin and Clouseau – time to get unattached from the trace. At this point, we usually switch the back boys to the front so all four adults can have a go at being the sleigh pullers.
Step 13: Once all the reindeer have had their go and we’re back at the Centre then the harness can come off, and the boys do their “Christmas shake”!
Step 14: Back to the Paddocks they go! Well done boys and herders! The adults usually have around three or four goes of this over several days and then head back to the hills. Such wonderful animals to work with!

Ruth

Reindeer in France? Avez-vous des rennes?

Ubaye in his prime, Oct 2001

This summer I picked up a few days of reindeer herding to cover the absences of holidaying herders (how dare they take time off?!). It was surprisingly easy to slide back into many of the day-to-day generic herding tasks. Opening the Paddocks, doing Hill Trips, chatting to visitors, doing the shop, it all seemed like yesterday when I last did it.

Especially doing tours and answering questions came back to me faster than I’d expected. I seem to have a mental encyclopedia of knowledge stored somewhere in the back of my mind and it just takes a good question for a switch to be flicked for the words to start tumbling out. My mouth starts answering the question before the brain has even processed it, it seems. One of the things I heard myself say was that there used to be reindeer even in France. I know this to be true, but it surprised me that I’d never really researched this fact a bit more. So why not make Ruth happy and do it in a blog?

Reindeer in France during the last Ice Age

The last ice age came to an end about 10,000 years ago. It was around this time that the last ‘land bridge’ between Britain and the European mainland turned into initially salt marsh, and eventually sea.  Archeologists have found evidence of animals that lived in Europe in these times. Amongst other species there were bison, arctic foxes and reindeer.

These reindeer were wild reindeer and there’s a well-known historical place in France where hunter-gatherers would use fires to drive reindeer and wild horses into corrals in a narrow valley to make it easier to kill them in great numbers. The meat resulting from this would be dried to sustain the people throughout the year.

So yes, there were reindeer as far South as France, but this was in the time there were other (sub)arctic animals too, as might be expected during an ice age. That might make you wonder if it would make sense to reintroduce reindeer in France too. Well, there’s a story…

Reindeer in France in the 20th Century

Josephine jumping a burn, March 2003

There was someone who tried this, a few decades ago now. Pierre Marc loved reindeer so much that he bought reindeer from Northern Scandinavia to start ‘La Vallee de Renne’ in the Jura mountains. He had a summer pasture and a winter pasture, with plenty of Alpine grassland for the reindeer to graze on. It’s not exactly a subarctic climate so the temperatures were a bit higher, and he had to supplement their diet with pellets a bit more than we do with our reindeer. He brought visitors up to see them on snow scooters. Unfortunately for Pierre, the area became a national park whilst he was there and snow scooters were banned, which meant the end of his business. He decided to send the remaining 38-strong herd to none other than the Cairngorm reindeer herd in Scotland! In April 1995 all 38 reindeer (some of the cows pregnant) came across. They settled in brilliantly and the new bloodlines were welcomed with open arms. French bulls were crossed with Scottish cows and French cows with Scottish bulls. One of the bulls, Ubaye even went on to father one of our most legendary reindeer ever, Lilac, who till this day is still the oldest reindeer the herd has ever seen. Some genes 😊. 

Neige & (supposedly) her daughter, Amber, August 2002

One of the last traces I could find in our computers was a 2004 herd’s list, with the oldest Scottish ones on it born in 1990 (that’s older than me!). On this list are 4 French reindeer: Neige (which means ‘snow’), Ubaye (after a valley in the French Alps), Josephine and Sophie. I’d love to say the reindeer came over from France with these names but in the rush of things, the Scottish herders never learned the French names, so they came up with their own. It’s lovely that we have a wee bit of a legacy of the history of French reindeer still running through the veins of our current herd.  

Sophie, September 2002

Manouk

Sources:

BBC – History : British History Timeline

How Early Humans Survived the Ice Age | HISTORY

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