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

Pining for a Marten!

A shortened version of this blog has just been published in our twice annual newsletter, but we didn’t have space to fit the whole thing in, so we thought we’d pop it up as a blog too! 

Lockdown was a bizarre and scary period for us all. The term ‘unprecedented’, which I’d rarely heard before, has been used by the news and media every day for months now, and with a lot of uncertainty still ahead, I suspect the word may still be commonly used for some time to come.

Two martens just a couple of feet from the window of my bedroom!

But while we were told to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives, something quite special was happening in Glenmore and indeed the rest of the country. With the lack of people around, for the first time in a long time, wildlife was once again becoming more visible!

Wildlife! Visible! Look how close!

For the reindeer here in the Cairngorms, they suddenly had the mountains to themselves and it was great to see them in areas they wouldn’t usually graze due to the number of people around. I even found a Ptarmigan nest with eggs right next to a (normally busy) path one day along with countless raptors seen higher up in the hills, but what I really enjoyed most was the change in wildlife close to home near Reindeer House. We had a visiting roe deer with two fawns outside the house on a couple of occasions; I would regularly see Black Grouse all over the glen along with an osprey fishing over Loch Morlich; and an abundance of other birdlife and the usual red squirrels. However, the animal I have most enjoyed has been the Pine Marten. For those who don’t know, a Pine Marten is a part of the mustelid family, which includes stoats and weasels. They are nocturnal and extremely agile, living mostly in trees and predating on small rodents, birds, eggs, insects and fruit. But what makes them so special is how elusive they are – until this year, I’d only seen a few fleetingly as they ran across the road or a path.

A free meal of peanuts!

I first discovered they were around at the very start of March – I started to notice my bird food bin (which lives outside my little cabin) kept being knocked over in the night. At first, I thought it was because of all the storms we were having at the time. But on a still night I was woken up by the sound of the bin lid crashing on the ground and to my delight, saw a Pine Marten helping itself to my bag of peanuts. Over the course of a few weeks it became more and more common until by the end of March this became the norm every night. I began to notice that up to 3 or 4 different Pine Marten were coming during the night and my peanut bill was going up!

Watching the activity quite literally from bed!

It was great to start being able to identify the different Pine Martens as I got to know them and see them behave in different ways. Some of the younger ones were very shy and timid while the older larger two Martens were very greedy and would stick about for longer. I did not mind being woken up most nights when they came as they were a great source of entertainment.

Unfortunately for me, since the middle of summer there has been less Pine Marten action from my cabin due to the abundance of food that they could predate on in the glen. I know that come late autumn they will be back in full force and, fingers crossed, with kits! I’m hoping that from now these furry charismatic creatures will be here to stay at Reindeer House for as long as I am. I feel very lucky and look forward getting to know them even more.

Joe

There’s more to us than reindeer…

Coming to visit us in the Cairngorms again when this is all over? Here’s a blog that’s been adjusted slightly from an old newsletter about the wonderful wildlife that surrounds us here in the Cairngorms:

It’s not just reindeer that you might see here, there’s so much more. Around 25% of the UK’s threatened flora and fauna can be found here, and some of it is very easy to spot. The Red Squirrel is perhaps one of the most iconic animals in Scotland, but there’s no need to search too hard for them at Reindeer House as they are usually to be found on the peanut feeders in our garden or in the reindeer paddocks beside the house. Sometimes people soon forget about the reindeer when the squirrels make an appearance!

Photo by Peter Trimming

Crestie on the feeder. Photo by Hen Robinson

Another bird feeder highlight is the Crested Tits, a much sought after species for bird watchers due to their rarity. And like the squirrels, look no further than our front garden (but only in the winter months)! Every winter we have absurdly good views from our office window, mere feet away. The bird table is also visited by Siskins, Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks. Among many other species, Crossbills are to be found in the forests around Reindeer House, and Pine Martens are seen regularly right outside the house at nighttime, much to our delight.

Many visitors to our hill enclosure remark upon the Mallards pottering around amongst the reindeer, a somewhat surprising sight it seems, especially so in the snow. The ducks do have an ulterior motive as they are after the barley in the reindeer feed, arriving every day on schedule to clear up after feeding time! They could well be the best fed ducks in Scotland. Other enclosure visitors are the Snow Bunting flocks in winter, having bred up on the high mountain plateau during the summer; and sometimes we have a pair of curlew in summer residence too.

Snow Bunting in winter plumage

In fact our 1200 acre enclosure on the slopes of the Cairngorms is home to a variety of wildlife all year round, much of it being rather secretive. May expeditions to search for newly born calves at an unsociably early hour result in good views of Black Grouse, displaying right in the middle of the enclosure. However, by the time we take visitors up the hill at 11am the grouse have sensibly retired for the day. The Red Grouse are easier to see, and are a common sight on the reindeer treks in the summer as they nest near our trek routes. Most exciting of the grouse species is the elusive Capercaillie, of which we see a few of each year in the pine forest down near Utsi’s Hut, in the far reaches of the hill enclosure.

A male capercaillie displaying. We more often see the smaller, brown females. Photo copyright: sighmanb

And there’s plenty more. We spend hours out on the Cairngorm plateau in the summer, checking the female reindeer and their calves (if we can find them!), and frequently see the most alpine of the grouse species, the Ptarmigan; and Dotterel, rare migrant waders. Golden Eagles are spotted occasionally too.

Dotterel high up on the mountains in their summer breeding grounds. Photo by Andi Probert

So while our focus is undoubtedly the reindeer, sometimes they do have to share the limelight with other species. Reindeer were originally native to Scotland, and while we will probably never see the likes of bears, wolves and wolverines roaming free here again, visitors to the Cairngorms can catch a glimpse of the past as the reindeer browse the heathery slopes.

Hen

Memorable reindeer of the past: Eco

Featured Image: Eco and Santa having a moment at one of our Christmas events. Eco probably wanted to know where Santa was hiding the lichen!

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Young bull Eco

Every reindeer herder working here remembers the calves here when they first started, who tend to go on to hold a special place to them in the herd as the years go by. When I first worked here in late 2007, the ‘green things’ were calves. Not actually green, I should add (although we did give them all green ear tags), but ‘green’ was our naming theme for reindeer born that year, so some of the very first reindeer I got to know had names like Kermit, Go, Ever, Fern and Uaine (Gaelic for ‘green’). And there was also Eco (as in eco-friendly!). Eco wasn’t the prettiest of calves, having a big bulky head and slightly roman nose, but he was very friendly and greedy. I also remember that by the end of the first winter he had become slightly annoying, due to his habit of occasionally jumping up at people when he wanted feeding.

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10 months old

The ugly duckling grew into a swan though, and Eco morphed into an extremely handsome young bull, and a big one at that. Not for very long though, as in 2009 we castrated many of our two year old bulls as they were all so enormous rather than waiting until they were three, and Eco was one of the ones who found himself suddenly slightly lacking in a certain department. But the flip side of the coin (for us at least!) was that we gained a fabulous ‘Christmas reindeer’, who could be trained to harness and join the teams of reindeer out and about at Christmas time.

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Hen and Eco on a Christmas event together

Anyone who knew Eco didn’t have a bad word to say about him, or not seriously anyway. He was a lovely character, always cheerful and always delighted to be involved in whatever was going on, whether it be hand-feeding, greeting people in a pen at a Christmas event or taking part in one of the half-day treks that we used to do with visitors.

Always inquisitive and up to something!
Always inquisitive and up to something!

Eco entertaining the crowds at an event
Eco entertaining the crowds at an event

He was a bit of a handful at times however, and certainly not a reindeer to hand over to a novice or nervous person to lead. He spent much of his life slightly like a child who has been given too many blue smarties and is bouncing off the walls – he could be completely hyperactive. Without doubt he was the Labrador of the reindeer world. I once tried to take him out for a walk around Glenmore when halter-training a calf, which turned out to be a real mistake as the calf, five months old and untouched by humans until the previous day, behaved far better than Eco. Why walk calmly forwards in a straight line when you can leap in the air, jump up a bank or down into a ditch, and spin round in a circle, preferably all whilst ‘knitting’ the lead rope around your antlers??? I never tried to use such a nutcase as my steady ‘training reindeer’ again… I also had a battle with him at the back of the sleigh at an event in a garden centre once, trying to negotiate the parade without him beheading every plant he could reach en route – and surreptitiously removing leaves from his mouth at the end.

Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old
Eco looking incredibly handsome as a two year old

He was fab, and one of my all-time favourite reindeer. Sadly he died when only middle-aged which was a huge pity, but these things happen and that’s the way the world works. It sometimes feels like it’s always the ‘good ones’ that die younger than average, but when there’s 150 reindeer in the herd at any one time it’s easy to forget the shy background characters as they come and go, remembering only the reindeer who stand out for one reason or another.

A slightly telling fact of how long I’ve been working here is that the green tags are now mostly no longer with us. It was a small calving that year anyway, but only five remain now, females Hopper, Fly, Fern and Meadow and male Puddock. We now have the ‘new green tags’: all the 2016 calves. I’ve come full circle through the lives of an entire generation of reindeer, which is a thought that makes me feel old.

Hen

Spring Buds

If I was a gardener I would be looking out for the first signs of spring, daffodils pushing out of the ground and buds beginning to form on the trees. But I’m not. I’m a reindeer herder so the buds of spring I look out for are the newly growing reindeer antlers which begin to grow first among the mature bulls.

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Yearling reindeer Fly a few years ago, with new antlers just starting to ‘bud’.

Having lost their old antlers at the end of last year our mature bulls, like Balmoral, Bovril and Pera have spent the last few months antlerless which is not a good place to be because with no antlers you are at the bottom of the peck order. Even the wee calves, only 10 months old, still have their antlers and can boss any antlerless reindeer around!

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Fly a few days ago having cast an antler a little early, and presumably with ‘help’ from another reindeer. Antlers cast naturally  in Spring don’t normally bleed.

Mature bull reindeer grow the largest antlers in the herd and so to achieve this they need to start growing their antlers early. Despite still being winter here the bulls will divert food resources to growing these new antlers and this week I have just noticed the first buds of velvet antler appearing on their heads.

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Mature bull Crann in his heydey, with antlers starting to grow long before the end of winter.

Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdom and from nothing on their heads these bull reindeer will have fully grown antlers, measuring up to 1 metre in length and weighing anything up to 10kg by the middle of August. Although the rate of growth will be slow just now, by the spring/summer the antlers visibly grow each day, with a growth rate of about 1cm/day.

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Crann in May with half-grown antlers…

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…and in August the same year, with full grown antlers.

Antlers are entirely composed of bone and to grow need a blood supply to the growing tip. The blood supply is carried by the velvet skin covering the developing bone and the velvet skin also acts as a protective cover. The velvet is also full of nerves, which make the growing antlers sensitive to contact, so protecting the soft growing tissue from injury.

Because the blood is so close to the surface the antlers always feel warm and radiate considerable heat. Indeed some scientists suggest that the antlers are important radiators of heat that help reindeer to ‘keep cool’ in the summer time.

The ultimate size of the bulls antlers depends on a number of factors but genetics and nutrition are the most important ones. The more they eat the bigger their antlers grow and if they come from parents who grew big antlers then they will more than likely grow large ones themselves. Crann has grown the biggest antlers ever in our herd and that is partly due to his parentage, his mother Burgundy grew extremely big antlers for a female. But also Crann has an insatiable appetite, always there for extra food, despite being an old reindeer now!

Tilly

A Jolly January!

As many of you know we close for 4-5 weeks between the school holidays in January / February. This year some of my colleagues had lots of exciting places to go lined up – Thailand, Namibia, New Zealand, Wales and for me just bonny Scotland! Myself, Hen and Andi were the (hard) core staff over this period and a few others roped in on the odd day to help feed the reindeer. Carrying 6 buckets of feed out on your own is impossible so Tilly, Alex, Olly, Andy and Sheena were around to help out as well.

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Olly and I leading the reindeer out of the mountain enclosure for the winter. Tiree, my collie, adding another skill to reindeer dogs by carrying a wee bit of reindeer food to help lighten my load.

Once we are closed we don’t use our mountain enclosure so Olly and I had the pleasure of taking the reindeer out onto the free range once we had shut up shop! We were seeing them pretty much everyday giving them a good feed to manage where they were during this time. They would move around a fair bit but never said no to a tasty bag of feed when we called them. With only the odd small dump of snow this was pretty easy to access the hills which meant we had some lovely walks out to find and feed the reindeer. On these walks out we could take the dogs, as long as they were well behaved! I was dog sitting for friends on holiday in New Zealand so Frankie was a new addition to being a ‘reindeer dog’ and she took to it very well. Our dogs are trained to sit and stay wherever we ask them for the duration we are off in the distance feeding the reindeer but Frankie had to be tethered, she wasn’t quite as savvy yet but she waited patiently. For ten days I was on my own with help from a crew of folk to carry feed onto the hill for me. Turns out with her paniers on Tiree (my collie) can also carry a wee bit of food… every little helps! It’s quite weird being the only one in work… extra tea breaks! Don’t tell the boss 😉

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Tiree and Frankie waiting while we go off to feed the reindeer (top left). Fiona leading Okapi with an improvised head collar (top right). Tiree and Sookie doing office work with me (bottom left). Three of the oldest girls in the her – Tambourine (17 years old), Tuppence (16) and Lilac (18).

On one occasion, it was actually a day off, we (myself, Tilly, Olly and Holly) went for a morning run up onto Cairngorm as it was such a lovely day. We took our pack of hounds and needless to say they had an absolute ball. On route we spotted a wee group of reindeer we hadn’t seen in a week or so, so Tilly and Holly carried on back to the car with all the dogs, being as reindeer and dogs don’t mix, while Olly and I went to see which ones they were and see if we could persuade them to follow us down, knowing we had no reindeer related useful items to catch or lure them with. We called them over and they came straight away, no questions asked. As they got closer they were a bit confused to begin with as we weren’t in the same reindeer herding attire they are used to, however we certainly sounded like reindeer herders so good old Okapi was first up to sus us out. All I had to pretend it was reindeer food was an empty packet of Haribo (of course it was empty) so I rustled it around, pretending it was reindeer food and low and behold she fell for it. So now I’m in the position to put a head collar on her… only problem was we didn’t have a head collar. So Olly whipped off his belt, I rolled up my jacket and she wore the belt like a collar and my jacket acted as a lead rope. It worked a treat and she followed like a lamb. The others followed too so we brought them a bit closer to home where Andi then met us with some actual reindeer food, not Haribo!

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Feeding the herd on a beautiful sunny day with the northern corries in the background (top left). Moskki, Tiree and Murdoch enjoying their mountain runs (top right). Fiona with Moskki in a rucksack as Moski tries to have a lick of an antler while still attached to the reindeer’s head (bottom left). Hill running with the hounds (bottom right).

So we are back in business here at the Reindeer Centre. Shop and paddocks are open and we are doing our daily guided tour up to see the herd on the hill. The chosen reindeer to spend a couple of weeks in the paddocks are Sambar, Hopper, Hobnob, Jenga, Israel and Inca. They’ll be back on the hill once schools go back. Everyday we wander out to locate the herd and with our lack of snow at the moment that is very easy indeed.

Fiona

Fergus

Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!

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Fergus looking angelic on the hill

In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!

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Fergus sleeping in a feed bowl, inside reindeer house.

So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.

Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.

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Fergus and Tiree guarding the door

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Murdo and Fergus on a ride up to the hill

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Trying some different beds out for size

Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!

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Fergus in the news and up on the hill

In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.

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Little Fergus ‘helping out’ on a trek in 2015

Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!

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Fergus having a cuddle with ‘mum’ Mel

Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.

Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.

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Cheeky devil!

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Fergus looking great at 1.5 years old

He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!

Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!

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He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!

Imogen

Grunter, The Monsterful (meaning wonderful and extra ordinary)

I remember the day Grunter was born. Dixie, his mum, was only two years old at the time and rather than taking herself away from the herd to find a nice wee spot to calve she stuck with them and joined in with our daily guided tour. Things all happened very fast for her and before she knew it, mid hand feeding time for our visitors, Dixie popped out a tiny wee bundle which was Grunter! Much to her surprise she really didn’t know what to do next, instinct didn’t kick in and she legged it off up the hill in panic. Sally and Kathleen were on the visit that day so they reported down for a contingent of herders to come onto the hill to help out.

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Connor feeding Grunter one of his many bottles

Alex and Emily first came up to help out getting Dixie back and taking herself and Grunter (who obviously wasn’t named at this point) back to our shed and penned area on the hill. I then joined them to help get Grunter to suckle as it is very important for them to get their first milk which is the colostrum. This plays an vital part in their immune system at the very beginning but also for the rest of their life! Dixie was extremely unsettled and actively using her feet to shoo Grunter away from her so we had to use a bit of brute force as Grunter needed to get the milk. We also supplemented with some formula from the vet, just in case he didn’t get a full quota.

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Emily feeding Grunter and Hippo, another hand reared calf that year

For the next few days we didn’t want to keep them separate in case there was a small chance Dixie would take to having a calf. We left the two of them up in the shed area for a few days but also went up early mornings and late nights to give Grunter a bottle of milk. It was at this point he got his name as Sally and I were walking up towards their pen one morning and the demanding sound of ‘grunt… grunt… grunt’ was echoing. It was a nickname which of course stuck, as most nicknames do with the reindeer. It became very apparent over the next few days and weeks that Dixie was not going take on Grunter so we decided it was best for her to head for the summer free range with the other cows and calves and we would hand rear the wee man ourselves.

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Grunter getting his much anticipated bottle

Another few days passed and then we sadly lost a female, called Maisie, who had a female calf of 10 days old so now we had two! Its unusual enough having one, let alone two to hand rear in one year – we were left well and truly holding the babies… We named her Hippo as she was as hungry as a hippo when it came to giving them their bottle of milk. The two of them were thick as thieves however it was definitely Hippo leading Grunter astray, he would follow along like a lost little brother. Everyday they would go up and down the hill with us spending the day up there and then back down to our paddocks here at the Centre at night. Not only did we have two reindeer to hand rear but we also ended up with two red deer (from our Glenlivet farm) to bottle feed so it was a right wee crèche out there.

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Grunter and one of the red deer

As always they grow up far too fast but it was such a great summer with them.  They were full of fun and mischief. Usually reindeer wean off the bottle of milk round October time but Grunter (not Hippo) was very much still enjoying his bottles of milk right into December and even had them while out and about on Christmas events. As a teenager Grunter was a bit of a handful as he loved jumping on people. He has managed to include most of us reindeer herders in that too. Reindeer herder Anna will remember Grunter’s hooves reaching her shoulders in the paddocks and I remember once I was calling the reindeer down and Grunter decided that was his time to pounce (literally) therefore during those younger years Grunter was sent to the farm for the summer months where he couldn’t pick on the general public… or reindeer herders! However he did mellow when he got to about 3-4 years old and he turned into the most amazing reindeer – he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.

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Grunter and Hippo eating out of the feed bag

When out on Christmas tour I have taken him into old peoples homes and children’s hospitals where patients have been bed bound. The delighted looks on their faces to meet Grunter was priceless. We went to visit my Grandpa when he was fairly frail at his home on the south east coast and we got Grunter right in his conservatory to meet and greet, needless to say my grandpa was delighted! I have had very young children lead him around as he is totally trust worthy. Candice and Pandra (long term supporters of the herd) will have fond memories of Grunter on tour, I think he was a bit of a guardian in the pen when little Pandra would walk round, the other reindeer wouldn’t give her a hard time if Grunter was by her side. That was the only slightly naughty thing about Grunter was that he was so tame and used to humans that he didn’t think twice about giving the other reindeer a bit of a hard time… or was it keeping them in check within the herd, not sure. When we stopped at service stations to fill with fuel Grunter would make himself known by grunting to seek a bit of attention, which let’s face it if he was in my team he always got… I did spoil him rotten!

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Fiona holding Grunter, who doesn’t seem fazed at all!

When back at home he was always used as a role model, whether it be training new reindeer to pull the sleigh, to lead the herd in or moving them round on the hill side. When loading into the livestock truck Grunter wouldn’t even break his stride to go up the ramp which showed how comfortable he was and gave the younger inexperienced reindeer comfort in travelling. He definitely had a cheeky side though and sometimes when pushing the herd in Grunter would leap around dancing and refusing to go through gate ways… he was playing like a naughty child and avoiding doing what we wanted him to do because he knew us so well.

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Grunter, September 2014

Grunter died almost exactly eight years to the day after he was born. He was over at our hill farm having spent the winter free ranging on the Cromdale Hills. Over the past year he hasn’t seemed to put on weight quite as much as we liked however his spirits were always high. On his last night with us Tilly shut him in so he could get a good pile of lichen to himself and as she left she just pushed the gate to, not quite latching it shut. In true Grunter style he finished up the yummy stuff and then pushed his way out the pen. He headed to the top of the hill beside a birch woodland and that’s where he died. Tilly found him in the morning so we buried him up there in the woodland with a good view of the Cromdale Hills. We suspect his shortened life may have been from not getting the best start to life in the first place and maybe not having as strong an immune system, but this is just speculation, maybe he had something underlying that we didn’t find. The main thing was he was never in pain or horrifically ill, he was the same old Grunter from beginning to end.

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Grunter, September 2015

Reindeer like Grunter are rare and he has no doubt crossed paths with many of you whether it be here at home in the Highlands of Scotland, out and about on Christmas tour, or both! Feel free to write your story / memory of Grunter and let’s share the antics of this amazing reindeer!

Fiona

Grunter in 2008, the year he was born, followed by him in 2009, 2011 and 2015.

Romford Retailer becomes a Cairngorm Reindeer Herder: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of Sonya’s blog about her week volunteering with us and the reindeer. Thanks so much again to Sonya for all of her hard work and we hope you have enjoyed reading all about what our volunteers and staff get up to on a daily basis!

(Here’s a handy link to the first and second parts of Sonya’s blog)

Day Five of an Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder

I only worked a half day today and started at 2pm, it looked like it could be a dry day in Aviemore but by the time I got to Glenmore it was raining as usual. Fiona was making buttons out of slices of antler, to sell in the shop, first she saws the antler into tiny slices, a bit like you would a cucumber, I’m amazed she still has all her fingers. Then she thoroughly sands each tiny piece on both sides until it’s as smooth as glass, then drills two tiny holes in the centre so it can be sewn on.

I started by sorting out the hire wellington boots today, we try to keep them on racks in size order so that it’s easy to find a suitable pair to hire out to visitors. Bizarrely there are three odd boots, a size 5, 6 and 10 with no partner. We have all looked everywhere for the missing ones to no avail.

Only four people are booked on the 2:30 hill trip so Dave suggests I do some of the talking, He says its less intimidating if its a small group but I am just concerned they won’t hear me over the noisy, raging torrent of water at Utsi’s bridge where we pause for the history segment but they huddled close and it was fine. We had to take more feed up than usual today so Dave and I had a sack each and asked for a volunteer to carry the hand feed, which they were only too happy to do. When we put the feed down, only 28 reindeer arrived which means 10 are missing and two are separated in the sick pen because they have upset stomachs. This is probably because they have over eaten and gorged themselves on grass. One of the greedy grass eaters is Gandi so I am especially worried, Dave shakes his head when I express concern which I take to mean there is no hope for Gandi’s recovery, but Dave quickly reassures me that Gandi is likely to recover in 24 hours, just like we do when we have an upset stomach. Must be an antipodean thing, shaking your head when it’s not bad news, but the frequent misunderstandings keep us entertained. I think I am mostly to blame for these as I have often misunderstood foreign tourists, much to Dave’s entertainment. I don’t easily recognise accents but it seems a good conversation starter to ask people where they are from, the problem is they ask me the same question back and we try to answer each other too soon and it gets very confusing to the point where I thought a young couple were asking me if I was from Paris when really they were telling me that’s where they were from. I am learning it’s safer to just listen and nod, and not ask too many questions.

Day Six of a Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder

Back to the early morning start today which was a struggle, but at least it wasn’t raining. Dave and I were on paddock duty i.e poop scooping, and we cleared up the shed where the paddock reindeer have sheltered while it’s been so wet, then we did some weeding before going on the 11.00 hill trip. I think I can say Dave and I have now got a well practised routine, I do the ‘welcome’ at the car park and the ‘history’ at Utsi Bridge and he does the ‘health and safety’ at the enclosure and the ‘reindeer characteristics’ at the herd. At feeding time today we were trying to get all the reindeer from the bottom corridor into the east enclosure and about 15 of them were well spread out and comfy in the bottom corridor so Dave suggested I go and get them so they don’t miss lunch. If I was better at it I suppose I should have been able to get them all in one go but they were so far apart I found it difficult to keep them all moving so I resorted to doing small groups of three or four at a time. I went up and down the hill in the bottom corridor many times and I think it was me who needed lunch more than the reindeer by the time I got them all. By the time I was able to bring up the rear with the last of the stragglers, the first visitors were leaving, but they all seemed to have had a good time so no worries. When I join Dave he tells me he thinks we only have 39 instead of the requisite 40 reindeer. I am seriously dismayed and set about my own count but they are moving around now as the food is mostly gone. It takes me two attempts but I count 40, twice, just to make sure.

In the afternoon I do the hill trip with Julia, the weather is glorious and we have a few small children in the group, I am leading the first part and Julia is bringing up the rear. I end up waiting ages at the bridge for the back end of the group to join us. Julia has really aching legs from running up a mountain yesterday. She cleverly disguises her slow progress by making it look like the small children are holding her up! But this photo reveals the truth, as she hobbled back down once the tourists had gone.

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Julia hobbling down after the visit

At the end of my penultimate day I’ve already had to say goodbye to Hen and Abby. It will be difficult to part company with everyone else tomorrow, when my placement comes to an end.

Day Seven of Romford retailer becoming a Cairngorm reindeer herder

Ah the last day…….awoke to a lovely morning and I thought you might like to see the tough commute I’ve had each morning, the traffic has been heavy as you can see and the views along this road can be distracting on a bright day, as you can see by the view of Loch Morlich below.

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The extremely busy road

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A flat calm morning on Loch Morlich

So my last morning began with a trip up the hill with Fiona and Dave to give the reindeer their breakfast. The sun was quite warm even though it was early in the day so the reindeer took a lot of rousing to make their way up the hill, they like to lounge around when it’s warm and it takes a lot of coaxing and shaking of the feed sack to get them going. Fiona asked me to put my half of the feed out to coax the other stragglers up so this is the first group lined up for breakfast.

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Boys lining up for breakfast

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Fiona and Dave checking the reindeer

Gandi seems to be poorly again because he doesn’t express any interest in breakfast and stays sitting at the gate far away. Upon closer inspection it turns out he has a very upset stomach. We try to usher him into the sick pen for Fiona to check his temperature but it’s risky getting too close behind him because his ‘issues’ are non-stop. The unflappable Dave accuses me of being squeamish and shoves Gandi onwards and upwards with little or no regard for his own hygiene. Gandi’s temperature is a little high but not dangerously so, Fiona thinks he’s just been gorging on too much grass again. I wondered why he does it if it makes him ill and Fiona thinks its because it tastes so nice. I guess it’s a bit like us having so much ice cream we get a headache or so much chocolate we feel sick, but we just can’t resist it. Well it seems Gandi has no will power, little sense and a weak constitution. “Sorry Gandi, does that sound harsh? You’re still my favourite but to be fair, you been poorly for more days than you’ve been well, this week”. Despite being so handsome, it’s certain he will be castrated this year. It’s uncertain if he ever did father any calves but if he did, they will be three years old this year and ready to start breeding themselves. Therefore, to avoid any possible in-breeding, Gandi’s new career path will involve being a Christmas reindeer, which I am sure he will excel at. I am a little sad he’ll never grow those lovely graceful silver antlers again so here’s one more photo of them as he munches on some lichen with Moose. For any fans of Moose, he’s fine and well, he’s just keeping Gandi company. Wherever possible, reindeer are never in a position where they do anything alone, it would just distress them more to feel like they were being singled out and not part of the herd.

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Moose (right) keeping Gandi comany

After a few more busy hill trips throughout the morning, including one at 11:00 that I did completely alone, it was time for lunch and then manning the shop single-handedly for the first time. I’ve not really done much in the shop, beyond clean it, up to this point. But Dave and Julia are the only other herders working today and they really need to do the last hill trip of the day, in case Gandi needs an antibiotic injection.

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The old fashioned till

Dave has christened me the retail queen due to my previous work and assumes I will be fine to just step in and run the shop. I am quick to point out that the tills I used were computerised and not quite like this one. After a quick lesson from Julia, they’re off and the shop is all mine. In case you shopped here on Sunday 19th June, I would like to apologise to any customers who had to wait while I wandered round the shop with a calculator checking the prices and adding up their purchases. In case I worked with you in the past, I would like to point out, in my defence, that there are no barcodes and this beautiful vintage till does not actually add up, nor work out the change! Several postcards, pens, souvenir bags and one expensive reindeer hide later, the day is suddenly over and after closing the paddocks for the last time, its time to go home. It’s been very hard work but the MOST rewarding time I have had, so immense thanks to the Reindeer Centre for this amazing experience and for being the subject of this blog, hope to see you again soon.

Sonya

 

Added Extras

So as most, if not all of you know, Glenmore where we are based and the surrounding area is rich in wildlife, and it is always a delight to see other creatures on our walks to the reindeer, as well as the reindeer themselves. It’s been such lovely weather recently and we have seen and heard a wide array of birds and other creatures recently, so I thought you might like to know what to look and listen out for on your trip up to the reindeer in the spring and summer.

The village of Glenmore is surrounded by Caledonian pine forests. Our bird table in the garden attracts lots of little songbirds, including chaffinches, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, siskins, green finches and even crested tits, which are usually quite shy and we take as a sign that snow may be on the way. We get ducks, pigeons and dunnocks on the ground around the table, tidying up after their small friends and we even get woodpeckers on the peanut holder occasionally. We often have red squirrels visit our bird table too, and one in particular at the moment who looks very scruffy and has a broken looking tail

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Red Squirrel on our bird feeder

The path on our walk to the reindeer is lined by trees and there are many animals and birds which call the forest home. Most often seen are chaffinches, as they seem to be less shy than other birds. To borrow a phrase from Hen, the trees are “dripping in willow warblers”, which we always hear and sound familiar to chaffinches, but are more ‘flutey’.  We also cross a river on the way to the enclosure which means we see birds associated with water. Just a few weeks ago we saw a dipper on the rocks, bobbing away looking for food. We also see grey wagtails, with their yellow bums, and pied wagtails too. Very lucky visitors can also get a glimpse of our ‘tame’ roe deer. Occasionally we see her just to the side of the path, or even in the car park. She doesn’t seem too bothered by us but we always try to keep quiet if she is around. The visitors get very excited that they’ve seen a deer even before getting to the enclosure!

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Willow Warbler – photo courtesy of Jack Ward (much better photographer than us lot!)

Inside the enclosure, we encounter upland birds and often see red grouse, hearing them shout ‘go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back-go-back’ at us as they fly off. There are often curlews calling to each other, wood pigeon, crows, and cuckoos in the forests. If you’ve been on the visits, you’ll know that we are also plagued by ducks from Loch Morlich!

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Red Grouse – Another fantastic Jack Ward photograph

Ring ouzels, a migratory bird which breeds in the north of Scotland during summer, are often seen flying around too. They are fairly similar in size and shape to a blackbird, and look similar to them to except that they have a white collar on their chest. There are some black grouse too, but they are very shy and we only see them when we go up early in the morning. We have snipe in the enclosure, and I once almost stepped on a snipe nest when I was trekking last year!

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Ring ouzel on the hill enclosure fence – not the best photo!

We recently had some nesting wagtails in the shed in our hill enclosure. The fledglings were so cute and fluffy!

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Wagtail fledglings

There are always a few roe deer in the enclosure and on our early morning jaunts to look for calving females we often hear them barking. We even seen red deer in the enclosure and Abby and Andi were super lucky to see an osprey flying over the enclosure. We have a few mountain hares running around and a couple of leverets always seem to be hanging around our shed area. We have toads, lizards, mice, weasels and lots and lots of midges too! And years ago Hen was walking along the boardwalk when she and a mole, of all things, passed each other – on the boardwalk!

Mountain Hare in Coire an Lochain
Mountain Hare courtesy of Jack Ward

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Roe Deer, again courtesy of Jack Ward.

Jack Ward’s fantastic photographs can be viewed at his Facebook page – Alba Wildlife

**Sidenote: Abby wanted me to call this blog “Oot and Aboot with Imogen” but I refused. This blogging business is much too serious for trivial blog titles, obviously.

Imogen