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

 

 

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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

Scottish Rural Awards

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A few months ago, we found out that we had been nominated for an award for rural tourism at the Scottish Rural Awards ceremony being held mid-March at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. We still aren’t entirely sure who nominated us so if anyone can shed light on this please do. There were 13 awards altogether given out during the night. Some of the categories were Education, Conservation and the Environment, Artisan food and drink, agriculture and more… It was a black tie event so for those of you who know us, you’ll know that black tie isn’t something we do on a regular basis but we made an effort and myself, Tilly, Alex and Emily went down to Edinburgh for it.

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Ex-herder Heather let us stay at her house in Edinburgh so it was all very easy. Tilly and I had our first experience of Uber Taxi’s… When in Rome and all! So we made our way to Dynamic Earth in our posh frocks and kilt to be greeted by many more posh frocks and kilts. There was even quite a few tartan trousers! We were certainly out of our comfort zone, considering that morning all four of us were up on either the Cromdale hills or the Cairngorms being blasted by the wind and feeding the reindeer… oh how things changed. Free champagne on arrival… ye-ha! Then we sat down at our tables as guest speaker and Scottish comedian Fred MacAulay opened the night. He certainly knew how to capture an audience. We then had our three-course meal, which was super and afterwards the awards commenced.

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You know it’s posh when there’s more than one set of fork and knife, and doubly posh when you get three wine glasses!

We weren’t really sure what to expect but with 150-200 people there, all in their glad rags making the most of a night out it was certainly a good atmosphere all round. The Rural Tourism award came up towards the end and so Fred called out all the finalists. Other business’s we were up against were – Isle of Aaron Distillers, Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, The Famous Grouse Experience, Luss Estates Company, Oban Winter Festival, The Enchanted Forest, Aaron The Island and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Logan. So after all the finalists were announced they came to the three who had won. Cairngorm Reindeer got the highly commended award, runners up were Oban Winter Festival and the winners were Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, so a representative for each went up onto stage to collect their award. Naturally Tilly was our representative so off she went with a big smile on her face to collect our award from Fred MacAulay. Fred also mentioned that many years ago he worked on Cairngorm Mountain and during that time came across the reindeer and that they enjoyed a bit of shieling pie!

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Tilly accepting the Highly Commended award for Rural Tourism

This really is a great reflection on what the Cairngorm Reindeer and Wild Farm mean to Rural Scotland and this recognition means so much to all of us so thank you to whoever nominated us! I hope Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren, founders of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, are smiling from above and that we have done them proud.

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Fiona