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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!