Reindeer in the Southern Hemisphere

This week’s blog focuses on the introduction of reindeer to obscure places around the world. I will pay particular attention to the introduction of reindeer in the lesser-known Kerguelen Islands.

Reindeer and Penguins co-existing on South Georgia Island (image from: https://assets.atlasobscura.com/article_images/62073/image.jpg)

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is a re-introduced herd. Reindeer were once native to Scotland, and before that they could also be found across England. In fact, cave paintings of reindeer have been found as far south as the Pyrenees in Northern Spain/Southern France. A leftover memory from when the planet was no doubt a lot colder. However, the native reindeer in Scotland were thought to have died out between 800 and 1100 years ago due to both over-hunting and climate change related habitat loss. The story of our current herd of 150 reindeer began in 1949 when a Swedish reindeer herder called Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, began their honeymoon in Aviemore. Mr Utsi gazed out at the Cairngorm mountains and saw the perfect conditions for reindeer but, alas, no reindeer. Mr Utsi would have seen cold and windy temperatures, a tundra landscape, and sub-arctic flora. This is because the Cairngorm mountains are the only place in the United Kingdom with sub-arctic conditions. Mr Utsi apparently spent days looking for the reindeer in the hills before dropping down to the local pub to ask the locals about their reindeer. It was here that he found out that there were no reindeer. His honeymoon doesn’t sound like your stereotypical relaxing and romantic honeymoon, at least they got some time in the pub, but his marriage withstood and together Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren made it their life’s work to reintroduce reindeer to Scotland. It started with 8 reindeer being shipped over from Sweden in 1952 and many subsequent initial imports. And the rest, as they say, is history. We now have a reintroduced herd with a variety of genetic diversity.

Mr Utsi and Sarek the reindeer on-board the coincidentally named S.S. Sarek. Circa 1955.

Other herds of reindeer have also been introduced to different countries around the world in the not so distant past. Some reindeer have been introduced into locations where there have never been reindeer previously. Iceland is a good example of a country where reindeer have been introduced successfully. Although, this introduction wasn’t without its problems. Predominantly located in the east of Iceland, Icelandic reindeer were once close to extinction having been introduced between the years of 1771-1787. Up until the year of 1940 their numbers had gradually dropped to approximately 100-200 but stocks have now risen to between 6000-7000. The reason for the fluctuations in population is probably due to natural circumstances such as insufficient grazing, range deterioration and volcanic eruptions. More information about reindeer in Iceland can be found in a previous blog post written by Bobby: https://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk/2020/04/17/the-curious-history-of-reindeer-in-iceland/.

Most reindeer and caribou around the world live in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere as these are the conditions that they’ve evolved to thrive in over the course of evolution. But reindeer are incredibly adaptable and resilient, and humans have attempted to introduce them to a variety of places, some even south of the equator. Reindeer were introduced to the South Georgia Islands (about 1000 miles east of Cape Horn, Argentina) by Norwegian whalers, where the reindeer lived alongside penguins for around 100 years. However, in 2010 the government decided to eradicate the reindeer as the number were increasing and putting too much pressure on the island’s native plants and wildlife. By 2017 all reindeer were eradicated from the island. Approximately 6,750 reindeer were culled in total. More information about reindeer in South Georgia can be found here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/reindeer-in-the-southern-hemisphere.

The South Georgia Islands (image from: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-ML303_southg_P_20160204101610.jpg)
The South Georgia Islands (image from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f6/88/76/f68876f58629710a940a1bf0a1c0d593.jpg)

The introduction of reindeer to the Kerguelen Islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, is a slightly happier story. The reindeer remain as residents today in these islands that are located over 2000 miles from their nearest neighbour, Madagascar. The Kerguelen Islands are a group of islands in the sub-Antarctic (southern Indian Ocean) made from igneous (volcanic) rock. They are part of a submerged microcontinent called the Kerguelen Subcontinent. Kerguelen’s climate is considered to be a tundra climate with cold temperatures and high wind speeds. The mountains are frequently covered in snow and the average annual temperature is 4.9 degrees Celsius. Lichens, grasses, and mosses grow plentifully as does the famous, indigenous Kerguelen cabbage which was popular with sailors in their bid to increase their vitamin C intake. The main indigenous animals are wingless insects, seabirds, seals, and penguins but there has been plenty of introduced animals such as cats, rabbits, sheep, and reindeer (interestingly, all cats on the island are black and white because the original 3 introduced cats were black and white).

The Kerguelen Islands from afar (image from: https://www.islandconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-invasive-species-Kerguelen-Islands-feat.jpg)

The French originally introduced Swedish reindeer to the islands in 1956. The Kerguelen Islands were used as one of the whaling stations, where whalers would bring their catch for processing. Reindeer were introduced to be shot for food, as well as being hunted for sport. However, when the whaling industry collapsed, the reindeer stayed and there is now an estimated 3000 – 5000 reindeer on the islands. The reindeer were originally introduced to Ile des Rennes (Reindeer Island), also called Ile Australia. However, the reindeer eventually swam across to the main island of La Grande Terre a short distance away.

Reindeer and Penguins co-existing on the Kerguelen Islands (image from: http://www.pelagicodyssey.ca/ao2/64.jpg)

The conditions in the Kerguelen Islands are very similar to the conditions found in parts of Scandinavia. However, it would be interesting to know how the reindeer adapted to the change in seasons as they moved from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. And, moreover, the effect that reindeer have had on the island’s vegetation. Researchers have previously believed that very high grazing pressure over time pushes the ecosystem in a positive direction, so that over time, the areas that are grazed become dominated by productive plants, such as nutrient-rich species of grasses. However, The Ecosystem Finnmark project believe that reindeer have a negative effect on grazing areas, even in the most productive summer pastures.

The Kerguelen Islands (image from: https://c1.staticflickr.com/8/7441/9383732243_19ecdd620b_b.jpg)

Ben

Stinky Boys

Roman with his cows

By the time you read this, the rut will be underway here at Cairngorm, with our chosen breeding bulls split with selected unrelated females, to make sure we know who the parents of each calf are. While the bulls tend to be fairly relaxed and laid back for most of the year, as September comes to an end and the cows come into season, they start to “rut”, strutting around, posturing and rounding up their females, and challenging any other bull they see. Reindeer bulls don’t “roar” like some deer species (including the iconic Scottish red deer stag), instead they grunt. But one of the most noticeable changes for me is their smell.

Kota in 2020, grunting to his cows

Now, I don’t claim to have a particularly good sense of smell, but in general reindeer are fairly unsmelly creatures. However, a rutting bull is a different matter, and already, as I write in mid-September, our boys are getting stinky. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell – very musky and, well, masculine I suppose. One of the main reasons they smell so strong is that they begin deliberately peeing on their hindlegs. This always seemed a bit odd until I did my research and realised that reindeer, like all deer, have scent glands on the inside of their hocks, the tarsal glands. This gland produces an oily secretion, and when the natural bacteria on this area combines with pheromones in the urine, that distinctive scent is produced. Apparently every reindeer has a unique, individual scent, due to their own winning combination of bacteria, though I definitely don’t have a sensitive enough nose to be able to tell!

Nutti, illustrating the position of the tarsal gland
Roman peeing on his legs to increase his allure

Why do they feel the urge to be so stinky?? Well, part of it must be as a statement of dominance – when I, as a mere human, can smell a bull from 100 metres away, the other reindeer must be able to smell them from… 800 metres?… a mile?? This must act as a deterrent to a weaker bull, and quite possibly as an attractant to a female in season – they definitely come looking for bulls when they’re ready.

Feeding the big bulls last year, just before the rut – they were already stinky!

We have a vague theory among us herders that the female herders notice the scent of the rutting bulls more than the male herders do. Quite what that means, I have no idea – perhaps the smell is designed more as an attractant to cows than a deterrent to bulls after all (not that any of us lassies have said that we actually like the smell!). Either that or the men amongst us are less sensitive when it comes to body odour!

Andi

Ever changing reindeer – a photo blog

Whilst sorting through the photos on my phone recently, I thought it might be fun to show how the reindeer change in appearance over the summer months so I put together this little blog. This could have turned in to the longest blog ever but I have tried to restrain myself picking just a handful of reindeer; Camembert, Dr Seuss, Kiruna, Sherlock, Gloriana’s calf, and Christie and her calf.

Camembert 1 – on the 21st of June (Summer Solstice) Lisette and I walked Camembert and some other cows out on to the free-range for the summer. Here she is growing her antlers, still to moult last year’s winter coat, and determined Lisette still has some food for her!
Camembert 2 – This was the next time I saw her, on the 14th of September after my lovely colleagues successfully brought her and a large group of cows back in to the hill enclosure. She’s clearly had a great summer free-ranging, she looks totally fantastic and is still fat as butter.
Dr Seuss 1 – it’s no secret that I have a wee soft spot for Dr Seuss so my phone is predominantly full of pictures of him! Here he is on the 20th May, he’s just beginning to moult his winter coat from around his eyes, and his lovely antlers and growing well.
Dr Seuss 2 – here’s the big boy again on the 5th of July looking almost ready for summer in his short coat, with a slightly pink nose!
Dr Seuss 3 – how smart does he look here?! This was the 8th of September. His winter coat is now beginning to grow through around his neck and he’s had a busy summer growing lovely big antlers, and a big tummy after hoovering up all that tasty hand-food!
Kiruna 1 – Here’s two year old Kiruna after hearing one of Ben’s jokes. This was on the 8th of July, his antlers are rapidly going and he’s moulted most of last year’s winter coat.
Kiruna 2 – Here’s Kiruna stripping the velvet on the 28th August. His paler winter coat is growing through quickly on his neck and flank.
Kiruna 3 – What a handsome lad! Here he is leading the herd in for breakfast on the 7th of September.
Sherlock 1 – Three year old bull Sherlock on the 11th of June, rapidly growing his antlers and just beginning to moult his winter coat from around his eyes and on his nose.
Sherlock 2 – 1st of August, looking smart in his short, dark summer coat. He’s grown enormous antlers for a three year old!
Sherlock 3 – 29th of August, just before his velvet started to strip.
Sherlock 4 – Just one day later, here he is midway through stripping his velvet on the 30th of August.
Sherlock 5 – Handsome boy on the 1st of September, with beautiful clean antlers.
Gloriana’s calf 1 – The palest calf of 2021, this picture was taken on the 20th May, just one day old. What a cutie!
Gloriana’s calf 2 – What a fantastic job Gloriana has done! This was taken on the 15th of September. After a summer spent free-ranging Gloriana and her daughter are now back in the hill enclosure. She’s already getting used to being around people on our Hill Trips and quickly learning big green bags = food!
Christie and calf 1 – Christie in the background with her thick winter coat, you can still make out her freckly nose. Photo taken on the 27th May when her calf was just over three weeks old (born 4th of May).
Christie’s calf 2 – I was delighted to catch up with Christie and her calf on the free-range on the 15th of August. Christie has done a fabulous job and has produced a nice big strong boy, well done Christie!
Christie 3 – Looking beautiful on the free-range with her huge calf on the 15th of August.
Christie 4 – Photo taken on the 15th of September midway through stripping the velvet from her large antlers. Not only has she produced a large calf this summer, she’s also grown big antlers herself and is in excellent condition. Go Christie! Her winter coat has grown in a lot over the last month.

Ruth

Through the Eyes of a Reindeer

A visitor recently asked me why reindeer have horizontal pupils. The question had me thinking about the importance of vision to reindeer. It is easy to forget that many animals don’t see the world the same way we do, and reindeer eyes are in many ways different from our own.

Reindeer live in arctic and sub arctic regions that experience hugely variable light levels. Above the arctic circle, they’ll experience 24 hour darkness in winter and 24 hour sun in summer, and no matter how dark it is, they still need to be able to find their food and see predators coming. So how do reindeer eyes cope with their environment?

Origami – Photo by Kate Brown

When you look at a reindeer, the most obvious thing about their eyes is that they are placed on the side of their heads. This is common in prey animals, and it gives them a wide field of vision that means they can see danger coming from almost any direction. The placement of their eyes does mean they have a blind spot right in front of their noses, but aside from this it’s very hard to sneak up on a reindeer!

Ladybird – Photo by Kate Brown

If you look a bit closer, the next thing you might notice – aside from their beautiful eyelashes – is that they have long,  horizontal pupils. This adaption helps focus a reindeer’s sense of sight at the ground level and the horizon – where their food and their predator’s are found. These horizontal pupils also help compensate for the placement of their eyes and reduce the size of that blind spot in front of a reindeer, so that they can see forwards – vital for finding an escape route when on the run from a predator.

Dr. Seuss – Photo by Kate Brown

If you looked deeper into a reindeer’s eyes, you would find even more amazing adaptions. In 2013 scientists discovered that reindeer eyes actually change colour with the seasons! A layer of tissue in the retina changes from a golden colour in summer to a deep blue in winter. This change means that less light is reflected back out of the eye, helping reindeer keep their vision sharp even in the long dark winter months. This is the first time this kind of colour change in a mammalian eye has been found. It is thought the colour change might be caused by increased pressure in the eye in winter. The pupil is permanently dilated in the dark, and this reduces the space in the collagen structure of the retina, which in turn changes the reflectiveness of the retina and shortens the wavelengths of light being reflected.

Two dissected reindeer eyes, the left taken from a reindeer that died in winter, the right from one that died in summer. Photo by Glen Jeffrey (The Independent).

Reindeer vision is made even more interesting by the fact that they can see into the UV range. There are high levels of UV light present in the polar regions of the world due to the reflections from snow and ice. Many lichens – the favoured winter food of reindeer – are very effective at absorbing UV. Wolf fur as well is also shown to absorb UV, so being able to see UV wavelengths helps reindeer pick out both their food and their predators in the snow (see here for a previous blog on UV vision).

Reindeer seem to view the world quite differently to us, and it’s clear their eyes have had to adapt to many challenges. They’ve had to adapt to pick out predators and hard to find food, to cope with extreme seasonal changes in light, and to deal with the large amount of UV present in the arctic. Their eyes are just another example of how well adapted reindeer are for their environments.

Kate

Sources:

Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes? | Science Advances (sciencemag.org)

Arctic reindeer extend their visual range into the ultraviolet | Journal of Experimental Biology | The Company of Biologists

Shifting mirrors: adaptive changes in retinal reflections to winter darkness in Arctic reindeer | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)

Review of The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky

Published in 2005.

An anthropological study of the roaming reindeer herders of northern Russia, this book is filled to the brim with interesting facts and fascinating stories. The author, Piers Vitebsky, was the first westerner to get the chance to visit and live alongside Siberian reindeer herders since the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and his book mainly follows the Eveny people, and the ways their lives are changed by the Soviet regime and its eventual demise.

A 1000-strong reindeer herd in Kamchatka, far east Russia, owned by the Eveny people – photo taken by Tilly on her “busman’s holiday” in September 2018

As much as this may all sound like very heavy reading, Vitebsky does a great job at making it interesting. Although I approached the book looking to learn, I was expecting a lot of stats, figures, and the like, but instead he does a great job at focusing on the human side of things – introducing you to all the key characters he met on his travels. This personal approach makes for a much more engaging read than I had initially expected, as you get more of a sense of the indigenous people passing on their stories to you through him.

Cow and calf with very distinct markings in Bistrinsky Natural Park, Kamchatka – photo taken by Tilly (September 2018)
Eveny reindeer herder with a herd of reindeer, Bistrinsky Natural Park, Kamchatka – photo taken by Tilly (September 2018)

As for the stories, there is an incredible range. From descriptions of the earliest tribes to domesticate reindeer – and how their religions often revolved around them – to the ins and outs of what it means to work with a herd of 2,500 reindeer, in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, this book has it all! I found it interesting that Vitebsky was able to effectively blend interrelated stories together- so you understood things both from a big picture perspective and how these bigger events have affected the friends he made within the herders group. This is the key in what makes the book an interesting read, rather than just a compilation of statistics. The personal trials and tribulations become much more relatable and understandable, even for us outsiders.

Towards the end of the book, he begins to question how the Eveny will adapt for the future. As many negatives as the Soviet Union brought, they also created a system that forced the Eveny to rely on their support, and now that support has been taken away. The expansion of oil pipelines and the ever-growing threat of global warming are also huge factors in the changing lifestyle of many indigenous people and finding the balance between preserving their ancient cultures and surviving and adapting to the modern world is a huge question too.

Wide variety of coat colours within the herd, Kamchatka – photo taken by Tilly (September 2018)

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested not just in reindeer, but in the culture that surrounds them. It’s not necessarily light reading, but you will learn a lot – without feeling like you’re reading a textbook!

Harry

Reach for the sky! How reindeer antlers grow so fast

They’re the most distinctive feature of the reindeer, and the most incredible. Branching elegantly like the trees which the tundra so sorely misses, and renewing themselves each year, antlers demonstrate nature’s complexity and mystery in one. At this time of year the reindeer’s quickly growing antlers constantly amaze visitors and captivate my own imagination. It occurred to me recently that the cells in growing antlers and the cells used in the Covid-19 vaccine are both the same type of rare cell: undifferentiated stem cells! It might be interesting to join the dots between this.

A line of hungry boys and growing antlers (August 2021)
Nell being inspired to write this blog, surrounded by lots of wonderful antlers (July 2021)

Greater Antlers, Greater Chances…

Large antlers lead to a (sexually selective) advantage in males, and even in females too as those that are better able to defend areas of food in the winter are more likely to produce healthy offspring. A physical advantage in a single characteristic, leading to it’s selection is a process called directional selection. This means that over time, reindeer populations evolve very (VERY) gradually to have larger antlers.

Swedish-born (and the very handsome) Kota, who was used as a breeding bull for several years (August 2017)
The lovely Fly, who tends to grow big antlers for a female (September 2019)

However, large antlers come at a cost, requiring huge amounts of energy to grow in such a short space of time. Reindeer eat lichen, which is fairly low in nutrition and has a long digestive process, as well as other low lying plants, mosses and mushrooms found across sub-arctic areas. As even eating a lot of food won’t make up the energy, the animals shift calcium from parts of the skeleton which don’t carry a lot of weight (such as the ribs) in a process called cyclical reversible osteoporosis, which humans also go through during pregnancy. There are still more adjustments, as the reindeer’s neck and shoulder muscles need to swell in order to carry the bulky weight of the antlers, and movement becomes restrictive. It’s no wonder then that the rutting season becomes so taxing for large bulls that their life is typically shorter than that of a female. Taken to an extreme there is even a theory that the great Irish Elk, or Megalocerous, was partially driven to extinction due to the amount of energy it lost to it’s enormous antlers! I find it unlikely that this will happen to the reindeer but there’s no doubt that these huge organs take a lot for the reindeer to grow.

The Irish Elk or Megaloceros with it’s weighty antlers (image: Biggest. Antlers. Ever. Meet the Irish Elk | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian Magazine)

Shooting for the Skies

Although we know what pushes antlers to grow to such a huge size, it’s truly incredible when we begin to ask how. Antlers are the fastest growing organs in the animal kingdom, potentially growing around three inches a week (dependent on nutrition). This is mainly due to the quick regeneration of stem cells from which they are formed; the only type of cell in a body which can differentiate into any kind of tissue, such as bone, fat or skin. We have some of these cells in our bone marrow, as an important part of our bodily regeneration, and the quick formation of embryos is also due to them. Stem cells are also an important resource in therapies for degenerative diseases or to support the body following certain aggressive cancer treatments. Stem cells have even been used in the creation of several vaccines – including for Covid-19! This, combined with their versatility and potential in lab experiments makes stem cells an extremely valuable resource to medical research. It’s awesome to think that the same cells from which reindeer antlers are formed are what we use to treat life threatening diseases.

Finally, the antlers are not just useful to the reindeer, but also to the other animals in the wider ecosystem. Often when we find an antler which has been out on the hill for a while it will be worn thin and marked by the tooth marks of different animals. In the Paddocks we also see that mice and squirrels chew the antlers in the display area! This is because once they are dropped they are an open source of calcium which sometimes the reindeer, or other animals, (like your own pet dogs) will chew in order to reclaim the minerals. There have even been times that reindeer have chewed each other’s antlers while they’re still on their head!

Reindeer chewing on a cast antler in the enclosure, video by herder Olly

Next spring I plan to photograph the same reindeer once a week from the time it’s antlers are small stumps until they’re fully grown as there really is an incredible difference. There’s so much which is unique and wonderful to say about antlers and I’m looking forward to writing still more about them!

Ryvita (and her lovely antlers) with Nell on the free-range (August 2021)

P.S. What’s the difference between an antler and a horn?…… A horn makes a noise!

Nell

Spy – the reindeer we’re all a bit scared of

A while back, I wrote a blog about how difficult it can be to locate calving reindeer within our hill enclosure (see previous blog). But with one reindeer, finding her is just the start of our problems.

Spy, whose reputation precedes her!

Spy is notoriously protective of her calves, at least for the first few days, and getting her from the main part of the enclosure where she has calved through the gate into the ‘bottom corridor’ (the area of our hill enclosure that we use as a nursery for the newborn calves) can be ‘entertaining’, to say the least. Most reindeer will lead their calf away from us if they can for the first two or three days, but that is the extent of their protective motherly instincts. After that the lure of food wins out, and they decide that actually, they probably can’t be bothered to march away, and that we’re no threat anyway. Some very tame (or greedy) reindeer just totally skip the avoidance phase and are completely blasé about us being around their calf, even if it’s literally just been born.

The way it normally works: Myself gently pushing Cheese and newborn Kiruna in the right direction across the hill enclosure a couple of years back.

Spy? Spy’s instinct to protect goes into overdrive, to the point that we are all VERY wary of her for a couple of days. It would be fine if we could just leave her to get on with everything herself, but in reality we do need to get hold of the calf just once, to spray it’s naval with the antibiotic spray and to put some insect repellent on it’s back, and this has to be done when the calf is less than 24 hours old (otherwise it can run too fast to be caught). The first time that Spy calved in the hill enclosure I was the one who was first on the scene, and discovered that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to be able to walk straight up to the little furry heap on the ground, despite the fact the calf was obviously not yet strong enough to stand up and run away. Whatever I tried, Spy constantly circled to keep herself directly between the calf and myself, and made it abundantly clear that should I persist, I would be the one coming off worst in the situation.

The only way to get hold of Spy’s calf is to get her through a gateway ahead of us, and then manage to get the gate shut behind her before the calf gets there. Thankfully newborn calves don’t understand fences or gates and will generally just blunder in a straight line towards mum and into the fence, sticking their wee heads and necks between the wires and wondering why their bodies don’t follow. At this point we can swoop in, catch the calf, sort out what we need to do as quickly as possible, and then post it through the gateway back to mum. That first year when Spy had calved, I returned to Reindeer House to announce that yes, she’d calved, yes it seemed fine and strong, but no, I had no idea what sex it was, and no, it was not yet in the nursery area. I think I was then off the following day, and by the time I returned to work Spy and calf were in the right place but Fiona had an epic tale of woe about the trials and tribulations this had involved.

With Nok, the calf who I’d failed entirely to get close to.

This year was the hardest yet, not helped by the fact that in 2020 Spy had grown her nicest set of antlers ever, tall, elegant but very, very pointy, and she still had one of them. A reindeer armed with 2’ tall spiky weapons on her head that she’s not afraid to use is considerably more daunting a prospect than a bald reindeer. We managed to gently push Spy all the way to the gate into the bottom corridor without issue, but getting her through the gateway itself took four of us about 30 minutes, with an awful lot of time spent in a total stand-off. Watching Fiona move gradually towards Spy, arms out trying to push her gently towards the gate whilst the rest of us hung back was like watching a lamb go to the slaughter. I wondered whether Fiona would remain unscathed, and to be honest it was a close run thing! All four of us closed around her in a semi-circle, tighter and tighter, but it was a delicate operation of continuously reading Spy’s body language and reacting to every movement and step. Quietness is needed in this sort of situation, there was no rushing or shouting or flapping of arms, until the sudden speed needed to get the gate shut once she finally went through. Catch the calf quickly, all hearts thumping quicker than usual, and a flood of relief! Calf sexed (male), antibiotic spray on naval, fly-spray on back, post through gate, and high-fives all round.

Not one of Spy’s calves (this is Angua’s calf Chickpea), but a quick cuddle is usually needed once all calf duties are done and everyone’s in the right place!

By two days later Spy had completely chilled out once again, knowing perfectly well that once she’s in the bottom corridor none of us are going to try and touch her calf, and was eating off the feed line with the rest of the mums as happy as larry. And then rest of us were also very happy to have survived another calving season involving Spy unscathed! She’s always a reindeer we treat with respect and never handle anyway, unless we have to, for 363 days of the year, but for those two other days she is a very different kettle of fish.

Spy in the nursery part of the enclosure a day after trying to kill us all this year, antler having fallen off in the meantime. Suddenly she doesn’t look quite so intimidating when not waving a large, spiky antler around!

Hen

A snowy journey

For this blog I have decided to cast my mind back to a very wonderful day at the beginning of January, in the depths of winter when the entire landscape was white with snow.

I will start off by saying that I am not a skier, unlike quite a few of the reindeer herders, I didn’t grow up in a snowy place with planks attached to my feet. Fiona had always promised me that when I worked at Reindeer House through a winter then she would teach me to ski. Sure enough in the winter of 2020 we had a couple of snowy weeks and she helped me ski up and down the pisted ski runs early in the morning or late at night when there were no people around for me to crash into. I had a wonderful time, but spent most of it in the snow plough position which was quite tiring. When the snow arrived this winter, the ski slopes were all shut so my skiing journey had to continue off-piste. I had lots of wonderful tips from all the other reindeer herders as well as Fi, from very technical advice from Dave who had worked as a ski instructor for years. And equally wonderful advice from Sheena ‘you look very tense Lotti, I think you need to sing and dance while you are skiing, it will help you relax’.

Herders from L to R: Ruth, Joe, Fiona, Lotti and Sheena (plus dogs Sookie, Tiree and Elsie!)

About a week into the snowy weather this year Ruth and I were tasked with the job of fetching all 70 or so of the free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure so that one of the reindeer could have a visit from the vet. The snow was so deep that the only way to get to them was on our skis. Ruth is a very wonderful skier and I think it had been a dream of hers since starting to work with the reindeer in 2017 to do some reindeer herding on skis, so this was the perfect opportunity. We headed up, with our skins on the bottom of our skis which allow you to ski up hill without sliding backwards, out of the enclosure, onto the top ridge. We called and called hoping that the reindeer would hear us and come running. But the cloud was low, and I suspect dampened the sound of our calls. We continued in the direction of where we thought the reindeer were, stopping, and calling every few minutes. Eventually after an hour or so of skiing we found the herd near the top of Castle Hill.

Ruth and the herd, in the cloud!
The reindeer were pleased to see our bag of feed!
Scrabble checking out Ruth’s planks!

As soon as we found the reindeer, they were delighted to see us, or delighted to see our bags of food at least. They followed us all the way back to the enclosure, walking in the tracks left by our skis in a single file line. The reindeer always walk through the snow in a single file line as it’s more efficient to walk in the tracks of another reindeer (or in this case skier) than it is to make your own tracks. I was particularly delighted as for most of the way back I was followed so closely by two of my favourite reindeer, Gloriana and her calf Butter, that they kept stepping on my skis! That was the beginning of a winter where almost all the reindeer herding was done on skis or snowshoes as the snow was so deep, but that very first experience of moving over the snow on skis with all the reindeer behind us is something that will stick with both me and Ruth for a long time.

Lotti leading the herd back towards the enclosure.
Lotti with two of her favourite reindeer, Gloriana and her son Butter.
Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves after a successful mission!

Lotti

Elvis

Elvis is now 15 years old and our oldest male reindeer in the herd so it’s about time he gets some recognition. As a youngster he was a real ugly duckling. In fact I remember when we had a visit from some Sami (indigenous reindeer herders of Scandinavia) people back in 2007, they pointed at Elvis and said he was ‘bad stock’. His winter coat was very scruffy/mottled and being a teenager at the time he was tall and lanky so probably didn’t look like he was in good condition.

From L to R: Malawi (now our oldest reindeer in the whole herd at 16), Wham and Elvis

Boy did he prove them wrong as he went on to become a big and beautiful reindeer putting on good condition and growing lovely big antlers annually. For about 7-8 years he was one of our trusty go to Christmas reindeer during our Christmas tour in November and December each year. He visited the likes of Harrods in London taking part in their Christmas parade, Windsor Castle, even just our local schools and nurseries. He was always such a good role model to the younger, less experienced reindeer so us herders loved having him in our team. With such an iconic name he was popular with our visitors and the public on Christmas parades.

Two year old Elvis (in 2008) in our hill enclosure
Handsome Elvis in 2011
Elvis in September 2015, now an old pro on Christmas tour!

His mum, Esme, was a very lovely reindeer. She lived to a grand age and was always one of the first down for an easy feed when us herders were up on the mountain. His sister, Okapi, is still with us and she is 13 years old. He’s not from a very big family and Okapi doesn’t breed anymore so they are the last two in that line.

Mum Esme and Elvis, as a calf

Elvis is well and truly retired now, and quite rightly so. He spends his winters with the herd free range on the Cromdale Hills where the lichen heath is fantastic. Come spring he is at our hill farm near Glenlivet where they go out to the hill each night and have access to a food filled shed during the day… life is pretty good for a farm reindeer! Recently he came over here to the Reindeer Centre to spend time in our paddock area for a few days while an adopter was visiting but at his age I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend too long in there so we were quick to put him back to the farm. He’s been there, done that. There is no need for him to perform to the crowds anymore, he can leave that to the younger reindeer.

Elvis looking fantatsic in September 2017

So we don’t know how much longer Elvis will be with us but his condition and antler growth this year is no different to the last few years. He can be a bit slower in the mornings, or a bit stiff when he gets up from lying down but that’s just like me and I’m only 34! For now though we will keep giving him extra lichen treats and keep him alongside the rest of the herd where he is happiest.

Fiona

The difficulties of reindeer location at calving time

Most of the time our reindeer give birth in our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, not requiring any assistance or shelter whatsoever. Calves are born with a thick, waterproof calf coat, so anything the Scottish weather throws at them is not an issue. Our enclosure can be segmented into several different areas, so what we do is to have the herd of pregnant females in the main, largest, bit, and create a ‘nursery’ in a smaller area, known as the ‘Bottom Corridor’ (as opposed to the ‘Top Corridor’, unsurprisingly further up the hill). Pre-natal and ante-natal, if you will.

Cows and their calves in the Bottom Corridor ‘nursery’

When a cow is ready to calve she will generally head away from the herd, wanting her own space and peace and quiet. This may be a few hours before calving or it may be a couple of days, depending on the individual. We always count the reindeer each time we feed them, so can work out if a cow has suddenly gone AWOL; and will then head out round the enclosure to track them down (usually the following morning). However, 1200 acres is the size of 1200 football pitches, part of it heavily wooded, and finding a lone reindeer can be a real mission. If they are out in the open somewhere then generally it’s not too hard to track them down, but if they disappear into the depths of the woods then it’s much harder.

A photo to give you an idea of the rough size of the enclosure – the boundary fence goes right around behind the mountain in the centre of the picture, Silver Mount, and right down into the forest at the right.
A closer view of Silver Mount in the enclosure, and Black Loch which is hidden from view from most of the enclosure.

This calving season in particular felt like the reindeer were running rings around us, with hardly any of the cows being easy to find. In fact the very first cow who headed away from the herd to calve wasn’t found until two days later, and most of the following few reindeer calved down in the woods too, necessitating long searches, sometimes fruitless and sometimes fruitful.

Let me make this clear too, we’re not talking a pleasant stroll along nice easy footpaths. The forest in the enclosure is proper Caledonian pine forest, complete with a dense understory of juniper, blaeberry and heather, and VERY boggy. Oh, and some of it is extremely steep. And there’s no proper paths, only narrow, muddy deer tracks (made by the reindeer, but also wild red and roe deer). Several hours of trawling through the forest is utterly exhausting, and if emerging eventually empty handed with boots squelching, also utterly demoralising.

A tiny proportion of the enclosure woods…
The enclosure encompasses a large area of Caledonian pine forest, complete with dense understory of juniper and blaeberry – ideal for concealing reindeer!
Dense birch woodland in the enclosure too – a reindeer’s eye view!

In 2020, thankfully the reindeer were kind to us during the calving season, as it fell right in the middle of the first lockdown and most staff were furloughed. Reindeer calved mostly out in the open, were found quickly and easily, and brought through to the bottom corridor ‘nursery’ with little hassle. This year however… Sika was the first reindeer to head away from the herd to calve, but it was two days later by the time we found her. And in fact that’s not even really true, we didn’t actually find her at all – she joined up with another cow who had calved by that point and we found both together, Sika’s calf at least 48 hours old by that point.

Pagan was the hardest of the lot – it wasn’t until the fourth day of searching before she was eventually located – tucked into the forest in a hidden spot. I was on my day off and very glad to receive a message to say she’d been found – it had been long enough that I had started to think she must have died giving birth. Normally reindeer won’t stay in the spot where they calved for longer than a couple of days, re-joining the herd of their own volition and making finding them eventually more straight-forward. Heading out to the woods with the prospect of several hours of searching ahead, after several days when you think you may actually be looking for a body rather than a newborn calf, is no-one’s idea of fun. But in this case, Pagan was completely fine, and probably rather smug that she’d managed to waste many, many hours of our time over four days!

A rubbish photo as it’s really zoomed in – but my moment of triumph this calving season was seeing Feta’s head pop up out the deep heather, after a couple of hours of plodding back and forth through the forest…
…who promptly tried to lead her calf away from me, but the wee one didn’t make it up this bank, being only a few hours old and not yet wobble-free!

At least it was a small calving this year, so the continual trudging around the enclosure only went on for so long. And the reindeer appeared to finally take pity on us as a couple of the later ones to calve did so in a much more open, agreeable area where they were plainly visible. In fact first time mum Blyton calved right beside the Bottom Corridor fence, right beside the cows and calves, and did so right before we did a Facebook Live video (https://www.facebook.com/182577928433967/videos/517342392958642), meaning she could be seen in the background throughout, and making Andi’s life nice and easy as all she had to do was pop over the fence once the camera stopped rolling to check out the new arrival!

Hen