Today’s guest blog is by Geoffrey Guy who lectures at Reaseheath College. Geoff is the Director of Education for Bushcraft Education Ltd, and the founder of the Bushcraft Education blog:
Reindeer became extinct in the British Isles during the 12th Century, with the last known records of them occurring in the Orkneyinga saga which documents some of the history of the Orkney Islands from their capture by the Norwegian king up to about 1200. In those texts it talks of reindeer and red deer being hunted in Scotland. Well before humans could be blamed for their demise, climate change had caused their populations to dwindle. By the 1300s, the once plentiful herds which would have migrated across prehistoric dogger land through modern day Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire before eventually making their way to the Peak District were long gone along with the Irish Elk, cave lion, woolly rhinoceros and other megafauna. Unlike the others though, Reindeer are the subject of one of the earliest success stories for re-wildling.
When we talk of extinction it is important to distinguish between local and global extinction because although reindeer have been extinct in the British Isles for hundreds of years, they have not been extinct globally. In fact there are many species which fall into this category and ‘extinctions’ can sometimes be taken out of context if we are not careful. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of even a local extinction but in the grand scheme of things the extinction of reindeer from the British Isles did not constitute some sort of ecological disaster. They are still globally abundant and present throughout Northern Europe, Russia and North America. Although in Canada and the United States they are known as caribou rather than reindeer, they are exactly the same species: Rangifer tarandus.
Although it makes great headlines and grabs people’s attention to wax lyrical about mammoth and woolly rhinoceros as if we could just substitute an African elephant and a black rhino and re-introduce these, or the Eurasian brown bear instead of a cave bear, or modern cattle instead of Aurochs, but all those species are totally, globally extinct and the closest modern match is not the same. With reindeer though we don’t have that problem, there are plenty of them and as luck would have it there were people who wanted them back in the UK.
In 1947 Mikel Utsi a native of Swedish Lapland, and his wife Ethel Lindgren-Utsi (a Cambridge trained anthropologist of Swedish descent), were visiting Aviemore and the Cairngorms and noticed that the habitats they saw resembled the reindeer grazing pastures of Northen Sweden. Utsi commented that the species he found, even down to the lichens, were similar. It was with this as his motivation that he brought seven of his reindeer from Sweden to Scotland on the 12th of April 1952 on the SS Sarek (Sarek is one of Sweden’s national parks). The two bull and five cows were interned at Edinburgh Zoo in quarantine for twenty eight days before being allowed to venture further to their new home.
Over the next few years a further eighteen animals were shipped over from Sweden and a herd was established that has since grown to around one hundred and fifty individuals. Initially their grazing area was limited to allow the Forestry Commission to determine whether or not their grazing would affect conifer growth but they were gradually allowed more and more free range access and now graze freely over six thousand acres.
While reindeer are not listed as one of the ‘wild’ deer species of the British Isles, the herd still requires lots of management and are technically someone’s property, they have not just been released and are still managed by their owners. It is clear that the habitat they have become established in would support them should management cease. With all the talk of rewilding nowadays it’s nice to look back and see that there is a history of re-wilding success, not just talk. It is always going to be a tricky topic and almost impossible to predict the outcome of any given re-introduction; who would have guessed, for example, that at least two of the great bustards released onto Salisbury Plain in a re-wilding project by the RSPB would have flown to France in 2012. The reindeer though have been a success.