Dressed for Winter

‘There is no such thing as bad weather, merely unsuitable clothing’. It’s a great phrase this and one that is on display in the Reindeer Centre, to warn people to be well prepared for the hill visit to the reindeer (even in summer sometimes!).

In the animal kingdom, a number of the arctic animals change their coats in winter and in the case of reindeer they not only grow thicker coats but also their coats turn lighter in colour, in some cases pure white.

Reindeer on snow
Reindeer snoozing comfortably in the snow – Lilac (right) is currently our oldest reindeer at nearly 17 years old

The change in colour is associated with shortening day length and there are obvious benefits from being white or very light coloured when it comes to camouflage in snow. But it is also the case that white hair is more insulating than dark hair. White hair lacks pigmentation and nothing replaces this, leaving pockets of air, a very good insulator. So I suppose that means that when the reindeer grow their winter coats they have more airy hair! Indeed the reindeer never cease to amaze me, on the coldest of days, they are high up in the snow, on the exposed ridges, lying around, resting, ruminating and I suspect positively enjoying the weather which we shelter from in our warm houses.

Harry, Minto and Bajaan Dec 08
White reindeer – this photo was taken back in 2008 of male reindeer Harry, Minto and Bajaan

In the herd we do have a few reindeer who are actually pure white: Blondie, Lego and Blue to name just three of them. Knowing that white hair has more insulation does that mean they have the warmest coats? They certainly always look very comfortable in the snow.

Mountain hare
A mountain hare in its winter coat, spotted whilst I was completing my 146th munro!

Over the last few weeks I have regularly seen mountain hares, which live in a similar habitat to our reindeer but are also quite widespread across many of the Scottish hills. They too turn white in winter and like the reindeer have relatively large feet which act as snowshoes making running seem effortless as they hurry across snowfields.

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Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta). Photo by Boaworm [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two other animals found in Scotland that also turn white: the ptarmigan, an arctic grouse that is found in many of the Scottish mountains above 2,000 – 2,500ft, and the stoat, which depending on how far north it lives also turns white, when it is then called stoat in ermine.

Stoat in ermine
Stoat in ermine – white with a black tail tip. Photo by Steven Hint [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like the reindeer and mountain hare, the reason the ptarmigan plumage turns white is for camouflage and warmth but I do sometimes wonder about the stoat in ermine. Although I have seen them in snow around the farm, all too often there is not a flake of snow to be found and they ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. But they are a very clever predator, predating mainly on rabbits. They are incredibly quick, will catch and kill prey 10 times bigger than themselves and appear to be completely fearless. They are sometimes thought to ‘hypnotise’ their prey, maybe the white coat and black tip to their tail somehow confuses the rabbit!

Tilly

Is Spring Sprung?

You’ll all have noticed on our Facebook page the lovely snowy photos we’ve been taking with the reindeer. When news channels report that it’s going to be warm and sunny, that the daffodils are out and spring is in the air, we are usually still huddled under our blankets, heating on full with no sign of those bright yellow trumpets. However, we’ve had a few gloriously sunny days here in Glenmore, so thought we’d do a quick round up of pictures (as evidence!) before the warm weather disappears and we get snow again.

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Snowy day with grey cloudy skies and reindeer eating off the line
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Snow and a little reindeer off to the side

This was the picture last week – snowy, but pretty. The reindeer do love the snow and when you get snow and sunshine, it’s just bliss.

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Reindeer, snow and sunshine – bliss!
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Snowy hills, blue skies

One week later, and it’s full on sunshine and cloud inversions. I drove to work in mist and fog, thinking it would be a cold, grey day on the hill. To my surprise, and delight, the sun was shining as we drove higher up and on my morning mission to find reindeer, I was down to just a tshirt. The fog cleared and we had a gloriously sunny and hot visit. The poor reindeer were feeling the heat a little, but are great at dumping heat when temperatures occasionally soar.

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Clarinet, and unidentified reindeer bum, with hills and cloud

 

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Cloud inversion and hill tops
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Gloriana and co enjoying the sun
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Our office
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Little Arrochar having a lie down

Since the weather has been so good, we’ve been getting on with our outside jobs, some painting and tidying up that is just too hard to face when the weather is miserable. We even found a little newt in the garden as we were raking! I thought maybe I’d raked over him a little too hard (by accident, of course!) but he was a resilient wee thing and we rehomed him to a wee burn.

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Newt!

There is a thick harr over Glenmore today, and unfortunately I think the weather is going to change next week. It was good while it lasted though!

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Okapi looking majestic

 

Imogen

Starting a new life

Just over a week ago, I waved goodbye to my work colleagues in London, where I’d lived for eleven years, jumped in a van, and travelled the 500 miles (so cliche!) to Glenmore to begin my new life at Reindeer House.

London
Last day in London

Three years volunteering with the herd during holidays seeded the thought of moving at the back of my mind. Late in 2015 I thought, “What am I waiting for?” and decided to up sticks, leave my lovely job and lovely colleagues, and life in the city.

Corries
A view of the corries

Waking up to snow-covered hills and a single stream of cars heading for the ski slopes is slightly different to the hordes of people packed onto commuter trains and tubes heading for their glass and steel open-plan offices.

Plateau
Up on the plateau with Sookie
Sookie
Snowy selfies!

Mountains, forests, and fresh air give so much, which cities simply cannot give you – despite the parks and open spaces and being outdoors. The landscape here gives and teaches different things, as equally important, and gives a different outlook on life.

Plants
How I now spend my evenings – learning about plants with Sookie asleep nearby!

I am looking forward to making my way here!

Sarah

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Flake

I thought maybe I’d start an occasional blog series remembering particular characters in the herd who are no longer with us, because some readers amongst you may have met them once upon a time, and those of you that didn’t can at least have a brief glimpse of some of the most memorable reindeer from our herd.

Flake
Flake with her beautiful antlers

I scrolled through our photo archive of reindeer no longer with us, and my eye alighted on Flake. Well, there is a fine place to start! Plenty of memorable things about Flake, and what a fabulous reindeer she was over the years. I first met her in summer 2009, having been away for several months, and arrived back and headed up to the hill enclosure for the first time. Most of the reindeer there I recognised, or managed to work out pretty quickly, but who was this bull with a blue ear tag? Quite narrow, upright antlers compared to some, but still a very good size, and ‘clean’ in design rather than the chaotic, many tined antlers of the castrate males. I was flummoxed. Turns out it was Flake, in the enclosure for the summer months rather than out free-ranging like the other females, due to her calf Diddly (who we’ll get to in a tick).

Flake
Flake was a beautiful reindeer

Flake’s fabulous antlers set her apart from many of the other cows, as they were much more elaborate than the average female set and a very decent size most years. In 2009 however, the year I first saw her, they were a particularly fine set and there is a specific reason for that…

Flake was a notoriously bad breeding female. Her calving record, filed away on our computer here, is basically a list of disaster after disaster, from stillborn calves, to ones that got stuck and needed pulling out by the vet, to premature twins, you name it. In 2011 she produced a calf who had a problem with his joints, probably not helped by the fact that Flake had calved right next to a large boulder which he had promptly got stuck beneath! The entry on her records for her final calf Brave, born in 2012, reads ‘Normal!!!!’.

But before that, in 2009, there was Diddly. Born prematurely, she was tiny, so much so that she couldn’t reach Flake’s udder. Even if she had been able to, Flake didn’t produce any milk that year anyway, so right from the start we had to hand-rear her, bottle feeding through the night to start with.

Heather feeding Diddly
Heather working hard to look after Diddly, while Flake stands by
Diddly
Diddly was so tiny!

Flake and Diddly started off in the paddocks, then eventually moved up to the hill enclosure for the remainder of the summer and the autumn. And that is the reason for Flake’s great antlers – while we slaved away feeding Diddly for the first 5 months of her life, Flake basically sat back and let us do all the work – a ‘designer mum’. All the energy going into her body from the feed we lug up the hill every day went straight to her antler growth rather than to milk production. The antlers of the other females, out on the high tops foraging for themselves, all showed the detrimental effects of the effort of raising a calf, being smaller and wigglier, but not Flake. She resided in state in the hill enclosure all summer, fat as butter and with fancy headgear, with a queue of reindeer herders tending to her every need and raising her calf for her!

Flake and Diddly
Flake and Diddly when I first met them in August 2009

 

Flake and Diddly
Flake with the grown up Diddly in February 2011

Flake passed away in 2013, an old girl by that point. Very sadly, Diddly followed later that year, but not before producing her son Crowdie, who is now nearly 3 years old and a great fun wee reindeer. Diddly was an interesting character in her own right as she never produced any antlers at all, remaining bald for her whole life, a little quirk that sometimes happens with female reindeer.

Hen

Normal Service Resumes

We’re back! As you regular readers will know, the Reindeer Centre has been closed to the public for about 5 weeks while we spruce the place up for all you lovely people, and get all the maintenance jobs done after yet another busy year.

We opened back up last Saturday and awaited the masses with baited breath. It was a pretty minging day i.e. it was howling a gale up the hill and there was a bit of rain/sleet, but still the people came to see our beautiful beasts.

Waiting reindeer
The reindeer await their visitors

We had around 10 cars on the visit, a respectable but, thankfully, manageable number for our return to visits. Hen and I drove up to the Ciste, and braced ourselves as we opened the doors to the biting wind. We gathered in our visitors and explained what we were going to do, and to be careful on the slippy stairs, and then headed off into the wilds.

At this time of the year, the reindeer are all out free-ranging on the mountains, so our visits could be to a different place every day. The path out to the reindeer that day included lots of boggy bits, and wasn’t particularly a path, but we made it out to the reindeer in one piece, stopping to let people catch up when needed. Thankfully, we were walking with the wind on the way out, so it wasn’t too bad.

Hen called the reindeer and I spoke, very loudly, about their adaptations while the girls made their way over to us. We put the food out, the girls tucked into their lunch, and we started the handfeeding.

Visit
A slightly nicer second-visit-of-the-year – the expectant reindeer following the excited visitors and a herder with a bag of food!

Despite the pretty rubbish weather, everyone seemed to enjoy meeting the reindeer. We were sometimes blown over by the wind, and I often had my eyes closed as I talked to the visitors because I had to face into the wind, but it was great getting back into the routine of a visit.

The next time the Centre is scheduled to close is Christmas Day, so this is one of many visits we’ll be taking throughout the year. Hopefully we won’t have to cancel too many over the winter months, and before we know it, it will be summer and we’ll be starting trekking!

Imogen

 

A Reindeer Herder’s Job in January

Reindeer
Expectant reindeer – food is always welcome!

You all know Christmas is our busy time of year, however you also know that reindeer are not just for Christmas, so what happens after all the commercial pursuits we undertake and those many visits onto the hill throughout the year…? Well, this is a reindeer herder’s favourite time of the year as the Centre is closed and for once in the year we feel like we can start to get back on top of things!

First and most important job is to get the reindeer into their correct locations for the winter. They are split between the Cromdale hills over near our Glenlivet hill farm and here on Cairngorm. We don’t use our mountain enclosure from January through to April/May (in time for calving). It’s a time of year reindeer are in their absolute element and what this species is all about – the cold, snow and thick winter coats. The split tends to be boys to the Cromdales and girls on Cairngorm however some females do also go onto the Cromdales as well.

Santana
Santana leading the herd up – single file through the snow to save energy.

We still like to see the reindeer everyday so we know where they are and therefore we feed and check them every morning. This means heading up and spying from our various points along the hill road where we get the best views of their hot spots. A reindeer herder’s eye is well trained and can spot the reindeer way before anyone else. A lot of the time we don’t even reach for the binoculars – we just know the lay of the land so well that we know which ‘reindeer shaped rocks’ are indeed rocks and which ones are actually the reindeer! The weather has a big part to play in this so no snow means we find the reindeer quickly, lots of snow means the darker reindeer stick out, however that annoying mottled, patchy snow is the worst to spot reindeer in as they are so camouflaged. High winds keep them off the high tops and closer to the tree line, sunny weather often means they are happy just to have a chilled out day soaking it up… just like us!

Feeding the herd
Mel hefting just some of the daily rations – it certainly keeps us fit lugging feed out into the mountains!

So once found we head out and give them a good feed, count and check them. Even the dogs benefit from this part as they get to come part of the way out. Obviously they can’t mix with the reindeer however Sookie and Tiree are both now trained to wait wherever we ask them. Sometimes we are feeding and checking the reindeer and look back to the dogs and all we see is their wee faces poking above the heather watching our every move and the reindeer don’t even notice them!

Dogs in the snow
Sometimes the dogs look all majestic… (Tiree, Moskki and Sookie)
Windblown dogs
… sometimes not so much! Looking windblown – Murdo, Sookie and Tiree

Once the morning is complete and reindeer fed and checked its back down to the centre to complete our long list of ‘January Jobs’. This may be painting the exhibition floor in the paddocks, fixing fences and gates, oiling the Christmas harness (ready to pack away for another year), going through every single event folder and reading all the reports, making up adoption packs, cleaning, packing away the endless decorations put up at Christmas etc, etc, etc… But being closed means we can also make the most of the good weather. If the sun is shining and snow conditions allow some of us keen skiers head for the hills for a day on the snow! Needless to say the dogs like this part too as they get to come along. This does turn us into fair weather skiers, however we spend plenty of time in the hills being blown off our feet and getting soaked to the bone, to pick and choose when we can go skiing only seems fair!

The honeymoon must come to an end though so on the 6th February we re-open our doors and get back to our daily routine of 11am guided tours. It’s all fine and well it being a nice time of year for us herders but we wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for our many visitors to the Centre supporting our lovely herd of reindeer in the Cairngorms!

Fiona

How to move your reindeer

Visitors to the Centre often ask how on earth we get our free-ranging reindeer into the enclosure. The answer I give is “shake a bag of food”… whilst it sounds too simple, it can really be that easy. All of our herd are currently out on the mountains, but occasionally its easier to move them into an open part of the enclosure to feed them, out of the way of passers-by, and dogs who may like to chase them. This morning we went to spy round the roads and the tell-tale car pulled over with its hazards flashing gave away the presence of the herd who were picking at grazing through the snow just below the road. We pulled up and here’s their journey following me and a bag of food over to the enclosure…

Freerange
Once the herd are spied, it just takes a call to get them thundering towards you (on a good day). Not just any call though – they can differentiate between a herder and a tourist!
Freerange
When it’s snowy, the easiest route is often straight down the main road – thankfully pretty quiet at this time of day.
Freerange
Off the road and we start cutting across and downhill. Glenshee is delighted to lead the way – it’s often the calves who are the greediest and most confident!
Freerange
The intended route – down the steep slope to the bridge, over the river and up the other side to the enclosure. The gate in is near the shed.
Freerange
Sometimes there’s a bit of hesitation at the top of the bank, but today the girls were happy to come straight down.
Freerange
Down the slope and onto the bridge.
Freerange
I’m always amused by the herd trotting neatly over the bridge in single file – why get wet feet when you don’t have to – great trail left down the hill too. Reindeer will walk single file through the snow to conserve energy.
Freerange
Along the path up the other side – if you’ve been on our hill visit you may recognise this path! Sometimes the girls charge past up the hill, but today they were content to potter along behind.
Freerange
Plodding up the path…
Freerange
… and in through the enclosure gate. We often feed the free-ranging reindeer inside the hill enclosure, with the gates left open, as it gives them a bit more safety from being hassled by dogs.
Freerange
Food out as their reward as the snow sets in – happy reindeer and happy herders – just 10 minutes after we set off, a successful morning complete.

Andi

Winter Holidays

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.

Okapi Lace Ciste
Lace and Okapi posing!

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!

Returning Escapees
The herd appears up the hill, completing their transformation from dots into reindeer

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!

Cailin
Beautiful Cailin, one of our older reindeer, waits for the rest of the herd to join us

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.

Lilac
Lilac, a bit of a legend at an incredible 16 1/2 years old, has a stretch after a nap. We often leave the top part of the hill enclosure open so the free-ranging reindeer can join us to ‘request’ food, whilst safely out of the way of hill-walkers and dogs.

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.

Nepal Merrick
“Mum, you’re embarrassing me…” Merrick looking sheepish as mum Nepal gives him a good wash round the ears.

Andi

Attack of the Flying Beasts

First off, I’m not talking about the reindeer in that heading. Reindeer only fly at Christmas time after Santa has given them the magic powder and our lovely reindeer don’t attack.

I am of course talking about the flying mini beasts – flies, bugs and, the worst of the worst, midges. Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland without those little terrors, and they are a sign that summer has finally arrived here in Cairngorm, but they aren’t my friends. We love this infomatic from Mackays Holidays:

Midges-Info-graphic-alt-2
Visit Mackays Holidays for more top tips!

No one here likes the midge, including the reindeer. With the heat rising above 20°C and them still having some of their winter coat, our boys are feeling the heat. In hot weather we often give them access to the shed to hide from the heat – you’d be amazed how many come running out at feeding time.

They are also bothered by the flies and midges, but there’s not much we can do there, apart from douse them with fly repellent. As much as I’d like to eradicate midge for both my own and the reindeer’s comfort, they are an important food source for birds, toads and frogs, and bats.

Our boys cope with the midges fairly well; in the paddocks they hide under our shelter shed and up on the hill avoid stagnant pools where midge breed and shake to get rid of the biting bullies. Sometimes it’s like watching a little reindeer dance: they stomp their back foot a few times, then the other, a little shake, a few more stomps, and then if the midges are really ferocious, they’ll burst off in a sprint, jumping and kicking the air. It’s quite funny to watch!

We also spotted Oryx doing something a bit odd. It was the end of a visit, and we were heading to the gate to leave the enclosure. A few boys followed us, no doubt thinking there’d be more food. There’s a large muddy patch just at the gate, which usually the reindeer don’t bother with, but this time Oryx got into the big puddle and just stood there. He seemed pretty content, so he was left to his own devices while Fran and I did some poo picking (the glamorous lives we lead). Eventually he decided his spa treatment was finished and got out of the mud bath. He looked ridiculous with mud socks up to his ankles, but he seemed pretty happy with himself.

Oryx enjoying the mud
Oryx enjoying the mud

It’s known that red deer wallow, or bathe in mud, but the cause for this is still unknown. Some think it may be to reduce ectoparasites, while others believe it is to cool down. I’m not sure it’s ever been recorded in reindeer before (a quick Google search didn’t come up with much) but I think Oryx may have been trying to avoid the midges biting at his legs. Either that or he fancied a quick mud treatment at the ‘Spa de le Cairngorm’.

Imogen