By the time you read this, the rut will be underway here at Cairngorm, with our chosen breeding bulls split with selected unrelated females, to make sure we know who the parents of each calf are. While the bulls tend to be fairly relaxed and laid back for most of the year, as September comes to an end and the cows come into season, they start to “rut”, strutting around, posturing and rounding up their females, and challenging any other bull they see. Reindeer bulls don’t “roar” like some deer species (including the iconic Scottish red deer stag), instead they grunt. But one of the most noticeable changes for me is their smell.
Now, I don’t claim to have a particularly good sense of smell, but in general reindeer are fairly unsmelly creatures. However, a rutting bull is a different matter, and already, as I write in mid-September, our boys are getting stinky. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell – very musky and, well, masculine I suppose. One of the main reasons they smell so strong is that they begin deliberately peeing on their hindlegs. This always seemed a bit odd until I did my research and realised that reindeer, like all deer, have scent glands on the inside of their hocks, the tarsal glands. This gland produces an oily secretion, and when the natural bacteria on this area combines with pheromones in the urine, that distinctive scent is produced. Apparently every reindeer has a unique, individual scent, due to their own winning combination of bacteria, though I definitely don’t have a sensitive enough nose to be able to tell!
Why do they feel the urge to be so stinky?? Well, part of it must be as a statement of dominance – when I, as a mere human, can smell a bull from 100 metres away, the other reindeer must be able to smell them from… 800 metres?… a mile?? This must act as a deterrent to a weaker bull, and quite possibly as an attractant to a female in season – they definitely come looking for bulls when they’re ready.
We have a vague theory among us herders that the female herders notice the scent of the rutting bulls more than the male herders do. Quite what that means, I have no idea – perhaps the smell is designed more as an attractant to cows than a deterrent to bulls after all (not that any of us lassies have said that we actually like the smell!). Either that or the men amongst us are less sensitive when it comes to body odour!
Emm volunteers with us several times a year usually, and has been doing so for years now. Here’s her story of working in the summer and autumn seasons! Her recent blog about the winter and spring can be found here.
In summer I have been up in both July and August. The visitors are meeting the male reindeer in the hill enclosure. The female reindeer and the calves are free ranging on the Cairngorm Mountains.
The reindeer’s antlers have done the majority of their growth and the velvet is getting ready to strip away at the end of August. The reindeer are looking smart in their dark summer coats.
The weather can be hot in the summer. The flies bother the reindeer by flying noisily around them, sometimes the reindeer rush around to try to get away from the flies which tend to sit on their antlers as they can sense the blood supply in their growing antlers. We spray the reindeer’s antlers with citronella spray to protect them from the flies. Midges are also a problem in the summer for both reindeer and humans.
In one part of the enclosure, the reindeer have access to a shed for shade. One time when we got up there with the visitors, the reindeer were nowhere in sight. All 41 of them had gone into the small shed. The shed doesn’t look like it can fit 41 reindeer in but it is does, it is like a Doctor Who’s Tardis. One Hill Trip, I was herding them out of the shed, I realised that I hadn’t seen Blue – I found him in a small part of the shed asleep. Blue, who was deaf, didn’t hear his reindeer friends move on. The reason Blue was deaf is because he was leucistic (pure white with blue eyes). Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation. Leucistic reindeer are camouflaged in the snow.
There are three Hill Trips a day (during the week) in the hill enclosure and last year we did ‘Summer Fun’ in the Paddocks which involved feeling the weight of antlers, feeling the weight of a feed sack, Paddock reindeer talks and much more fun (N.B. This will return in 2021!). Reindeer House is busier as the seasonal summer staff are working as there is a lot going on with three Hill Trips a day and Summer Fun in the Paddocks.
One of the jobs in the summer is to water the garden as it is hot.
Last July, Olympic would stand by the gate like he was guarding it and wouldn’t let visitors out of hill enclosure. I kept having to go over to him and move him on.
In the Autumn, I normally come in October half term. The scenery is changing with leaves changing colour and leaves falling off the trees.
The reindeer’s winter coat is growing and most of the velvet has stripped off revealing the hard bone antler underneath.
It is the rutting and breeding season. Normally in different areas of the hill enclosure there is a bull with his girls. My two favourite breeding bulls are Houdini and Kota as they have massive magnificent antlers. When we feed the breeding bulls with their girls we have to be careful as they can be protective over their girls. We don’t take the visitors in with the bulls and their girls.
We do one Hill Trip a day in the hill enclosure. Normally in the afternoons we do sleigh training with the ‘Christmas reindeer’. We put the harnesses on them and harness them up to the sleigh. The reindeer pull the sleigh around Glenmore (where the Reindeer Centre is based). They even go on the road. It is so funny to see people’s faces when they drive past reindeer pulling a sleigh.
We also get to handle the calves to get them used to people. We sometimes take them on a walk around Glenmore in the morning.
I am busy learning the calves names and if I hadn’t been up in May, I am learning which calf belongs to who and meeting all of them. The calves are also getting their new ear tags.
One year, I was lucky enough to help out at a early Christmas parade at the very start of November which was very special. It was at The Cairngorm Mountain. We wore red Christmas jumpers and woolly hats with reindeer on them. The reindeer team were Mo, Spike, Sooty, Aonach and calves Morse and Poirot. Mo and Spike pulled the sleigh with Santa in it. It was so wet and so windy. The wind was 60 miles per hour. Santa was holding his hat on in the sleigh. Not many people turned up. We had to tie things on to the pen railings otherwise they would have flown away.
One of the other jobs in the autumn is to sweep up the leaves. At 4 o’clock it is starting to get dark. So we put the Paddock light on in the Paddocks so the visitors can still see the reindeer. When we put the reindeer to ‘bed’ in the woods and give them their tea, I normally put my head torch on.
My 2 Favourite Seasons
I have two favourite seasons which are autumn and spring.
In the autumn, I love doing the Christmas sleigh training, helping the calves get used to being handled, learning the calves names and seeing the reindeer with their newly formed antlers.
In the spring, I love seeing the newly born calves, seeing the reindeer being mums and hearing the grunts between mum and calf.
It’s an exciting time of year here at the Reindeer Centre as we are now well into the rut. Our main breeding bulls are looking fantastic with their bony antlers, thick necks and chubby bellies. The girls are also looking brilliant after a summer out on the free-range getting lots of tasty morsels and running around on the hills.
We’ve now got a few bulls in our enclosure with their selected cows and are hoping that they do their one and only job well and we will have lots of babies next year. As most of you know, our herd numbers around 150 and we like to keep it that way. We use the enclosure during the rut to manage our bulls and cows to make sure we get enough calves, but not too many. The single cows we are not breeding from, such as Lilac, Tuppence, Fonn and co., are put out onto the free-range and politely told to go and fend for themselves. Females with calves are kept separate from the bulls, but still in the enclosure. As well as the rut, we are currently halter training the calves so we need them on the hill, but we give most of the mums a year off between calves.
There are roughly 4 large parts in total to the enclosure. The cows and calves have one, and the other three each contain one main bull, his cows and sometimes a couple of castrates and young bulls. The three main bulls in the enclosure this year are Balmoral, Bandy and Ost. We have a couple of castrates and young bulls in with the main bull to keep him fit and on his toes. Whilst the castrates and young bulls will never challenge the main bull for dominance, he will chase them away from his ladies if he feels they are getting a little too close for comfort. It keeps our younger boys in check and means our bulls work off that belly they have been building over the summer.
We also have a bull, Bovril, out on the Cromdales with some younger girls. He’s a very lovely boy and his antlers have been cut off (like getting a hair cut when the antlers have hardened!) so he is not too much of a worry if you come across him. Recently Tilly had a very long walk when Bovril’s 8 cows turned up on the road between Bridge of Brown and Tomintoul! I think Bovril was too fat to follow the girls so hopefully they have been reunited up on the hills and he is keeping them in check now.
Hopefully the boys will perform and next year we will have lots of cute little babies again!
Since some of our female reindeer finally decided to join us at the hill enclosure, the rut has got underway. We use different sections of our 1,200 acre hill enclosure to help us manage the bulls during the rut, as it would be complete chaos if we just put them all in together and left them to get on with it! By splitting each bull with a small group of females, everything is a bit more relaxed and the big lads feel less at risk of losing their girls. We do, however, let some of the younger, smaller bulls “have a go” by letting them remain in with a big bull, and if they manage to sneak a female away and have their wicked way, then good for them. Of course, most of the time, they don’t stand a chance!
This year we have quite a few bulls who may be getting a chance to spread their genetics in the herd. As usual, most of these are of Swedish descent. Whilst we keep a record of the parentage of each calf born here, it is a lot easier to prevent inbreeding and promote genetic diversity if we use bulls that we know aren’t related to anyone else. Bovril, Gandi, Boxer, Nutti, Pera and Bandy all started their lives in Sweden, before joining our herd in 2011. After we have bred from them for a few years, they will join our Christmas team and live out the rest of their life as a part of the Cairngorm herd.
Bovril and Gandi are perhaps the biggest and most impressive of the boys this year, especially Bovril as he is black in colour, and whilst he’s actually very sweet natured, when he’s strutting his stuff and chasing away the other males he can look extremely intimidating! Pera is another black reindeer, but is slightly smaller than Bovril. He is easily recognised due to having rather bizarre antlers – the top points point forwards rather than backwards. As antler shape is determined genetically, it will be interesting to see what the antlers of Pera’s offspring turn out like!
Boxer is another dark coloured reindeer, but Nutti is much lighter and has a white nose, as does Gandi. Bandy is the one right in the middle – what we would call a “normal” colour. He’s quite a slight build and a bit less scary than the other big bulls, but is perfectly capable of holding a group of females.
Of our Scottish born bulls, three-year-old Balmoral is the biggest and most impressive. He comes from a great family line – Fly is his mum – and his family has a good record for producing big strong calves with large antlers, so hopefully any offspring he fathers will inherit these traits. A few of the younger bulls may also get a look in – notably Cambozola, Mo and Atlantic are convinced that they are handsome enough to win over any female… its just a case of whether they can steal them away from the big lads or not!
Watching the bulls performing is always entertaining – unlike the red deer stags who roar their challenge at other males, reindeer bulls merely grunt. They also lick their lips, pee on their hind legs and generally swagger around thinking they’re the bees knees. Personally, they remind me of drunken lads out on the town, but they do seem to have some degree of success at impressing the cows. Quite how successful will only be proven next year in May!