Seasonal icon that is deer to our hearts

THE robin is the bird most associated with the Christmas season and, I suppose, if you had to pick a mammal you’d have to go for the reindeer.

Reindeer, of course, aren’t found wild in Ireland – but this wasn’t always the case.

At one time large herds of this medium-sized deer roamed our countryside. The experts don’t agree on when they became extinct. Some sources suggest they survived into historical times but it seems a lot more likely that they died out some time before this, possibly 8000 to 9000 years ago as a result of the warmer climate that followed the end of the last Ice Age.

They are an animal of the tundra and sparse woodlands of the far north and are found all around the Pole. In Canada and Alaska they are called caribou, but they’re all the one species.

In addition to wild populations of reindeer, there are also introduced herds on a number of Antarctic islands, in Iceland and a small herd of 50-60 animals ranging freely in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains.

I haven’t been able to track down any reindeer currently living in Ireland. At one time they kept a couple in Dublin Zoo, but this no longer seems to be the case. There are quite a few in Britain where they’re used in Christmas celebrations and as attractions on pet farms. But they’re actually very difficult animals to keep in captivity and animal welfare groups have raised concerns about the number of British animals becoming sick or dying.

The difficulties arise because reindeer are sociable animals, used to living in large herds. Even in cultures that have a long history of dependence on reindeer, such as the Saami in Lappland and a number of ethnic groups across northern Siberia, full domestication has never occurred.

It seems that no one has ever managed to breed reindeer in captivity. They must return to a free-ranging herd in order to mate successfully. Young animals can then be captured and tamed. In eastern Siberia, where the local sub-species is quite large, people ride them like horses. The smaller reindeer of northern Europe are used to pull sleighs or other vehicles. They also provide milk, meat, hides and horn.

One of the peculiar things about reindeer is that they are the only deer species in which both males and females carry antlers, though the males usually have larger ones. Males normally shed their antlers in the winter but females retain theirs until the early summer. This means that Santa’s reindeer team must be all female, despite their rather male-sounding names.

Reindeer also have disproportionately large hooves. This is partly an adaptation to allow them to travel at speed in soft snow when they’re escaping predators like wolves or engaging in the very long migrations made by some populations. But they also use these hooves as shovels to dig down through snow to find food. In winter the more northerly herds live almost exclusively on lichens which they uncover in this way.

As for their flying abilities, there’s a theory about this too. Apparently they have a passion for eating a fungus called the fly agaric (it’s not a coincidence that this fungus is red with white blotches). Fly agaric is hallucinogenic and I’m told that one of its common effects is to give the person who eats it the illusion of being airborne.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie

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