Whilst watching a nature documentary that was sure to be a disappointment as it didn’t feature the dulcet tones of David Attenborough, I discovered that there is a herd of reindeer in the highlands of England. The herd of 150 has been free to roam over 10,000 hectares of the Cairngorm highlands since 1952 when they were introduced by a Swedish couple. Now if that isn’t a Christmas miracle then I don’t know what is. In preparation for the time that I inevitably meet one, I started avidly gathering information so that I’ll know exactly what to say and do to be in their good books. It turns out they’re pretty darn cool creatures even without all the flying and sledge pulling.
First domesticated animal
It’s believed that reindeer, or caribou as they are known in North America, were the first animals to be domesticated by Sami tribes people 2000 years ago. Many Arctic communities still rely on them for transport, food and materials for shelter.
Rudolph is real
Some reindeer at certain times of the year do actually have red noses due to the huge number of blood vessels present at the end of their nose. They are very rare amongst mammals in having fur covering every bit of their body including their noses, which helps warm up air as it enters their airways, allowing them to conserve heat in the bitterly cold arctic environment they live in during winter.
This hair has another purpose. It is completely hollow, which as well as being amazingly good at insulating them, allows reindeer to float in water, which in turn helps them be fantastic swimmers.
Add to the fact that they can run at up to 50km/h on land and you’ve basically got the chitty chitty bang bangs of the animal kingdom.
Click and Go
You might not hear bells as a reindeer passes by, but they do click when they walk. A specialised tendon in their knee makes a sound as it pases over the bone and the resulting clicking noise is used by reindeer to locate one another in poor visibility. Even more impressively, the frequency of the sound can signal the animal’s position in the pecking order of the herd. Evolution is cray.
Their hooves are also specially adapted, being soft in the winter to allow them to spread out wide for good balance on the snow. In the summer they harden and the animals use them for digging beneath the snow to access lichen, scrub and mushrooms. The hardening also means their feet become very efficient paddles.
Model for the first known rock art cave painting in the UK
The oldest known rock-art in Britain is a cave painting located within the Gower Peninsula in the South of Wales. It depicts a reindeer and dates back to the last Ice Age 14,000 years ago, when herds of reindeer retreated North as the climate warmed at the end of the Ice Age, followed in tow by hunter-gatherers between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.
There is some evidence that the original tale of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas, as he is known in the original Dutch story, was a shamanic nomad who was a real fun guy after partaking in a spot of mushroom picking. Whilst Santa’s little trips explains why his reindeer were flying, it doesn’t tell the full story. In all likelihood, his trusty steeds would have been high as kites too, as reindeer have often been observed going to great lengths to seek out and eat the hallucinogenic Fly Agaric mushroom. These are the mushrooms that you think of if someone says “mushroom”; red all over with white spots. It turns out our antlered friends would rather have something a bit stronger than a carrot at Christmas. On ingesting these funghi, reindeer have been seen behaving drunkenly, running about aimlessly and making strange noises. And they seem to like it. Nomadic tribes people have historically been known to ingest the urine of reindeer under the influence as a safer way of taking the mushrooms, which can be dangerous for humans to take directly but doesn’t seem to cause any damage to the junkie deer.
Head of the herd
Reindeer are the only species of deer in which the female’s have well developed antlers. Not only that but the ladies keep their horns all year round, whereas males lose theirs in early November. The girls are therefore in charge of defending the herd and must make up the entirety of Santa’s sleigh team because in all the pictures, every reindeer has horns. The only time the females lose their majestic headgear is straight after having a baby. Reindeer calves are pretty incredible too; after just an hour and a half of being born, they are able to run several miles.
So there you have it. Not just a pretty face for a Christmas Card.