Reindeer are members of the genus Rangifer tarandus that also includes the caribou. They are part of the Cervide (deer) family. Some confusion has arisen over the differences between the words reindeer and caribou. The animals are called caribou in North America, and reindeer in Europe and Russia. The exception to this is the group of animals at Tuktoyaktuk that are the descendants of reindeer that arrived in 1935. Reindeer were also introduced to Newfoundland from Norway in 1908, but have lost that name and their descendants are now called caribou.

Between 1891 and 1902, 1280 reindeer were introduced into Alaska from Siberia. In 1908, 300 reindeer were imported into Newfoundland from Norway. Their numbers increased rapidly and by 1912 there were about 1300 of them, but after their Lapp herders returned home the numbers declined through inadequate care, indifference and ignorance of the local people.

The most significant relocation of reindeer in Canada was the five year trek from Alaska to the Mackenzie River delta, where almost 3000 animals arrived in March of 1935. Only 10% were from the herd that originally left Alaska, 90% were born on the trail. The descendants of this herd are currently maintained in and around Tuktoyaktuk. However, there is good evidence to show that they have interbred freely with the caribou of the Bluenose herd, a group with which they share range for part of the year.

European reindeer provide one of the largest supplies of meat anywhere in the world. They are harvested annually in Russia during their migrations, and field abattoirs are used for dressing and inspection. The meat is all consumed locally and does not reach the export market. Domesticated reindeer are also a large industry in Russia. It is estimated that over 40,000 tones is harvested each year. In this situation the animals are managed in a loose herding system and allowed to range very widely. Some cooperatives support over 12,000 head. The Fennoscandian reindeer harvest yields almost 7000 tones of meat annually.

The following is a description of reindeer characteristics and behaviour.

Their common colours or “normal” colours are gray with some brown and a dash of yellow. Tone of the colour varies, with the nose, back and front of the legs being dark; a dark band extending between the under stomach and the side; usually a light ring around the eyes. The neck is usually light, extending across the shoulder and side; stomach and back side of the legs are light. Domestic reindeer tend to be more “salt and pepper.” Other colour variations range from white to “normal coloured” to black or dark brown. Most calves are black to brownish-red, later becoming “normal coloured”. White calves remain white throughout their lives.

On average, adult bulls measure 72 inches long, stand 48 inches at the shoulder and weight from 350 to 450 pounds. Average measurements of adult cows are length at 46 inches, 41 inches at the shoulder and from 250 to 350 pounds. Mature pelts are 4 to 5 cm thick, with white throat fringe which is mostly developed during the fall in larger bulls.

Reindeer shed their winter coats between June and September. Yearlings shed first and the cows with calves and older bulls shed out later. During this period, the long, worn coat of both guard hairs is shed in great patches and replaced by a short, sleek coat of dark guard hairs. In late September, the undercoat starts to grow and a second growth of guard hairs appears. By October, the reindeer are covered by a long, thick coat of buoyant hair. Because of their coat, reindeer are not affected by snow, wind or cold.

A characteristic that distinguishes reindeer from any other member of the cervid family is the fact that both males and females carry antlers. Those of the male are much larger than the female’s, and they are cast at different times of the annual cycle. The growth pattern for males is very similar to that for other deer species from the temperate zones. Velvet antler growth occurs through the summer months, and hard antler is seen from late summer until after the rut, although some males may even cast before the rut is over. Females on the other hand will continue to bear hard antler throughout pregnancy, and usually cast their antlers shortly after giving birth.

One apparent advantage offered by reindeer over other deer species is that velvet antler is available from both sexes. Harvesting criteria does not appear to be as rigid as they are for animals such as wapiti or red deer, but a mark does exist and the use of reindeer antler is well documented in Russia.

Both male and female antlers mature quickly. The period from prime velvet to calcified can be as little as four days. Bull velvet is prime starting in June and cow velvet by July, depending on calving. It is recommended that velvet antler should be removed before it palmates (tip flattens out) to bring the best prices.