When reindeer roamed in Derbyshire - Wildlife in the ice age

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland - Credit: Archant

In the last ice age our landscape would have hosted these magnificent creatures. Paul Hobson writes

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland - Credit: Archant

Over the last two decades I have developed a great love for the landscapes of the northern Scandinavian countries. In most years I travel to either Finland or Norway, with an occasional visit to Sweden, to photograph eagles, divers, bears, ospreys and reindeer. During these trips I often ponder on the similarity of the landscape to that of Derbyshire, and to the historical connections between the wildlife I am photographing and the past wildlife of the Peak.

The connection between the present landscape and wildlife of Finland and Derbyshire at first glance may seem tenuous. True, much of the extensive forest that covered Derbyshire has been axed to a pale shadow of its former self, and much of the charismatic megafauna of Finland, such as bears and reindeer, no longer lumber and trek respectively across the Peak's elevated landscapes, but they did once.

A visit to the amazing caves at Creswell Crags will quickly demonstrate that our ancestors lived with and hunted reindeer alongside lynx and woolly rhinos. A day's wildlife watching then must have been an amazing, if slightly heart-stopping, experience!

Reindeer were present in large numbers in Britain and Derbyshire around the time of the last ice age, somewhere around 35,000 to 50,000 years ago, when it is thought that they calved in spring on the Peak's plateaux and migrated in winter to lower ground in Lincolnshire.

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland - Credit: Archant

There is evidence that they may have finally died out as a British indigenous species as recently as 800 years ago in Northern Scotland.

Today we have an abiding love affair with these incredible animals, due mainly to the stories created around Father Christmas. It may surprise many people to learn that the stories are actually quite modern. The first recorded story of Santa's sleigh being pulled through the glittering star-spangled Christmas evening sky dates from 1821. Rudolf, the most famous of his beasts of burden was actually created by Robert May in 1939 as a promotional character for a chain store. The real natural history facts about reindeer, however, are far more fascinating.

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Reindeer are highly adapted to live during winter in snowy, sub-zero environments. They have an amazing coat with densely packed hair, some of which is hollow and traps air. A reindeer hardly loses any heat when it lies down for a snooze on snow in subfreezing temperatures.

A reindeer's milk, used to feed its calves, is incredibly rich so that it only needs to produce small amounts. This means the udders can be smaller, thus conserving heat.

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, summer, Svalbard

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, summer, Svalbard - Credit: Archant

During the course of a year, the physical shape of its feet changes, so they are adapted to walking on the wet, mossy surface in summer, and the hard frozen snow of winter. Reindeer are unique amongst the deer family in that both males and females grow antlers every year.

Possibly the most amazing fact is that their eye colour changes from blue to gold throughout the year. In this way they optimise their eyesight in order to spot their predators, which are mainly wolves. Recently a group of reindeer living in Lincolnshire was featured on BBC's The One Show. A simple experiment demonstrated that they can actually see a part of the ultraviolet spectrum that is invisible to humans. This neat strategy allows reindeer to spot white wolves against a snowy background as fur shows up darker in the UV spectrum.

Reindeer are arguably the most important animal in the majority of the far northern countries of the world. In Europe reindeer are actually domestic animals, though at first glance they appear to live in a wild state. All these reindeer are owned and cared for by people, herded together annually and often given supplementary foodstuff in winter.

A few years ago I spent a day with a Sami reindeer herder in the far north of Finland as he rounded up his winter herd to feed them. It was a fantastic experience and, as we sat around a glowing, warming fire, he talked about his people's ingrained culture and their dependence on and deep link with these fantastic animals.

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, in winter, in snow, Finland - Credit: Archant

In North America the caribou is actually the same species as our European reindeer, though there they are truly wild animals which travel on the longest migration of any large mammal on our planet.

At the moment you can't go wild reindeer watching in Britain. There is a managed herd that lives on the shoulders of the Cairngorms and a day here, particularly in winter, can be quite close to a Finnish experience. Reindeer did roam the tops and forests of Derbyshire thousands of years ago and it may seem appealing to bring them back, probably as a tourist novelty. However, this is an animal adapted to the cold climates to the north of us and to reintroduce them for our benefit would not be to the reindeer's advantage. Flights are, however, inexpensive and a holiday to Finland or Sweden in winter to experience a day with a reindeer herder is certainly a realistic aim.

And if you do, with a little bit of imagination, you could glance back in time and experience a climate and landscape resembling the Derbyshire of our ancestors, populated by one of the North's most amazing animals.

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