Sika, the ‘forgotten reindeer’

The eagle-eyed amongst you, or those who have followed us on social media for a long time, might have noticed a reindeer named Sika popping up on our pages once or twice in the last few months, having never heard of her before. So where has she come from? Is she ‘new’?!

Sika in 2016

In fact, she’s not remotely new – actually she’s rather old. Sika was born in 2008 and has been here her whole life, but this winter there’s been a bit of a turnaround in her character, which has taken all of us rather by surprise. Let me explain…

In 2008 we named our calves after ‘horned and antlered animal species’, and the name we picked for Malawi’s wee female calf was Impala. But time passed and Malawi and Impala weren’t seen for ages, and whilst winter crept on and all the other calves came into the hill enclosure and got used to being handled and were halter-trained, there was still no sign of the two. Eventually, Malawi showed up but she was alone, with no sign on Impala. Frustrated, we wrote off Impala as one of the losses that year – not every calf makes it to adulthood sadly.

And then in January 2009, a report reached us of a reindeer calf alone at the far end of the Kincardine hills, at the edge of the Cairngorms but not in a spot that reindeer normally stray to. Off we went to investigate, and there was a wee calf – alone and very shy. Eventually she was captured with the aid of some makeshift fencing and a small group of tame adult reindeer acting as decoys – but who was she? Process of elimination led us to realise she must be Impala, separated from Malawi accidentally at some point and then lost by herself in an area she didn’t know. But as we had had to ‘seek her’ (geddit?), and the name Sika hadn’t been used in that year’s naming theme, ‘Impala’ fell by the wayside and ‘Sika’ joined the herd instead.

Sika in her younger days

Christmas is the time that our calves receive most of their formative handling, transforming from effectively wild animals to tame ones well used to being around people. But Sika had missed this window, and while we did initially halter-train her, she remained very wild still in character compared to others, and quickly became a reindeer that we didn’t even consider trying to put a halter on in adult life. She lived her life up on the Cairngorms, never being brought down to our Paddocks or moved across to our alternative winter grazing range as moving her just wasn’t an option. A ‘background’ reindeer – never noticed by visitors (and often barely by us!), just there in the herd but never really featuring much or making any great impact on any of our lives. She has never even had an adopter – one of the very few reindeer in the herd with this dubious accolade.

In the hill enclosure for the rut a couple of years back, with Caterpillar and Cottage following on

Over the years Sika produced a couple of calves, but in general we avoiding breeding her to some extent as breeding a wild streak into our herd is not ideal. Her calves, few and far between, also turned out rather shy too, although not as bad as Sika herself. The one anomaly was Bordeaux, her only female calf, who was born in 2019 and is an absolute sweetie! We have no idea really why she has turned out the way she has – she certainly didn’t get her trust in humans from her mum!

Bordeaux – Sika’s mini-me

In the last 3 or 4 years we have put a lot more effort in to training our reindeer to come and put their heads into a feed bag and allowing us to touch them, in order to make it easier to catch and halter them when necessary. All winter when we’ve walked out to the herd first thing in the morning, before putting feed down on the ground for them we have wandered around the shyer reindeer, offering a bit of bribery in return for any positive behaviour towards us. For most reindeer this has worked wonders, and some characters that we could never have considered catching in the past (or at least whilst out in a large open space) are now easily won over – Inca, Suidhe and Roule have been our particular success stories! But as for Sika… she was a reindeer that would never really make eye contact but just turn away whenever a herder optimistically proffered a bag.

Looking beautiful, but always keeping her distance…

Fast forward to January 2022, and I snorted ‘Hmphh. Good luck!’ at Andi as she tried to catch Sika’s attention with the feed bag once again. But something was different. Just for a second she looked, before turning away again. Andi is like a dog with a bone in these situations, and I know I can push her to keep at something by telling her it isn’t worth bothering about (god bless you, reverse psychology) and sure enough she kept persisting. I almost fell over in surprise when, 5 minutes later, Sika had got to the point where she was stretching her neck out towards the feed bag, although not yet bold enough to put her nose right in it. This behaviour persisted from day to day until finally she snatched a mouthful… and a light-bulb went on somewhere in her little brain!

Success! Andi’s smile says it all 😀

Now, Sika is one of the first reindeer over to us each morning, actively hunting down the feed bag and keeping a close eye on it until she’s offered a wee extra nibble. I love to look around at the herd, patiently hanging around waiting for us, catch her eye and rustle the bag a tiny bit… and see that head lift a bit, her eyes widen and a lick of the lips in anticipation! All her attention is on us the whole time – so different from the years of ignoring, or even actively avoiding – us.

At the front of the herd and leading them in for feed, earlier this winter

She is still quite jumpy around us however, and is definitely not a reindeer we’re about to try and actually catch and put a halter on, but at 14 years old there’s no need to. We are just enjoying finally getting to know her after a lifetime of obscurity! I can’t express enough how surprised we all are to find out that Sika is actually a lovely character, after all these years…

Shy reindeer sometimes need defending whilst they grab a mouthful from the pushier members of the herd – ironically this intruder is Malawi, Sika’s mum! Malawi is now the oldest reindeer in the entire herd, at 17 years old, and of the opinion that any feed bag is presumably therefore all for her.

Hen

The difficulties of reindeer location at calving time

Most of the time our reindeer give birth in our 1200 acre mountain enclosure, not requiring any assistance or shelter whatsoever. Calves are born with a thick, waterproof calf coat, so anything the Scottish weather throws at them is not an issue. Our enclosure can be segmented into several different areas, so what we do is to have the herd of pregnant females in the main, largest, bit, and create a ‘nursery’ in a smaller area, known as the ‘Bottom Corridor’ (as opposed to the ‘Top Corridor’, unsurprisingly further up the hill). Pre-natal and ante-natal, if you will.

Cows and their calves in the Bottom Corridor ‘nursery’

When a cow is ready to calve she will generally head away from the herd, wanting her own space and peace and quiet. This may be a few hours before calving or it may be a couple of days, depending on the individual. We always count the reindeer each time we feed them, so can work out if a cow has suddenly gone AWOL; and will then head out round the enclosure to track them down (usually the following morning). However, 1200 acres is the size of 1200 football pitches, part of it heavily wooded, and finding a lone reindeer can be a real mission. If they are out in the open somewhere then generally it’s not too hard to track them down, but if they disappear into the depths of the woods then it’s much harder.

A photo to give you an idea of the rough size of the enclosure – the boundary fence goes right around behind the mountain in the centre of the picture, Silver Mount, and right down into the forest at the right.
A closer view of Silver Mount in the enclosure, and Black Loch which is hidden from view from most of the enclosure.

This calving season in particular felt like the reindeer were running rings around us, with hardly any of the cows being easy to find. In fact the very first cow who headed away from the herd to calve wasn’t found until two days later, and most of the following few reindeer calved down in the woods too, necessitating long searches, sometimes fruitless and sometimes fruitful.

Let me make this clear too, we’re not talking a pleasant stroll along nice easy footpaths. The forest in the enclosure is proper Caledonian pine forest, complete with a dense understory of juniper, blaeberry and heather, and VERY boggy. Oh, and some of it is extremely steep. And there’s no proper paths, only narrow, muddy deer tracks (made by the reindeer, but also wild red and roe deer). Several hours of trawling through the forest is utterly exhausting, and if emerging eventually empty handed with boots squelching, also utterly demoralising.

A tiny proportion of the enclosure woods…
The enclosure encompasses a large area of Caledonian pine forest, complete with dense understory of juniper and blaeberry – ideal for concealing reindeer!
Dense birch woodland in the enclosure too – a reindeer’s eye view!

In 2020, thankfully the reindeer were kind to us during the calving season, as it fell right in the middle of the first lockdown and most staff were furloughed. Reindeer calved mostly out in the open, were found quickly and easily, and brought through to the bottom corridor ‘nursery’ with little hassle. This year however… Sika was the first reindeer to head away from the herd to calve, but it was two days later by the time we found her. And in fact that’s not even really true, we didn’t actually find her at all – she joined up with another cow who had calved by that point and we found both together, Sika’s calf at least 48 hours old by that point.

Pagan was the hardest of the lot – it wasn’t until the fourth day of searching before she was eventually located – tucked into the forest in a hidden spot. I was on my day off and very glad to receive a message to say she’d been found – it had been long enough that I had started to think she must have died giving birth. Normally reindeer won’t stay in the spot where they calved for longer than a couple of days, re-joining the herd of their own volition and making finding them eventually more straight-forward. Heading out to the woods with the prospect of several hours of searching ahead, after several days when you think you may actually be looking for a body rather than a newborn calf, is no-one’s idea of fun. But in this case, Pagan was completely fine, and probably rather smug that she’d managed to waste many, many hours of our time over four days!

A rubbish photo as it’s really zoomed in – but my moment of triumph this calving season was seeing Feta’s head pop up out the deep heather, after a couple of hours of plodding back and forth through the forest…
…who promptly tried to lead her calf away from me, but the wee one didn’t make it up this bank, being only a few hours old and not yet wobble-free!

At least it was a small calving this year, so the continual trudging around the enclosure only went on for so long. And the reindeer appeared to finally take pity on us as a couple of the later ones to calve did so in a much more open, agreeable area where they were plainly visible. In fact first time mum Blyton calved right beside the Bottom Corridor fence, right beside the cows and calves, and did so right before we did a Facebook Live video (https://www.facebook.com/182577928433967/videos/517342392958642), meaning she could be seen in the background throughout, and making Andi’s life nice and easy as all she had to do was pop over the fence once the camera stopped rolling to check out the new arrival!

Hen

Winter free range days

From January to May, our whole herd are out roaming free on the mountains, enjoying the wintry weather that they’re so well-equipped for. Whilst it can be ridiculously wild at times, on other days it is completely still, with glorious sunshine. I thought it would be nice to put up a selection of photos from the last month or two to give you a taste of our winter days…

Oslo leading the herd over for breakfast.

Glorious views out over Aviemore on a beautiful day.

Camus, Sika, Brie and Bordeaux. Sika’s not sure about what she just ate!

Origami and the herd on an icy morning.

Ochil wondering if the food is ready yet

Okapi has cast the main uprights of her antlers, leaving her looking a bit like a unicorn!

Spider has found a nice pool for an after dinner drink.

Santana sporting one of her antlers.

Handsome Rubiks posing!

Pavlova is easily recognised with her white tuft of hair on her forehead.

Parmesan with her white face marking, and old lass Fonn in the background.

Olympic is always one of the first to see us.

LX on a grey day…

… and again on a blue sky day!

Fonn is the oldest reindeer in the herd, at nearly 17 years old.

Ryvita and her calf Berlin.

Beautiful Dixie.

Dixie, Fly and Lulu, stalwarts of the herd.

Young Dante.

Camembert, what a star!

Brie, Inca and Meadow.

We always give the calves some preferential feeding out of the bags – it keeps their condition up and keeps them tame – here’s Bordeaux, Florence, Athens and Texel enjoying a snack.

Blyton and Camembert.

Baffin.

Angua and mum Tap. Both are quite shy reindeer but we’ve put lots of effort into feeding them extra feed each day and their confidence has come on in leaps and bounds.

Hen, Lotti and Dave – feeding mission completed!

Happy reindeer eating their feed.

Celt on a windy day.

Little Kiruna.

Andi