A Christmas favourite

It’s that time of year when children turn their eyes towards the night sky in search of an important group of animals, Santa’s reindeer. Whilst most children from an early age can recognize a picture of reindeer, few will know much about them, and even less will have had the opportunity to see a live one.

Photo by Sebastien Goldberg



Reindeer have existed for thousands of years. They have a circumpolar distribution in Europe and North America where they go by the name of caribou. There is evidence that they have been a prime source of food and skins since at least the Neolithic period. The hunting of wild reindeer has continued ever since, especially in Greenland and Norway. They are adapted to Arctic and sub arctic conditions and whilst now restricted to that area, towards the end of the ice age they could be found as far south as Italy, Spain and Southern Russia. Domestication has occurred for the last couple of thousand years. Some Northern tribes still rely heavily on the reindeer for their existence. The Inuit of North America use them for food, clothing and shelter whilst the Sami, in Finland, also farm them and even use them for pulling sledges.


Reindeer are in the family Cervidae (deer) and have their very own genus, Rangfer, which denotes that they are the only deer in which both sexes have antlers. There are fourteen sub species of which two are considered extinct. These sub species can be identified from colouring, size and distribution. The largest species tend to be in North America and the smallest in Europe. Interesting names abound and include the Porcupine caribou and the Finnish forest reindeer.


Reindeer are superbly adapted to their environment and this gives rise to some mind blowing facts! They can have red noses due to having a network of blood vessels in their hairy nose pad which heats up air before it passes to the lungs. The nose also helps to regulate the animal’s internal temperature. I wonder if Rudolf knows that? Reindeer are also the only mammal which can see ultra violet light. This might be linked to the need to control the glare caused by the reflection on snow. However, the fact I find most amazing is that their legs click as they walk, a result of ligaments passing over bone protrusions on the feet. The click can be heard from a hundred metres and is useful as it shows the location of each animal when they’re moving at night or in bad weather conditions. It is also an indicator of the well being of the animal because the heavier the animal, the louder the click it makes as the hair covered hoof touches the ground. In reindeer society, usually the heavier the animal, the higher its status within the herd.


One of the most impressive characteristics of reindeer is their antlers. These are shed yearly. They can reach up to approximately 130 cm in males, almost as big as the height of the basic animal. The antlers are used to plough through the snow so that the animal can reach the mosses, lichens, leaves etc underneath upon which this herbivore feeds. When Santa is shown with his group of reindeer they are always antlered which means they must be a female group as males have generally shed their antlers by October, whereas females keep theirs for another couple of months.


Many, but not all, species of reindeer or caribou migrate in search of fresh pasture or less inclement weather. As you’d expect, the greatest migrations tend to take place in North America. As with some other species, herds vary enormously in size, ranging from a dozen or so, through hundreds into mega herds of as many as 500,000. Interestingly, smaller herds tend to be either all males, or females with calves and young. Migrations vary in length but can reach 3000 miles. Weaker animals often fail to complete the journey which includes treacherous terrain. Reindeer can swim strongly and run up to 40mph. Even a day old calf can easily outrun a human.


Within the UK there are limited opportunities to see reindeer. Probably the best bet is to go to the Cairngorms in Scotland where a herd of about 150 roam. This group was originally established in 1952 and has been growing ever since. They are the first wild reindeer to be seen in Scotland since the C13th when they were hunted to extinction. They roam over a large area, but can be found throughout most of the year with the help of experienced guides. There is also the Cotswold Reindeer herd where you can book a visit and learn about these fascinating animals. Finally, some zoos exhibit reindeer from time to time. From research, I think Blackpool and Dudley currently fit into this category.


So, the next time the younger members of your family ask you questions about Santa and his reindeer, you should now be armed with an array of facts to impress them with. Happy Christmas!