I expect there will be a lot of eyes in Pictou County searching the skies tomorrow night for a chance to see Santa and his reindeer making their annual trip.
This year Santa’s reindeer have also been in the news with the suggestion from a Nova Scotia biologist that, in his opinion, Santa’s reindeer are females. He based his findings on the fact that, while both male and female reindeer grow antlers, the males lose their antlers after breeding season in the fall while females retain theirs over the winter.
The antlers are an advantage during the winter as they help the reindeer clear snow to reach the moss they feed on. Since Santa’s reindeer are always pictured with antlers his conclusion was that they were female.
While you won’t find many reindeer in Pictou County, except on Christmas Eve, there was a time when a close relative, the woodland caribou, was a common sight in the county. For thousands of years large herds roamed Nova Scotia, supplying First Nations peoples with food and clothing.
When the first European settlers arrived caribou were numerous. One report from 1880 spoke of a herd numbering over 150 caribou on a barren above Margaree Forks. A check of the Nova Scotia map book reveals 42 lakes, islands, marshes, ponds, brooks and rivers named after caribou, a good indication of how widespread they once were in the province.
By the turn of the century caribou were becoming scarce in Nova Scotia. Over-hunting and loss of habitat, as early settlers cleared land, took their toll and caribou are believed to have disappeared from mainland Nova Scotia around 1905. They hung on a little longer on Cape Breton Island but disappeared around 1923.
An attempt to reintroduce woodland caribou took place in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in 1968 and 1969. This effort involved capturing caribou in Gagnon, Que., and flying them to Cape Breton for release near Ingonish. The first group consisted of 19 animals and 40 were released the next year. While caribou were seen in the area for several years they too eventually disappeared.
Today biologists have a better understanding of why woodland caribou will probably never be restored to the province. Caribou suffer, as do moose, from a parasitic roundworm, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, more commonly known as brain worm. This is the worm responsible for a disease known as moose sickness which caribou are also susceptible to. The parasite is carried by deer and, while it has no effect on them, it is lethal to moose and caribou.
As whitetail deer are now found throughout Nova Scotia we will probably never see herds of caribou once more wandering in the wilderness. Today woodland caribou are found in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the Gaspé region of Quebec, but not in Pictou County. The best we can do is to welcome a visit from their relative, the reindeer, on Dec 24th. Merry Christmas.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.