Not so long ago, the only contact children in Britain had with reindeer was finding a nibbled carrot on the fireplace beside Santa’s half eaten mince pie on Christmas morning. Nowadays, they can see Rudolf in the flesh at one of numerous festive events taking place in town centres around the country and even feed him that carrot from their own hands.
But is it right to bring these animals from the frozen far north into crowded urban areas and parade them under glaring lights in front of hoards of noisy onlookers? What happens to Dasher, Prancer, Dancer and Co. during the other 11 months of the year? And do they even eat carrots?
Health and welfare issues
Hundreds of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) have been brought into the UK from Scandinavia over the last five years, usually purchased by park keepers and landowners in the hopes of cashing in on the creatures’ unique Christmassy appeal.
Reindeer owners claim that their animals are well treated, but some animal charities and veterinary organisations suspect that the beasts struggle to survive and thrive in the UK, due to the warm climate and unsuitable living conditions, not to mention the stress of taking part in festive events.
‘Reindeer are semi-wild animals. They are not easy to keep well and are susceptible to stress and a host of health and welfare problems in the UK,’ says Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA Senior Scientific Officer.
Reindeer are native to the arctic scrublands and boreal forests of northern Europe, Siberia and North America—a tricky habitat to replicate in the UK. In fact, only one reindeer owner in Britain—the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre in North East Scotland—can lay claim to keeping the animals in an environment similar to their natural one.
Some reindeer owners further south argue that the creatures adapt to the milder weather by shedding their winter coats. But according to Kirsty Henderson, Campaigns Coordinator at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), reindeer in temperate climates tend to have a short life expectancy and high calf mortality.
‘They are highly adapted to extreme cold and northern latitudes and are not expected to live for as long over here,’ she says.
Another common welfare issue for reindeer in Britain is lack of space. The creatures have been semi-domesticated for over 10,000 years—longer than any other hoofed species, including horses. However, they traditionally live alongside nomadic tribesmen, migrating over vast distances together; whereas, commercially owned reindeer are often kept in relatively small paddocks.
Fiona Smith, a reindeer herder whose family run the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre and refers to their herd as ‘free-ranging’, believes that welfare problems occur when reindeer are kept in confined areas instead of being able to roam freely.
She says: ‘It’s true that reindeer have been domesticated for thousands of years, but unlike sheep and cows, they have never been successfully kept in captivity.’
In addition, the Veterinary Deer Society (VDS) recommends that, as highly social animals, reindeer should live in large groups, but Fiona regrets that they are usually only sold in pairs.
In the wild, a reindeer’s diet would comprise a wide variety of arctic vegetation, with lichen, rather than carrots, being the number one food of choice. Lush green pasture should definitely not be on the menu as this can lead to weight loss, gastrointestinal disease and malformed antlers.
‘Reindeer have very delicate stomachs and need a lot of roughage,’ explains Fiona. ‘With the wrong diet their antlers can grow abnormally big. We have heard of cases of antlers growing so large that reindeer can hardly lift their heads.’
It is possible however to feed the animals a healthy diet in captivity. Experts at the RSPCA and the VDS recommend feeding captive reindeer with good quality hay supplemented with pellets.
According to the RSPCA, reindeer have highly specialist needs and are prone to various diseases in captivity, particularly if they are fed the wrong diet and kept in small enclosures, in close proximity to other animals.
‘Reindeer have next to no tolerance to parasites, which can lead to failure to thrive and even death,’ says Ros. ‘Clean grazing and regular worming are therefore essential.’
What’s more, points out Kirsty, ‘they are exposed to diseases from other animals that they have no natural immunity against’.
If achieving good reindeer welfare outside of the festive season is tricky, then meeting their needs at stressful Christmas events is exceptionally challenging. As prey animals, reindeer naturally conceal stress, making signs tricky for inexperienced handlers to spot, and problems may not emerge until after the stressful event has passed.
Reindeer owners point out that the animals have been trained to pull sleighs in their native countries for at least a hundred years, albeit ones without tinsel and fairy lights.
Nevertheless, Ros insists that ‘great care’ should be taken to ensure that reindeer ‘are kept in a suitable environment and their transport and exposure to big crowds and noise is kept to a minimum’.
Stress can also be reduced by hiring out the deer in groups of at least six, as says Fiona, ‘the animals find comfort in numbers’, as well as familiarising them with humans in advance.
Many large reindeer owners, including the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre, are open to visitors all year round, but Fiona suspects that most reindeer ‘have very little human contact during the rest of the year’.
Kirsty urges people to boycott all Christmas events in Britain involving reindeer, believing that the creatures are treated like ‘living decorations’.
‘If you love animals then don’t give these events your money,’ she says. ‘When companies’ profits fall they will stop exploiting reindeer.’
However, provided the animals are well looked after, and live in their natural habitat during the rest of the year, Fiona believes that children can still enjoy the magical experience of seeing Donner and Blitzen at Christmas.
If families have concerns about the health and welfare of reindeer used in festive shows, they should contact the RSPCA.