RELEASED: 00:00 04 December 2019
In the last ice age our landscape would have housed these great creatures. Paul Hobson writes
Over the past two decades, I have developed a great love for the landscapes of the northern Scandinavian countries. In most years I travel to Finland or Norway, occasionally to Sweden to photograph eagles, divers, bears, osprey and reindeer. During these travels, I often think about the similarity of the landscape with that of Derbyshire and about the historical connections between the wildlife I photographed and the earlier wildlife of the peak.
The connection between today's landscape and the wildlife of Finland and Derbyshire seems meager at first sight. True, much of the vast forest that covered Derbyshire was focused on a pale shadow of his former self, and much of the charismatic Finnish megafauna like bears and reindeer no longer wandered over the elevated landscapes of the summit. They once did.
A visit to the impressive caves of Creswell Crags will quickly show that our ancestors lived and hunted reindeer alongside lynx and woolly rhinos. One day of game-watching must have been an amazing, if somewhat heartbreaking experience!
In Great Britain and Derbyshire, reindeer lived in large numbers at the time of the last Ice Age, from about 35,000 to 50,000 years ago, when it was assumed that they calved in the spring on the plateaus of the peak and migrated to Lincolnshire in the winter.
There are indications that they may have been extinct in northern Scotland as a native British species only 800 years ago.
Today we have an eternal love affair with these incredible animals, mainly because of the stories surrounding Santa Claus. It may surprise many people to learn that the stories are actually quite modern. The first recorded story about Santa's sleigh pulled through the twinkling starry sky of Christmas Eve dates back to 1821. Rudolf, the most famous of his pack animals, was invented by Robert May in 1939 as an advertising force for a chain store. However, the real natural history facts about reindeer are far more fascinating.
Reindeer are very well suited to live in winter in snowy environments below zero. They have an amazing coat with tightly packed hair, some hollow and trapped. A reindeer hardly loses heat when it lays on the snow to sleep in.
The reindeer milk that feeds the calves is incredibly rich, so only small amounts need to be produced. This means that the udders can be smaller, which saves heat.
Over the course of a year, the physical shape of the feet changes so they can walk in the summer on the damp, mossy surface and in the hard, frozen snow of winter. Reindeer are unique in the deer family because both males and females breed antlers every year.
Perhaps the most astonishing fact is that her eye color changes from blue to gold during the year. In this way they optimize their eyesight to discover their predators, which are mainly wolves. Recently, a group of reindeer living in Lincolnshire have been featured on BBCs The one show, A simple experiment showed that they can actually see part of the ultraviolet spectrum that is invisible to humans. This clean strategy allows reindeer to spot white wolves in front of a snow-covered background as the coat appears darker in the UV spectrum.
Reindeer are probably the most important animal in the majority of the northern countries of the world. In Europe, reindeer are actually pets, though at first glance they seem to live in a wild state. All of these reindeer are owned and maintained by humans, who are kept together annually and are often provided with supplementary feed during the winter.
A few years ago, I spent a day with a Sami reindeer herdsman in the far north of Finland as he rounded his winter herds to feed them. It was a fantastic experience and as we sat around a glowing, warming fire, he talked about the deep-rooted culture of his people and their dependence on these fantastic animals and their deep connection with them.
In North America, the caribou is actually the same species as our European reindeer, though it's really wild animals that roam the planet on the longest migration of a large mammal.
At the moment you can not see a wild reindeer in the UK. There is a managed herd that lives on the shoulders of the Cairngorms, and a day here, especially in winter, can get pretty close to a Finnish experience. Reindeer roamed the treetops and woods of Derbyshire thousands of years ago, and it may seem appealing to bring them back, probably as a tourist novelty. However, this is an animal adapted to the cold climate in the north of us, and a reintroduction to our advantage would not be to the benefit of the reindeer. However, flights are cheap and a holiday to Finland or Sweden in the winter to experience a day with a reindeer herder is certainly a realistic destination.
And if you do so, with a little imagination, you can take a look into the past and experience a climate and landscape that resembles the Derbyshire of our ancestors and is populated by one of the most amazing animals in the North.