Monday 24 June 2019

Reindeer once roamed in Ireland... 13,000 years ago

Male, female and juvenile Reindeer are adorned with a set of antlers
Male, female and juvenile Reindeer are adorned with a set of antlers

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Reindeer are very much in the news this week especially one with a nose so bright that it glows red. Thankfully, a red nose is not a cold nose; it is a warm nose because it is rich in blood vessels. The reason the rich blood supply has evolved is to warm the cold air entering the animal's lungs.

Reindeer live in the region immediately below the arctic ice at the North Pole in a circumpolar belt extending from Europe to Asia to North America. A dozen or more subspecies occur in different parts of that band; some are sedentary while others are migratory. The migratory ones in North America are known as Caribou and they hold the distinction of migrating over distances greater than any other land mammal in the world.

The reason they migrate is twofold: to avoid harsh winter weather and to avail of fresh feeding. The Arctic is, of course, a frozen ocean so there is no land-based plant life there to eat. Much further south trees grow where the climate is milder. Between the Arctic Ocean and the northern forests, the climate is too cold to support tree growth.

Instead, the vegetation is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses, and lichens. This great expanse of open treeless landscape with its unique vegetation is the tundra and is the home range of the Reindeer.

During the last ice age here in Ireland the climate was too cold to support trees, and tundra-type vegetation dominated. So, were there Reindeer here? Yes, there were; fossil bones and antlers were identified from finds in caves and bogs in counties Clare, Cork, Waterford and Sligo suggesting that these large deer were widespread around the country.

The bones were dated, and the results returned ages of about 30,000 years. The last ice age peaked about 22,000 years ago and the ice finally melted away about 13,000 years ago as the ice sheets retreated northwards from whence they came. It is believed that Reindeer probably roamed Ireland to the end of the ice age.

As the climate in Ireland became warmer, the tundra vegetation declined and trees began to colonise resulting in the extinction of Reindeer and the Wolves and Brown Bears that preyed on them.

It is unusual among deer, but male, female and juvenile Reindeer are all adorned with antlers. Males normally shed theirs after the autumn rut while females continue to carry them until the following spring.

Bray People