For many people, the animal most synonymous with Christmas is the reindeer. We all know that without Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donna, Blitzen and of course, Rudolph, Father Christmas would never be able to visit every child in the world on Christmas Eve night. Reindeer are incredibly specialised animals, with adaptations that mean they can live comfortably in the desolate lands in which they are naturally found. Sadly, the ability to fly is not actually one of their talents. But some of their other distinctive features mean caring for reindeer in captivity is not necessarily straightforward. The following is intended for information only. Specific professional advice should always be sought before committing to care for such a unique species.
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Reindeer in the UK
After becoming extinct in the UK around 800 years ago, reindeer were only reintroduced to the country as recently as the 1950s when a herd was established in Scotland. This remains the only free-roaming reindeer herd in the UK and numbers around 150 animals. But other smaller herds have popped up elsewhere. These tend to be run as public attractions, especially around Christmas time. But elsewhere in the world, reindeer can be farmed for meat or fur or used for transportation.
What makes reindeer so special?
Reindeer are native to the northern mountainous regions of Europe, Siberia and North America where temperatures can fall to as low as -40°C. In order to be able to survive in these harshest of conditions, they have a few special features:
- a double-layer fur coat with a thick woolly undercoat and long, hollow hairs on top to trap air and provide insulation
- a special system of blood vessels in their legs to keep their core warm. And a similar system in their nose to warm incoming air before it reaches their lungs.
- large hair-covered feet with four toes. Two small dew claws and two larger crescent shaped claws which harden up during the winters and allow the reindeer to dig down through the snow to reach food.
Although not specifically needed for cold climates, the most notable feature of a reindeer is the antlers. Unlike other deer species, both the males and females will grow antlers. The males use them for combat and the females, to help with foraging for food. But in both sexes, the presence and size of the antlers also helps to determine the hierarchy within the herd. All reindeer will shed their antlers and grow a new pair every year.
How to look after reindeer
Reindeer are ruminants, like cows and other deer species, and a lot of the general care and feeding can be very similar.
Although in the wild, the main staple of a reindeer’s diet is actually lichen, in captivity, they are often fed a diet that mirrors in part that of cattle. Hay should be plentiful and mixed rations can be adapted to suit the herd. But reindeer are susceptible to excess grain which can cause a fatal bacterial infection known as enterotoxaemia.
There are no vaccinations licensed for use in reindeer but again, extrapolations can be made from cattle medicine. Depending on the herd location and risks, diseases that could be vaccinated against include clostridial disease, brucellosis and tetanus. After a disastrous outbreak of anthrax in parts of Arctic Russia in 2016, a mass vaccination programme for both the reindeer and their herders was begun there.
As with other ruminants, the advice with regards to worming treatments is to act on the basis of a faecal sample. If worm eggs are seen, a worming treatment will be administered and a post-worming faecal egg count done to ensure the treatment has been successful and to check for incidences of drug resistance.
Reindeer living in more temperate climes are also prone to tick bites so off-license preventative drugs can be used to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
Periodic trimming of reindeer hooves may be required but it is worth noting that the hooves will naturally soften in summer and harden in winter. It’s also vital to ensure that the handling facilities are safe and suitable for the reindeer.
The reindeer mating season occurs in Autumn, from September to November and with a gestation period of around seven months, the calves are born in late Spring. Blood testing can be carried out to confirm a pregnancy although interestingly, females that are pregnant will keep their antlers until after they calve, whereas non-pregnant animals will lose their antlers sooner.
Many of the diseases that affect other ruminants can also affect reindeer. This includes TB but unlike in cattle, there is no statutory TB testing programme for deer in place in the UK. Any suspicion of TB must be reported to the APHA and testing of herds may be requested by the authorities.
The key difference…
However, reindeer are not just cows with larger horns and bigger feet. They require a lot of space, prefer to live in large groups, can be very prone to stress and as a prey species, are good at hiding when they are ill. Therefore keeping them is not a light undertaking and expert advice should always be sought beforehand.
One piece of free veterinary advice though – a reindeer with a red nose doesn’t necessarily mean they have the flu……
- The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd
- 10 things you didn’t know about reindeer | Zoological Society of London (ZSL)
- Caring for deer – GOV.UK
- The Cairngorm Reindeer; a re-wilding success from the 1950s – UK NAEE