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

Memorable Reindeer of the past: Indigo

This week’s blog is written by long-term volunteer and reindeer adopter, Sharon. She got so fed up of us never having getting around to featuring Indigo in a ‘Memorable Reindeer’ blog that she decided to write one herself! Other blogs about well-loved reindeer of the past can be found by typing ‘memorable reindeer’ in to the search box to the right.

We started visiting the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre when our two boys, David and Mathew, were 9 and 6 years old in 1996. They have many memories of hand feeding the reindeer and Mathew particularly often recalls being knocked over by a reindeer when he was trying to get out of it’s way! How impatient was that he says?

In 2003 we had a particularly enjoyable and very snowy visit just before Christmas and my husband paid for an adoption of Indigo for my birthday.

Me and Indigo in December 2003

What a pretty girl Indigo was.

Indigo had followed me around on the Hill Trip and had numerous handfuls of feed from me. She constantly searched my hands and my pouch pocket for hand feed and I fell in love with her instantly. I always claim in reality she adopted me! She was such a friendly reindeer, particularly if you had hand-feed, a bit like my current adoptees – cheeky and greedy!

Regularly the owner of a bizarre set of antlers…

…swept back style…

…bonsai style…

We visited as many times as we could, usually at Easter or in December when we came up for two weeks in our caravan for Christmas and to ski at the Lecht which was always popular with our boys. The Christmas Eve torchlight procession through Aviemore was so magical with the reindeer leading. There was always plenty of snow around, not like the rain in more recent years!

Aviemore Christmas parade back in around 2012 or so. It was -12 degrees C during this parade, hence the grimace on Hen’s face – also shaking hands are possibly the reason why the photo is blurry!

In the summer of 2012 I received a letter from Hen asking if I wanted to buy one of Indigo’s antlers. I was on the phone to say yes before I had even read who had written the letter! As a very special treat my husband cut a piece of the antler off and made a pair of earrings for me out of it, another Indigo birthday present. I know now whenever I wear them she is still with me.

My antler – when still on Indigo’s head!

In February 2014 I received a letter from Andi saying that Indigo couldn’t be found and had probably died. I was distraught but continued to adopt. I now adopt Svalbard and Celt who are both very enthusiastic reindeer when it comes to hand feed and my husband adopts Olympic, who is a favourite with all adopters. My adoption certificates are kept neatly in a file with all correspondence from Reindeer House and we have even been to Finland to meet reindeer, although we haven’t found any as well cared for as the Cairngorm herd. So 24 years of visiting the reindeer, 18 years of adopting, 4 years of volunteering and my own ‘reindeer herd’ on the back seat of my car (soft toys only) my addiction continues.  But then it is not the worst addiction in the world to have – is it?

A classic photo of Indigo!

Sharon

 

Polled reindeer

When people think of reindeer, they inevitably picture them with a big set of antlers atop their furry heads. Unlike other deer species, this even applies to females, who are the only deer species to routinely grow a lovely pair of bony protrusions each year, in order to help them hold a high enough status within the herd to gain enough access to feed in harsh climates.

Wapiti, showing off her stunning antlers. No one picks a fight with her…

Only… some reindeer don’t grow antlers. The official term for this is “polled”. We’ve had a number of individuals over the history of our herd (and this is the case worldwide too) who, year after year, maintain the smooth top to their head, whilst reindeer all around them are tapping away to encourage the velvety growths which finally turn into hard bone at the end of each summer.

This is almost always seen just in females (cows), and when scientists have studied reindeer and caribou herds across the herd it seems that between 0.5 and 5% of cows can be expected to not grow antlers. Why would this be? Antlers are used as weapons when fighting for dominance within the herd – indeed a cow with large antlers is rarely challenged. So surely not having antlers is a disadvantage? On the surface, yes, but by not growing antlers a huge amount of energy is conserved every single year. In some habitats, like the thick forests that forest reindeer and woodland caribou live in, antlers can be a hindrance, and the smaller herd sizes perhaps mean there is less of a need to compete. Antlers are more important for a male in terms of breeding success, as a bull with just one or no antlers at all is unlikely to have the chance to breed.

Antlers are hugely important for breeding success for bulls – if you don’t have antlers you won’t win cows.

There seem to be two factors behind refusal to grow antlers. First, there is nutrition. A reindeer who is struggling to find enough food will prioritise body condition over antler size – an adult who is having an unexpected hard year will grow smaller antlers than usual. If this happens to a calf – for example one who is orphaned at a young age, they may not have any antler growth at all in their first year, or perhaps for longer. Our wee reindeer Diddly had a difficult start as her mum Flake didn’t have any milk, and whilst we bottle fed her, we couldn’t match the nutrition reindeer milk would have provided. Perhaps this was the reason she didn’t grow antlers?

Diddly by name, Diddly by nature, and never an antler on her head…

The other factor is genetics – as we trace all of the family history of the members of our herd, we can often trace lack of antlers back to an ancestor. It seems to be that the polled characteristic is a recessive one, often carried but only expressed if a calf inherits two copies of the gene. I was interested to find this note when looking back through old diaries from the early days of our herd:

So for Mr Utsi, who founded our herd, polled (antlerless) reindeer were a desirable animal, and I also feel that antlerless females tend to be strong characters – perhaps because they’ve had to hold their own in an antlered world?? As our reindeer have a pretty easy life and we supplement their grazing in winter with feed, any antlerless cows tend to be that way because of their genetics rather than a lack of nutrition, and perhaps with plenty of food available there is no huge detriment to their diet if they happen to be a little further down the pecking order.

Wonderful Arnish – lack of antlers never got in her way.

Arnish, one of the leaders of the herd when I started work as a herder, never grew an antler in her life, but was well respected among the other reindeer – if challenged she would simply use her front feet in place of antlers! She was also a successful mother, rearing Addax, Jaffa and Svalbard. Jaffa’s daughter Brimick only grew one antler. We also have one-antlered reindeer Dixie in the herd, who inherited this trait from grandmother Cherry.

Dixie, proud of her singular antler.

Ferrari didn’t grow antlers at all until she was nine, then surprised everyone by growing one antler annually (on the same side!) until the end of her days. Interestingly, she’s a direct descendant of polled cow Mitou (mentioned above). From her descendants, her grand-daughter Malawi is in the herd today and has been antlerless so far – she’s currently fifteen so I think she’ll probably not start now! Ferrari’s great-grandson Merrick was also the only male we’ve had yet who grew just one antler, after growing nothing as a calf.

Malawi – not an antler to be seen!

Merrick as a calf with no antlers. Definitely genetic rather than due to a lack of nutrition – he was one hefty calf!

Merrick as a handsome three year old, with one antler.

And what about wee Bond, some of you who follow our stories closely may ask. As an orphaned calf, he grew no antlers at all (caused presumably by struggling to get enough nutrition), then last year as a yearling he tapped furiously away at his pedicles (where the antlers grow from) and managed about 1 inch of antler on one side (you had to peer pretty closely to see it!). You’ll have to wait to find out what happens this year…

Yearling Bond, not the most impressive of headgear…

Andi

Fly’s spring antler growth

Fly’s spring antler growth

Around mid March Fly, one of our mature female reindeer started to grow her antlers. March is pretty early but I suspect due to a warmer winter than we usually have and possibly the growth of vegetation starting earlier this has brought on an early antler growth in some reindeer. Fly has certainly grown some of the biggest antlers we have seen in female reindeer over the years, as well as producing some of our biggest calves so she’s certainly an asset to our herd and is now the grand age of 12… yet still looking amazing!

Here is a sequence of photos over 9 weeks showing how incredibly fast Fly’s antlers were growing.

Her antlers grew a good 2 inches between week one and two.

About three inches between weeks two and three.

Between weeks three and four the antler started to show its first split into another point on her right antler.

Then between weeks four and five her left antler didn’t the same with about another 2-3 inches growth as well to both antlers.

I think between weeks five and six shows the biggest difference with about 3-4 inches of growth on main branch of antler as well as the first points branching off.

Weeks six to seven her right antler seems to have gained some good height to it growing very tall. At this point her antlers were bigger than one of our main breeding bull, Kota.

Week 8

Week 9

So there you have it, a nine week antler growth process. It really is amazing how fast antler can grow and this is proof in the pudding. Thank you Fly for being such a great candidate.

 

Fiona

Differences and Similarities

One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.

Bovril
Bovril in his shaggy old winter coat in June, and looking smart in September

First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.

Olympic
Olympic’s varied coat throughout the same year (2014) – in February, July and September

Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!

Beastie
Young Beastie throughout the same year (2011) – in full winter coat in January, darker summer coat in July, and new winter coat in September

Strudel
Young Strudel throughout the same year (2010) – in old winter coat in May, dark sleek summer coat in August and with new winter coat growing through in September

Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.

Diamond
Diamond as a brown calf with a white forehead, turning silvery later that year, and even lighter as a yearling

Origami
Origami as a calf with a white forehead, and as a silvery white adult

The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.

Caterpillar
Caterpillar with very similar antlers over three consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016.

Puddock
Puddock with his familiar crazy branching antlers over three consecutive years.

There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.

Lulu
Lulu with impressive antlers in 2013, and a rather less impressive set the following year, due to rearing a calf.

Sequin
Beautiful Sequin in her prime with a large set of antlers, and with a simpler set in her old age.

It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!

Andi

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!

Young bull Eco.jpg
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.

10 months old.JPG
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

Two blondes, a truck and 6 reindeer

So you’ve all heard a bit from ‘Team Handi’ (Hen and Andi) on tour at Christmas but thought I’d do a wee write up of my travels round the country during November and December 2016. For my main stint away I was with newbie truck driver, but not newbie reindeer herder, Eve. We set off with our six lovely reindeer – Elvis, Oryx, Rummy, Stenoa, Viking and Pict, sleigh, decorations, reindeer feed and bowls, yoga mat, smoothie maker (priorities), and a cab full of delicious snacks for along the way… Houmous and dark chocolate (not together) being a very important part of this!

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Reindeer relaxing on events.Stenoa (top right) fast asleep. Ascot Racecourse (bottom right).

So we had some lovely reindeer and of course being away with them for a couple of weeks you really get to know their characters. Elvis is our poser of the group. He is always super inquisitive, first over for his food and certainly doesn’t act his age which is ten (nearly 11 now). Oryx is Mr Sensible. He’s a total professional in his field (harness and sleigh pulling) and is a great role model to the new Christmas reindeer. Rummy is the grumpy (not so old) man of the group, though is very chilled out and usually first to lie down once he’s had a good feed and finally Stenoa, who tells off humans who aren’t reindeer herders which is amusing for us. He is the youngest of the four adults we had away. This was his second Christmas so having seen the bright lights before he was a good boy and took it all in his stride. Our calves were Viking, who was THE BEST! – he has a cheeky yet solid character… an ‘Oryx’ in the making I think, and the other calf was Pict who was such a little sweetie. Pict was probably one of the more timid calves of the year so we wanted to make sure he had a good time away with us. His progress was excellent and it didn’t take long for him to just be like the others… but with such great role models it’s not hard!

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Days off exercising herders and reindeer. Elvis and Viking (top left).

 

Our travels took us as far south as Chatham and Basingstoke so we spent a few days round the Cambridge area staying at a farm run by friends of ours. If we weren’t off to do an event our daily routine would be firstly to take the reindeer for some exercise. This was in a horse paddock beside the houses so we would walk them round on head collars then once in the paddock we could let them all off and give them a good run around. This also exercised us quite nicely too! We even found a ball which Viking and Rummy were very curious about. The others obviously aren’t football fans! We’d then walk them back to their yard and barn for breakfast which was more like them leading us back… they really do love their food the reindeer. After breakfast and yard cleaning duties we then had the day to ourselves which usually involved a nice walk somewhere or a trip into town. Two country girls in the middle of Cambridge is quite hilarious. Just a little bit out of our comfort zone!

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Days off at bases…Anything for a good photo opportunity!

On one occasion after our morning duties we had quite the treat lined up. David Mills, conservationist from the British Wildlife Centre was visiting with his partner Dame Judi Dench. The connection was through the two charities, the CRT (Countryside Restoration Trust) and the British Wildlife Centre. We have had strong connections with the CRT for many years now with Tilly being a trustee of the charity, and David and Judi were coming up to visit our friends but also coming to see the reindeer. The couple were really lovely and I think quite taken by the reindeer… lets face it who isn’t! Elvis, Oryx and Viking were the stars of the show… Of course. And this wasn’t the last time we were to meet David and Judi as we were doing an event at Ascot Racecourse closer to Christmas and who  wanders over to the pen? Again it was lovely to have a chat, but this time with a different team of reindeer as we had been home with our first team and come south with a different team so they got to meet some other members of the herd.

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Back at base. Morning exercises and hanging out with the stars…And Judi Dench 😉

During our first trip away we only had 5 events to do over two weeks and for the first 4 events we had volunteers coming to help out. Lesley, Yvonne and Paul turned up at our events and helped for the day which was great… except we got to our 5th event and suddenly we had to do everything ourselves. That was a wakeup call! Lol.

Folk music rocked out of our lorry cab. It’s important to have a team mate with a similar taste in music! We’d pick up words and phrases along the way that only we understood what they meant… This did mean when someone else joined our team or we met up with another reindeer team they were sure we were bonkers. We’d talk to the reindeer like they were one of us, naturally of course (it’s ok we know we are completely mad). We were called sisters constantly – but just cos we have blonde hair doesn’t mean we are related. All in all we had a great time away, the reindeer, as always, were absolute stars. They make us so proud. Needless to say they were delighted when they got home, as were we! I like going south but it is very different to the Highlands of Scotland so I will stick to doing it for a couple of weeks in the year. There is no place like home!

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Land Rover photo shoot (top left). The zippy horse ‘Haggis’ (pulls your zip up and down), upgrading our lorry for a pink limo…or not! And Monty the terrier from one of our bases.

Fiona

Who’s Who

Visitors are often surprised to find that every reindeer in our 150-strong herd has a name, and borderline astounded that we can identify them all at a glance. It’s important to us that we do know them as well as we do, as if one is a little under the weather it means we can all know who to keep an eye on. I thought I’d try to explain a little some of the features that help us work out just who is who.

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Gloriana showing off her distinctive white nose

First up, and perhaps most obviously, reindeer vary in colour. This is most apparent in summer, when they have shorter, richer coloured coats, and hardest in late spring when the elements have bleached their thick winter coats to a pale washed out cream. Domestication has led to reindeer coming in all colours – pure white through to almost black, some with white facial markings and an occasional one with white on other parts of their body. People have a tendency to select for interesting colours, whilst nature does the opposite and tends towards normality, hence the caribou of North America (which have never been domesticated) show little variation.

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Blondie standing out (or blending in!) beside the more normal coloured Kara

The next big pointer (though only for part of the year) is the shape and size of the antlers. Reindeer are unique amongst deer species in being the only one where females and calves grow antlers as well as the males. The size of the antlers is determined chiefly by age – getting bigger each year until their prime and then smaller again – and also by body condition – a reindeer in poor condition will only grow tiny antlers. The shape is determined genetically, which is very helpful to us herders – once you learn the shape of an adult’s antlers, you have a good chance of recognising the antler shape the following year. Unfortunately antlers aren’t something you can rely on too much though, as every year they fall off to make way for a new set. Once we get to about April we are confronted by a sea of antler-less reindeer, and it’s a real test of how well you actually know them!

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By April, there is barely an antler to be seen and their coats are bleached out – the hardest time to ID reindeer!

Character is a big part of working out who is who – certain reindeer will always be mugging you for food, whilst others prefer to keep their distance. Approaching an unknown reindeer with a handful of food will often narrow down who they could be – some will turn away whilst others will come charging over. Thankfully character changes very little from season to season and year to year, so it’s a good marker.

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Let’s just say that this ISN’T one of the shy reindeer…

Once you’ve worked with the herd for a few years, you start to recognise certain reindeer by their individual face shape, their mannerisms, or just a particular ‘look’ that they have. This can be the most awkward thing to try to explain to a new herder who is learning the names – “Why is that Lilac?” “It just… is…” It took me over a year of working here before I suddenly recognised the resemblance in a particular family line – there is a silvery tint to their coats that, once you’ve seen it, is very obvious. It can be great fun watching as youngsters mature into adults and suddenly looking at them one day and realising they look just like their mum! I often catch myself glancing round the hillside and rattling off names when I’ve only seen part of a reindeer – you learn to trust your instincts! You know you’ve worked here too long when you can guess with confidence who the reindeer silhouetted half a mile away is!

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Antler shape is of no help here, but that long nose could only belong to Shinty.

Finally, if you can get close enough, every reindeer has a unique ear tag. We use a different colour for each year, so even from a distance you can usually see which year they’re from. There is then a number on each tag, though these aren’t always so easy to read, especially on shy reindeer with hairy ears – there can be a lot of peering at them through binoculars, or occasionally taking a photo so you can zoom in on it!

So there you are – it’s not really as impressive as it sounds, and even most of our summer volunteers surprise themselves with how many reindeer they can name after a week – we give them a ‘herd list’ which they annotate with comments to help them remember distinctive features – “really greedy”, “tiny antlers”, “pointy ears”. I’m always reminded of sheep farmers who can identify individuals out of (to me) identical faces, and it really shows that, given enough time and effort you really can work out the little differences in anything. It’s perhaps a sign that I need to get out more, but I’m pretty proud that I know the reindeer as well as I do.

Andi

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