Brighter Than Rudolph

December 24, 2022

A trio of rare white reindeer graze on a Scottish hilltop before departing for a Christmas tour across the UK.  Photo:  Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

Christmas really puts the spotlight on reindeer, but these three unusual 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.

Ready for his first Christmas parade.  Cairngorm Reindeer

Reindeer became extinct in Scotland about 800-1000 years ago, largely due to over-hunting. In 1952 a Swedish herder, 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 each one has a name.  Every year the staff at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre pick a theme for naming new calves.  (It looks like this year’s theme, at least for our white trio, was ice cream treats.)

For about six weeks leading up to Christmas, teams of the reindeer are taken on tour and pull Santa and his sleigh in parades and events throughout Scotland and northern England. Young calves are tied behind a sleigh as part of their training and will eventually learn to pull in harness. This year Vanilla and his white herdmates are taking part in their very first tour.

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 in Cairngorm Park 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).”

Can you find the white reindeer?.  Okay…it’s a little hard to blend in when you’re
totally white, but it sure works great when it snows.  Photo:  Cairngorm Reindeer

Reindeer (called caribou in North America) are part of the deer family, but prefer colder, more open environments; have larger, splayed hooves for walking on snow; and both males and females have antlers (essentially snow shovels, but also good for defending calves from predators).

Just as with white-tailed deer, white coat color in reindeer 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 totally up to the task.  And if Vanilla, Mr. Whippie, or 99 get the job, they’ll not only be practiced at pulling a sleigh and spreading Christmas cheer, their white coats will be extra easy to see against a nighttime sky.