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

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Spring Buds

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If I was a gardener I would be looking out for the first signs of spring, daffodils pushing out of the ground and buds beginning to form on the trees. But I’m not. I’m a reindeer herder so the buds of spring I look out for are the newly growing reindeer antlers which begin to grow first among the mature bulls.

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Yearling reindeer Fly a few years ago, with new antlers just starting to ‘bud’.

Having lost their old antlers at the end of last year our mature bulls, like Balmoral, Bovril and Pera have spent the last few months antlerless which is not a good place to be because with no antlers you are at the bottom of the peck order. Even the wee calves, only 10 months old, still have their antlers and can boss any antlerless reindeer around!

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Fly a few days ago having cast an antler a little early, and presumably with ‘help’ from another reindeer. Antlers cast naturally  in Spring don’t normally bleed.

Mature bull reindeer grow the largest antlers in the herd and so to achieve this they need to start growing their antlers early. Despite still being winter here the bulls will divert food resources to growing these new antlers and this week I have just noticed the first buds of velvet antler appearing on their heads.

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Mature bull Crann in his heydey, with antlers starting to grow long before the end of winter.

Velvet antler is the fastest growing living tissue in the animal kingdom and from nothing on their heads these bull reindeer will have fully grown antlers, measuring up to 1 metre in length and weighing anything up to 10kg by the middle of August. Although the rate of growth will be slow just now, by the spring/summer the antlers visibly grow each day, with a growth rate of about 1cm/day.

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Crann in May with half-grown antlers…

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…and in August the same year, with full grown antlers.

Antlers are entirely composed of bone and to grow need a blood supply to the growing tip. The blood supply is carried by the velvet skin covering the developing bone and the velvet skin also acts as a protective cover. The velvet is also full of nerves, which make the growing antlers sensitive to contact, so protecting the soft growing tissue from injury.

Because the blood is so close to the surface the antlers always feel warm and radiate considerable heat. Indeed some scientists suggest that the antlers are important radiators of heat that help reindeer to ‘keep cool’ in the summer time.

The ultimate size of the bulls antlers depends on a number of factors but genetics and nutrition are the most important ones. The more they eat the bigger their antlers grow and if they come from parents who grew big antlers then they will more than likely grow large ones themselves. Crann has grown the biggest antlers ever in our herd and that is partly due to his parentage, his mother Burgundy grew extremely big antlers for a female. But also Crann has an insatiable appetite, always there for extra food, despite being an old reindeer now!

Tilly

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Luciferous Logolepsy

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Exploring the meanings of unusual words and the Reindeer hoose Office wall…

To explain this rather dubious title, in our humble office here at reindeer house there is a list of rather obscure words stuck to our wall: things like Jargogles, Apricity and twattle. the latter meaning to gossip or talk idly – a lot of that goes on in our office to be sure!

Quite a few of these words we feel are quite apt for a few of our fluffy friends up on the hill so I’m going to introduce you to a few choice selections!

Snoutfair – A good looking person.

I feel this would obviously be quite apt for all the reindeer as they are such gorgeous beasts but Cheese obviously thinks very highly of themselves here!

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Cheese being silly!

Cockalorum – A little man with a high opinion of himself.

If there was ever a reindeer that fit this description it would be Mo, Mo is a cheeky little fella and at four years old he’s definitely one of the smallest males in the herd and he more than makes up for it in attitude!

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Handsome little thug, Mo

Lethophobia – The fear of oblivion

So this is a tad dramatic but definitely applies to one of my favourite reindeer Shinty. Shinty is originally Swedish and was imported back in 2011. He’s a super sweetie (I think) but painfully shy and often looks apologetic for just turning up in the morning. If any reindeer were to fear oblivion it would be him!

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Shinty looking a little wide eyed and worried, as usual

Hugger mugger – To act in a secretive manner

To be honest this applies very well to the female reindeer during the winter months – at this time of year we have to find the reindeer every day and we do all of our visits out on the open hillside. The amount of times we’ve walked out for miles to then turn around and have an entire herd of reindeer smugly behind you is definite hugger muggery if you ask me!

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The girls in winter, sneaking off to hide for the night

Jollux  – Slang for being a wee bit on the chubby side.

Without a doubt the Jollux of the herd is Magnus, the lovely magnus loves nothing more than chowing down – unfortunately it’s rather hard to put a reindeer on a diet as the hillsides are covered in lovely grazing. This also brings me onto another great word – Callipygian: to have beautifully shaped buttocks. Magnus most definitely gives Beyonce a run for her money!

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Magnus looking majestic and pretty tubby!

The final word, one used almost daily here at Reindeer House is Groaking – To silently watch someone eating, hoping to be invited to join them. Every time lunch hour hits there’s some person with a fantastic looking lunch….

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Dave groaking…

 Abby

Grunter, The Monsterful (meaning wonderful and extra ordinary)

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I remember the day Grunter was born. Dixie, his mum, was only two years old at the time and rather than taking herself away from the herd to find a nice wee spot to calve she stuck with them and joined in with our daily guided tour. Things all happened very fast for her and before she knew it, mid hand feeding time for our visitors, Dixie popped out a tiny wee bundle which was Grunter! Much to her surprise she really didn’t know what to do next, instinct didn’t kick in and she legged it off up the hill in panic. Sally and Kathleen were on the visit that day so they reported down for a contingent of herders to come onto the hill to help out.

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Connor feeding Grunter one of his many bottles

Alex and Emily first came up to help out getting Dixie back and taking herself and Grunter (who obviously wasn’t named at this point) back to our shed and penned area on the hill. I then joined them to help get Grunter to suckle as it is very important for them to get their first milk which is the colostrum. This plays an vital part in their immune system at the very beginning but also for the rest of their life! Dixie was extremely unsettled and actively using her feet to shoo Grunter away from her so we had to use a bit of brute force as Grunter needed to get the milk. We also supplemented with some formula from the vet, just in case he didn’t get a full quota.

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Emily feeding Grunter and Hippo, another hand reared calf that year

For the next few days we didn’t want to keep them separate in case there was a small chance Dixie would take to having a calf. We left the two of them up in the shed area for a few days but also went up early mornings and late nights to give Grunter a bottle of milk. It was at this point he got his name as Sally and I were walking up towards their pen one morning and the demanding sound of ‘grunt… grunt… grunt’ was echoing. It was a nickname which of course stuck, as most nicknames do with the reindeer. It became very apparent over the next few days and weeks that Dixie was not going take on Grunter so we decided it was best for her to head for the summer free range with the other cows and calves and we would hand rear the wee man ourselves.

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Grunter getting his much anticipated bottle

Another few days passed and then we sadly lost a female, called Maisie, who had a female calf of 10 days old so now we had two! Its unusual enough having one, let alone two to hand rear in one year – we were left well and truly holding the babies… We named her Hippo as she was as hungry as a hippo when it came to giving them their bottle of milk. The two of them were thick as thieves however it was definitely Hippo leading Grunter astray, he would follow along like a lost little brother. Everyday they would go up and down the hill with us spending the day up there and then back down to our paddocks here at the Centre at night. Not only did we have two reindeer to hand rear but we also ended up with two red deer (from our Glenlivet farm) to bottle feed so it was a right wee crèche out there.

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Grunter and one of the red deer

As always they grow up far too fast but it was such a great summer with them.  They were full of fun and mischief. Usually reindeer wean off the bottle of milk round October time but Grunter (not Hippo) was very much still enjoying his bottles of milk right into December and even had them while out and about on Christmas events. As a teenager Grunter was a bit of a handful as he loved jumping on people. He has managed to include most of us reindeer herders in that too. Reindeer herder Anna will remember Grunter’s hooves reaching her shoulders in the paddocks and I remember once I was calling the reindeer down and Grunter decided that was his time to pounce (literally) therefore during those younger years Grunter was sent to the farm for the summer months where he couldn’t pick on the general public… or reindeer herders! However he did mellow when he got to about 3-4 years old and he turned into the most amazing reindeer – he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.

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Grunter and Hippo eating out of the feed bag

When out on Christmas tour I have taken him into old peoples homes and children’s hospitals where patients have been bed bound. The delighted looks on their faces to meet Grunter was priceless. We went to visit my Grandpa when he was fairly frail at his home on the south east coast and we got Grunter right in his conservatory to meet and greet, needless to say my grandpa was delighted! I have had very young children lead him around as he is totally trust worthy. Candice and Pandra (long term supporters of the herd) will have fond memories of Grunter on tour, I think he was a bit of a guardian in the pen when little Pandra would walk round, the other reindeer wouldn’t give her a hard time if Grunter was by her side. That was the only slightly naughty thing about Grunter was that he was so tame and used to humans that he didn’t think twice about giving the other reindeer a bit of a hard time… or was it keeping them in check within the herd, not sure. When we stopped at service stations to fill with fuel Grunter would make himself known by grunting to seek a bit of attention, which let’s face it if he was in my team he always got… I did spoil him rotten!

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Fiona holding Grunter, who doesn’t seem fazed at all!

When back at home he was always used as a role model, whether it be training new reindeer to pull the sleigh, to lead the herd in or moving them round on the hill side. When loading into the livestock truck Grunter wouldn’t even break his stride to go up the ramp which showed how comfortable he was and gave the younger inexperienced reindeer comfort in travelling. He definitely had a cheeky side though and sometimes when pushing the herd in Grunter would leap around dancing and refusing to go through gate ways… he was playing like a naughty child and avoiding doing what we wanted him to do because he knew us so well.

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Grunter, September 2014

Grunter died almost exactly eight years to the day after he was born. He was over at our hill farm having spent the winter free ranging on the Cromdale Hills. Over the past year he hasn’t seemed to put on weight quite as much as we liked however his spirits were always high. On his last night with us Tilly shut him in so he could get a good pile of lichen to himself and as she left she just pushed the gate to, not quite latching it shut. In true Grunter style he finished up the yummy stuff and then pushed his way out the pen. He headed to the top of the hill beside a birch woodland and that’s where he died. Tilly found him in the morning so we buried him up there in the woodland with a good view of the Cromdale Hills. We suspect his shortened life may have been from not getting the best start to life in the first place and maybe not having as strong an immune system, but this is just speculation, maybe he had something underlying that we didn’t find. The main thing was he was never in pain or horrifically ill, he was the same old Grunter from beginning to end.

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Grunter, September 2015

Reindeer like Grunter are rare and he has no doubt crossed paths with many of you whether it be here at home in the Highlands of Scotland, out and about on Christmas tour, or both! Feel free to write your story / memory of Grunter and let’s share the antics of this amazing reindeer!

Fiona

Grunter in 2008, the year he was born, followed by him in 2009, 2011 and 2015.

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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