The growing up of the calves

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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.

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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…

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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

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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.

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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’.

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

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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.

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

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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)

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Spring has sprung, calving has begun

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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.

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

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

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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..

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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

 

 

Looking back: The arrival of the first reindeer

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2017 is our 65th anniversary, and just lately I’ve been trawling through the records of the reindeer herd for one reason or another. As such I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and think it is time I started another occasional blog series, this time about the history of our herd.

If you’ve been on a Hill Trip with us, you may know the basic story. Sami reindeer herder Mikel Utsi visited the Highlands of Scotland in 1947, and was immediately struck by the similarities to his homeland of northern Sweden.

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Northern Sweden (top) and the Cairngorms (bottom)

Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore, on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures. Travel in the Highlands showed that many species of ground, rock and tree lichens which are elsewhere the chief reindeer food were plentiful and of little use to other animals. Red deer and domesticated animals graze on plants and fodder than reindeer seldom eat. The Orkneyinga saga tells us that about 800 years ago red deer and reindeer were hunted together, in Caithness, by the Jarls of Orkney.”

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One of the crates being winched on board the S.S. Sarek in April 1952

Mikel Utsi decided it was time that reindeer once again roamed the mountains of Scotland, and five years later, that dream became a reality. The Ministry of Agriculture gave permission for Mr Utsi and his Swedish-American wife Dr Ethel Lindgren (an anthropologist who had studied in China and Mongolia as well as Swedish Lapland) to bring the first consignment of reindeer over to Scotland, and at first they were granted an area of around 300 acres near Moormore in the Rothiemurchus forest, which was completely fenced to contain them. Moormore is now better known as the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre. Mr Utsi knew this was not ideal for the reindeer however, and had his eye on the higher ground of the Cairngorms themselves – much more suitable reindeer habitat.

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Mikel Utsi (right) and Sarek on board the S.S. Sarek

 

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The first consignment of 8 reindeer landed at Clydebank in Glasgow on the 12th April 1952, having travelled on the S.S. Sarek from Sweden, which had been somewhat rough four day crossing. The group consisted of two bull reindeer (Aviemore and Murjek), two cows (Mona and Rowena), and a castrated male who was named Sarek. After a month in quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo, the reindeer finally made their way north to the Cairngorms to the Moormore enclosure.

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Reindeer in the forest, looking up to the Cairngorms

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It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start, with the reindeer struggling to cope with the low ground and the insects, but in 1954 Mr Utsi finally got permission from the Forestry Commission to lease Silver Mount, which many of you will know as the hill at the far end of the current reindeer enclosure, the back drop to the majority of our guided tours throughout the year. Later the same year free-grazing up to the summits of the northern corries of the Cairngorms was finally allowed, as well as the continued use of the Silver Mount enclosure. Finally the reindeer could escape the insects and the herd began to thrive. Further groups had been introduced from Sweden too; Inge, Alice, Anne, Pelle, Assa, Ella, Ina, Maja, Siri and Tilla in October 1952; Nuolja, Kirtik, Ranak, Neita, Noki, Rovva and Vilda in early 1954. Bulls Fritzen and Ruski followed in 1955.

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The 3rd consignment of reindeer on the M.S. Nuolja in 1954

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Bulls Fritzen and Ruski in April 1955 – the 4th consignment

To keep a closer eye on his herd, Mr Utsi felt it was important to be on site as much as possible. He made a hut at ‘Road End Camp’ in the 50s, tucked away in the woods at the base of Silver Mount, building it from the wood from the crates that the reindeer had been transported to Scotland in. This made life much easier as there was no bridge across the Allt Mor at that time, or indeed, a road up to where the Ski Centre is now, so for Mr Utsi the herd was now much more accessible. Today, the hut still stands, and some of you may have even been there – in recent years we used to stop for a rest at Utsi’s Hut on some of our half-day treks with visitors. A shelter was also built at the top of Silver Mount, and although this no longer stands, there are still a few old, weathered, pieces of planks lying around up there, which are the last remnant of the shelter.

 

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Mr Utsi harnessing Sarek at Road End Camp in October 1955. Utsi’s Hut is on the right.

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Trekkers at Utsi’s hut in more recent years!

 

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The shelter on top of Silver Mount in July 1954

By the mid-fifties the herd had grown to around 20 animals, and the herd was doing well. There’s lots more to tell you, but it’s a story for another day! However, if your appetite to learn more of our history has been whetted, we have a lovely book called ‘Hoofprints’ in our online shop on our website which is all about the history of the herd with loads of beautiful photos, so pop over there for a wee look.

 

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Reindeer calving: Can we predict whether there will be more males or females born?

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It has been an exceptionally mild winter here in the Cairngorms; the ski season never really seemed to kick off, the herders are missing the snow and it has just felt a bit wetter and warmer than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed how early the snowdrops and daffodils seem to have emerged and we have noticed that the hills are looking a bit greener with the heather and deer sedge starting to grow already. Looking at the Met Office summary for winter 2016-2017, temperatures are up about 3.0°C on average (average being data from 1981-2010) in the UK.

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This blog is really just an excuse to look at cute calves. Here’s a reindeer and a red deer calf, both being hand reared.

For the reindeer, this warming winter could have lots of effects, and we have recently heard of the reindeer in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia, starving to death due to increased rainfall in the autumn freezing and leaving a thick layer of ice impenetrable to them for foraging.

Our reindeer seem to be coping just fine and it has not frozen here enough for them not to reach their favourite food, lichen. However, research done by previous reindeer herder Heather Hanshaw has shown that weather conditions do definitely affect the proportion of male to female calves born in the spring. Since calving will soon be upon us, I thought it might interest you to know about this research and what our mild winter may mean for us in the upcoming weeks.

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Newborn calf

Heather studied Physical Geography at Edinburgh University and in her final year needed a project to study. Of course, having an interest in climate as well as reindeer, and having worked at the Reindeer Centre, a project about how climate affects them was a natural interest to Heather. She knew that Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren had been very meticulous about the data kept on calves born in the Cairngorm herd, and climate data was easily enough accessed, so Heather devised a project determining if weather (temperature and rainfall) had any effect on the proportion of male to female reindeer calves born. A similar study was conducted with Red deer on the Isle of Rum, and their study found that milder winters led to more male calves. Would it be the same or opposite of Rum, or would weather have no effect on the Reindeer?

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The famous Fergus, asleep on Mel’s rug

It turns out that Reindeer are similar to Red deer and when the winter temperature increases, so does the proportion of male calves. So, will that turn out to be true this year? With only a few weeks until calving begins, it will be interesting to look at whether we have lots of male calves this year.

Last year the winter seemed fairly average, possibly on the warm side a little, and our calving ratio was almost perfectly 1 male to 1 female, so it will be really interesting to see if this mild winter has had an effect on what will be born this May.

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Hopscotch and calf

Please find sources below.

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries/2017/winter

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112958-80000-reindeer-have-starved-to-death-as-arctic-sea-ice-retreats/

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6735/abs/399459a0.html

Imogen

 

 

First impressions of a new reindeer herder

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As a new herder asked to write a blog post, I thought I would share a few of my first impressions of the herd with you all. There has been a lot to learn and a lot still to learn, but one thing’s for certain: the life of a reindeer herder is never boring…

Things I have learnt so far:

  1. The title of reindeer herder does not just include herding reindeer. In the last few months, I have not only found out how to very slowly herd reindeer down a hill and keep the attention of a group of 50 people through a health and safety talk, but have also found myself painting arctic scenes, fixing fences, hoovering, carrying wood up a hill, lighting fires, fixing biomass boilers and hand-writing many a letter. Reindeer herding also includes, much to my delight, drinking copious amounts of tea and, on sunny days, eating lunch outside whilst bathing in the sun. Days can be both hectic and peaceful, split between manning a bustling shop to walking down a quiet hillside with a herd of reindeer in tow.

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  2. There are a lot of reindeer in the herd, and so A LOT of reindeer names to learn! Much of my time on the hill until now has been spent squinting at different reindeer and racking my brains to try to remember who on earth it is. With some hints from other herders, and no help from the reindeer losing their antlers at any given opportunity, I am finally on my way to recognising the 60 that we have here on the Cairngorms at this time of year. But alas, the day the rest of the herd turning up is near approaching..

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    Now who is she?

  3. Reindeer are constantly full of surprises! Some days they come bouncing down the hill at the slightest whisper of a call, some days they stubbornly sit and stare you out from an unreachable hill, and some days they just cannot be found. They are characterful, frustrating, lovable and peaceful animals all at once, and I feel the luckiest person to be able to work with and around them.

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    The 67 reindeer here on the Cairngorms coming down to our call, on a sunny friday morning.

  4. There are a lot of words in the English language that I do not know. Before becoming a reindeer herder, I never knew it was possible to ‘groak’, ‘twattle’, ‘lunt’ or be a ‘sluberdegullion’. But with a board in the office that lists all the words you never thought you’d need, I am learning the true meaning of being a herder..

Morna

Spring

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As the year rolls from March into April, here in the Highlands we start to see more definite signs of spring. The snowdrops have of course been and gone, but now the daffodils are out in their full glory, along with primroses and crocuses. There is a noticeable difference in the grass too – during March there is very little colour in the fields, everything is a washed out browny-yellow. But as April approaches, I start squinting at the verges – is there just a hint of fresh green there? By now there is no doubt, the Paddocks and garden are looking almost lush and their first cut is fast approaching. For all of you down in England, I do appreciate that you’ve probably had the lawnmower out several times already, but we have the longest winters in the UK here – one of the reasons it is still a suitable habitat for reindeer.

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Relaxed reindeer with a glorious backdrop. Jenga has the best start on her new antlers of the females.

Up on the mountain, the deer grass is breaking through, and the first migrant birds are arriving back from their winter holidays – there were three ring ouzel squabbling their way along the path as I walked out to feed the herd this morning. I’ve heard tell that the first swallows are in Devon (it’ll still be a few days until they pass by us) and the distinctive osprey pair are back at Loch Garten – we popped along the other day and were glad to see EJ hanging out on the nest, and a brief visit from her long-term partner Odin. Last year I watched a pair circling over the hill enclosure, just checking out Black Loch perhaps before deciding it wasn’t suitable to nest at.

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Old girl Lilac still looking superb at nearly 18 years old.

April is a fun time to spend with the reindeer, with anticipation in the air. The females tend to be relaxed and lazy, with heavy tummies and enjoying the fresh grazing starting to come through. Their coats have lost their sheen and are starting to moult, and most of last year’s antlers have fallen off, with some making good progress on this year’s set. Slightly less relaxing (for us, but not the reindeer) is the start of the Easter holidays, with its associated rush of visitors. Having a limit on numbers for the Hill Trip has certainly made our lives less stressful though and hopefully improves the experience for our visitors too – just a reminder to come early if you’re coming for the Trip to make sure you get tickets!

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A group of visitors learning about the reindeer, who are delighted to pose whilst they wait for their dinner.

The other slight bit of stress is that all of us herders are assessing who we should pick for our calving “bet” – the annual game of trying to guess who will calve first. Us herders spend a lot of time peering at bellies and potential developing udders, trying to work out who is pregnant and who is likely to calve early. There isn’t any money put down, and indeed no prize for winning, but the person whose reindeer calves last has to swim in the loch! The decisions are mostly made now, but I’m already slightly apprehensive that I’ve made the wrong choice – suddenly everyone else’s choices appear much rounder in the belly department than mine… I’ll stick to my guns though with fingers crossed!

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Every time I look at Dixie’s belly I worry that I’ve picked the wrong reindeer for the calving bet!

Normally, spring is a welcome relief after a long hard winter… this year I can’t really claim that as it’s been a very easy winter with little snow, but it’s still lovely to see the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, with the promise of a (hopefully) long, glorious summer ahead. Fingers crossed that it’s warm to make for an easier swim if I end up losing the bet!

Andi