Birds in the enclosure (Spring)

Spring is all around! The days are longer and warmer, buds are beginning to burst into leaf and very soon there will be lots of wobbly new-born reindeer calves taking their first steps in our hill enclosure. As well as the reindeer which increase in number on the hill, so will the bird life as migratory birds arrive from warmer places such as Africa, Southern Europe or even coastal Britain to breed and rear young. All the herders enjoy and appreciate the different birds we get in the enclosure during different times of the year and spring announces the return of some of our favourites.

Ring Ouzel – It may be a fair assumption that this species is the favourite of migratory birds amongst herders. Known as the mountain blackbird, they are a little longer and more upright than their more common cousins and get their name because of the male’s obvious white bib under the neck. They typically nest in gullies or steep scree slopes on the hill side and like many migrants, arrive in April and leave by September. Along with a beautiful song and obvious alarm call it is always a joy to see these birds in and around the enclosure looking for invertebrates to feed on.

Ring Ouzel (image from: https://www.british-birdsongs.uk/ring-ouzel/)

Wheatear – Also summer migrants, these little birds can be common across the more upland environment of the Cairngorms. The males are quite colourful with a blue/grey head and back, black wings and an orange like breast. Wheatears like rocky open land but can be seen on moorlands, and coastal grassland, nesting on the ground in holes, scree slopes or stone walls.  They can be seen hopping about in the enclosure for insects and more so on the footpath towards the Chalamain Gap. Sometimes found in Greenland or Canada and wintering in Africa, Wheatear are among the world’s long distance migratory birds, estimated to fly nonstop for up to 2400km in 30 hours! The first one this season was seen early on the 24th of March.

Wheatear (image from: www.birdwatchireland.ie/birds/wheatear)

Golden Plover – During the winter Golden Plover can be found in the UK near the coast or lower farmlands and are often seen in flocks with Lapwing. For the spring and summer they move to the higher moorlands and hillsides to breed and nest on the ground, they can be be seen in our enclosure but their spotted black and golden camouflage plumage keeps them well hidden, it’s not until you hear their high pitched and rather sad sounding alarm call that you realise they are around. These shy but charming waders can also be seen up on many of the higher hills of Scotland and are a great addition to any hill day.

Golden Plover (image from: https://mkoireland.ie/new-irish-wildlife-manual-released/)

Snipe – Another wader to be found regularly in the enclosure is the Snipe. Like Golden Plover, Snipe are in the UK all year round but many of the wintering birds migrate elsewhere to breed, leaving a much smaller population of residents during the spring and summer. They typically enjoy a damp environment in habitat such as marshes, bogs or wet meadows, all of which is abundant in the reindeer enclosure. Snipe have a long straight bill, short legs and rather dumpy shape. You’re more likely to hear their amazing drumming call during the spring season than ever see them, the only time I ever see Snipe is by accidently getting too close and watch as they fire off the ground and whizz away in a fast zig- zagging motion.

Snipe (image from: https://www.birdguides.com/gallery/birds/gallinago-media/544573/)

Skylark – Another British resident that also moves up onto the mountain side during the breeding season is the Skylark. With a very good population throughout the whole of the UK, these birds are by no means uncommon but it’s always a delight to hear their long and beautiful song high in the sky during the Spring and Summer months. Skylark’s are a rather bland looking bird with a grey and brown speckled plumage that looks very similar to that of a meadow pipit. Get close enough though and you’ll also notice a crested head that helps differentiate them. It’s the sound of a Skylark that makes them unmistakable though, flying well over 100 meters high in the sky and singing for up to 15 minutes long, they make a great additional to a hill trip in the enclosure with the reindeer.

Skylark (image from: https://www.birdguides.com/gallery/birds/alauda-arvensis/1003602/)

Black Grouse – The final bird to mention is the Black Grouse. Black Grouse are a rather large bird, the females are a grey/ brown colour while the males are predominantly black with red eyebrows and white under tail and wings feathers. They live in Glenmore and the Cairngorms throughout the year in secret until the Spring and breeding season when the male birds start to Lek. The Lek is a site usually in a clearing close to woodland where the males compete for the most central positions within it. Flashing their tail feathers, the males can be highly active with plenty of showboating while making bubbling and shrieking calls and sometimes fighting to gain position, the Grouse most central in the Lek will attract the most females who watch the drama from a short distance. We are lucky to have a Lek within the enclosure where the birds are undisturbed within the safety of our private space.

Black Grouse (image from: https://www.scotlink.org/species/black-grouse/)

Joe

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

How does Svalbard get his name?

Each year all the calves are named in September after spending the first four months of their lives free-ranging in the Cairngorms. Every year we select a theme to name the calves by. In 2011 the theme was “Games and Past Times”; as a result we have Scrabble, Rubiks, Rummy, Origami, Monopoly, Puzzle and Jenga amongst others.

However, as with any rule there is always an exception and Svalbard, also born in 2011, is the odd one out for that year!

Svalbard is currently in our Hill Enclosure here in the Cairngorms and, because of his large white nose (not to mention his fondness for food), he often stands out leading visitors on our Hill Trips to ask what his name is. This has prompted me to answer the question, why is Svalbard, called Svalbard?!

 To fully answer I’m going to first take us to the Arctic Ocean and the archipelago of Svalbard itself…

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You talkin’ about me?!

The Svalbard archipelago of Norway is found in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Svalbard is an incredibly wild place with a land area of 61,022 km2 and a human population of only around 2700 (for comparison Scotland’s land area is 77,933 km2). Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers! The islands are home to only a few species of mammal which include polar bear, Arctic fox and its own subspecies of reindeer, called the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus).

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Svalbard is located in the Arctic Ocean. Map from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer has inhabited this harsh wilderness, and has been geographically isolated from other reindeer for over 5000 years. As a result they have become very well adapted to the particular landscape and roam on nearly all non-glaciated areas of the archipelago. The Svalbard reindeer wins the award for being the most northerly living herbivore mammal in the world!

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A wild Svalbard landscape. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Svalbard reindeer is the smallest subspecies of all reindeer and caribou. Bulls average 65-90kg in weight, and cows between 53-70kg compared with our Cairngorm reindeer where bulls can weigh 150kg. Svalbard reindeer are very distinctive for having short faces and short legs, making them appear ‘dumpy’. They also have a very think, long winter coat. The long coat also contributes to their short-legged appearance and even starved individuals can appear fat in the winter!

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A Svalbard bull with tiny legs! Photo from Wikipedia.

Svalbard reindeer may make short altitudinal movements, or slightly longer inter-island journeys across the sea ice but they are mostly sedentary and therefore have low energy demands. The lack of migration could be a reason why they have evolved short legs, also helping them have conserve heat with a smaller surface area.

However, don’t let their short legs deceive you! They can reach speeds of up to 60 km an hour on a good running surface, giving them the ability to out run a polar bear, the only predator they face on Svalbard (apart from man).

Unlike the majority of Reindeer on the Norwegian mainland the Svalbard Reindeer have not been domesticated, and also do not live in large herds but tend to be solitary or stay in small groups.

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Svalbard reindeer, with proportionally shorter legs. Photo from Wikipedia.

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Not sure what our Scottish lassies would make of these fellas! Photo from Wikipedia.

I’m digressing, so back to our Scottish Svalbard…

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Back to me… finally!

Svalbard was born on the free-range in May 2011 to Arnish, as a result his exact birthday is unknown. Arnish and young Svalbard were not seen between July and October that year, until Svalbard turned up by himself  in October at the Hill Enclosure, without his mother, who was sadly not seen again.

When this orphaned calf turned up, he was given a name according to the theme for that year. But the herders at the time kept commenting on how dumpy and short-legged he was; as a result he was quickly nick-named “the Svalbard reindeer”. Before too long, the name stuck and he’s been Svalbard ever since! Thankfully for him, he lost his stocky proportions and we now have a handsome reindeer with a big personally!

This whole blog was basically an excuse to show some cute photographs of a young Svalbard (and to research a future holiday destination!) so here come the pictures…

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Svalbard with his mother, Arnish (who never grew antlers). Looks like he’s got pretty long legs here!

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Svalbard – perhaps I can see the short legs here?

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Svalbard in his gangly teenage phase?

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Svalbard as a young bull in 2013 with his obvious white nose.

 

Ruth

 

A Pied Wagtail story

Up on the hill in our 1200 acre enclosure there is a shed. We use the shed to house sick reindeer, catch the wild ones, and store all our hill-working tools and materials.

For the last couple of months we have had a visitor in our shed on the hill. A little female Pied Wagtail decided that the shed made an excellent house to hold her nest, and it even came supplied with a renewing source of insulation – reindeer hair!

Tucked neatly out of the way, hidden behind some spare fencing wire, Mrs Pied Wagtail laid her second-of-the-year clutch of four teeny-tiny Pied Wagtail eggs. With the reindeer hair lining, and her body warmth for much of the day, the eggs were kept nice and toasty through the variable Scottish summer.

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Can you spot the nest?

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Mrs Pied Wagtail has used her initiative and used all the spare winter-coat reindeer hair to line her nest. Each reindeer hair is hollow, making it an excellent insulator.

On the morning of the 18th of July, we walked into the shed to the shed to find four little chicks huddled up against the nest. A couple of days later we were greeted by the sound of cheeping, and were delighted to find 4 yellow open beaks hungrily competing for food. It is of course incredibly important not to disturb the mother on her nest, or the chicks whilst they are alone, so these photos were taken quickly whilst the mother was already away.

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The newly hatched chicks, huddled up keeping warm whilst Mamma Wagtail is away.

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Four little chicks on the 24th July, hungrily asking for food.

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After 2 weeks in the nest, the chicks are noticably bigger and ready to fledge!

Pied Wagtails are a common British bird, often known by slightly unusual nicknames such as ‘Polly Washdish’, or ‘Dishwasher’. These names are thought to come from olden days when women would wash dishes in streams where Pied Wagtails were common. They are lovely, sprightly birds that appear very cheerful and eager with their wagging tails and chirping call.

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A fully gown Pied Wagtail. Photo by Albert Bridge.

By the 31st of July, the chicks had fledged, and are now off in the big bad world, where we wish them all the best. We are always happy to see birds and beasts using our shed for shelter, and hope to see our little female Pied Wagtail back next year!

Morna

Yellow’s on the Broom

This is the title of a Scottish song about the Travellers (sometimes called Tinkers) who lived a nomadic life which often settled for a short while during the harder winter months. The lyrics show the Traveller anxious for Spring and a new start to traveling.

The guided walk out to the reindeer herd at this time of year is particularly colourful because the broom is in full flower with its multitude of bright yellow flowers. After the muted colours of winter, old heather and deciduous trees without leaves the flowering broom brings splashes of colour into the hills. I can understand why the yellow Broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller.

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The Hill Trip group paused for a breather at Utsi’s Bridge, about to cross the Allt Mhor Burn. The yellow Broom flowers light up the valley at this time of year.

In fact the daily hill visit to the reindeer which takes us across the Allt Mhor Burn to the summer grazing of part of the herd is incredibly picturesque just now, perhaps making up for the reindeer themselves who can look quite scruffy at this time of year as they lose their winter coats to reveal their short dark summer coats underneath.

Picture of a really scruffy reindeer

From a distance Broom can look really quite similar to Gorse, another shrub which has lurid yellow flowers.  Both plants tend to grow in the same kinds of places; heathlands, uncultivated land, roadsides etc. In a dense clump where both are found, it can be hard to tell where the Gorse ends and the Broom begins.

However once you get up close you immediately see the difference, Broom is a large, deciduous shrub, like Gorse, but without the spines. You would never push your way through a gorse bush in shorts, that’s for sure.

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The soft stems of broom give no barrier to the hill wanderer.

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In contrast, gorse is virtually impossible to pass through without a full coat of proection against those spines. Photo by Nigel Mykura.

For me, my personal preference is definitely Broom, with no sharp, jaggy spines and a slightly lighter coloured yellow flower, but it is a mystery to me why some areas are dominated by Gorse and others by Broom.

Perhaps a more learned person than me can come up with the answer..

Tilly

Spring

As the year rolls from March into April, here in the Highlands we start to see more definite signs of spring. The snowdrops have of course been and gone, but now the daffodils are out in their full glory, along with primroses and crocuses. There is a noticeable difference in the grass too – during March there is very little colour in the fields, everything is a washed out browny-yellow. But as April approaches, I start squinting at the verges – is there just a hint of fresh green there? By now there is no doubt, the Paddocks and garden are looking almost lush and their first cut is fast approaching. For all of you down in England, I do appreciate that you’ve probably had the lawnmower out several times already, but we have the longest winters in the UK here – one of the reasons it is still a suitable habitat for reindeer.

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Relaxed reindeer with a glorious backdrop. Jenga has the best start on her new antlers of the females.

Up on the mountain, the deer grass is breaking through, and the first migrant birds are arriving back from their winter holidays – there were three ring ouzel squabbling their way along the path as I walked out to feed the herd this morning. I’ve heard tell that the first swallows are in Devon (it’ll still be a few days until they pass by us) and the distinctive osprey pair are back at Loch Garten – we popped along the other day and were glad to see EJ hanging out on the nest, and a brief visit from her long-term partner Odin. Last year I watched a pair circling over the hill enclosure, just checking out Black Loch perhaps before deciding it wasn’t suitable to nest at.

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Old girl Lilac still looking superb at nearly 18 years old.

April is a fun time to spend with the reindeer, with anticipation in the air. The females tend to be relaxed and lazy, with heavy tummies and enjoying the fresh grazing starting to come through. Their coats have lost their sheen and are starting to moult, and most of last year’s antlers have fallen off, with some making good progress on this year’s set. Slightly less relaxing (for us, but not the reindeer) is the start of the Easter holidays, with its associated rush of visitors. Having a limit on numbers for the Hill Trip has certainly made our lives less stressful though and hopefully improves the experience for our visitors too – just a reminder to come early if you’re coming for the Trip to make sure you get tickets!

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A group of visitors learning about the reindeer, who are delighted to pose whilst they wait for their dinner.

The other slight bit of stress is that all of us herders are assessing who we should pick for our calving “bet” – the annual game of trying to guess who will calve first. Us herders spend a lot of time peering at bellies and potential developing udders, trying to work out who is pregnant and who is likely to calve early. There isn’t any money put down, and indeed no prize for winning, but the person whose reindeer calves last has to swim in the loch! The decisions are mostly made now, but I’m already slightly apprehensive that I’ve made the wrong choice – suddenly everyone else’s choices appear much rounder in the belly department than mine… I’ll stick to my guns though with fingers crossed!

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Every time I look at Dixie’s belly I worry that I’ve picked the wrong reindeer for the calving bet!

Normally, spring is a welcome relief after a long hard winter… this year I can’t really claim that as it’s been a very easy winter with little snow, but it’s still lovely to see the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, with the promise of a (hopefully) long, glorious summer ahead. Fingers crossed that it’s warm to make for an easier swim if I end up losing the bet!

Andi

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

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