British Wildlife of the Week
During December, our British Wildlife of the Week articles have been looking at animals and plants with a strong connection to Christmas, such as mistletoe and the robin. But no creature is more readily associated with the festive period than the focus of today’s post: the reindeer.
In traditional festive legend, Santa’s sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer to help him deliver gifts to everyone on Christmas Eve. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem A Visit from St Nicholas (more often remembered from the first lines as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’) introduced much of the contemporary lore surrounding these magical antlered animals, including their names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner (originally Dunder) and Blitzen (originally Blixem). Over a century later, a disheartened reindeer named Rudolph, who had been marginalised by his reindeer friends for his very shiny nose, was created in 1939 for a children’s book, and since then has generally been recognised as Santa’s ninth reindeer.
But despite their close connection to Christmas, you don’t need to go to Lapland to see these cold-climate creatures out in the wilderness. In fact, you don’t even need to leave the British Isles.
During and just after the last Ice Age, reindeer were found throughout much of upland Britain. They disappeared long ago, largely due to natural climate change following the Ice Age and the loss of their tundra habitat as extensive forests began to cover the once-frozen land. However, one part of Britain still retains conditions very similar to those now found north of the Arctic Circle – the wild, harsh Cairngorm plateau in Scotland. It was in this relict glacial landscape that, in 1952, semi-domesticated reindeer were brought over from Sweden, partly (or so it is said) to provide an extra post-war meat source. Supplementary animals were later added from Norway to provide genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.
We’ve looked at the Cairngorms before, quite recently. It is home to the hardy ptarmigan, a type of grouse that, uniquely among British birds, turns white in winter. As a result of this excellent camouflage, it can be very difficult to spot them. But the reindeer are much easier to see. The feral herd grew successfully and is now regulated at around 150 individuals, which are quite docile and familiar with people. They’re not technically wild because they are carefully looked after and given extra food by herders from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, but this free-ranging Scottish herd would probably be quite capable of surviving unaided if necessary.
In Europe, almost all reindeer are semi- or fully-domesticated, with only a couple of populations in Norway and Finland considered wild and genetically pure. Domestic reindeer are a little smaller than their wild counterparts and are slightly more variable in colour, but they have not physically changed as dramatically as livestock animals such as cattle and sheep. In North America, reindeer are known as caribou and they remain fully wild. Caribou undertake the longest migrations made by any land animal anywhere, with herds travelling up to 5,000 km a year. Some individuals, during their lifetimes, may walk the equivalent of three times around the entire planet!
The antlers possessed by reindeer (or caribou, if you prefer) are routinely replaced. Uniquely among deer, they are worn not only by the males but also by the females and even calves. This is partly because they are used by both sexes as snow shovels. The antlers have a branch close to the base that projects forward, allowing these animals to sweep aside large drifts of snow to reach moss and lichen below, which is a major part of their diet during the bleak winter months. In fact, ‘caribou’ is a Native American name, from the Mi’kmaq language, which literally means ‘snow-shoveller.’
Male reindeer generally have significantly larger antlers than those possessed by the females, and they also have more branches. In fact, bull reindeer antlers are, on average, the second largest of any living deer (after the moose) and the largest relative to body size. These antlers are a clear indicator of strength. Rival males use antler size to assess their ranking without having to resort to physical violence, and the male with the largest set tends to be the most dominant member of a herd.
If you want to visit the Cairngorms and see Britain’s only free-ranging reindeer, I recommend visiting the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd website for more information. Guided walks that allow you to get up close to the animals and even feed them are available year-round. Reindeer, it turns out, aren’t just for Christmas!
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at one of our most common mammals, but one that most of us never actually see – the European mole.
The Nature Nook will be taking a break for the remainder of the Christmas period. Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and any others that we have posted this year. We’ll be back in early January with a special edition of our fortnightly Freaky Frogs series. And expect lots more new content in 2021, including features on the electric eel, the world’s smallest bird, and animals in space, to name just a few!
But until then, The Nature Nook wishes you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!