An important question for 24th December maybe. A serious question too, as reindeer have become popular to keep for Christmas displays in the UK; looking after them, however, can be problematic…
Let’s start with wild reindeer
No magical sleighs, but still amazing. These deer are highly adapted to their arctic home; thick coats with hollow hairs, counter-current blood vessel systems that minimise heat-loss, and specialised feet and eyes to cope with snow. Reindeer can digest tough vegetation that many animals can’t (1). Unlike other ruminants (foregut digesters with four stomachs, like sheep, cattle and other deer), their digestive system and microbiome (bacteria and protozoa in the stomach and gut) (2) (3), allows them to live on a diet of lichen, grasses, sedges, leaves and fungi that grow in their natural habitat. There are even reports of occasional fish, egg and lemming consumption.
No root vegetables, and certainly no glittery oats.
What about the reindeer herded in Northern countries?
Reindeer thrive in conditions that we find harsh. Unsurprisingly therefore, they have been relied on by humans for thousands of years for food, hides and other materials (4). Initially they were hunted in the wild, then later semi-domesticated and herded as they still are in places today (5). These deer forage over large areas for food like their wild counterparts, although this may be supplemented with additional food (6).
Domesticating reindeer to live in a comparatively warm UK, within a confined environment very different from the arctic tundra, and feeding a strange diet, presents huge challenges (7).
What’s wrong with the food in the UK?
Ideally reindeer would be fed a diet containing lichen, and similar to that of wild reindeer. This is difficult to achieve in the UK, although not completely impossible; there is for example, a herd roaming a substantial area of the Scottish Highlands that has been established for many years (7). Good quality hay can be provided and there are commercial feeds available specifically formulated for this species (8).
Getting it wrong however, can have serious consequences.
Feeding inappropriate diets such as lush grass, grains and concentrates designed for other animals can result in ruminal acidosis; the rumen pH falls and usual rumen movements slow or stop. The normal bacterial flora of the rumen becomes imbalanced, favouring acid-producing bacteria that make the condition worse. Other body systems may become affected a well as the digestive tract, and in severe cases this results in death. Sudden changes in diet should also be avoided (9) (10) as this can upset the digestive system too, causing diarrhoea (scours) and anorexia.
For anyone considering keeping reindeer
Speak to a specialist first. Feeding reindeer is complex. There are, however, many other significant aspects of husbandry to consider e.g. disease prevention and control, avoiding stress and preventing aggressive behaviour (11). Arguably, these might be even harder to handle successfully than diet. In the past the Veterinary Deer Society (12) has advised against keeping reindeer in small groups such as on a smallholding, and the Farm Animal Welfare Committee has also raised concerns (7). It may seem tempting to keep a few of these beautiful creatures for extra income during the festive season, or as a draw for visitors, but it is not a decision to take lightly and without a proper health plan.
Your vet should be able to point you in the right direction. Many of us don’t regularly work with these incredible creatures, but at the very least we can consult someone who does.
So, back to Rudolf. What should we leave out on Christmas Eve?
Well, maybe some nice lichen would be a safe bet. Carrots, let’s face it, are probably the nutritional equivalent of a mince pie!
If you want to know more, these are the references and links for more information:
- Svihus, B., Holand, Ø., 2000, Lichen polysaccharides and their relation to reindeer/caribou nutrition, J. Range Manage. 53:642–648 https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jrm/article/viewFile/9570/9182
- Salgado-Flores, A., Hagen, L.H., Ishaq, S.L., Zamanzadeh, M., Wright, A. G., Pope, P. B., Sundset, M. A., 2016 Rumen and Cecum Microbiomes in Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) Are Changed in Response to a Lichen Diet and May Affect Enteric Methane Emissions, PLOS One 11(5): e0155213. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0155213
- Pope, P. B., Mackenzie, A. K., Gregor, I., Smith, W., Sundset, M. S., McHardy, A. C., Morrison, M., Eijsink, V. G. H., 2012 Metagenomics of the Svalbard Reindeer Rumen Microbiome Reveals Abundance of Polysaccharide Utilization Loci, PLOS One 7(6): e38571. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0038571
- Gaudzinskia, S., Roebroeksb, W., 2002, Adults only. Reindeer hunting at the Middle Palaeolithic site Salzgitter Lebenstedt, Northern Germany, Journal of Human Evolution Vol: 38, Issue 4, Pages 497-521. Summary available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248499903597
- Jernsletten, JL. L., Klokov, K., 2002, Centre for Saami Studies University of Tromsø http://reindeerherding.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Sustainable-Reindeer-Husbandry_final_report.pdf
- Arctic Centre review of feeding: https://www.arcticcentre.org/EN/research/Projects/Pages/Reindeer-Forage-and-Supplementary-Feeding-in-a-Changing-Climate
- Farm Animal Welfare Committee FAWC opinion on the welfare of farmed and park deer, 2013 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fawc-opinion-on-the-welfare-of-farmed-and-park-deer
- Health and welfare of reindeer, 2014, Animal and Plant Health Agency http://apha.defra.gov.uk/documents/surveillance/diseases/reindeer.pdf
- Nilsson, A., Åhman, B., Murphy, M., Soveri, T., 2006, Rumen function in reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) after sub-maintenance feed intake and subsequent feeding, Rangifer Vol 26:2 https://septentrio.uit.no/index.php/rangifer/article/view/189/173
- McSloy, A., 2014, Basic veterinary management of reindeer In Practice 36: 495-500. Summary available at: https://inpractice.bmj.com/content/36/10/495
- APHA, March 2017, Miscellaneous and Exotic Farmed Species Reports, GB Emerging Threats Quarterly Report Vol 19:Q1 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/622166/pub-survrep-m0117.pdf
- Veterinary Deer Society, 2013, Health and Welfare of Reindeer http://www.vetdeersociety.com/meeting-in-spring-2014/