Elvis is now 15 years old and our oldest male reindeer in the herd so it’s about time he gets some recognition. As a youngster he was a real ugly duckling. In fact I remember when we had a visit from some Sami (indigenous reindeer herders of Scandinavia) people back in 2007, they pointed at Elvis and said he was ‘bad stock’. His winter coat was very scruffy/mottled and being a teenager at the time he was tall and lanky so probably didn’t look like he was in good condition.
Boy did he prove them wrong as he went on to become a big and beautiful reindeer putting on good condition and growing lovely big antlers annually. For about 7-8 years he was one of our trusty go to Christmas reindeer during our Christmas tour in November and December each year. He visited the likes of Harrods in London taking part in their Christmas parade, Windsor Castle, even just our local schools and nurseries. He was always such a good role model to the younger, less experienced reindeer so us herders loved having him in our team. With such an iconic name he was popular with our visitors and the public on Christmas parades.
His mum, Esme, was a very lovely reindeer. She lived to a grand age and was always one of the first down for an easy feed when us herders were up on the mountain. His sister, Okapi, is still with us and she is 13 years old. He’s not from a very big family and Okapi doesn’t breed anymore so they are the last two in that line.
Elvis is well and truly retired now, and quite rightly so. He spends his winters with the herd free range on the Cromdale Hills where the lichen heath is fantastic. Come spring he is at our hill farm near Glenlivet where they go out to the hill each night and have access to a food filled shed during the day… life is pretty good for a farm reindeer! Recently he came over here to the Reindeer Centre to spend time in our paddock area for a few days while an adopter was visiting but at his age I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend too long in there so we were quick to put him back to the farm. He’s been there, done that. There is no need for him to perform to the crowds anymore, he can leave that to the younger reindeer.
So we don’t know how much longer Elvis will be with us but his condition and antler growth this year is no different to the last few years. He can be a bit slower in the mornings, or a bit stiff when he gets up from lying down but that’s just like me and I’m only 34! For now though we will keep giving him extra lichen treats and keep him alongside the rest of the herd where he is happiest.
I know snow and ice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for our reindeer it definitely is! Reindeer are incredibly well adapted for arctic life, with thick coats to keep out the cold and large flat feet to stop them sinking in the snow.
And this winter was certainly a ‘proper’ one. Since the beginning of the year through to mid February we had sustained cold conditions in the Highlands and the mountains and hills were clothed in snow. We also saw considerable snowfall at lower levels, with both Reindeer House and my farm being white for many, many weeks.
Over at our second site for reindeer at Glenlivet we over-winter part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd out on the hill, just the same as on the Cairngorms. At this time of year the reindeer are grazing on ground lichens, their preferred winter diet and they will use their lovely big feet to dig down through the snow to the lichen below. Because of their thick insulating coats they do not seek any shelter and so in the worst of storms they remain on the tops of the ridges where the lichen grows best.
We do like to check the herd regularly though and so as often as we can we go out to see and feed them, although this was impossible for much of this winter due to the inaccessibility of the Cromdales in such deep snow. The reindeer never say no to extra food and when we call them down they come running. We don’t need to feed them much to satisfy them because the reindeer have a lower metabolic rate in the winter, so just a little bit of food is sufficient, and allows us to cast an eye over them to check all is well.
It’s a lovely sight watching the herd weave their way down through deep snow. They are past masters at conserving energy, which means they walk in each others footprints, to save working too hard. It often amuses me to consider which reindeer does the hard work at the front. Is it always the greedy ones that break track or do they ‘take turns?! I suspect it’s the greedy ones.
Once fed, they will drift away and settle on the higher ground in the snow for the night. A bed of snow is very comfortable for a reindeer.
Before we went into lockdown I had one last day of fun catching up with with our boys and girls free-ranging on the Cromdale Hills. The ‘Christmas Reindeer’ (males who are trained to harness) are generally fairly lazy and don’t stray too far but every now and again the females, accompanied by the young bulls, wander off a bit further away than we like.
I headed off into the hills with Tip, herd owner Tilly’s son Alex’s (and his wife Emily’s) dog, to help them find their way back to where they should be. By walking into the hills towards the reindeer and making her bark it is usually sufficient to get the reindeer to head swiftly back in the opposite direction. As the Cromdale Hills form a vaguely straight rounded ridgeline the reindeer – usually – head in the right direction easily enough. Once within a few hundred metres of the reindeer they spotted Tip and myself before promptly turning round and making there way back in the other direction.
With Part 1 of our job done Tip and I made our way back to the van and headed off to the farm. Tip’s work for the day was done, but not for me. Back up onto the Cromdales, this time powered by a quad bike to carry the feed. I caught up with all the reindeer, some of which I hadn’t seen in about five months, giving them some food to reinforce which part of the hills are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ to be on. It’s always good to catch up with them. They all seemed in good health and a few antlers starting to grow amongst the bulls. Roman looks to have got a bit of a head start on the other boys!
Well, he stole the hearts of many a visitor last year and we are often asked for updates on the boy, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about the naughty man. I am, of course, talking about the darling little Fergus!
In June 2015, Foil gave birth to a baby boy. She was a relatively old mother at 13 and unfortunately became ill only a few days after having her calf. We did our best to look after her, but sadly she passed away. The average life span of a reindeer is around 12-14 years, and the vet thinks that Foil had a heart problem, probably linked to old age. This left us with a baby reindeer to hand rear and the prospect of it both excited and dismayed us. Looking after a little reindeer is great, but when they need constant feeding and they decide to poo in your living room, sometimes it can be a little trying. I’m sure you parents out there are scoffing at our patheticness but none of us herders here at the centre have babies, and after this experience I’m sure it will be a while before any of us are having our own!
So, from 10 days old, Fergus lived at the Centre with a few of the herders. Luckily for them he spent most of his time in the paddocks, but herder Mel took a real shine to him and he was often found napping in her room on her rare days off. Fergus needed feeding 5 times a day, and he soon got to know the times to expect a bottle. He would often be found at the end of the paddocks closest to the house, grunting his little heart out for 5 minutes before his goat milk and growth powder formula arrived. It was always fun for our visitors to see him getting his bottle.
Fergus grew up with dogs around him so is not too worried by the resident reindeer house dogs – Tiree, Murdo and Sookie – who used to cuddle up with him. Murdo always loved to lick Fergus, making it look like Murdo had adopted the little reindeer! Fergus loved to sleep in the dog beds too.
Fergus was quite the star last year, ending up in the Press and Journal, our local newspaper. He was even on the front page!
In the autumn, Fergus spent more time up in our hill enclosure, eventually living up there full time and just getting a few bottles a day whilst we were doing visits and feeding the other reindeer. Our other calves came back off the free-range and we started to train them to wear a headcollar. Fergus was already adept at this as we had been leading him on and off the hill earlier in the year, and he was a good role model for some of the other calves who were a little shyer around us.
Fergus then went off on Christmas tour and of course, he went in Mel’s team. He is pretty naughty and managed to steal mince pies on one of his events, and was trying to nab some Celebrations chocolate on his posh Windsor event as well!
Then the day came when Mel had to say bye to Fergus, at least for a little while. He had tried bonding with the females way back in autumn, but didn’t really have any success, so had to go onto the Cromdale hills with our other boys to free-range for winter. Fergus had been living in the hill enclosure for a while before we took him and the last remaining boys from the enclosure over to the farm to be led onto the free-range. Mel was upset to see her baby boy head off, but it was the best thing for him.
Soon enough the winter was over and Fergus came off the free-range with the other boys, not a care in the world and ready to get fat over summer. He’s grown a lot since he was a calf, so has spent most of the year over at the farm as he has a tendency to jump on unsuspecting children and give them a fright.
He has been to the Centre for a couple of flying visits, staying in the paddocks, and delighting our visitors. In April, Mel ran the Paris marathon and as a surprise Fergus was brought over here as a well done for her. We made him a little paper collar, congratulating Mel on her run and I’m sure she enjoyed having him round again! He’s been in the house a couple of times over the summer, but he is now far too big for the dog beds he used to sleep in. It’s also not quite so cute anymore when he does his business in the house!
Now Fergus is a cheeky reindeer as you know. His level of foolishness was put up a notch a few weeks ago while we were out painting. Dave was out in the paddocks painting the posts a new and shiny coat of red. Well, you guessed it; he turned his back for only a few moments and Fergus is rubbing his big nose up and down a freshly painted post. And sure enough he turns his face, proudly exhibiting a bright red nose. Though apparently, even with a red nose, Fergus cannot fly. Thanks for the entertainment Ferg!
He’s a hilarious little reindeer who will no doubt make us laugh for many a year to come. Hopefully he’ll get to come up on the hill in a few years, once he’s learnt some manners!
Exploring the meanings of unusual words and the Reindeer hoose Office wall…
To explain this rather dubious title, in our humble office here at reindeer house there is a list of rather obscure words stuck to our wall: things like Jargogles, Apricity and twattle. the latter meaning to gossip or talk idly – a lot of that goes on in our office to be sure!
Quite a few of these words we feel are quite apt for a few of our fluffy friends up on the hill so I’m going to introduce you to a few choice selections!
Snoutfair – A good looking person.
I feel this would obviously be quite apt for all the reindeer as they are such gorgeous beasts but Cheese obviously thinks very highly of themselves here!
Cockalorum – A little man with a high opinion of himself.
If there was ever a reindeer that fit this description it would be Mo, Mo is a cheeky little fella and at four years old he’s definitely one of the smallest males in the herd and he more than makes up for it in attitude!
Lethophobia – The fear of oblivion
So this is a tad dramatic but definitely applies to one of my favourite reindeer Shinty. Shinty is originally Swedish and was imported back in 2011. He’s a super sweetie (I think) but painfully shy and often looks apologetic for just turning up in the morning. If any reindeer were to fear oblivion it would be him!
Hugger mugger – To act in a secretive manner
To be honest this applies very well to the female reindeer during the winter months – at this time of year we have to find the reindeer every day and we do all of our visits out on the open hillside. The amount of times we’ve walked out for miles to then turn around and have an entire herd of reindeer smugly behind you is definite hugger muggery if you ask me!
Jollux – Slang for being a wee bit on the chubby side.
Without a doubt the Jollux of the herd is Magnus, the lovely magnus loves nothing more than chowing down – unfortunately it’s rather hard to put a reindeer on a diet as the hillsides are covered in lovely grazing. This also brings me onto another great word – Callipygian: to have beautifully shaped buttocks. Magnus most definitely gives Beyonce a run for her money!
The final word, one used almost daily here at Reindeer House is Groaking – To silently watch someone eating, hoping to be invited to join them. Every time lunch hour hits there’s some person with a fantastic looking lunch….
So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!
The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!
As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)
Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.
Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.
NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.
The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!
Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!
Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!
Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.
First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.
It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!
One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.
We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!
As most of you know part of the Cairngorm reindeer herd lives over near Tomintoul on the Glenlivet Estate. We first took part of the herd over to our hill farm back in the early 1990’s and to this day the herd is split between Glenlivet and Cairngorm.
Over the winter months the reindeer at Glenlivet are up on the Cromdale range but by the end of April it is time to bring them down for the summer closer to the farm. Reindeer love routine and by the time we get to the last few days of April the reindeer are expecting to be on the move.
From now onwards it is all about eating. With spring just about here many of the reindeer are beginning to grow their new antlers and need to put on weight, lost over the winter. They need extra sustenance to achieve this and the winter diet of lichens and last years vegetation is not enough. The new spring growth and the extra feed we give them is what’s needed. Appetite increases many fold and to be absolutely honest everything we give them, they eat.
Every farmer up in the Highlands of Scotland will tell you that this year spring is really late. Whether it is the fields of grass that need to grow for hay and silage later in the year or the newly sown spring barley, the weather has just been too cold. And despite and recent few days of incredibly high temperatures it is not enough to kickstart the growing season yet. New vegetation on the higher ground is also absent so even more reason for us to be feeding the reindeer more than normal for the time of year.
Annually, every single reindeer in the herd must get a routine vaccination to protect them against various diseases. This is an injection that can leave them feeling a bit worse for wear the next day, but it’s only for 24 hours and as it’s important injection they just have to suck it up!
Our herd here on Cairngorm conveniently crossed over to the Cas side of the mountains of their own accord and we jumped at the chance to get them into the mountain enclosure to give them the vaccine. Unfortunately it was only three quarters of the group but we still decided to go ahead, hoping the others would show face in the next day or two. As predicted they did and although we left the herd feeling a bit off-colour they quickly got over it and are all now back out free ranging. Read Mel’s account of last year’s jabs here.
The next step was doing the same at our Glenlivet site over on the Cromdale hills. This requires a lot more energy as the reindeer are always fairly ‘clued up’ to what we are doing by gathering them into the corral at the bottom of the hill. So after locating where they were that morning, Alex, Abby, Derek and myself set off on the quad bike for a very bumpy journey to the top where we were greeted by 80 hungry-looking reindeer. And who was number one to run over but the famous Fergus! Both Abby and I hadn’t seen Fergus since he joined the herd on the Cromdales in early January so it was great to see him again.
Tilly and Colin then joined us and Tilly set off with Dragonfly on a halter leading the herd down the hill while Alex, Abby and myself were on foot pushing and Derek was on the all-important quad bike to turn back the naughty ones who tried to break away. It was all going so well then the whole lot managed to get themselves over a burn (small river) onto another hillside, but we persevered and after a lot of running around to catch up with them (they have four legs we only have two!) we managed to get them back following Tilly and Dragonfly into our corralled area.
There was only one slight hitch in the form of Gnu… an eight-year-old Christmas reindeer who always gives us the run around and he did manage to slip the net, so all we saw at the end was his bottom disappearing over the skyline in the distance. We had some words to describe him at the time which I won’t repeat on here! I have to say if it wasn’t for the speed and technical driving of Derek on the quad bike we would have lost a lot more than just Gnu. We will catch up with him… when he least expects it! Lets hope he doesn’t read these blogs…
So with all the reindeer in and fed we got through the injections very smoothly. It was nice to see the male reindeer after so long and the youngsters had grown up lots over the winter with the great grazing up there. The bulls have already started growing their new velvet antlers and all in all they were looking in fantastic condition!
It has often amused me that the most arctic living of the deer species, i.e. reindeer and caribou are not called ‘snow deer’. Apart from the obvious and appropriate descriptive title of an animal so ‘at home’ in the snow, I have always thought it would have been a rather attractive name for them as well!
There are plenty of occasions over the winter when our reindeer experience truly arctic conditions and so for me anyway in winter they become our ‘snow deer’. Part of the Cairngorm herd spends the winter on the Cromdale hills, which are situated to the north east of the Cairngorm mountain massif. Despite not being as high as the Cairngorms and so not quite the same exposure to wintry weather, the Cromdales still get their fair share of snow and so our ’snow deer’ here can experience pretty wild conditions.
These are a few photos taken a couple of years ago when in blizzard conditions our snow deer were quite at home. Not sure the same can be said for me!
There are no winter conditions that drive these animals off the hill. They have incredible soft thick coat which provide all the insulation they need against the cold. Their broad flat feet make it both easy for them to walk across the snow and dig down through the snow to their favourite winter food, lichen and in blizzard conditions they face the prevailing wind which keeps their coats ‘flat’ and so trapping air between the hairs to create another insulating layer. It does mean though that they end up with ‘ice packs’ on their foreheads.
Knowing how well adapted they are to snow, many people ask me whether reindeer like the milder weather we have come to experience more of in recent years. Indeed as I write this today, the 24th January 2016 the day is decidedly ‘spring like’, there’s no snow, no wind or rain, the grass is looking quite green and I can wander around outside without a jacket on. As far as our reindeer are concerned I suspect it just makes it easier for them, as they don’t need to expend energy digging down through the snow to find food. But that’s not to say they wouldn’t prefer to be lying on a soft bed of snow.
As the schools go back, and the Christmas decorations, sleighs and harness are packed away at the end of another busy but successful season, the Reindeer Centre closes its doors to the public for a wee break. Of course we don’t get an actual holiday, the reindeer still like to be fed, but we put every single member of the herd out to free-range on the mountains. The boys head on over to the Cromdale mountains (where their lazy habit of hanging out on car parks can be prevented!) whilst most of the cows and calves go onto the Cairngorm range. The enclosure, and paddocks down in Glenmore, stand empty.
Every day we still drive up the mountain road early, spying for reindeer. Sometimes they make our job easy, like when the herd decide to get our attention and wait on the car park. It’s a bit of a giveaway when we see a traffic jam in an unusual place – you can guarantee there are a few females hanging out at the front of it, with excited tourists abandoning their cars to take photos!
Other times we spot the reindeer a long way away, and on a good day they’ll hear you calling and run a mile or more to reach you. One of my favourite moments is when you see the distant dots on a faraway mountainside suddenly start streaming down towards you, looking alarmingly similar to ants until they transform into reindeer!
Winter is when the reindeer are in their element and whilst they’re always delighted to see us, if the weather prevents us finding them for a few days, or they decide to not be found, it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t need us. Their metabolisms slow right down in the winter months, and with shovel-like feet they have no difficulty digging through the snow for food.
Whilst it makes life fairly unpredictable (Will we find the reindeer? Will they come to call? Will I have to hike up a mountain in the snow and wind with a massive sack of feed on my back???) it’s a really fun time of the year, and great to see the reindeer loving life in their natural habitat.