The Calm before the Storm

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It is the morning of April 29th, and it is the calm before the storm – the reindeer calving season. All was quiet this morning on the hill, but a sea of large pregnant bellies greeted Sarah and I in the enclosure, ready and waiting…

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Lots of massive bellies!

Having spent the first few months of the year free-ranging out on the mountains, last week we brought the cows into the enclosure to sort them out ready for calving. Non-pregnant females went back out to free-range for the rest of the spring and summer, while the pregnant ones were moved into the main part of the enclosure (after a frantic fixing of the fences after the winter storms!). They will now stay in for the next 3 – 4 weeks but once the majority have calved, they will go out on to the free-range to join the single females out there for the summer. While it’s lovely for us to have the cute wee calves around for a while, ultimately they will do better out on the higher areas of the mountains, up away from the biting insects, and so for this reason we get them out onto the free-range as soon as possible after calving.

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‘Stop taking photos and give us the feed…’

The East Enclosure (the main area inside the enclosure where we take the hill trips to) becomes the pre-natal unit, with one by one as they calve, the reindeer being moved through to the Bottom Corridor (the smaller area immediately inside the main visitor gate) – the ‘nursery’. The cows generally just get on with calving themselves, and older females, knowing the score, have been known to bring their new calves to the gate into the Bottom Corridor (BC) themselves, ready to move into the nursery! Younger or more inexperienced cows often give us a bit of a run around, marching away with their little one trotting at their heels – telling us in no uncertain terms to keep our distance. We spread out and act like sheepdogs, herding the cow gently in the right direction and through the gate into the BC.

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Most of the females have now cast their 2015 antler, but there’s a few still hanging on in there.

The reindeer in the enclosure I feel a bit sorry for just now are the female yearlings, still with their mums and totally unaware they are about to plummet from apple of their mum’s eyes to second best, as their mum’s attention is turned to their new siblings. The yearlings are always very confused by this, and often stand despondently nearby, watching the new calf suckling. By the summer though they have come to terms with this new development, and have re-joined their mums to make little family parties.

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Yearling Morven glued at the hip to her mum Spy – poor Morven’s about to get a nasty shock when Spy calves!

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An old photo – this is Chime way back in about 2010 – but look at the size of that belly!

So there we have it. The reindeer are in the correct place, the staff bets are in for first cow to calve, the calving rucksack is ready for early morning expeditions around the enclosure (complete with emergency chocolate bars) and the stage is set. Unfortunately winter has sneezed on us all again, but hopefully it’s its last spluttering cough of the season – we, and the reindeer, are ready for spring!

Hen

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How to keep a herder happy, or trials and tribulations of herding

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Andi searching for elusive reindeer…

As you may know reindeer herding isn’t quite as simple as it may first appear, one very common question we are faced with is, is reindeer herding all you do? We’re a wee team here with five core staff and we literally do everything between us which can be quite entertaining when we’re performing office duties. I (Abby) vaguely attempt to keep advertising under control and routinely receive calls for the advertising department (i.e me) who, when they’re told I’m ‘up on the hill’, are often quite bemused.

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Abby finding its not so easy to walk/stand/be a herder in gale force winds!

When a visitor tells us “You have the best job in the world!” our minds fleetingly head in the direction of the not-so-nice mountain weather as unfortunately it isn’t always sunny here (shocking right?). We have some quite epic storms in the Cairngorms and there’s been many a day where it’s icy, sleeting and gusting upwards of 80mph up where the reindeer are.  These are some of those days you question reindeer herding and your dedication to having wet socks but it can be epically cool to be out and see the reindeer in these conditions.  However, I do have to say I enjoy pretty much enjoy all of it (maybe not all the office work but it must be done!) and it’s super rewarding seeing people absolutely loving life with the reindeer!

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Approaching reindeer on a less than glorious day

Another reindeer herding problem specifically at this time of year is bringing the reindeer in for the visit. If you’ve visited us in spring you’ll know all the reindeer are entirely free-range on the Cairngorms and we have to tempt them in from ridges and corries every morning. In early spring the reindeer metabolism is still in ‘winter mode’ and the girls are beginning to feel and look increasingly pregnant too so they can be more than reluctant to come in in the mornings. Our method of extraction is walking part way out to the darlings if they’re in sight and then calling them in – if they stick a hoof up at us we walk out, catch a dominant female and lead her in on a head collar and the rest of the herd often oblige. To avoid suspicion it’s key to always have food to give them as the calls we use are always reinforced by food and these girls are wily – if you call them over without food one day they’re likely to disappear on you the next!

 

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Sometimes it all just gets a bit too much…

Obviously all these trips up and down mountainsides to fetch and move reindeer means we cover a lot of ground which is ace! We get some great views, see awesome wildlife, get quite soggy a lot of the time but on the whole it’s pretty fun getting to romp around in the hills for work. However there’s one big downer for us herders and that’s the sheer amount of rubbish we pick up/find plastered over the national park. Seriously, take your wrappers home folk! As we tell all of our visitors we live in the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat – it’s special – finding litter definitely makes it less so, as well as meaning we find odd things in our work jacket pockets when we’ve been good citizens and picked up other people’s rubbish!

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Not such a pretty sight…

This brings me onto my final trial of reindeer herding… doing your office work on a sunny day. I know many people are cooped up daily at a desk but us reindeer herders get a bit antsy if we don’t have at least an hour of outside time and on a sunny day it can literally be a fight to the death to go and paint as many things as we can find here at the Centre! This does however mean at some point we have to be tied to an office chair and get on with it!

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The curse of glorious days when SOMEONE gets stuck in the office

Our last and certainly most crushing issue is our unending addiction to tea and cake… it’s a sure fire way to make each and every day epic! Us herders never turn a healthy cake down!

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Sometimes there is cake!

Abby

Annual Vaccinations

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Annually, every single reindeer in the herd must get a routine vaccination to protect them against various diseases. This is an injection that can leave them feeling a bit worse for wear the next day, but it’s only for 24 hours and as it’s important injection they just have to suck it up!

Our herd here on Cairngorm conveniently crossed over to the Cas side of the mountains of their own accord and we jumped at the chance to get them into the mountain enclosure to give them the vaccine. Unfortunately it was only three quarters of the group but we still decided to go ahead, hoping the others would show face in the next day or two. As predicted they did and although we left the herd feeling a bit off-colour they quickly got over it and are all now back out free ranging. Read Mel’s account of last year’s jabs here.

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The herd begin moving down off the tops towards the promise of food

The next step was doing the same at our Glenlivet site over on the Cromdale hills. This requires a lot more energy as the reindeer are always fairly ‘clued up’ to what we are doing by gathering them into the corral at the bottom of the hill. So after locating where they were that morning, Alex, Abby, Derek and myself set off on the quad bike for a very bumpy journey to the top where we were greeted by 80 hungry-looking reindeer. And who was number one to run over but the famous Fergus! Both Abby and I hadn’t seen Fergus since he joined the herd on the Cromdales in early January so it was great to see him again.

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Using the quad bike to encourage the reindeer down the hill

Tilly and Colin then joined us and Tilly set off with Dragonfly on a halter leading the herd down the hill while Alex, Abby and myself were on foot pushing and Derek was on the all-important quad bike to turn back the naughty ones who tried to break away. It was all going so well then the whole lot managed to get themselves over a burn (small river) onto another hillside, but we persevered and after a lot of running around to catch up with them (they have four legs we only have two!) we managed to get them back following Tilly and Dragonfly into our corralled area.

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“Ok, we’re going!” The reindeer often seem to view being rounded up as a game – they definitely have no fear of us. Especially Magnus, who is always the reluctant one at the back!

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Colin and Abby using hessian as a temporary barrier – it prevents reindeer nipping back through gaps between the herders

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Always a challenge to not fall over your own feet!

There was only one slight hitch in the form of Gnu… an eight-year-old Christmas reindeer who always gives us the run around and he did manage to slip the net, so all we saw at the end was his bottom disappearing over the skyline in the distance. We had some words to describe him at the time which I won’t repeat on here! I have to say if it wasn’t for the speed and technical driving of Derek on the quad bike we would have lost a lot more than just Gnu. We will catch up with him… when he least expects it! Lets hope he doesn’t read these blogs…

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Abby coaxing the boys down into the corral

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Success! Reindeer penned and ready for their vaccinations

So with all the reindeer in and fed we got through the injections very smoothly. It was nice to see the male reindeer after so long and the youngsters had grown up lots over the winter with the great grazing up there. The bulls have already started growing their new velvet antlers and all in all they were looking in fantastic condition!

Fiona

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Happy herders!

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Arnish

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One of my favourite reindeer when I first arrived was Arnish. To start with this was possibly because she was so distinctive as she didn’t grow any antlers, making her one of the very first reindeer in the herd that I learnt, but quickly my reasoning changed and simply became because she was just so, well, cool.

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Arnish in 2007, aged 10

Arnish was, quite simply, a dude. Everyone liked her, and she was a tame, friendly female. Some of the females in the herd skulk around in the background, not particularly wild nor particularly tame, spending most of their time out on the Cairngorm free-range where we barely ever see them. But some, like Arnish, always seem to be around, and spend a good bit of their time in the hill enclosure too as well as on the free-range, when it is easier to get to know them as we see them daily.

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Arnish in 2009

Antlers are a symbol of dominance in reindeer, generally the bigger the better. A reindeer with no antlers should therefore be very low in the hierarchy, but it seems no-one told Arnish this. A great lump of a female, thickset and solid, with a head the size of a male reindeer’s, Arnish ruled the roost and was one of the leaders of the herd, or at least she was by the time I arrived on the scene. At this point she was 10 years old already and only needed to look at a group of reindeer for them to part like the Dead Sea to make way for her! If all else failed, she just ploughed into them headfirst, somewhat resembling a hairy bulldozer. No-one messed with Arnish.

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Hanging out with Arnish

Her lack of antlers had one significant downside, for us at least. If Arnish got her head into the feedbag you were carrying, it was nigh on impossible to get her out. When any other greedy, tame reindeer push their way into a feedbag, we can remove them but hoicking them out by an antler but this just wasn’t possible with Arnish – there were no handles! The battle was lost already. I should add that most of the time we never touch a reindeer’s antlers, certainly not when they are in velvet, but when in their bone form with no feeling needs must at times!

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Arnish and Jaffa, 2009

Arnish may be gone now, but she’s left behind a legacy in the form of Addax, Jaffa and Svalbard. Daughters Addax and Jaffa have gone on to have calves of their own, and son Svalbard, along with Addax’s own son Monty, are part of our team of ‘Christmas reindeer’ – males who are trained to harness and go out on tour in November and December.

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Arnish and Svalbard, June 2011

Svalbard was Arnish’s last calf, and there’s a wee story about his name to tell. He turned up without his mum in October 2011, and we named him Meccano, to fit into the ‘Games and Pastimes’ theme of that year. Arnish had passed away out on the mountains, but at 4 months old her calf was just about old enough to survive without her. Short and dumpy, Meccano looked very much like a Svalbard reindeer, the sub-species of the Svalbard Islands which have evolved shorter legs than their migratory cousins. Try as we might, the nickname stuck, and Meccano became Svalbard.

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Svalbard has grown into a strapping lad!

With Addax’s daughter Parmesan quite possibly pregnant just now with her first calf, Arnish’s bloodline looks set to continue for a good while yet. Every descendant so far has produced antlers, but the antlerless trait can skip generations so maybe watch this space.

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Dressed for Winter

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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