Yellow’s on the Broom

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This is the title of a Scottish song about the Travellers (sometimes called Tinkers) who lived a nomadic life which often settled for a short while during the harder winter months. The lyrics show the Traveller anxious for Spring and a new start to traveling.

The guided walk out to the reindeer herd at this time of year is particularly colourful because the broom is in full flower with its multitude of bright yellow flowers. After the muted colours of winter, old heather and deciduous trees without leaves the flowering broom brings splashes of colour into the hills. I can understand why the yellow Broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller.

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The hill visit group paused for a breather at Utsi’s Bridge, about to cross the Allt Mhor Burn. The yellow Broom flowers light up the valley at this time of year.

In fact the daily hill visit to the reindeer which takes us across the Allt Mhor Burn to the summer grazing of part of the herd is incredibly picturesque just now, perhaps making up for the reindeer themselves who can look quite scruffy at this time of year as they lose their winter coats to reveal their short dark summer coats underneath.

Picture of a really scruffy reindeer

From a distance Broom can look really quite similar to Gorse, another shrub which has lurid yellow flowers.  Both plants tend to grow in the same kinds of places; heathlands, uncultivated land, roadsides etc. In a dense clump where both are found, it can be hard to tell where the Gorse ends and the Broom begins.

However once you get up close you immediately see the difference, Broom is a large, deciduous shrub, like Gorse, but without the spines. You would never push your way through a gorse bush in shorts, that’s for sure.

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The soft stems of broom give no barrier to the hill wanderer.

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In contrast, gorse is virtually impossible to pass through without a full coat of proection against those spines. Photo by Nigel Mykura.

For me, my personal preference is definitely Broom, with no sharp, jaggy spines and a slightly lighter coloured yellow flower, but it is a mystery to me why some areas are dominated by Gorse and others by Broom.

Perhaps a more learned person than me can come up with the answer..

Tilly

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Memorable reindeer of the past: Comet

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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

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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.

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

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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