Brighter than Rudolph

December 24, 2022

A trio of rare white reindeer get ready for their first Christmas.  Credit:  Cairngorm Reindeer Herd.

Christmas really puts the spotlight on reindeer, but these three very rare white reindeer outshine even Rudolph…and they’re even learning how to pull a sleigh!

The three reindeer (Vanilla, Mr. Whippy, and 99) were born this past spring at Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands. The highlands have lower temperatures and more snow than the rest of Scotland, so it is the perfect place for the reindeer and the Arctic-type vegetation they love to eat.

Reindeer became extinct in Scotland about 800-1000 years ago, largely due to over-hunting. In 1952 a Sami (Swedish Lapland) man, Mikel Utsi, and his wife introduced a small group of reindeer to the Cairngorm Mountains as an experiment. The animals not only survived, they thrived.

Today there are about 150 animals in the herd. They roam freely, but are very tame and social, enjoy their many visitors, and all have names. Each year the staff at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre pick a theme for newborn names, like authors or cities (looks like this year’s theme was ice cream treats).

This “baby” reindeer is only about 7 months old–big enough to take part in his first Christmas parade.  Photo credit:  Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

For about six weeks before Christmas, teams of the reindeer are taken on tours and pull Santa and his sleigh in parades and events throughout Scotland and northern England. Young calves, like this white-coated trio, are tied behind a sleigh as part of their training to pull in harness. This year Vanilla and his white herdmates have been especially popular.

The Christmas tour raises funds for care of the reindeer, but also promotes “reindeer awareness” (the Visit Cairngorm website proclaims: “Reindeer are not just for Christmas!”). Tours to see the herd take place most of the year, but the park’s CEO, Mark Tate, says, “The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd are a firm favourite among our winter visitors… They add to the magical winter feel that really does make winter come to life in the (park).”

Reindeer (called caribou in North America) are part of the deer family, but are shorter, prefer colder, more open environments, love reindeer moss (lichens), and both males and females have antlers. Just as with white-tailed deer, white coat color is caused by a very rare lack of pigment known as leucism. Northern Europeans have always considered white reindeer a symbol of happiness and an omen of good luck.

If Comet and Cupid or any of Santa’s aerial crew ever retire, it looks like the Cairngorm reindeer are up to the task. And if Vanilla, Mr. Whippie, or 99 get the job, they will already be experienced at spreading Christmas cheer…and they’ll look just great against a nighttime sky!

Can you find the white reindeer? Having a white coat isn’t the best for blending in, but it sure works great for winter camouflage. This is an adult white reindeer in the Cairngorm herd.  Credit:  Cairngorm Reindeer Herd