Like many children the world over, I lived a quiet life of ignorance and happy Christmases for many a year.
But once I learned the truth about Santa, I simply assumed the whole stinkin’ cast was a sham. Oh, the shame and degradation! Elves. Mrs. Claus. Reindeer. Liars, the lot of them!
So imagine my shock and awe when I found myself face-to-face with a real reindeer!
It was mid-road trip across the Scottish Highlands when I saw the sign for “The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre.”
The shrill scream of excitement I was emitting could not be alleviated until the car was stopped.
Annie: 1; Uninterested friends: 0.
The Reindeer Centre does daily treks up into the Cairngorm Mountains to see the reindeer herd that roams there…
But I was devastated to learn that we had missed that day’s trek.
Annie: 1; Uninterested friends: 1.
However, even if your timing is off, there is always a band of reindeer that is cared for right there on the centre grounds.
Annie: 2; Uninterested friends: About to ditch Annie.
But I didn’t care! I was hanging in the Scottish Highlands with reindeer.
Now, the herd in the Cairngorms only goes back to 1952. There’s evidence that there were reindeer roaming Scotland before that, but they died out some 8,000 years ago.
Reindeer are a herding animal, just like cows or sheep. So over the years, lots of rich people tried to reintroduce the species to Scotland by establishing a herd.
But it wasn’t until 1952 that a Swedish dude named Mikel Utsi succeeded.
If you go on a trek in May or June, you’ll probably get to see babies! And since boy and girl reindeer lose and grow a new set of antlers every year, there’s a good chance you’ll see some reindeer “in velvet.”
The boys lose their antlers in early winter, and the girls lose them in the spring. What’s that, logic? You’re right, that means Rudolph was probably a girl!
But the gelded males often lose their antlers in the Spring, too. The reindeer we saw in the paddock were adult gelded males trained to harness. (Sled rides, anyone?) And thus, they were in the middle of the painful process of antler-growing.
They grow their antlers out of little bumps on their head called pedicles.
The growing antlers are soft and sensitive, made of blood and marrow. The nerves grow at the same rate as the antlers, with the newest growth at the tip of the antler. Ouchie!
It’s all covered in velvet skin, which is why this phase is called being “in velvet.”
Like a baby might chew on a teething ring, the reindeer tap their antlers with their hooves or, in the case of the paddocked reindeer, knock them gently against the wooden fence. That relieves the irritating growing pains and also stimulates growth.
It’s freaking adorable.
Reindeer also have a tendon in their ankle that rubs against a bone, causing a clicking sound when they walk. This helps them keep track of each other in snow storms!
This was an awesome day, and I was all set to write home about it, when I read Utsi’s “Why reindeer herding is important” spiel.
“The meat is delicious; the animal is bred for meat and can be slaughtered in the right way and at the right time.”
Calm down, everybody. I think the man’s English was subpar, and he was using “slaughtered” to mean “cuddled.”
So, in conclusion, the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is a big, fat don’t miss!