Memorable reindeer: Amber

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Amber was one of the very first reindeer I remember meeting when I arrived back in 2007. At that time she was in the hill enclosure with her 6-month-old son, Go. Both were very tame and friendly, and with her distinctive curved antlers, I found her easy to recognise amongst the sea of reindeer I was frantically trying to tell apart. Amber was also incredibly pretty, with a delicate, dished face and a gentle expression.

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Amber in 2007 with her awesome antlers

Born in 1999, Amber was the final calf from her mum Trout. Trout and her compatriot, Tuna, lived to the grand old age of 18, which as far as I know is the record for any reindeer in our herd. No prizes for guessing the naming theme for their year of birth (1984)! Unlike Trout, who has 11 calves to her name on the family tree, Amber never proved to be such a successful breeding female, with her only offspring being Esme, Oasis, Go and Sambar, or at least those are the only ones that survived long enough to be named (we usually lose a calf or two each year in the summer months when they are very young and vulnerable). Esme managed a better job of breeding than her mum, with 7 calves to her name.

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Amber in 2009

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Amber looking out over the hills towards Meall a Bhuachaille

Amber was one of those lovely, gentle reindeer, but a fairly dominant character in the herd – a matriarch, if you will. She was a great reindeer to have around in the winter months when the herd all free-range completely as she so was easy to catch, and therefore an ideal candidate to be put on a halter and used as the ‘lead’ reindeer when needing to move the herd from place to place. I remember Fiona once leading her all the way from Eagle Rock back to near the Ciste carpark (where we were going to take the tour to that day) with her belt looped loosely around Amber’s neck, in place of a halter which we had managed to forget to take with us!

The continuation of Trout’s branch of the family tree now rests squarely upon the shoulders of Amber’s last calf Sambar, who is the sole remaining female in Trout’s descendants, other than Esme’s daughter Okapi. Unfortunately we don’t want to risk breeding from Okapi as she has had a prolapsed uterus a couple of times, so we think it’s better to not risk the chance of this happening again. We want it to stay firmly where it belongs! So Sambar has a lot of expectation on her, and is a lovely reindeer to boot, although a wee bit shyer than Amber was.

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Esme in 2009, with yearling Okapi

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Amber with Sambar on the left, in 2008

Amber herself passed away at some point in 2013, although we never knew exactly when as she just didn’t return from the summer grazing range in the autumn. She was over 14 by this point, so a very respectable age for any reindeer, and we are glad she finished her days out on the hills roaming freely.

Hen

 

 

 

 

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Filming reindeer

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They say you should avoid filming with children and animals and there is no doubt that both can be unpredictable. However in the case of our reindeer I think there is an exception to the rule and whether we are filming with celebrities or for natural history our reindeer are always very amenable, willing and predictable. As long as there is a reward – food.

A couple of years ago we were approached by a TV company, Maramedia with a view to filming our reindeer as part of a four part series on the natural world of the Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart. We were really pleased to be considered as part of the Highland fauna because our reindeer are a re-introduced species to Scotland and so ‘purists’ may feel reindeer should not have been included. But the Cairngorm reindeer are truly living in their natural habitat and as the filming showed, highly adapted to the Cairngorms, Britain’s only arctic environment.

The film crew decided to focus on our reindeer in the autumn and winter, seasons when reindeer are looking at their very best. The rutting season in autumn is always a spectacular affair and every year we have a number of breeding bulls who sometimes ‘fight it out’ to decide who will be ‘top dog’.

In 2014 the two main bulls were Bovril and Gandi and they were very evenly matched. They were also quite different colouring and so in the narration Ewan McGregor referred to them as the pale bull ( Gandi ) and the dark bull ( Bovril ). It made me smile because it sounded like something out of a western!

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Fiona starring in Highlands Book

 

When reindeer bulls fight it is head on and locked antlers and a trial of strength, a bit like arm wrestling but with more action! Size, strength and experience (which comes with age) all come into the equation.

The film crew then returned a few more times over the winter to film reindeer living in arctic conditions. Of course reindeer are past masters at this and a bed of snow is extremely comfortable for a reindeer, who have such a dense insulating coat they don’t even melt the snow they are lying on! At a preview night where the makers of the series showcased the series to a local audience the camera man who came to film mentioned it was the coldest he had been when filming the reindeer in winter. He should have had a reindeer coat on.

Tilly

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The “Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart” book

We currently have the beautiful book which accompanies the Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart series in stock in our shop. You can pop into the shop in Glenmore and pick it up for only £25, or order by emailing or telephoning us here at the centre. P+P on request.

 

 

Dinner Date

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So there is often great confusion over what reindeer like to nom on and if you ever find yourself in that special situation where your dinner date is a reindeer we would hate for you to be unprepared!

The key to any nice dinner is of course a nice accompanying beverage; reindeer love fresh water from a mountain burn or pool… or even an upland lochan – they turn up their noses at tap water so that’s a big no no, I’ve seen reindeer lap up rain droplets up instead of lowering themselves to drinking the tap water we provide them on Christmas events!

As you guys all know by now from reading all our previous reindeer centric blogs, reindeer themselves are an arctic animal so they like their salad with a northern twist! These guys need arctic/sub-arctic habitat and plants to have happy tummies (think actimel for reindeer!)

Reindeer LOVE lichen… I mean L.O.V.E lichen! Although partial to a bit of tree lichen (you could add it in for flair!) the mainstay for the reindeer are ground growing lichens, they are the only animal excepting gastropods (snails/slugs) to have evolved the digestive enzyme to break down lichen.

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Lichen covering the forest floor

Lichen is the main source of food for reindeer in the winter when the rest of the grazing has died back for the year and forms springy carpets at the bases of heathers and sedges up on the mountains here. However, interestingly enough lichen contains barely enough nutrients and energy to sustain a gnat let alone a reindeer. Thus in the winter the reindeer very cleverly slow their metabolism right down and the young stop growing – being a reindeer is very much a feast and famine business.

NB. It may be best to plan a summer dinner with your chosen reindeer.

The summer diet is much more varied, it’ll make for a multi-course experience! Once spring hits, the mountains turn green and all the lush grazing once again unfurls. Reindeer will eat almost anything montane, chewy and fibrous (reindeer have adapted to live off low nutrient arctic plants) – there is a common misconception that a lovely field of grass would float their boats but in actual fact it would be the equivalent of us living off a complete diet of clotted cream and would end in some unhappy digestive systems!

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Lilac and Hornet, roaming around in the lush grazing

Reindeer will graze on an array of montane sedges and heathers as well as leafier vegetation such as birch and blaeberry (wild blueberry) leaves in the summer months. In the autumn reindeer will do anything for a wild mushroom; their digestive system allows them to eat even the super poisonous Fly agaric mushroom, however mushrooms often  = drunk reindeer which is more than hilarious!

Reindeer will also eat some rather unusual things to gain nutrients if they are lacking, such as cast antler bone (full of great minerals!) as well as the velvet skin they shed from their antlers in the late summer – yum! We have ascertained that while they will eat their own velvet, they draw the line at anyone else’s!

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Kate shedding the velvet from her antlers

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Sambar shedding velvet

Whilst this is the mainstay of a natural reindeer diet, if you’ve visited us here you may know we provide a supplementary feed for the reindeer for several reasons – reindeer are greedy and it ensures we have a lovely visit, we give them a wee bit of a helping hand at times of year when grazing is scarce and finally for half the year we use a 1200 acre enclosure and providing a supplement mix ensures all of our yummy natural grazing can re-grow.

First things first if you’re going to make a mix for your reindeer you’ll need to acquire a cement mixer. It is the sure fire way to make a yummy and well mixed batch, your dinner won’t go well if items are poorly distributed! We like to mix with a tonne of hay-mix (chopped up hay) which is covered in garlic molasses. The garlic is great for the digestive system but it does mean us herders have a garlicy scent most of the time. It can be a very lonely existence this reindeer herding! Next a splash of barley and sugar-beet alongside a general sheep feed full of good grains and our last ingredient is rather special. It’s called dark grains and looks pretty boring BUT is by far the coolest thing in the mix.

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Dark Grains

It’s a by-product of alcohol distilling (malt whisky production), obtained by drying solid residues of fermented grain to which certain solubles (pot ale syrup or evaporated spent wash) have been added. Unfortunately all the alcohol is all gone by this stage and the dark grains themselves are rather bitter so maybe mix them in well!

One final word of wisdom if you want to posh up your dinner is to sneak some seaweed in there – we discovered the reindeer loved the stuff after it was used to fertilize a patch of tree saplings and they ate it all. It’s now something we regularly provide for the reindeer in our paddocks and enclosure over the summer months.

We wish you the best of luck and hope if you ever have a reindeer date dilemma we’ve provided some key tips to a great evening or you!

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Gandi and Puddock with their main course of lichen!

Abby

 

Rounding up Winter

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Fiona and Feta having a one to one

So as it’s almost summer and I’m having a bit of a phone clear out of all the photos and thought who would most enjoy all my winter reindeer ones… everyone online! It was only 6 months ago I managed to upgrade my trusty old button phone to a smart one so I’ve been making the most of having a camera to hand most of the time.

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The girls walking behind each other to save energy

 

We have had a right mix of weather over the past few months but regardless what it is doing out there we have to go out and locate the herd every morning. This is one good reason I never look at a weather forecast cos I either get excited that there is going to be good weather and it disappoints or I see it’s due to be bad weather so then I don’t look forward to getting a drenching so best just to look out the window on the day and dress appropriately! At least this way there is no expectations.

 

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Mel leading the herd in for breakfast

The girls (reindeer) have been pretty well behaved and we have found them most of the time. I say most because lets face it there is going to be the odd day the hill is storm bound or just too foggy to even begin to find them. We have experienced every terrain under foot from deep snow, mud and ice but to be honest the snow is the easiest one to walk through as we create a lovely packed path that both us and the reindeer use… unless you are the first one to break that path after a fresh dumping in which case a deep thigh high walk out it is!

 

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Abby and the reindeer on a gloriously sunny winter’s morning

They always go through the same pattern every year and they come to a call from far away through January and February but then through March they seem to get quite lazy and expect us to go to them so the walks become further and a little more frustrating, however, when you do get them back to the right place there is a much bigger sense of achievement. Plus it keeps us fit and if the weather is good then there is no better office!

 

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Lace having a stretch, overlooking Loch Morlich

Anyway there is no need for me to say anything else so enjoy my photos of the reindeer this winter.

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Fiona

 

 

There’s no such thing as bad weather

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Britain's Only Reindeer Herd Prepare For Christmas

Eve feeding the herd in a blizzard (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“There’s no such thing as bad weather… only unsuitable clothing…”

This is very much the mantra us reindeer herders live by and there are unfortunately even days here in the Cairngorms where our beautiful “office” on the mountains leaks and gets a wee bit blustery. This is never more emphasized than during the winter months here where weather conditions are some of the most beautiful and the most extreme.

We often start our mornings here at 8am vaguely unaware of exactly what the weather is going to bring, Reindeer House is fortuitously sheltered at the foot of the Cairngorms and it’s often not until we venture above the tree line that the true extent of the weather hits us.

If the ski road remains open and the reindeer are there we dutifully head out onto the hills even if this means battling 80 mph gusts and freezing temperatures… winds so strong herder Hen’s car was relieved of its undercover last winter! (we love it really!).

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It quite often looks a wee bit of a comedy show, us herders trying to walk in a straight line (people must think us perpetually drunk!). Annoyingly, the reindeer often look completely unfazed be it wind, icy temperatures and deep deep snow, quite often as we lumber through the drifts they use us as the snow plough for making them a path, following cheerfully in our footsteps even though they’re the Arctic animal!

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Making a path for the herd through the snow (Photo by Tony Dilger)

This brings us to clothing, again the reindeer come annoying pre-prepared for the weather with thick insulating, water repelling coats and built-in snow shoes; us on the other hand live for woollen thermals, multiple jumpers and cosy hats and are most definitely never far from a pair of waterproofs! Woe betide the reindeer herder who doesn’t have a spare set of clothes! On the other hand, I personally often find myself far too prepared in the summer months when even in the sunshine I never quite trust that Scotland won’t throw snow at me!

Working in the Cairngorms year round is definitely a different challenge to some of the more indoor based jobs I’ve held but as long as I have my mittens and spare socks I’m super happy to battle whatever the weather throws at us!

Abby

‘Snow deer’

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Snow deer in their element

It has often amused me that the most arctic living of the deer species, i.e. reindeer and caribou are not called ‘snow deer’. Apart from the obvious and appropriate descriptive title of an animal so ‘at home’ in the snow, I have always thought it would have been a rather attractive name for them as well!

There are plenty of occasions over the winter when our reindeer experience truly arctic conditions and so for me anyway in winter they become our ‘snow deer’. Part of the Cairngorm herd spends the winter on the Cromdale hills, which are situated to the north east of the Cairngorm mountain massif. Despite not being as high as the Cairngorms and so not quite the same exposure to wintry weather, the Cromdales still get their fair share of snow and so our ’snow deer’ here can experience pretty wild conditions.
These are a few photos taken a couple of years ago when in blizzard conditions our snow deer were quite at home. Not sure the same can be said for me!
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A coating of snow on their coats

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Us humans feel the cold even when completely wrapped up!

There are no winter conditions that drive these animals off the hill. They have incredible soft thick coat which provide all the insulation they need against the cold. Their broad flat feet make it both easy for them to walk across the snow and dig down through the snow to their favourite winter food, lichen and in blizzard conditions they face the prevailing wind which keeps their coats ‘flat’ and so trapping air between the hairs to create another insulating layer. It does mean though that they end up with ‘ice packs’ on their foreheads.
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Whilst they don’t worry about the snow, the reindeer will close their eyes to stop it swirling in.

Knowing how well adapted they are to snow, many people ask me whether reindeer like the milder weather we have come to experience more of in recent years. Indeed as I write this today, the 24th January 2016 the day is decidedly ‘spring like’, there’s no snow, no wind or rain, the grass is looking quite green and I can wander around outside without a jacket on. As far as our reindeer are concerned I suspect it just makes it easier for them, as they don’t need to expend energy digging down through the snow to find food. But that’s not to say they wouldn’t prefer to be lying on a soft bed of snow.
Tilly 

Snow!

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To any southerner just an inch of snow means great excitement, school closed for a week and the front page story on every newspaper! Having spent the first 18 years of my life living in Bristol, where the yearly day of snow is celebrated (before everything grinds to a halt) you can imagine my excitement to wake up to snow one morning in early November!

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The morning commute

Seeing as my room (fondly known as the Cave) in Reindeer House has no external windows, it was not till I opened the curtains in the kitchen, I saw the snow covered wonderland that was Glenmore. I proceeded to eat my porridge in the garden and then spend the last ten minutes before work throwing snowballs for the dogs, before realising I had no gloves on and could no longer feel my hands.

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Caddis looking beautiful on the snow covered mountain side!

Initially my excitement was laughed at as the dusting that we woke up to barely counts as snow if you’re Scottish. By mid-morning however I was told by Fiona that we now had ‘real snow’ which looked a lot like a blizzard to me!

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Arrochar looking a wee bit shocked by the whole thing (I think that may just be her resting face)

I was away on Christmas events the first three weekends that it snowed here, but I just about managed to fit in a few rounds of torch-lit sledging before work (dogs in tow of course) and a snow angel or two. This weekend was the first weekend to be at home for the snow (enough for the snow plough to be out) and I took up a lovely snowy visit.

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Feeding the herd on a lovely snowy morning

The reindeer are absolutely in their element at this time of year; they couldn’t be happier in the snow. If you’re coming up to visit us make sure you’re well wrapped up (as many layers are you can wear and still move and a full set of waterproofs) so you can feed the reindeer in the snow and love it as much as I do!

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Brimick looking incredibly cute, Spy posing for the camera and Cioch pulling a silly face

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