I can’t help but smile when I see a reindeer yawn. They have the most wonderful facial expressions, produce the best sounds, and have the wobbliest of chins. I always try to capture the moment on camera but I’m usually way too slow and miss the moment. Over the past year I’ve been compiling a folder of my best reindeer yawns ready to produce a blog one day. Despite reindeer herding being my full time job, at the rate I’m going it would probably take several years before I’ve captured a decent amount of silly pictures and videos.
Sooo… I mentioned my blog idea to Hen and Andi recently whist *working very hard* in the office. Of course, they came to my rescue and more or less instantly produced many glorious pictures of yawning reindeer to bolster my collection.
So here goes, in no order or for any great reason other than hopefully making people smile. Enjoy!
Reindeer don’t eat carrots, and other myths to ruin your new year… 😉
Myth 1 – Reindeer are made up
It seems silly when you work with them every day, but it is easy to forget that for a lot of people the only reindeer they know of fly around the world in a single night, so perhaps its not that surprising that they assume they aren’t real.
I’m glad to be able to confirm that reindeer are in fact real and are great fun to work with.
Myth 2 – Reindeer eat carrots
Recent surveys have suggested that British people leave out around 3,000 tonnes of carrots for Rudolph to eat every Christmas Eve. But we aren’t sure where this tradition stems from as they do not grow in sub-Arctic habitats, and reindeer physically can’t eat carrots. Their lack of top teeth prevents them from chewing them down into a digestible size.
The food of choice for most reindeer is lichen, a fungi-algi symbiote, that grows here in the Cairngorm mountains and keeps the herd healthy. We also use it to help entice our reindeer during handling, or sometimes just give it out as a treat!
Myth 3 – Reindeer can fly
This one really goes hand in hand with Myth 1, but I am still yet to see one fly.
I do hear things are different on Christmas Eve though…?
Myth 4 – Antler points correlate with age
Antlers do tend to increase in size (and therefore often the number of points) with age, however this doesn’t necessarily align with exact ages in years. Also, over the course of their lives, the antlers are susceptible to change. For example, a cow’s antlers tend to be smaller any year she has a calf, a more senior reindeer tends to grow a smaller set, and damage or breaks in antlers can change the growth pattern permanently.
Myth 5 – Who pulls the sleigh at Christmas
This is an interesting one because the fact that some reindeer keep their antlers through winter leads to confusion about who might be pulling the sleigh. Many people’s first assumption is that it is all boys, due to the antlers. However, the fact that bulls will drop their heavier antlers before winter sets in has led many people to believe that sleigh teams are led by female reindeer (who tend to keep their antlers until the end of winter). While we may take female yearlings and calves out with the sleigh, the reindeer we have pulling the sleigh are castrated males. This is due to their laid-back nature, but also, they tend to hold their antlers longer than entire bulls. Additionally, mature female reindeer could be pregnant at Christmas time.
Castrates have long played an important role in reindeer herding culture. They tend to be more docile and better for training than bulls or cows, and in herds of thousands of reindeer a well-trained castrate male can be used as a ‘decoy’ to influence the movement of the herd in a desired direction.
Myth 6 – Antlers are made of wood
While the various textures and colours of antlers throughout their life cycle can often make them look wooden, fully grown antlers are formed of bone. They grow throughout the summer months, while covered in a thin layer of skin and a fur called velvet, and then in autumn the skin will be shed, and the bone shows through. At this point there is no more feeling in the antler, as the blood supply has fully stopped – which is the reason the skin sheds. The reindeer often look quite dramatic at this point, as residual blood can make for a scary looking reindeer! But after a rainy day or two the antlers will look lovely and clean.
One of the challenges with any animal is keeping them healthy. Just as with humans, reindeer can be affected by a number of diseases and ailments. Whilst they are tough, hardy creatures, one of the largest threats is diseases spread by ticks. With climate change leading to milder, wetter winters, the ticks are not always knocked back so hard each year, so there is an increase in numbers. We mostly see tick-borne illness affecting our reindeer in the Spring and Autumn, with May/June and September being the worst months.
So how can you tell that a reindeer is under the weather? When our herd are spending time either in the hill enclosure or at our hill farm, our most important tool is food! A happy, content reindeer will be eager for their breakfast, and visitors on the Hill Trips may have seen that we routinely put out a long line of food, big enough for each reindeer to find a pile, and then count the herd (who are now conveniently stood in a line). Of course they don’t reliably stand still… counting accurately definitely takes a bit of practice.
At this point, there is a chance that the numbers don’t add up. You know that there should be 35 reindeer in the herd, but after three counts you’re still counting just 34. The next step is to work out who it is, which is why new herders get it drilled into them to learn the names! Everyone has a slightly different technique here – I walk along the line literally saying each name out loud, “Rubiks, Feta, Scrabble…” then when I get to the end of the line I can look at a list of who should be there and I’ll remember who I didn’t see.
As a herd animal, most reindeer are rarely off on their own, so to have one reindeer missing can be a sign they are unwell, feeling miserable, and haven’t followed the herd. But depending on the reindeer it can just mean they’re off on a jolly! But either way, if a reindeer is AWOL in the enclosure, we’ll head out and look for them, taking a wee bag of tasty food and a headcollar. At certain times of the year I seem to spend half my time trudging round the enclosure. At 1,200 acres and including a mountain, it keeps us fit and we sometimes can’t manage to find a missing reindeer if they don’t want to be found. Usually though we eventually come across them, and we either pop a headcollar on and lead them back, or if they’re a bit wilder we herd them in.
Next step is to check their temperature. Whilst they’re distracted with a bag of food, we use a thermometer, inserted… round the back end… to check if it is high or low. The “normal” temperature for a reindeer is 38.9, with a bit of normal variation – some run a bit high or low. But if its above 39.5, they’re running a fever. Most of the time this doesn’t require a vet to visit – we can inject antibiotics ourselves and in most cases this sorts them out in a day or two. We’ll usually keep them split off with a friend in a smaller part of the enclosure until they’re recovered, to keep an eye on them.
Sometimes poorly reindeer have stuck with the herd, but when we pop the feed out, they stand off looking morose, head low, perhaps even lying down – lying down with chin down on the ground is a red flag. This is particularly noticeable with the greedier characters, who suddenly undergo a personality change! On other occasions reindeer are with the herd, eating on the line, but there is just something about them that suggests all is not well. It’s a bit like knowing there is something wrong with your partner or friend, even through they’re going through all of the motions. There’s definitely a bit of experience and intuition involved here – I can’t always put a finger on it but am always quite pleased with myself when I decide to take a temperature on a hunch and am proved correct!
The other thing we keep a close eye on is the colour of pee… (its a delightful job working with animals!). Reindeer can be affected by a tiny parasite called babesia (similar to the parasite that causes malaria), which is again transmitted by ticks. This delightful critter can make reindeer very poorly indeed – one of the main effects is that the red blood cells are broken down, leading to the reindeer literally peeing blood – so looking each time you hear a tinkle is a great way to spot this. The nickname for the illness is “Red Water Fever” – referring to this red urine. Affected reindeer are usually also incredibly miserable and quiet. Again, we can treat this, but if it’s not spotted quickly enough (for example if we can’t find a reindeer, or if they become ill whilst out free-ranging, where we don’t see every reindeer every day) then it is possible for reindeer to die from it.
As these illnesses are caused by ticks, and the ticks are affected by the weather, we tend to get runs where several reindeer get ill within a few days, and it can feel like everything is against us as we battle to keep the herd healthy. Prevention-wise, we spend a lot of time waging war on ticks – we use a similar product to that used on dogs and cats which we apply between the front legs of the reindeer which helps stop ticks biting. We regularly feel in the hot-spots (around the ears, under the chin, in the armpits) and pick off any ticks that we find. And we use a vaccine to help protect against red water fever, but its not 100% effective.
We always look forward to the tick-free winter season, where we can breathe a sigh of relief and relax a little. Our reindeer lead happy lives being able to roam free in their natural habitat, and face none of the health issues that can be caused by a poorer diet or not being able to roam, but the pay-off is that there is more risk from ticks. I’m sure there must be a purpose for ticks existing in the ecosystem, but I’m afraid I struggle to see what it could be! Until we somehow manage to exterminate the lot of them, we’ll stay vigilant, and do our best to keep our reindeer healthy.
Well, we all know what is meant by ‘social distancing’ now after 3 months of lockdown and continued measures for the foreseeable future.
Here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we will be applying the government guidelines to both protect ourselves and our visitors when we re-open next week.
Luckily for us we have helpers, the reindeer themselves, as you can see from the photo above, reindeer are very good at slipping in between groups when we are heading out on to the hill for feed time. The perfect animal to social distance with!
With our own little helpers I decided to ‘measure’ the length of an average-sized adult male reindeer from nose to tail (Beastie ticked all the boxes here) and that comes out on average at 1.8 metres (give or take a little!). And if he (or she) puts her head down the antlers add a little bit more! Ideal for helping people keep the right distance apart when walking along the boardwalk in the hill enclosure.
In fact reindeer as a social herding animal are a very good example of how social distancing can be achieved. Unlike many social animals, reindeer do respect a modicum of social distance. They don’t huddle together; they like their space when they lie down and if another reindeer encroaches into their grazing area, they push them away, with antlers (if they are bony) or feet if their antlers are still growing.
The only close contact between reindeer is usually between close relations, ie a cow and calf. Indeed this close relationship can extend through into their adult lives particularly among females. However last winter that close bond became apparent between an old female and her grown up son. When 9 year old Rubiks joined the Cairngorm herd in January 2020 he ‘found’ his 16 year old mother Fonn and they have been inseparable ever since!
Unfortunately the downside to social distancing for ourselves and our visitors will be that the normal hand feeding that takes place out on the open hillside will not happen. Not only will our visitors be disappointed, but the reindeer will be too. I can think of many of the friendly male reindeer like Olympic, Dr Suess and Aztec who will be extremely confused by the lack of yummy food from everyone!
However a visit to the reindeer will still be an amazing experience (hopefully at least!), with our lovely herd in their natural environment out on the mountainside. Experienced reindeer herders to guide you, answer questions and feed the reindeer, while you all get the opportunity to take photos and enjoy the moment with these gentle creatures.
From January to May, our whole herd are out roaming free on the mountains, enjoying the wintry weather that they’re so well-equipped for. Whilst it can be ridiculously wild at times, on other days it is completely still, with glorious sunshine. I thought it would be nice to put up a selection of photos from the last month or two to give you a taste of our winter days…