Magazine article Geographical

Where the Reindeer Roam

Magazine article Geographical

Where the Reindeer Roam

Article excerpt

Thanks to Rudolph and his friends, reindeer have become as much a part of Christmas iconography as fir trees, robins and jolly fat men with white beards. But actually managing to get a photograph of a reindeer in a snow-clad landscape is easier said than done, says Keith Wilson

As another Christmas approaches, there's one species of mammal that comes to the forefront of the public's consciousness as a perennial symbol of the celebrations. Reindeer have maintained a strong association with Christmas ever since the popular poem A Visit from St Nicholas (also known as The Night before Christmas) was first published anonymously in 1823. Later attributed to the US writer Clement Clark Moore, this poem is largely responsible for the modern conception of the white-bearded Santa Claus riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer through the night sky on Christmas Eve.

At any other time of year, reindeer remain largely forgotten and unseen by most people, as their native range comprises the sparsely populated Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of northern Europe, Siberia, Greenland and North America, where they're known as caribou.

By either name, reindeer continue to play a vital role in the livelihoods of indigenous groups and nomadic communities, many of which have unbroken traditions of herding and hunting that stretch back thousands of years. For these people, reindeer are an important source of food, clothing, shelter and even tools.


Today, wild caribou are hunted by the Inuit and Kalaallit of Greenland, the First Nations people of Canada and Alaska Natives--a practice that began as far back as the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. In Siberia and Scandinavia. reindeer have been herded for centuries by native tribes including the Sami and Nenet, who raise the animals for their meat, hides, antlers and milk.

Here, reindeer are also used for transportation. However, reindeer aren't considered to be fully domesticated as they remain generally free roaming. Every year, the nomadic herders migrate vast distances with their herds between coastal and inland areas.

Both caribou and reindeer are renowned for the extent of their annual migrations. Indeed, some populations of North American caribou will cover up to 5,000 kilometres on their annual routes, further than any other terrestrial mammal. Reindeer migrations in northern Europe tend to be shorter, and some subspecies restricted to islands in the Arctic make only small local movements.

While migrating, reindeer and caribou can cover more then 50 kilometres in a day, which makes them a difficult species to follow on foot, even for experienced herders. They can also turn on the pace when they feel like it--even when only a day old, a young caribou can run faster than any human--and they are strong swimmers, capable of crossing broad rivers or lakes as they follow their migratory routes.


Reindeer are classified into two main groups: tundra reindeer, which includes subspecies that are found on islands in the high Arctic, and woodland reindeer, which are commonly found in the forests of Finland and Russia, as well as the boreal forests from Alaska to Newfoundland.

Reindeer have also been introduced to locations far removed from their natural range. During the early 20th century, reindeer from Norway were transported to South Georgia in the South Atlantic in order to establish a herd for recreational hunting for fresh meat for people working in the island's whaling industry. With whaling long since finished, reindeer numbers have expanded to more than 2,500 animals and they are now being eradicated from the territory because of the environmental damage that they cause. Another sub-Antarctic herd can be found on the French archipelago of Kerguelen, where around 4,000 animals now live.

A more recent introduction took place in 1952 when a Swedish reindeer herder by the name of Mikel Utsi released a small herd in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland. …

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