With lockdown measures having eased gradually to some extent, first in England and now in Scotland, various people I know have headed to the hairdressers to get their hair cut for the first time in a few months. One or two friends and family were looking forward to this day for a while!
Well for reindeer outrageous hair-do’s is an annual affair! Reindeer have an amazing thick winter coat. As an arctic animal reindeer needs to be really well insulated and their winter coat is just that. Quoting from my last book ‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ I describe their coat as follows:
“The two-layered coat of reindeer is incredibly dense: 670 hairs per sq cm for the longer hollow hair and 2,000 hairs per sq cm for the woolly undercoat”
I am not a mathematician, but I below I have roughly calculated the number of hairs on an individual reindeer. Firstly in my recent blog about social distancing I measured the length of Beastie, as an averagely sized male reindeer, to be roughly 1.8 metres.
An average reindeer is probably about 1 metre tall and their average width is probably 40cm. So the surface area of a fully grown reindeer (ignoring their legs and head) is probably about 720,000 sq cm.
If you multiple 720,000 by 2,670 (hairs per sq cm) the total number of hairs on the body of a reindeer in winter coat is a staggering 1,922,400,000. I may of course have got my maths wrong, but either way that is a serious number of hairs that a reindeer has to moult (and grow) each year!!
So unsurprisingly it takes a long time ( a good few weeks ) for a reindeer to lose its winter coat and they look incredibly shabby when this happens. Hence the series of photos to follow!!
But once they have lost that winter coat they look amazingly sleek and dark with the short summer coats and long velvet antlers, just that stage they are at now. So this year most of the shabby moulting stage has been during the latter weeks of lockdown and with the Centre now open the visitors (pre-booking essential) the reindeer are looking particularly glamorous!
So there’s no excuse. Pick up the phone and ring the Reindeer Centre to book a trip on the hill to see our glamorous reindeer in their natural environment!
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.
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…
At the beginning of February I took a trip to Iceland in winter conditions and learned about the fascinating history of reindeer on this island country in the North Atlantic. Although I did not spot any reindeer, the history of the animals their interesting story is worth sharing nonetheless.
Similarly to the reindeer here in the Cairngorms, reindeer in Iceland were introduced from another part of the world. However, unlike Scotland reindeer in Iceland were never native to the country at all. All land mammals in Iceland aside from the arctic fox were introduced to the country over the course of its natural history. Reindeer are the largest amongst all of them. In the late 1700s reindeer from Norway were brought to Iceland because the king believed that the reindeer would be a perfect match to the cold, harsh conditions. Being that farming was the most common trade in Iceland, it was assumed that all of the farmers would then take up reindeer herding.
The reindeer were brought to four different regions in Iceland: the South, Southwest, North, and East. And right from the start this venture was a complete failure. Within the first few years the majority of reindeer in Iceland had died off. The harsh volcanic landscape proved difficult to maintain the food resources necessary for the animals to survive. To this day, the only surviving group is in East Iceland where the habitat is more suitable to the needs of the reindeer and food resources are abundant.
Those reindeer continued to thrive though and herding them never took off at all leaving an estimated 6-7000 wild reindeer roaming about the Eastern Fjords. The Ministry of Agriculture found that ‘reindeer farming’ would not be viable given the amount of resources compared to the large population of wild reindeer. Ultimately the decision was made to not begin any sort of commercial reindeer farming.
Just like in Scotland, the reindeer in Iceland do not have any natural predators to control their population. So each year the government issues 1200-1300 permits to hunt reindeer as a means to prevent overpopulation which would collapse an already fragile ecosystem. Where as here in the Cairngorms, the numbers of reindeer are much smaller which allow us to control the population through selective breeding each Autumn. As a result of this, when the snow begins to melt in the spring we are looking forward to another wonderful calving season, just around the corner.
One day last summer I was leading Okapi and Ryvita from the Cas flats to the reindeer enclosure. I was just about to cross the burn that is crossed by Utsi bridge further down the hill when with one misplaced step I found myself thigh deep in bog. What followed consisted of much giggling (from both me and the reindeer), a serious struggle to get my leg out and a very wet arm having had to reach down into the bog to retrieve my welly. As a squelched my way to the reindeer enclosure I started thinking about the different plants that grow in a bog, especially the indicator plants that could have helped me avoid my rather soggy fate.
Sphagnum moss is probably the most important plant to look out for. Also known as peat mosses, this group of plants can retain an incredible amount of water (up to 26 times their dry weight). It is so absorbent that it was even used by native North American babies in nappies. This means that standing on this bright green moss (notice it behind me in my bog selfie) will almost always leave you in a similar predicament as I was in. Sphagnum mosses have two types of cells that make up the plant; small living cells and large dead cells. It is the dead cells which have a large water holding capacity. (Disclaimer: if you have no interest in biochemistry then please skip the next sentence or two) Sphagnum mosses are very good at out competing the surrounding plants by carrying out a process called cation exchange, in which nutrients such as potassium and magnesium are taken up and hydrogen ions are released. The increase in concentration of hydrogen ions in the surrounding environment is responsible for making it more acidic and stopping other species from growing there. The acidic conditions along with the layering of the sphagnum produces the peat that we see on the mountains.
Bog cotton is a good indicator of a boggy area as its seed head stick up above the ground and warn you of the wet area beneath. Its white cotton-like seed heads can often be seen bobbing in the wind. Unlike regular cotton, bog cotton cannot be weaved into fabric, however in northern Europe it has been used to produce paper, pillows, candle wicks and wound dressings.
For those of you who have been on the hill trip, you may have seen the yellow spiky flowers of the bog asphodel plant. The Latin name for bog asphodel means ‘bone-breaker’ due to the belief that when sheep eat it then develop brittle bones. However it is more likely that it is correlation rather than causation as sheep eating a low calcium diet are prone to bone weakness and bog asphodel grows in calcium deficient soil. Our reindeer however have no problem getting calcium, as displayed by the wonderful antlers that they grow each year.
Sundew and butterwort
The most vicious of all the plants I have described are these two carnivorous plants. They both survive the harsh environment that they live in by catching insects to eat. Sundew catches insects by sensing their movement and elongating the cells on one edge of the leaf and retracting the cells on the other surface of the leaf causing the leaf to curl around the unsuspecting fly. Butterwort uses a different hunting method, the insects stick to its sticky glandular leaves and are then digested by the plant. If you ask me, the plants up on the hill are not working nearly hard enough to catch the midges this summer.
On our kids quiz in the Paddocks is the question ‘Name a sub-species of reindeer’, and I notice it’s often the one that people get stuck at (despite the fact that the answers are there on the display boards). I’ve realised over the years however, that this is often down to a basis lack of understanding of a percentage of the population of the concept of species and sub-species, rather than anything else. So therefore, allow me to explain.
As a zoology student (all too many years ago, so bear with me if my science is rusty!), the classification of all organic species using a system of ‘taxonomic rank’ was drilled into us. The system still in use today was founded by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 16th Century and brought order and clarity to the then chaotic and disorganised way of naming and categorizing all types of life. No wonder I loved learning about taxonomy – lists and organisation? My kinda thing.
The Linnaean system breaks down all living things into 7 major kingdoms, animals being one and plants another, and then each kingdom is broken down further, into different phyla. Then phyla are broken down once more to the next level, which is class, and the system carries on through order; family, genus and finally species. So reindeer can be categorized as such:
Kingdom: Animalia (Common name: Animals)
Phylum: Chordata (Chordates – meaning ‘possessing a nerve cord’)
Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Order: Arteriodactyla (Even-toed hooved mammals)
Family: Cervidae (the Deer family)
The two part ‘binomial’ name Rangifer tarandus is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘Latin name’, and every species in the world has one. You will be familiar with ours as Homo sapiens, and like humans, reindeer are the only species within their genus, Rangifer. A regular question from visitors is ‘So….how are reindeer different from deer?’ Bizarrely, it can be quite hard explaining to people that reindeer are deer. My usual analogy is to get people to think about lions and tigers. Both obviously cats, so therefore members of the cat family (‘Felidae’), but at the same time both clearly different species from each other. So while reindeer are a member of the deer family, they are a different species from other types of deer. For example, moose, red deer and muntjac – all clearly distinguishable in looks from one another, but crucially also genetically different.
But then, as with most things, it all gets a little more complicated. Not content with 7 major divisions, scientists introduced sub-divisions in order to break down everything further. So now there are, among others, sub-classes, sub-families, sub-genera etc. Arghh! While Rangifer has no sub-genus, there are some subspecies to contend with, and this is the relevant info that we hope people will track down in our Paddocks. All seven subspecies of reindeer and caribou are all still Rangifer tarandus, so effectively all genetically the same animal, but a subspecies is shown by adding a third name after the binomial. Just to clarify too, reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. The differences are also geographical, in that reindeer are found in Europe and Asia, while caribou are found in North America and Greenland.
So back to our seven subspecies. We have:
Eurasian Tundra reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus): Open-ground dwelling subspecies, which the majority of all domesticated reindeer belong to, including ours.
Eurasian Forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus): Boreal forest dwelling subspecies, typically taller than tundra reindeer.
Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus): Smallest subspecies, endemic to the arctic archipelago of the Svalbard islands. Short legged!
Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus): Migratory subspecies of open ground. The most similar of the caribous to our tundra reindeer.
North American woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou): Largest caribou subspecies, often darker in colour. As the name suggests, they live in forests, and generally don’t migrate.
Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi): Smallest of the caribou subspecies.
Alaskan or Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti): Migratory subspecies most closely resembling the barren-ground caribou, and named after the Porcupine river, which runs through much of their range. The longest migrating land mammal on Earth.
There have been two other subspecies in the past but these have now died out – the East Greenland Caribou and the Queen Charlotte Island Caribou.
So there you go, a brief taxonomy lesson, and congratulations to anyone who has stuck with me, as well as apologies for some slight over-simplifications for any scientists amongst you. Hopefully you’ll have all learnt something though – I’m a big believer of sneaking in educational blogs among the pretty pictures and funny stories we often post! And if it’s all too much and you’d just prefer something a bit more light-hearted, head off and google pictures of Svalbard reindeer. You’ll not be disappointed.
Around mid March Fly, one of our mature female reindeer started to grow her antlers. March is pretty early but I suspect due to a warmer winter than we usually have and possibly the growth of vegetation starting earlier this has brought on an early antler growth in some reindeer. Fly has certainly grown some of the biggest antlers we have seen in female reindeer over the years, as well as producing some of our biggest calves so she’s certainly an asset to our herd and is now the grand age of 12… yet still looking amazing!
Here is a sequence of photos over 9 weeks showing how incredibly fast Fly’s antlers were growing.
So there you have it, a nine week antler growth process. It really is amazing how fast antler can grow and this is proof in the pudding. Thank you Fly for being such a great candidate.
This winter we have prolonged periods of cold snowy weather, as I write this the weather forecast predicts it’s not going to be above zero during the next two weeks! It’s pretty chilly for us herders even under our many layers, but for the reindeer it’s ideal (if a little mild!) and we have a big happy free-ranging herd.
On Hill Trips we often talk about how reindeer are adapted to Arctic and subarctic life by describing their thick winter coat, large hooves, beards, and their amazing clicking back feet. However, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and endearing adaptations of a reindeer is their beautifully soft velvet noses!
Out of the 40 odd species of deer in the world, reindeer (and Caribou) are the only deer which have hairy noses rather than shiny, moist ones. This prevents the build up of frost which would occur on a cold wet surface during exhalation; perhaps this is the reason why male polar explorers (and Scottish reindeer herders) often grow beards!
However, the most special part of a reindeer nose is actually on the inside. This blog will endeavour to delve under the cute furry exterior to hopefully show how truly remarkable a reindeer’s nose is…. as well as a good excuse to show lots of lovely fuzzy photos!
There is a complicated and highly specialised arrangement of cartilage, bone, fleshy bits, mucous membranes and blood vessels that make up their nasal passages. Together they form an extremely large surface area; the shape of which is often described as a ‘rolled scroll’ or sometimes a ‘seashell’. This specialised structure allows a reindeer’s nose to remain warm and retain moisture in freezing temperatures as well as allowing them to expel excess heat on warmer days.
A reindeer would soon be chilled if freezing air was to reach their lungs on every breath. To overcome this they have the fascinating ability to change the temperature of the air they inhale before it reaches the lungs, and vice versa. This is all thanks to their ingenious nasal structure, which works as a counter-current heat-exchange system.
For example, if the outside air temperature is -40⁰C, the temperature when the air reaches the reindeer’s lungs is about +38⁰C. In other words, they can change the temperature of the air an incredible 70-80⁰C in less than one second! Additionally, winter air tends to be cold and dry, especially for reindeer that live in higher latitudes. In order for the heated air not to be over dry when it reaches the lungs, a bit of moisture is released from the internal mucous membranes into the air when the reindeer inhales. Move over Rudolph with your shiny red nose, I think that is pretty magic!
On exhalation the opposite happens so a reindeer is able to cool its warm breath, in order to conserve as much body heat as possible. When breathing out they also conserve as much water vapour as possible; especially important when snow may be the only form of water they are able to get!
So when it’s cold in winter, us meagre humans can see our breath as we exhale. However, a reindeer standing at rest in sub-zero temperatures will have no visible breath steaming from their nostrils! That’s because air leaving a human nose is about 32⁰C and the water it contains condenses into visible water droplets as our warm breath meets the cold air. In a reindeer’s nose, warm air is cooled down by about 21⁰C before it is exhaled, saving the majority of the heat. The mucous membranes in the snout recover the moisture, enabling the water in the air to condense inside the nose which then trickles into special folds which direct it to the back of the nose and into the throat, meaning the reindeer exhales drier and partially cooled air.
Burns Suppers celebrate the life and work of the Scots poet Robert Burns. More commonly known as Burns Night the suppers take place on or around his birthday, 25th January and are effectively a second national day in Scotland. Here at Reindeer House we just love any excuse to get together and eat some fantastic food with some great company! For those of you that don’t know about the Burns Supper tradition here’s a brief overview of what we got up to last night at our Burns Supper, along with some tales of our reindeer named Burns, seeing as this is a reindeer blog after all!
Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, Ayshire and lived until he was 37. He is known and celebrated worldwide for his poetry much of which was written in the Scots language or Scots dialect. Whilst many of his poems were of the Romanticism style he lived through a period of political repression. His work often reflected or commented upon this and some considered him to be a radical and revolutionary which perhaps helped give him such a huge following during and after his lifetime.
The poem and song “Auld Lang Syne” is sung all over the world on Hogmanay and is one of Rabbie Burns’ most famous works. Other well known work by him includes “Scots Wha Hae”, a patriotic song which became an unofficial national anthem for Scotland. It was written in the form of a speech from Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 where Scotland defeated England in Battle. Romantic work included (My Love is Like) “A Red, Red Rose” whilst “Tam o’ Shanter” and “To a Mouse” reflect on his upbringing as a tenant farmer. For us though at Reindeer House his “My Heart’s in the Highlands” seems most appropriate!
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer; Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Farewell to the mountains, high-cover’d with snow, Farewell to the straths and green vallies below; Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods, Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods. My heart’s in the Highlands.
If you needed further persuasion of Robert Burns’ stature then did you know he won a contest run by STV to be called “The Greatest Scot” of all time in 2009? It is a rather impressive feat to have beaten Mel Gibson (William Wallace) to the title don’t you think? Perhaps he was aided by some of his extremely impressive nicknames that make him sound more like a cross between a rap artist and a boxer:
– The Bard of Ayrshire
– The Ploughman Poet
– Or just plain Rabbie Burns
Burns Suppers have been taking place for over two centuries with the evenings format barely changing over the years. There is usually a general welcome followed by the “Selkirk Grace”
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
Supper usually then begins with a soup dish such as Scotch broth or Cullen skink before everyone stands for the “Piping” of the haggis (this is exactly how it sounds). We stand whilst the haggis is brought into the room by the cook whilst a piper plays a tune such as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” written by Burns. Before you can eat the haggis though, you must first address it! “Address to a Haggis” is a poem written to a haggis with the opening line of Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face” (translated as Nice seeing your honest, chubby face). At last we can eat the haggis! Served with neeps (swede) and tatties (potatoes) our meal last night was delicious! The evening concludes with an often amusing “Toast to the Lassies” and a reply for the laddies before a vote of thanks is given and everyone stands to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.
As you can see we had a fantastic evening, but back to the reindeer!
As well as giving us an excuse for a party at the end of January, Rabbie Burns is of particular importance to us because we have a reindeer named after him! This year our calves were named after authors, writers and poets so we obviously had to name one Burns. He has turned out to be one of the biggest, strongest and healthiest calves of the year. He is extremely tame and bold and quickly became quite a cheeky chappy. We have him marked down, along with Dr Seuss, as being one of the biggest characters of the next few year but hopefully neither of them will misbehave too much in the following years as young bulls like Fergus did.
When he came in off the free range in late summer with his mother Gazelle he had broken one of his antlers and it was growing over his face making it difficult for him to feed. We called out the vet who cut away the antler from his face and after a short while with a bandage in the shed he recovered well to become the strong healthy calf that he is. We are interested to see next year whether his antler will grow back in a more “normal” direction and shape or whether the pedicle from which the antler grows has been damaged and Burns will perhaps always grow one antler in a funny shape and direction.
One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.
First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.
Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!
Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.
The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.
There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.
It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!