Differences and Similarities

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One of our visitors recently decided to adopt a reindeer they’d met at the Centre, but called us up when they received their pack to let us know that we’d sent a photo of the wrong reindeer. The reindeer they’d met had been a pale brown, with a thick shaggy coat and small antlers, whereas the photo on their certificate was of a sleek black coloured reindeer with large bony antlers. Thankfully, we hadn’t got it wrong, but could totally understand their confusion, as the reindeer change in appearance a lot throughout the year.

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Bovril in his shaggy old winter coat in June, and looking smart in September

First, there is the coat appearance. From May, the reindeer start moulting out their long winter coat, which, with 2000 hairs per square inch, takes about six weeks. They look incredibly scruffy at this time, but by around mid-July the whole herd look glorious in their short summer coat. This summer coat is a richer colour than the winter coat, so the white reindeer are gleaming white, and the darker reindeer are virtually black. The short coat exposes all of their angles, so they can look a bit gaunt, with angular heads and shoulders.

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Olympic’s varied coat throughout the same year (2014) – in February, July and September

Summer in the Highlands is short-lived, however, so by September their long winter coat is growing through, softening their appearance and turning them into cuddly teddy-bear lookalikes. This coat is slightly lighter in colour, so the darkest reindeer are now a rich brown. Over the winter months, the sun gradually bleaches out the colour, so by April the whole herd are a similar washed-out shade, with only the pure white reindeer looking different. It is the worst time of year to become a reindeer herder, as the reindeer look almost identical, and I’ve had sympathy with Ruth, and previously Dave and Imogen, starting in April and trying desperately to work out who is who!

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Young Beastie throughout the same year (2011) – in full winter coat in January, darker summer coat in July, and new winter coat in September

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Young Strudel throughout the same year (2010) – in old winter coat in May, dark sleek summer coat in August and with new winter coat growing through in September

Whilst the colour of a reindeer varies depending on the time of year, a dark coloured reindeer will always be comparatively dark, and a light one will be light. There is one exception, in that some white calves are born a mousy brown or grey colour, with a white forehead. This white forehead suggests their future colour, and once they are a yearling they have changed into their adult silvery coat.

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Diamond as a brown calf with a white forehead, turning silvery later that year, and even lighter as a yearling

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Origami as a calf with a white forehead, and as a silvery white adult

The other major change in appearance is relating to the antlers. Every year, each reindeer grows a full new set of antlers before casting them again at the end of the season ready to grow the next (hopefully better) set. From January to March, the male reindeer are antler-less, with the females usually losing theirs a little later, between March and May. Antlers are very distinctive, with each individual tending to grow a similar shape or pattern each year once they pass the age of about three. This is really useful for us herders, helping us to recognise the reindeer from year to year. Not much help in the period between casting the old set and the new set getting to a sensible size though! New herders are cautioned to try to “look beyond the antlers” and instead learn more permanent characteristics, such as the shape of their face.

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Caterpillar with very similar antlers over three consecutive years – 2014, 2015, 2016.

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Puddock with his familiar crazy branching antlers over three consecutive years.

There is a slight spanner thrown in the works though, as adult reindeer don’t necessarily grow the same size of antler each year. Antler size is determined largely by condition, so if reindeer are short of energy, they will grow smaller, more basic antlers – it’s pointless to waste energy on an amazing set of antlers if you don’t save enough energy for your body to survive! The three main reasons for sub-standard antlers are illness, rearing a calf, and advancing years. If a reindeer becomes ill whilst growing their antlers, the growth will be checked, and sometimes the new bone is weakened to the point that it breaks off, leaving the reindeer with short, oddly shaped antlers. Antler growth also checks when a female is about to calve, and the extra effort of producing milk to feed the calf can mean the antlers are considerably smaller than usual. Finally, once a reindeer is in their old age, their antlers often become distinctly short and basic – they are focusing their efforts on being alive rather than growing antlers for dominance.

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Lulu with impressive antlers in 2013, and a rather less impressive set the following year, due to rearing a calf.

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Beautiful Sequin in her prime with a large set of antlers, and with a simpler set in her old age.

It’s always entertaining for new herders watching the change in reindeer throughout the year, and sometimes peering in disbelief that the handsome reindeer in a photo is the same beastie as the scruffy fellow they know on the hill (as a side note, most of the photos for the adoption certificates are taken in September when they reindeer are at their smartest, with a fresh winter coat and recently stripped full-grown antlers). So if you do receive an adopt certificate with a reindeer looking a little different from when you met them, it is of course possible that we’ve got it wrong (we’re only human!) but if we check for you and confirm that it is them, hopefully this blog will help you to believe us!

Andi

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

Back in business

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Well, we’ve had our annual month of closure to the public and are now open again for hill trips! The weather hasn’t been too horrendous this winter and most of us here are really missing the snow; we are all considering going off to the Alps for our skiing and snow fix!

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Of course, it is now the February half term so we are back with a bang and having busy hill trips, even reaching our limit of numbers on some days. Most of us have had a slight panic at the beginning of our first visit: “What do I say again?” “Where do I go again?” “What is a reindeer?(!)” Luckily, once you are faced with a whole load of expectant tourists most of your talk comes flooding back to you and you manage to muddle through, getting the important safety and history information in.

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Although it is not that snowy at the moment, it is relatively cold and we have had some quite windy days too. Most folks have been well enough dressed that they’ve managed to keep the cold out and have enjoyed the trips. If you would like to come visit us in the near future, please remember to dress up warmly, and give us a call in the morning to make sure we definitely are going ahead with the trip. The reindeer are completely free-ranging at the moment, so both they and the weather mean that we can’t always run the trip!

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Imogen

Keeping Warm

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Reindeer facing resolutely into the weather.

Reindeer are the past masters at keeping warm. When you evolve to live in temperatures below minus 30 Celsius then you need all your wits about you to keep warm.

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Some of the boys toughing out a blizzard, ice plastered to their foreheads, including big Magnus (centre) who even has snow layering his antlers.

To begin with they have an extremely dense winter coat, 2,000 hairs to the square centimetre although I have to confess to not having confirmed that by counting them myself! Secondly, each individual hair is hollow for the same reason that we have holofil in our duvets. Air is a very good insulator so the combination of air in each hair and around each hair increases the insulation factor. In fact, reindeer are like a mobile thermos flask, neither allowing the cold in or indeed the warmth out. A bed of snow is a comfortable spot for a reindeer, and they can lie on it without even melting it.

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Caddis and her young calf Mozzarella (in 2013) – calves have even thicker coats than adults so they can stay snug in late snowfall.

You may have noticed that cows or horses out in fields in windy weather tend to put their backs to the prevailing winds (as well as look pretty miserable). That is actually not a very clever thing to do, as the wind lifts the hairs and takes away more of their body heat. They need to copy reindeer who face a blizzard. By doing this they keep the hair across their body flat and so do not lose heat. The only disadvantage to this is you end up with a ice pack on your face. Lucky that reindeer have hairy foreheads.

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Jenga in just a wee bit of snow, but not cold!

Actually if you study a reindeer closely from nose to tail you will find no bare skin anywhere and that even applies to the bottom of their feet. Yet another fine adaption to the cold, and with the added bonus of improving their grip on the ice and snow.

Finally, if you measure the temperature of the blood of a reindeer at its extremities you will find it is cooler. Once again this is to prevent heat loss. To do this a counter current system has evolved whereby the warm blood exiting from the main part of the body passes close to the colder blood coming back from the extremities. The net effect is the cold blood is warmed and the warm blood is cooled and the heat remains in the body.

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A reindeer’s perfectly designed coat beats all of the artificial layers us herders have to wear – no contest! Look at the snow sitting unmelted on top of the fur.

There are other heat saving aspects to reindeer but I think that’s enough for now. Food for thought however it does mean that they can get awfully hot in the warmer weather. I reckon reindeer would be the first to sign up to a programme to slow down global warming!

Tilly

January

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Caddis, Chelsea and Vandal enjoying the snow

In January, we are closed to the public, and it’s the time of the year when we all take the opportunity to take holidays and have a bit of a break. There’s still plenty to get on with though at the Centre – the reindeer are all free-ranging but we still feed them daily, if of course we can find them! At this time of the year their appetite is greatly reduced and the weather doesn’t always permit us to walk out onto the mountainside. If we can’t feed them, it doesn’t matter as they’re perfectly capable of finding enough food themselves, but its always nice to check them over and see that they’re all fine. On snowy days, this can take two or three of us two or three hours, as we’re often breaking a track through deep snow, whilst carrying feed, to get to where the reindeer are.

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Gorgeous views, spying for the reindeer

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Calling the reindeer – the better your call, the less distance you have to walk…!

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Not always the easiest of walks – reindeer may be designed for the snow but us herders aren’t!

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Hen’s call must have been good enough – the herd come to meet us.

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Follow the leader. This is on the outside of the enclosure fence line.

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Posers!

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Waiting expectantly for the food.

Aside from feeding the reindeer, there is plenty of maintenance to do at the Centre, which we can’t really do whilst we’re open. Painting the exhibition shed floor is a big job each January – it gets very worn over the course of the year so needs three coats of garage floor paint to smarten it up in preparation for all of our visitors over the coming year! It’s always entertaining reading the instructions on the paint can “Ensure the temperature is over 10*C”, then looking out of the window at the snow – anyone who’s visited will know that our exhibition shed is unheated, so it’s unfortunate that we have to do the floor in the coldest month of the year, when the temperature is mostly sub-zero. Our solution is to block off the doors and get a fan heater on, which helps, but I still wear a hat and gloves and take a cup of tea to help keep me warm!

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Coat one is well under-way, you can see how worn the floor gets.

The other big job for me is to oil all of our Christmas harness and make any necessary repairs before it is popped into storage for the year. If you’ve met me, you may realise that I absolutely love order and lists, so organising harness is one of my favourite jobs. It’s also a little warmer sitting oiling harness in the shop than most of the other tasks. The shop is the only place large enough to do this really, which is another reason that its done whilst we’re closed, along with the fact that we’d never get round to it if we left it until before Christmas!

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The shop in its January role.

There’s still also plenty of office work to get on with: making up adoption packs, answering emails, planning what gifts we’ll order to go in next year’s adoption packs, counting and reordering shop stock (again a delight for me as I get to make lists!). So whilst we may be a little quieter, don’t imagine we’re just sat around with our feet up!

Perhaps the most important purpose of being closed to the public in January is that after a hectic Christmas season (in fact all of 2016 was hectic…) it gives both us herders and the reindeer a proper break and change in routine, which means that when we reopen in February we’ll be bright and bushy tailed, and actually look forward to meeting our visitors and introducing everyone to the beautiful reindeer!

Andi

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.

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In the beginning…

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Throughout much of the western world, the creation story known is that of Adam and Eve, and perhaps this is the most well-known. The Sámi, however, believe that in the beginning there was only the Sun and the Earth. The Sun was the father, and the Earth the mother, and together they created a Son. The home of the Son of the Sun did not have any females, so he set out on a boat to the land of Giants to find a wife. There, he fell in love (or lust), with the daughter of the blind Giant King. With the help of the daughter, he won a game of finger pulling against her father and earned the right to marry her. They were then intimate, and then sailed away. However, they were pursued by her angry brothers who wanted her back. The couple defeated the brothers with her magical handkerchief and the Son’s hot rays, burning the men to death, essentially. They were married, and she soon gave birth to the ancestors of the Sámi, the Gállá-bártnit, who were hunting sons and passed their hunting knowledge down to the Sámi.

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There aren’t many pictures to go with this blog, so I thought I would just put some pretty reindeer as eye candy. This is the beautiful Wapiti.

The Sun and the Earth also had a daughter, which the Sámi believe came to earth to live with the Sámi. She gave the Sámi their reindeer to herd, and looked after them. When she was on her deathbed, she talked about wanting to see her Father, the Sun, again, because the darkness was coming in and she worried for the Sámi people. The story of the Son is all about optimism for the future, whereas the poem about the Daughter is about uncertainty and the need to pray to ensure the future of the Sámi way of life.

The Evenkis of Russia and China believe that the earth was all water and was not inhabited by people, until a maiden with an eight legged reindeer created the land. All the people lived in heaven, and when she refused to marry an old man, she was cast out of heaven, because such refusal was a great sin to the people in heaven. Her late father had left her one reindeer, an eight legged beast who she took with her when she was banished. She cried and cried, and fell asleep on the reindeer as they flew to earth. When she woke up, she realised her reindeer was not flying, but falling. The reindeer spoke to her, telling her to pull out his fur and throw it into the ocean below. She did as was told and logs appeared. The reindeer landed on the biggest one. He told the girl to tie them together to make a raft, so she did. There they floated on the ocean of earth, fishing with hair from the reindeer’s neck made into nets and loops, until the reindeer grew old.

Realising he would soon die, he told the girl to kill him. She wept, not wanting to kill her only friend, but he warned that if she didn’t she too would die. The girl reluctantly did as the reindeer wished. She lay his skin on the water, and it became land. His fur became forests and his skull became mountains. His lice became wild reindeer and his broken bones turned into crackling thunder. Before she lay down to sleep that night, she placed his heart on her left side and his lungs on her right. His heart became a hero and his lungs a boy and a girl. His last breath became the wind.

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The herd running for food

I hope you’ve enjoyed having a read of these little stories and I hope I have told them well. If you know of any others, tell us in the comments below.

Imogen