A popular image of reindeer is of Santa Claus’s sleigh being pulled through the snow by reindeer. However, there is a lot more to know about these interesting animals. Our guide to reindeer in the UK looks at where you can still see reindeer in the UK, plus interesting facts about how reindeer and how they became associated with Christmas
Where can you find reindeer in the UK?
Britain’s only herd of reindeer live in the Cairngorm Mountains. The Cairngorm mountains offer the only sub-Arctic environment in Britain. In the winter, this high granite plateau endures weeks of whiteouts and blizzards. Even during the summer months the snow-fields cling on. And there is a unique creature that thrives in the cold weather.
The Cairngorms Reindeer Centre is the only place you can visit reindeer in Britain. cairngormreindeer.co.uk
When were reindeer first introduced to the UK?
The Cairngorm reindeer are Britain’s only herd of these animals. In 1952, a Swede called Mikel Utsi introduced these velvet-antlered beasts into Scotland to show that they could live and breed in these surroundings. The herd has grown in numbers over the years and is currently held at between 130 and 150 strong through controlled breeding. They are a most unexpected sight and it’s a fantastic opportunity to encounter these animals living freely.
The 1823 illustrations popularised the idea that Santa’s sled is pulled by flying reindeer. (Getty Images)
Here are some other interesting reindeer facts
Reindeer were first associated with Santa Claus in a poem published by New York printer William Gilley in 1821: Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night. / O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow, / To bring his yearly gifts to you. Two years later, Clement Clarke Moore’s better known poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas”, featuring eight flying reindeer.
A reindeer’s dense fur has about 1,300 hairs per square inch. Picture: Getty Images
Reindeer hairs are hollow – which makes their fur an excellent insulator.
Let me snuggle down in this nice warm spot. (Getty Images)
The end of an era
A millennium ago, there were wild reindeer in Scotland: the Vikings are thought to have hunted them. Reindeer became extinct in the UK about 800 years ago because of hunting – but also due to climate change. That’s a couple of hundred years after the last brown bear perished – but long before the last wolf, which is thought to have been killed in 1860.
Reindeer hooves are splayed to spread the animal’s weight. (Getty Images)
Reindeer have large hooves that act like snowshoes and stop them sinking.
The tendons in reindeer feet click. This ‘clicking’ sound also allows them to locate each other in whiteout blizzard conditions.
Ancient Deer Stones in Mongolia depict flying reindeer. (Getty Images)
Origins of a legend
Flying reindeer had long been the subject of shamanic tales amongst nomadic tribes in places like Mongolia and the Altai Mountains. Three-thousand year old standing stones placed above ancient burial grounds have carvings that depict reindeer in flight.
Reindeer moss is a staple food in winter. (Getty Images)
Reindeer can feed in harsh conditions, surviving in winter by pulling up lichens from underneath the snow, such as reindeer moss, Cladona rangiferina.
A female reindeer and calf pictured in Manitoba, Canada. (Getty Images)
Reindeer cows are the only female deer to grow antlers, which they use to defend food in patches of cleared snow.
Another secret weapon in freezing environments: the nose. (Getty Images)
Not to be sniffed at
The inside of a reindeer nose is an efficient heat exchanger, warming the cold air on its way in against the hot air being breathed out. They have a similar system with the blood in their legs.
You’ll go down in history – Rudolph had an unlikely birth. Picture: Getty Images
Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer – how reindeer became associated with Christmas
An advertising copyrighter named the most famous reindeer of all. In 1939, Robert L May wrote the words to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer to promote a chain of department stores; Johnny Marks added the tune.