Highland Wildlife Blog – Reindeer Round-up

August 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

Last year the Highland Wildlife Park had nothing short of a bumper breeding year with tiger cubs, lynx kittens, a red panda kit and European bison calves produced. Of the species that could potentially breed, 77% did, which is a pretty remarkable annual percentage for any zoological collection. 2014 is giving all the indications that it is going to be similarly bountiful with three Japanese macaque monkey babies, two Mishmi takin, two markhor goats and three snowy owl chicks, amongst others, being born and reared so far. But we have one species that has frustrated us annually, and 2014 is no exception, and that is our forest reindeer.

Our forest reindeer are the only examples of their kind in the UK as all other reindeer in this country are the domestic variety. The forest subspecies is a genuine wild animal that is taller and certainly less tractable than their domestic cousins. It is also a highly threatened form with only two small wild populations in Finland that are well protected and an unknown but decreasing number over the border in Russia. This reindeer is also the subject of a European Zoo Association breeding programme and so was an apparent perfect fit for our wildlife park.

Forest reindeer by Jan Morse

Forest reindeer by Jan Morse

There are a number of captive herds throughout Scandinavian and other northern European zoos, and they all seem to do well, except ours. We had some issues with disease and diet when we first imported the animals, but we got past those hurdles and all our individuals are in very fine condition, except for the lack of calves each year. The only calf we have produced was born in 2009 and only lived a week.

I have had numerous conversations with the programme’s coordinator who is based in Nordens Ark, a Swedish zoo that is very similar to our park, and one of our hoofed stock keepers has taken a special interest in the species in an effort to try and solve the problem. Our latest theory is that because our two females did not produce calves for a few years, their reproductive systems have now shut down; in many species that would normally produce young every one or two years, a long break in breeding can cause permanent sterility in the female. In an effort to get things going, we have recently imported two young females from Nordens Ark to revitalise our herd and possibly trigger our resident females back into breeding condition. We have currently mixed together all four females and the two adult bulls, who both currently have massive, velvet covered antlers, to see if any preferred groupings materialise prior to the rut in September.

Many folk think that breeding animals entails just putting a male and a female together and allowing nature to take its course. That sometimes happens, but often success requires some subtle tweaking and creative husbandry. Hopefully if our approach is correct, this time next year we will have our first healthy forest reindeer calves.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald.


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