From London to Glenmore

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Elvis

Morning greeting from Elvis

It’s always quite a contrast from central London where I work, to the hills of the Cairngorms, where I spend my holidays herding reindeer! This time I couldn’t get further away – a small group of reindeer herders headed up north to wildcamp at Sandwood Bay, one of the most northerly and remote beaches in Britain. After a long clear night (it didn’t really go dark), we headed back south to the Cairngorms where reindeer duties took over. It’s always very varied, from trekking to poop-scooping to manning the shop to taking guided visits.

Calving was finally coming to an end, one of the longest calving seasons there has been, so the last of the females were sent off to the free-range to get the best of the summer grazing on the high mountain tops with their calves, leaving just males in the enclosure to greet visitors. Apart from looking very scruffy at this time of year as their winter coats moult everywhere (I’ll be picking reindeer hair off my clothes for weeks to come in London!), they are also fairly greedy as they bulk up for the summer ahead of the rut in the autumn.

Sookie on the hills

Sookie on the hills

Following a good day’s work at the centre or out in the hills, I headed back out into the mountains for the evenings with the dogs, up to the snow line (yes there’s still snow up here – even in midsummer), to blow the city cobwebs away overlooking the Lairig Ghru or the Northern Corries.

Everything up here functions on a different time-frame. Unlike the city there is rarely any rushing, and meeting people up in the hills is unusual so you have a good old natter. Although the physical work can sometimes be tiring (especially the arrival of the feed lorry and the heaving of seemingly endless sacks into the shed), it is also quite relaxing. More steady than stressful!

Murdo in the Loch

Evening walk with Murdo to the Loch

Though it’s only a week in the hills, I always get a bit of a jolt returning to city life and the morning commute on Monday! The noise and the people and work kicks in and feels a parallel universe to the reindeer and the hills.

My next trip’s in the diary already.

Sarah H

Antlers vs Horns – What is the difference?

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Many people who come and visit the reindeer want to know the answer to this very question: What is the difference between antler and horn?

Antlers

First of all, just in case you are in any doubt, reindeer grow antlers, not horns! Many folk ask us what antlers are made of and ‘are they made of wood?’ is a surprisingly common question which always amuses us!

Antlers are an extension of the animals skull, found on members of the family Cervidae (i.e. deer). They are made of bone, are a single structure and are shed and regrown every year. Antlers grow from pedicles – bony supporting structures that develop on the skull. Sometimes, the pedicles get damaged and you get a lopsided set of antlers like one of our female reindeer, Hopscotch. Occasionally, they don’t develop on one side at all, for example Dixie who only ever grows one antler.

Dixie and Arnish

Dixie with her one antler, and antlerless Arnish

Generally they are only grown on males but, of course, reindeer are the exception to the rule. Male reindeer lose their antlers shortly after the rut, the breeding season, in autumn. Female reindeer hold on to their antlers over the winter because access to food is critical during winter pregnancy. Having antlers generally makes you more dominant so you can push the antler-less boys off the good food patches! However there are always exceptions… Arnish, who is no longer with us, was a ‘mega hard’ reindeer and never grew a single antler but she was as tough as old boots and just battered other reindeer with her front hooves when required!

Reindeer start to grow new antlers again in the spring and its incredibly fast growing, up to an inch in a week. On some of the big boys, like Crann, you have a few days off and return to see a massively noticeable difference in his antler size. While the antlers are growing, the bone is encased in super soft velvet, hair covered skin, which covers the nerves and the blood vessels feeding the antlers from the tip. Once the antlers are fully grown, end of August for reindeer, the blood supply cuts off and the velvet starts to dry and crack and come away from the bone. The reindeer help this process by rubbing their antlers against vegetation and what ever is about, like a fence post! They can look a bit gory at this stage as flaps of bloody velvet dangle off them like dread locks! Once its all peeled away they are left with solid bone antlers which the bulls now use during the rut to impress females and fight off other bulls.

Crann

Crann and his huge set of antlers

They lose them, as already mentioned, shortly after the rut or after winter for females and then the whole process restarts the following spring…pretty clever!

Horns

Horn structureFound on sheep, bison, cows, pronghorn and antelopes, horns are made of two parts. They have an interior of bone (also an extension of the skull) covered by an outer keratinized sheath made of a very similar material to your fingernails.

Soays

Soay sheep at our Glenlivet hill farm, showing off their horns

One pair of horns is typical but some species of sheep have two or more pairs for example Jacobs sheep. Horns are usually spiral or curved in shape and often have ridges on them.

Impala

Male impala with impressive horns

Horns start to grow soon after birth and grow continually through the life of the animal and are never shed, with the exception of the Pronghorn which sheds and regrows its horny sheath every year, but retains its bony core. Unlike antlers, horns are never branched and although more commonly grown on males of the species, several females grow them too.

So hopefully that has shed (no pun intended!) some light on the subject. Come and visit the reindeer at different times of the year to see how the antlers change with the seasons. By the end of winter/start of spring, barely any will have antlers still attached and they do look a little strange compared to when they have the magnificent bony antlers of autumn. Just now the reindeer are all growing their new antlers so they are covered in lovely super soft velvet and are about half way to complete size.

Mel

So much hair!

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Crann Moulting

Crann with just some of his moulted hair

As the milder weather is finally arriving, the reindeer are looking extremely scruffy as they moult out their old thick winter coat, allowing the new shorter darker summer coat to come through. A reindeer’s winter coat can have an incredible 2000 hairs per square inch of coat, consisting of a dense wooly undercoat and long hollow guard hairs, which keep a reindeer snug and not even feeling the cold til about -30C. They have even been documented surviving to -72C!

Of course in summer, even in Scotland, its much warmer than that, so the reindeer grow a much shorter, sleeker coat to keep cool. But with so much hair to lose, at this time of year it can seem like its snowing if they give themselves a shake! Whilst most of the hair drops off by itself, the reindeer will groom themselves a little to remove more, and we sometimes give them a hand, stroking handfuls out at a time. This photo of our lovely old boy Crann, from this time last year, illustrates this perfectly!

Andi

Tales from Glenlivet: Minute and the Curlew Chick

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Minute

Minute with some of the Glenlivet herd

Here at our Glenlivet farm one of the best times of day is the evening, when the reindeer are herded back out onto the hill for the night. As they slowly walk up through the birch wood, clicking as they go, the wood is alive with songbirds singing as they flit from tree to tree.

The birch wood is rich with young leaves to browse, moist tree lichens to nibble and underfoot fresh herbs and grasses to graze on. So the reindeer take a while to wend their way up to the top of the wood.

Yesterday evening as I reached the open hill with the reindeer in front of me, a pair of curlew were circling above us, madly calling and quite upset that we had disturbed them. Their calls became agitated and one of them landed in front of the reindeer and scuttled ahead trying to lead the reindeer away. It’s at this point that I realised why there is such a commotion. Minute, our biggest three year old bull with very long velvet antlers, was looking inquisitive with his nose close to the ground. Right in front of him was a brown and creamy white fluffy ball of young feathers, a curlew chick, probably only hatched the day before. Minute looked as surprised as the chick at their encounter and turned to join the herd while the wee chick scuttled into the rushes.

Peace returned as the reindeer headed for the hills and the parents of the chick realised the danger had gone. I walked back down through the wood, the sun setting and the songbirds still calling.

A great way to finish a spring day on our farm.

Tilly