Visitors often ask if the different coloured reindeer in our herd are different breeds, or even different species. The answer is no, they’re all reindeer just the same – they can vary in colour like horses, dogs and cats do. I thought I’d show a range of the colours found in our herd. Through the process of domestication, humans tend to select for colour variation, leading to a greater variety in domesticated species than wild ones. They stay the same colour throughout their life, though the colour is richer in their summer coat and lighter in winter.
Reindeer can also have white markings – I’ll look at this in a future blog!
A common question we’re asked, usually after spending some time with the reindeer and noticing their beautiful big feet, is whether we need to trim their hooves. Reindeer are endowed with large feet with four toes to each hoof: two main weight bearing toes which do most of the work, plus two smaller and higher up toes which only touch the ground when on soft surfaces (snow or bog), when they spread out like a large snow shoe and mean reindeer can traverse snow drifts a lot easier than humans.
In general our answer is no, we don’t have to routinely trim the hooves of our reindeer. Just like our own nails, the hard outer hoof continues growing constantly throughout their lives, but as they are roaming fair distances each day over rough, rocky and stony mountainous ground, the amount of wear tends to balance this out and means their toes stay nice and neat. Of course there is no one out trimming the hooves of wild caribou and other deer, who get through their entire lives with perfectly shaped hooves, and as our herd are in the correct habitat with plenty of movement, they are usually fine without intervention.
However, there is always the exception to the rule. There are perhaps three reasons why we sometimes do need to dust off the hoof trimmers. First up is that we’re found our pure white reindeer (step forward Blondie and Matto in particular) have hooves that, for whatever reason, seem to grow faster than those of their darker coloured compatriots. Once or twice a year we’ll decide they are a little lengthy and have a trim to keep everything in place. Over-long hooves can cause all kinds of problems, especially putting pressure on their joints as their foot cannot sit correctly, so everything becomes misaligned. There’s an old saying “No foot, no horse”, and it applies equally to reindeer – without happy feet they can’t lead a happy life.
The second reason is if a reindeer has an injury or abnormality meaning a toe or whole hoof doesn’t receive the same amount of wear. Jute has one hoof which tends to grow a bit differently to normal, curving inwards instead of straight, which then prevents the edge wearing down in the usual manner. It’s no problem at all to him as long as we keep an eye on it and trim it as needed, but if we didn’t it could cause him difficulty walking as it grew.
And the third reason, embarrassingly, is pure laziness. This is where I’m going to point the finger squarely at some of our middle-aged males, the ones who can’t always be bothered to head off and graze as a real reindeer should, but who would much rather just lie waiting at the gate for their next meal to be served (Hamish, I’m looking at you). The straightforward reason that their hooves are too long is that they haven’t done anywhere near enough exercise to wear them down in balance with the rate that they’re growing. Perhaps we need to start a fitness club?! Funnily enough, there’s not a single female reindeer who falls into this category…
Thankfully, trimming the hooves of our reindeer is stress free. Every single reindeer in our herd is halter-trained as a calf and is well used to being around humans. That means that if we spot their hooves need some TLC we simply catch them, pop a headcollar on, and whilst one herder occupies them with a bucket of tasty treats, another herder gets to work with a pair of snips to cut back the hard outer hoof. There is no feeling in this section of the foot so no discomfort is caused, and despite the fact that we never work at teaching reindeer to have their feet lifted like you would with a horse, they very quickly cotton on to the fact that nothing bad is happening and just let you get on with it. We never need to use tranquillisers in order to trim hooves, or hold the reindeer in place by force.
My personal favourite technique is to crouch by a front leg, rest their knee on my knee, which leaves me two hands free to trim their hoof! Sometimes two hands are needed to cut through the tough hoof, especially on the old boys (hey, Elvis!) who have real “old man toenails”!
We’re pretty proud of how good our reindeer are at standing to have their hooves trimmed.
Whilst I’m normally based over at the main visitor centre in Glenmore, with the current chaotic situation I’m spending a lot more of my time at our second base, the hill farm at Glenlivet. The Smiths have farmed there since 1990, specializing in native breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle, Soay sheep and Wild boar crosses, plus of course extra summer hill grazing for our lovely reindeer herd. I thought I’d give all of you wonderful folk a snapshot of one of my typical days at the farm…
7.15am: Up bright and early, it’s a glorious sunny day outside. Breakfast, pack my lunch (leftovers from last night, win!) and plenty of snacks, just like the reindeer my appetite is never satisfied!
7.55am: Out of the house to head over to the farm. It’s about a 35 minute drive for me, and at the moment it’s rare for me to pass more than a couple of cars. Not a bad commute!
8.30am: Arrive at the farm and make a plan for the day. The morning is usually spent feeding the animals. I load up the quad bike, a lifesaver when lugging heavy feed up hilly fields!
9am: First stop, the pigs. We have a mix of Wild boar and Tamworth, also known as “Iron Age” pigs. They get fed first because if you leave them too late they make a pretty big effort to break out and come and find the food themselves! When I first met the pigs years ago, I was a little daunted as they charge up and down grunting and slathering ready to eat, but actually they’re pretty well behaved and haven’t attempted to nibble on me yet!
Next up are some of the Soay sheep and Red deer. Soays are quite wild in nature, a lot more skittish than most sheep you’ll meet, which also means they’re hardy and self-sufficient, rarely needing any assistance lambing or seeking much shelter from the weather. But they do enjoy some extra feed! The red deer are very different from the reindeer, much livelier and jumpier, but come charging after the quad in expectation! Their antlers are growing at an insane rate – every time I see them they seem to be a few inches bigger…
10am: After reloading the quad with more feed, it’s up the hill to check on the reindeer. Throughout spring we have the male reindeer in what we call the “French” enclosure, as it’s where we initially housed our reindeer who joined us from France in 1995 (original hey?!). There is a large shed which is handy for providing shade and also for handling the reindeer for vaccinations etc, and the enclosure extends right up onto the hillside, providing natural grazing.
The reindeer have pretty good body clocks and are ready and waiting, and cheerfully come in to eat their food from the troughs round the shed. This gives us an opportunity to check everyone looks happy and healthy – we’re already into tick season, and these biting pests can make our reindeer poorly. Today though, everyone is fine, so after chatting to everyone and admiring their lovely antlers, also growing fast though nowhere near as large as the ones on the red deer, it’s back down the hill.
11.30am: Powered by a good cup of coffee (essential!) and a snack, my next job is mixing up a big batch of reindeer feed. We have worked out a good combination which is perfect as a supplement to the natural grazing our reindeer have on the hills. They do love their feed, it helps them put on body condition in the summer and maintain condition through winter, and means they’re pleased to see us every day – in the same way that I like to see people who have a habit of bringing me cake! We use a repurposed cement mixer to do the hard work for us, and bag it ready for the next few days of feeding the herd.
1pm: Lunch! Working outdoors makes you hungry, a great excuse to eat plenty of food! (I think I just take after the reindeer…).
1.45pm: I hitch up the snacker trailer to the back of the quad and fill it with feed for the Belted Galloway herd. The cattle were in fields in the glen, across the river, so getting there involves a bit of hopping on and off the quad to open and close gates. Once there, I run out the feed in a line and count the cattle to check they’re all present. It’s calving season and the new calves look incredibly fresh and clean, like they’ve just been through the wash!
3pm: The rest of the afternoon is taken up with odds and ends, sorting out a delivery of burgers and sausages into the appropriate freezers ready for sale, packing firewood into storage, and folding up tarpaulins… there is never a shortage of things to do on a farm, even when I can’t drive a tractor!
5pm: Homeward bound. I’m tired after being on my feet for most of the day, but I’m so grateful that I can spend my time like this – I’m appreciative of how lucky I am to be out in the country, working with animals and able to pretty much forget what is going on across our planet. The reindeer, cattle and sheep have no idea that our lives have changed so much in the past couple of months – they are still living life as normal and expect us to feed and care for them as normal. It’s a welcome break from the news and social media updates which can be pretty worrying at present. Whilst you may not be able to escape to a remote hill farm, I hope you can find your own escape if you’re finding things hard, whether that is in a good book, taking a new route for your daily exercise, or deciding to turn off your laptop and phone for a day. Take care all!