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.
Here’s a wee round up of day two of our 65th Anniversary weekend…
After a good night’s kip we were all up bright and early (well, early at least, not sure about the bright!) for another day of fun, this time over at our Glenlivet hill farm. We have a second base there, about an hour’s drive from the Reindeer Centre, where some of our male reindeer spend the summer months, and which also gives us access to the Cromdale mountains for brilliant winter grazing.
Hen and myself headed straight over to help Tilly set up at the farm, collecting some fallen branches covered with lichen for visitors to feed to our reindeer on the way. We arrived to find everything already looking quite organised, but the first big job was to move some of the reindeer from their normal daytime area – a sloping field with access to a large airy barn – down to the garden ready to meet their adopters. Hen was primed with a list of which reindeer had someone coming to see them, and we both made our way through the reindeer, who were munching away at their breakfast, popping head collars on the first 10, who we distributed between the various helpers we had, before we led them down the yard and let them loose in the fenced garden. The reindeer thought this was thoroughly exciting, and Blue in particular went leaping and bucking off down the hill! We went back for a second run, and a partial third run, before leaving the shier and older reindeer to relax in the peaceful barn for the day.
By now, much to my delight, Aye Coffee had arrived to provide me with my vital caffeine intake for the day and were setting up their van, Derek was prepping the meat for the BBQ (low food miles indeed!) and Alan had moved a group of the Iron Age pigs down to a pen near the garden for the day, which they were cheerfully rooting up. Alan then quickly made himself scarce, not to be seen for the rest of the day (probably busy running up a hill somewhere!). The first adopters were arriving and the drizzle was just starting to dry up. There was a roaring fire going in the BBQ hut, which was the perfect antidote to any chilly fingers.
As adopters arrived, we tracked down reindeer for them and made introductions. October is peak rutting season, so all of our young bulls were in a separate pen, and we mostly headed in ourselves and brought adopted reindeer down to meet their adopters at the gate, to save anyone accidentally getting caught between teenage bulls who were full of hormones!
In the garden, everyone was handing out lichen lollipops, and the reindeer were very relaxed – by the afternoon most of them were lying down fast asleep between groups of visitors. Tilly had arranged tractor and trailer tours, but had underestimated their popularity, so the first tour was one tractor and trailer, but by the last tour there was a progression of tractor and trailer, landrover, and quad bike and trailer! Despite our slight lack of organisation with them, everyone seemed to have a blast and most people who wanted to go on it did (possibly with the exception of myself!).
By 4pm, the BBQ was finished, the coffee van packing away, and the last adopters were heading home. There wasn’t too much to do except pack away the information boards, run the reindeer from the garden back up to the hill, lead the herd up onto the open hill for the night, and feed the bulls. And then, most importantly, head out for a celebratory meal ourselves! (Thanks Tilly!)
We certainly had a lovely weekend, and great to meet so many people (old friends and new). We hope you all enjoyed yourselves too. We’ll do it all again for our 70th (once we’ve forgotten how much organisation it all took…)
They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.
A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.
The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.
In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!
When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.
The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.
We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.
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.
Here at our Glenlivet farm one of the best times of day is the evening, when the reindeer are herded back out onto the hill for the night. As they slowly walk up through the birch wood, clicking as they go, the wood is alive with songbirds singing as they flit from tree to tree.
The birch wood is rich with young leaves to browse, moist tree lichens to nibble and underfoot fresh herbs and grasses to graze on. So the reindeer take a while to wend their way up to the top of the wood.
Yesterday evening as I reached the open hill with the reindeer in front of me, a pair of curlew were circling above us, madly calling and quite upset that we had disturbed them. Their calls became agitated and one of them landed in front of the reindeer and scuttled ahead trying to lead the reindeer away. It’s at this point that I realised why there is such a commotion. Minute, our biggest three year old bull with very long velvet antlers, was looking inquisitive with his nose close to the ground. Right in front of him was a brown and creamy white fluffy ball of young feathers, a curlew chick, probably only hatched the day before. Minute looked as surprised as the chick at their encounter and turned to join the herd while the wee chick scuttled into the rushes.
Peace returned as the reindeer headed for the hills and the parents of the chick realised the danger had gone. I walked back down through the wood, the sun setting and the songbirds still calling.