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

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.