Life in UK proves fatal to reindeer (Times Online)
Picture : James Marshall. Reindeer imported to Britain for Santa’s grottoes and festive parades are dying prematurely after exposure to diseases from British farm animals, a senior government vet has warned.
An official investigation has revealed a sharp increase in deaths in young reindeer, also linked to bad diet, poor welfare and the stress of being uprooted from their natural habitat.
Dr Aiden Foster, who carried out the research at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), said the deer, which normally live to 12 years, were badly suited to life in Britain. He said: “Reindeer are highly specialised Arctic deer. The recent fashion of keeping them in captive situations many degrees south of their normal range is fraught with health and welfare issues.”
The warning comes amid greater commercial exploitation of the animals, which are now a common festive feature. Today, reindeer parades are planned in Birmingham and Middlesbrough, and others in cities across Britain.
About 500 of the animals have been imported in the past five years, taking advantage of a relaxation of quarantine rules. Some cases are detailed in quarterly bulletins published by the VLA’s network of regional laboratories. In the past year these have included:
- A two-year-old female kept on a farm near Shrewsbury, which died of malignant catarrhal fever — a sheep disease that causes mucus to pour from their muzzles. Reindeer are highly vulnerable to this.
- A herd of seven reindeer, from the same area, which contracted liver and gut flukes, probably from contact with farm animals.
- A reindeer kept near Winchester that died from lung infections.
- A 15-month-old animal killed by parasites and copper deficiency.
Reindeer owners are not obliged to notify the VLA of unusual deaths, so Foster is uncertain exactly how many reindeer there are in Britain, or how many have died, but he said the trend was worrying: “We have noticed a significant increase in the number of submissions of reindeer carcases and samples, and when we looked at the causes of death it was clear there were common factors.”
Earlier this year, Foster outlined his concerns in a paper given to the Veterinary Deer Society, and a lay version of his research is about to be published in Smallholder magazine. Foster hopes it will make farmers aware of the risks of buying reindeer, most of which are purchased for hiring out for festive parades and Santa’s grottoes in shopping centres around Britain.
Foster points out that reindeer suffer when removed from their natural life of roaming the tundra, eating fresh lichen and other plants and mingling with fellow reindeer. He said: “They are not like other livestock. It is very difficult to keep these animals here. They are semi-wild and vulnerable to the diseases and parasites carried by British farm animals.”
Foster says much of Britain’s farmland is unsuitable for reindeer and many owners simply lack the expertise to keep them. He warns that reindeer also carry microbes dangerous to humans, such as salmonella, campylobacter, E coli and yersinia.
Inexperienced owners are also at risk. In September this year, Kay Davies was gored by Mr Frosty, her 18-stone reindeer, after entering its pen while the creature was in rut, a period of high aggression.
Davies owns the firm Wedding Horses, based in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, and planned to rent Mr Frosty out for Christmas displays.
Davies, who has since had the reindeer destroyed, said: “I fed him the day before without a problem.”
Tilly Smith, owner of the Cairngorm reindeer herd and widely regarded as Britain’s authority on the animals, believes there is nothing inherently wrong in using the animals for such events.
She supplied a team of reindeer for the Christmas parade at Harrods earlier this month, with no ill effects. The creatures were part of her 150-strong herd, which since 1952 has roamed over hundreds of acres of Scottish mountains — a landscape chosen for its similarity to their native habitat.
She said: “When animals are imported, they have been taken from huge, semi-wild herds and then they are expected to live alone or in small groups in enclosed areas, often near other livestock. It’s no wonder they get sick.”
Foster said: “Like puppies, reindeer should be kept for life, not just for Christmas.”
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