Memorable reindeer of the past: Comet

Standard

Comet was already an old reindeer when I first arrived, but none the less he was still a very visible member of the herd. When our male reindeer get to about 7 or 8, there is a tendency for them to spend more and more time over at our farm where Tilly sees them daily but us lot, based here at the Centre in Glenmore, do so less often. Comet was already 12 when I first met him, but he still spent plenty of time here on a regular basis as he was such a popular character.

Photo 1.jpg

Comet in his heyday.

Comet was a big, white reindeer, born in 1995, the third calf from his mum Ferrari. Ferrari herself was a very memorable reindeer as she didn’t grow any antlers until she reached the age of 9, when she decided to sprout one! That was enough though, and even though she lived until just shy of 17, she never bothered to grow more than one antler a year. She was also a fabulous breeding female, producing 11 calves in her lifetime. This trait runs throughout her family lines, which form a substantial number of reindeer in our herd today.

Photo 2

Ferrari with her one antler. Behind her is her granddaughter Malawi who didn’t (and still doesn’t) grow any antlers at all!

But I digress. Comet was the loveliest reindeer that you can possibly imagine, tame, friendly, polite and somewhat like a teddy bear. Reindeer in general are not a cuddly animal; they happily tolerate being handled but never seek out affection in the way, for example, a dog might, despite having been domesticated for as long. It’s the reason we have a ‘hands-off’ approach with our reindeer, we handle them enough to make sure they are all happy being in such close proximity to humans, but we never put them in a position where they can be petted against their wishes. On the hill it’s the tamest that come to hand-feed while the shyer have the choice to hang back, and out on Christmas tour they are always provided with enough space to keep out of reach of the public. We’re frequently asked if we can bring a reindeer to the side of the pen to be stroked, and the answer is always ‘no’. If they choose to do so themselves that is fine, but it has to be their choice, on their terms.

Photo 3.jpg

With ex-herder Vicky, contemplating life together.

I digress again – keeping to the subject in hand is not always my strong point. Back to it… Comet was unusual in that he seemed to be completely happy to have a cuddle, and indeed we all took advantage of this regularly – there’s nothing quite like putting your arms around the neck of a reindeer and burying your nose in their hair. Most reindeer would respond with a huff and pull away, but not Comet. He is also responsible for bringing us Paul, our twice yearly volunteer who has been coming for a fortnight at a time for years now (and fixing everything we break) – as he put his nose on Paul’s shoulder (Paul was sitting down, I hasten to add, Comet wasn’t that big…) and leant there for the entirety of a Hill Trip, back in 1998! Paul was hooked on reindeer from then on and 19 years later is still coming to help us out, and thank god, as he is a master joiner… I can hear the power drill whining away as I type – Paul is in residence and mending something.

Photo 4.JPG

In his old age.

One of my best memories of Comet is from the first week that I started here, when Tilly and I took two adult reindeer (one being Comet) and two 6 month old calves out for a walk in Glenmore in order to get the previously unhandled calves used to walking on a halter. On this occasion I can remember squeaking frantically to Tilly as we jogged along towards the Forestry Centre next door as Comet danced, spinning around and bouncing; letting off steam. I was hanging on for dear life but not doing a very good job, until Tilly prudently took Comet off me and gave me her (less excited) reindeer instead. Now I can easily handle such a full of beans reindeer, but as a wet-behind-the-ears herder, I was utterly out of my depth. It was a very steep learning curve!

Photo 5.JPG

Mel leading Comet out calf-training, on a day when he was a little less excited!

Within a couple of years after that occasion Comet was well into his old age, and such behaviour was behind him. He lived to the grand old age of nearly 17, and although I saw him less regularly in his doddery old man phase, I still had a ‘Comet Cuddle’ each time I met him again.

Hen

Guess the theme: Trees and Antlers

Standard

It’s amazing what useless facts you can come across and one such fact was in a booklet I was thumbing through about farm woodlands. In the ‘did you know’ section was the fastest growing tree in the world, the Royal Empress or Foxglove Tree Paulownia tomentosa . Native to central and western China the tree can grow up to 6 metres a year, or 30 cm in three weeks.

Paulownia_tomentosa.jpg

A Paulownia tomentosa in flower. Photo by Meneerke Bloem.

Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdoms with a mature reindeer bull growing his full set of antlers in just 5 months to a length of approx 1 metres. Luckily for the reindeer the antlers then stop growing, the velvet skin peels off and the boney antlers are then used to fight with. Lets face it a bull reindeer would struggle with 6 metres of antlers waving around on the top of his head!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In China, Paulownia tomentosa is traditionally planted at the birth of a girl. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry. Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. The soft, lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese porcelain exporters in the 19th century, before the development of polystyrene packaging.

Continuing along the Chinese theme the antler velvet from all species of deer is rich in growth hormone and highly prized in China where it is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The velvet antler however must be harvested from the deer while it is still growing, thus requiring a surgical process to cut the antlers off humanely. It is a practice not permitted in the UK but is an important revenue from deer and deer farming in other countries.

Strangely enough antlers of many deer species generally have a tree like structure to them, with a main beam or trunk, which then branches into smaller tines. Perhaps it is this familiar structure that sometimes leads people to ask the question ‘are the antlers made of wood’! I guess these misled people were never very good at biology at school!

Tilly

Looking Back Part 2: The Norwegian Reindeer

Standard

Recently a Norwegian man got in touch with us while writing a book about the reindeer populations in an area of southern Norway called Setesdal, so I dug out the old records to see what info I could help him with. While most of our herd originated from Sweden (see Looking Back: Part 1), in 1961 the 5th consignment of reindeer joined the Cairngorm herd, arriving from the Setesdal area on the MS Blenheim in the middle of September.

Photo 1

The group consisted of seven cows and one bull, ranging in age from yearlings to three year olds. The still relatively newly established Cairngorm herd was struggling a bit as many had died over the past 9 years, finding it difficult to thrive down in the forest as they were more suited to the mountain habitat above. In the mid-50s Mr Utsi had gained permission to move the reindeer higher up the hills where they managed much better, but new blood was also needed to prevent inbreeding – it was definitely time to bring in more reindeer. The Norwegian import brought the herd to around 30 animals.

Photo 2

One of the pages of our press cuttings scrapbooks from 1961.

Their success was varied however. Breive, Lisa, Olga and Valle had all died before the end of 1961, though I can’t find reference in the records as to whether they simply went missing, or died of a particular illness. Reindeer under the age of three are particularly susceptible to illness, having not had as much time to build up immunity to disease, and the Norwegian reindeer also arrived at a time of year when ticks are rife – still the main cause of illness amongst our reindeer today.

Photo 3

Laila on the left (with the collar) with Mr Utsi in March 1962.

Laila was the only reindeer of the consignment to calve the following year, on the 8th June 1962, but disaster struck when she died less than 24 hours after the birth. The calf was strong however, so Mr Utsi went on to hand-rear him, naming him Boko. Boko followed Mr Utsi everywhere and was extremely tame, going on to become a breeding bull in later years. He survived until December 1967, but as with all hand-reared animals, could be a little bit of a liability – there is a reference in the records which says ‘Very tame to lead if you keep your eyes on him’! Hand-reared animals don’t tend to understand the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – as any of you who have been on the receiving end of Fergus will know, our reprobate in the herd today!

Photo 4

Laila with Boko, a few hours after he was born.

Photo 5

Mr Utsi with the ever-present Boko at his heels, in 1963.

Photo 6

Mr Utsi at the Strathspey Farmers’ Club Show with Boko and bull Vikhta (August 1963).

Of the original 8 Norwegian reindeer, by far the most successful of them were the bull Jacob, and two cows Janet and Bykle. Jacob was used as a breeding bull for several years in the 60s, his bloodlines still very prevalent in the herd today, and Bykle produced one calf, Heather, who in turn went on to produce several offspring. This line died out in the 70s however but Janet went one better, producing three calves whose descendants continued in the herd until well into the 80s, finishing with another hand-reared calf, Wally. Wally was hand-reared by Alan, and a photo still hangs in the living room of Reindeer House of Alan bottle-feeding him, back in 1982.

Photo 7

Jacob in Coire Sneachdha, a familiam background to us all even now…

Photo 8

Alan (with considerably more hair than nowadays!) bottle feeding Wally.

So there we go. The success of the bull Jacob, in particular, goes to show the importance of introducing new bloodlines to the herd, and we have continued to import reindeer every now and then to keep our genetics as strong and as varied as possible. Right now there are 25 reindeer in our herd who were born in northern Sweden, one still remaining from our 2004 introduction (Addjá), two from 2008 (Magnus and Laban), and the remainder from 2011, many of whom are still breeding bulls today.

Hen

Reindeer of the Southern Hemisphere

Standard

I’m from New Zealand so anything Southern Hemisphere-related reminds me of home..

I have been doing some research about any reindeer activity in the Southern Hemisphere. As we all know reindeer are native to the Arctic region but it appears they quite like the Antarctic region as well. Though animals introduced outside their native land always have some sort of impact.

In 1911 Norwegian whalers introduced reindeer onto South Georgia. South Georgia is a sub-Antarctic island situated in the South Atlantic about 1000 miles off the western coast of Argentina. It is almost exactly the same distance from the equator as we are here in Scotland. It is a remote and inhospitable collection of islands and just what reindeer like!

map

An old whaling map of South Georgia (maked as Unknown Land) and the Falkland Islands, shown as close to South America. Photo taken from Mick Roger’s blog.

HMS Leeds Castle in Stromness South Georgia

HMS Leeds Castle in Stromness Bay, Falkland Islands, with introduced reindeer on the shore. Photo taken from Mick Roger’s blog.

The reindeer were introduced to provide recreational hunting and for fresh meat for the numerous people working in the whaling industry at the time. Since the end of the Whaling industry in 1960s the reindeer population had been growing uncontrollably.  In 2011 it was noted that their numbers had exploded and the islands habitats were being destroyed. Fears of forcing some birds into extinction it was decided to eradicate the island of its reindeer population.

As these reindeer were introduced outside of their native range they were having significant impact on flora and fauna. Their range on the island was limited by natural glacial borders meaning their density increased to much higher than normal levels. In the Cairngorms we have a density of approximately one reindeer per square kilometre. On South Georgia the density had swollen to between 40 and 80 reindeer per km2. Imagine the northern corries here in the Cairngorms with 3000 – 6000 reindeer! The available land on South Georgia couldn’t support this many reindeer leaving many to die of starvation in the winter. Another common cause of death was falling from cliffs while trying to access ungrazed areas.

Over two years from 2013, 6,690 reindeer were culled on South Georgia. Animal welfare professionals were involved and 7500kg of meat was recovered.

In an attempt to diversify agriculture on the Falkland Islands around 50 reindeer were translocated from South Georgia prior to the eradication.  I couldn’t find much information about this farming enterprise online but let’s hope it doesn’t end in another ecological nightmare!

Reindeer were also introduced to the sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Islands in 1954 this time however from Swedish Lapland. The Kerguelen Islands are a French territory in the southern Indian Ocean. In the 1970s reindeer numbers were recorded at 2000. Unsuccessful attempts to introduce reindeer to Chile and Argentina also occurred in the 1940s.

800px-Falkland_Islands_Penguins_87

Souther Rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands, the new island-mates of the introduced reindeer. Photo by Ben Tubby.

So where does all this info leave us? It seems reindeer are extremely well suited for the sub Antarctic climate but without close and continued management is a very risky game as they are not native to the region. And for me, it seems I may be able to continue my career as a Reindeer Herder in the Southern Hemisphere, if I ever go back.

Dave

The growing up of the calves

Standard

Spring is flying by – the trees are finally in leaf and the flowers are poking their heads out here on the Cairngorms – but the passing of time is never more obvious than in the growing of the calves.

When the females calve, we move them and their calves into the nursery area up on the hill. Here the mothers get to relax, have uninterupted access to their food and lichen, and the calves mix with the others. As they find their feet, they also seem to discover the love of jumping, leaping and running, and will often be spotted playing in groups with other calves. They have a lot of energy, and will often stray away from the mothers, but a grunt from their own mother sends them scampering back to safety by her side.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The mothers and calves stay within the nursery area for a couple of weeks, growing nice and strong and getting used to keeping up with their herd. After a couple of weeks, it is time for them to test their newfound skills, by heading out to the freerange for a summer on the hill ground of the Cairngorms National Park.

So a couple of nights ago saw 5 of us herders heading up the hill to the nursery enclosure at about 9pm – everyone wanted to wave them goodbye! We choose to do the moving of the cows and calves late in the day to avoid any unwelcome escapades with hillwalkers’ dogs, and so this means a later finish to the working day than usual..

The mothers seems to know what the plan is, and are keen to get going. One of the main issues is negotiating the enclosure gate – calves don’t understand gates at this young age! Tilly leads the way, and the other 4 of us herders take the back and make sure everyone sticks together.

We lead the herd only a short way from the enclosure as they know the ground themselves well, navigating the nearby burns and steep slopes, sometimes fast but more often slow, and then we say goodbye to the group, and off they go…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

DSC00845

The mothers and calves heading off, with the Cairngorms in the distance and some rain-threatening clouds approaching..

We watch for a long while, and then navigate our own way back, enjoying the darkening of the sky and the thought of our beds waiting, and the possibility of a wee dram before bed to send the reindeer off in style.

See you in a few months, little ones!

Morna

A lesson in Reindeer taxonomy

Standard

Here at the Reindeer Centre we spend much of our time working with reindeer and teaching people about them. It therefore came as a surprise to many of us how much reindeer taxonomy we didn’t know! Because of this, I’ve put together a blog to teach everyone all they need to know about where our reindeer come from and who they are related to..

Reindeer (and Caribou) are members of the Deer family, Cervidae. Their latin/scientific name is Rangifer tarandus and there are a number of different types or subspecies which are geographically spread across the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of the northern hemisphere.

Through these higher latitudes there is a huge range of different ecosystems from northern boreal forest and tundra on the mainland to the far north high arctic islands. Reindeer and Caribou occupy all of these areas.

Reindeer_map.jpg

Habitat range of Reindeer and Caribou. Reindeer are shown in red, Caribou in green. Map by TBjornstad.

In the New World, Alaska and North Canada, Rangifer tarandus is referred to as Caribou and these are completely wild animals that have never been domesticated by man. Broadly speaking there are Barren Ground Caribou (R.t groenlandicus), Alaskan Caribou (R.t.granti) and North American Woodland Caribou (R.t caribou). The Barren Ground Caribou are famous for the annual migration of massive herds from the forest to the arctic ocean whereas the North American Woodland Caribou live close to or in the boreal forest are often secretive and hard to find. They are locally known as ‘the grey ghosts of the forest’.

migrator bgc

A herd of migrating Barren Ground Caribou. Photo by Aleksandr Popov.

Caribou.jpg

A North American Woodland Caribou: the grey ghost of the forest. Photo by Dean Biggins (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Old World, North Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia, these same animals are called Reindeer and here there are both wild and domesticated herds. The domestic herds far outnumber the wild herds in all areas. There are two sub-species: Eurasian Tundra Reindeer (R.t.tarandus) and Eurasian Forest Reindeer (R.t.fennicus). As their names suggest the tundra reindeer belong to the more northern areas of Russia and Scandinavia and the Forest reindeer are found only in the Russia taiga, or northern boreal forest.

In the high Arctic there are two island living subspecies of Rangifer tarandus Peary Caribou (R.t.pearyi) who are restricted to the high arctic Queen Elizabeth Islands of arctic Canada and Svalbard Reindeer (R.t.platyrhynchus), from the Norwegian owned islands of Spitzbergen.  The high arctic island reindeer, like the North American Caribou have never been domesticated.

Antler shape has been used to split the genus Rangifer into two main groups. The group Cylindricornis have antler beams which are rounded in cross section and they occur in the tundra and mountain environments. The second group, Compressicornis, have flattened antler beams and are generally found in forests and woodlands.

So what are our Scottish reindeer? Our reindeer originate from Swedish Lapland and so are Rangifer tarandus tarandus and they fall into the Cylindricornis group, as described above. All reindeer in Swedish Lapland are domesticated and have been for a few hundred years. There have been various introductions into the herd, all from Scandinavia except for a bull Kivi who was from Russian and Finnish lineage. He was a prolific breeding bull who fathered a large number of calves in the 1970’s. So today our Scottish-bred herd of reindeer have a fair amount of Russian blood in them too.

IMG_0822

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd in its early days, consisting of 14 reindeer brought over from Sweden.

kivi.jpg

The Russian and Finnish breeding bull Kivi in the 1970s.

It has been 65 years since the reindeer came to Scotland and undoubtedly in that time they have ‘adapted’ to their windswept Cairngorm environment. Maybe sometime in the future we will have our very own ‘sub-species’ Rangifer tarandus scotica’…?

This blog has been written using information from the following two books:

The Real Rudolph. A Natural History of the Reindeer by Tilly Smith (out of print but still available on Amazon)

Hoofprints. Sixty years of reindeer on the Cairngorms by Emily Singleton (still in print and available from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre)

Tilly

Spring has sprung, calving has begun

Standard

May is here, and with it comes the first of our reindeer calves of the year! They are long-legged and lovely, stumbling around finding their feet and flopping down in a heap of fur and legs on the heather.

As with many animals, the reindeer seem to prefer calving early morning. So much to our delight, we start at 5am, a couple of us heading up the hill to search out females absent from their dinner the night before. To find them we walk round the 1200acre enclosure, scanning through binoculars for sight of a lone female. On a beautiful morning this is a delight, the Cairngorms behind us tipped red and gold, and the sky turning from white to blue. On a miserable morning this is more of a rain-drenched, hair-dripping, squelchy-shoe, wet-through-to-the-pants kind of job.

After finding her, we check the cow and calf are healthy and if possible, bring them back to our calving enclosure to join the nursery and allow us to keep and eye on them for a few days. So far we have had an equal number of male and female calves, from almost pure black to white, speckled to striped.

DSC00815

A very dark wee male, of almost opposite colour to his mother.

DSC00832

Fending for herself while her mother is off feeding, this lovely grey and white speckled female was the first calf born this year.

DSC00823

A bit of a stretch over the calf to get to the lichen!

Reindeer calves are pretty tough little things, having to get up on their feet and keep up with the herd just a few hours after being born. To help with this they are born with seemingly very long legs for such small bodies, and so keeping balance often makes for a steep learning curve..

DSC00837

A reindeer calf seems more leg than anything else!

Unfortunately, rules are rules and we don’t reveal names of reindeer who have calved until our newsletter in June. So until then, you must wait with baited breath to hear who has had what, and in June we will reveal all!

Morna