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

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)

Tilly

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), four cows (Mona, Kristina, Margaret 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.

 

Hen

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