Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, known as Caribou in North America, are a widespread northern hemisphere species of deer, which are found in the boreal forest, mountains and tundra.
The sub-species most familiar in Scandinavia and Northern Europe (and which have been reintroduced into Scotland) are specifically Eurasian Tundra Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus tarandus, which occur from Fennoscandia all the way east through northern Russia to the Bering Strait.
They are closely related to Alaskan Caribou, Rangifer tarandus granti, Barren-ground Caribou, Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus, Peary Caribou, Rangifer tarandus pearyi, and Svalbard Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus platyrhnchus, Eurasian Forest Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus fennicus and North American Woodland Caribou, Rangifer tarandus caribou.
The majority of Eurasian Tundra Reindeer are semi-domesticated or domesticated. Indigenous northern peoples such as the Sami in Fennoscandia and the Nenets and Evenks of Russia have coexisted with and relied upon semi-domesticated reindeer for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Reindeer have been valued by humans for even longer, providing meat, skins, antler, bones, sinew and more to stone age hunters.
There are some wild herds of Eurasian Tundra Reindeer remaining. Norway has Europe’s southernmost population of wild reindeer on the Hardangervidda and in the Setesdal mountains.
Most modern Western societies associate reindeer with Christmas and the most famous of them is, of course Rudolph, with its fabled red nose.
Interestingly though, unlike the vast majority of deer species, reindeer have furry noses.
Reindeer are extremely well-adapted to the cold.
Indeed, reindeer fur is extremely suited to keeping the animal warm. Their hairs are hollow, containing air and their winter coat is thick.
Reindeer even have a chamber for holding heat, and moisture, from their exhaled breath so as to warm and humidify the air they are breathing in.
Reindeer Tracks & Sign In Detail
Reindeer Tracks – Reindeer Footprints
People are often surprised that reindeer at not particularly big, especially without their antlers, I know I certainly was. What also surprises, though, is quite how big their feet are. At first they look ungainly and out of proportion but if you’ve ever walked on snowshoes, you’ll realise how useful big feet are in deep snow.
Not only are reindeer feet are quite large for the size of animal, they are also quite rounded, each side of the hoof describing a crescent, which make the footprint as a whole look almost circular.
This makes reindeer footprints very distinctive in shape. An additional distinction is that reindeer dewclaws are quite low down the leg and therefore often visible in the foot impression left behind, even on relatively hard surfaces.
Reindeer Feeding Sign
Reindeer feed on lichen, notably reindeer moss in the hills but also various species of “old man’s beard” in the forests.
Indeed if you cut down a dead standing tree with lichen on its branches this can attract reindeer into the area to feed. Lichen above the level at which the reindeer can feed will have been brought down to the level of the snow and the reindeer really value this as a food source in winter.
On numerous occasions I have harvested a dead standing pine for firewood, leaving small upper branches festooned with lichen in the snow. On returning the next day it is clear from the tracks and sign that reindeer have come into the area. Lots of footprints and disturbance are the obvious positive sign. Plus all the lichen has disappeared – the negative sign!
If you clear an area of snow in the forest reindeer can be attracted to the uncovered vegetation. In my experience, this is particularly the case in years where the snow is very deep or if the snow has gone through several freeze-thaw cycles and is, therefore, crusty at some level or at multiple levels, thus making it hard for the reindeer to access what is under the snow.
Reindeer are unique in that both sexes grow antlers. After the rut, females keep their antlers, while male deer drop their antlers. This gives some equality in competition for food. Some people also argue that it allows the deer to find more food, using the antlers to dig for vegetation.
Reindeer Droppings & Urine
Where reindeer have been active, you will likely see droppings and, if there is snow on the ground, clear signs of urination.
So, if Rudolph and chums do land on your roof or your lawn, you are now well equipped to spot their distinctive footprints as well as interpret what they’ve been up to…
Further Reading On Reindeer and Reindeer Tracks & Sign
Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor, qualified canoe leader and mountain leader. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.