Santa’s perfect sleigh animal

The magnificent red deer. Photo: Amy Lewis
The magnificent red deer. Photo: Amy Lewis
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If any animal was suited to pulling Santa’s sleigh on an epic trans-global journey it would perhaps be reindeer, writes Rachel Shaw of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

Nomadic tribes have used reindeer to haul sleds throughout Arctic Scandinavia and Russia for perhaps as long as 3,000 years. Reindeer are supremely adapted to cold weather and long journeys.

Herds of reindeer in North America (where they are called caribou) undergo a massive annual migration to the Arctic. Travelling distances of more than 3,000 miles, it’s the furthest migration of any land mammal. They can run at up to 50 miles per hour and, at just a day old, a reindeer can outrun a person.

Just as we wear layers of clothing to keep warm, the coat of a reindeer has two specially adapted layers of fur. Their undercoat is dense and woolly, with as many as 13,000 hairs per square inch. Their outer coat has longer hollow air-filled hairs at a density of 5,000 hairs per square inch. This provides fantastic insulation which is so efficient that when a reindeer lies down in the snow, the snow doesn’t melt.

Reindeer may not have red noses but they do have remarkable ones and have a fantastic sense of smell. In the winter months they eat lichens and mosses which they can sniff out even when hidden beneath 60cm of snow. And their noses help them keep warm too, actually warming the incoming air so it’s not cold when it enters their lungs.

Even their feet are adapted for life in the cold. Their extra large, broad hooves act like snowshoes and prevent them from sinking into snow. If you think you hear the clip-clop of hooves on your roof on Christmas Eve, it may be the distinctive ‘click click click’ reindeer make as they walk, produced as a tendon slips over a bone in the foot. It means each reindeer can hear where the other reindeer are.

Teams of sleigh pulling reindeer may visit our towns and cities over Christmas but the only free-ranging herd of reindeer in Britain are in the Cairngorms in Scotland, introduced in 1952. They probably disappeared from Britain as the climate warmed after the Ice Age, and as a result of hunting.

If you are out in the countryside over the next few days, keep a look-out in patches of mud for tracks and trails left behind by animals. In Lincolnshire there are six species of deer: fallow, roe, muntjac, red, sika and Chinese water deer.