Reindeer Run Wild in East Iceland

Magazine Reindeer Run Wild in East Iceland

Reindeer have become nearly synonymous with Christmas, and in particular Santa Claus, but that idea only came about in 1823, with the first publishing of Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas. Santa Claus, however, plays relatively no part in Icelandic Christmas traditions, even though wild herds of reindeer, nearly 3000 animals, run wild across eastern Iceland.

The reindeer is not native to the land of fire and ice. Transplanted from Norway in the late eighteenth century, the species has always been feral. Originally, they roamed the country in relatively large numbers, but by the turn of the Twentieth Century, the reindeer became extinct in north and southwest Iceland. By the mid-twentieth century, the reindeer population dwindled to only a few hundred animals, and survived only in the east and northeast of the country. Researchers associate the drop in population to poor grazing conditions, most likely caused by volcanic eruptions, and a rash of harsh winters.

Currently, Iceland has roughly three thousand reindeer, and still only in the east and northeast of the country. The reindeer stay mostly at high elevations during the summer months, then migrate closer to the coastal grasslands during the winter. They are best seen from Vopnafjordur on the northern coast, all the way south to Glacier Lagoon. Their primary habitats are near mount Snæfell, which rises alongside Vatnajökull glacier.

The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) is closely related to the caribou, and is sometimes considered the same species, though reindeer are smaller, roughly 160-200 cm (5 – 6.5 ft) and 250 kg (551 lbs). They are a species of deer, but both bull and cows grow antlers. Even new calves begin to grow antlers in the their first week. The size of a fully developed reindeer rack is the largest of the deer family, and is second only to the antlers of the moose.

To remain insulated from the cold harsh weather, reindeer have two layers of fur. The outer layer is air-filled hair, which keeps the reindeer warm by trapping air, and which helps them to maintain buoyancy while fording deep waters. The reindeer has turbinate nasal bones that increase the surface area of the nasal passages, which helps to keep the air breathed-in warm, and which also provides for a keen sense of smell.

Reindeer also have hooves designed for harsh and changing climates. During the summer season, when the tundra is moist, the hooves of the reindeer soften for better traction. During the winter, the hooves of the reindeer shrink and become hard, allowing the reindeer to cut through the ice and snow.

Icelandair Hotel Herad, along the Ring Road in the peaceful East Iceland town of Egilsstadir, offers you comfort and great local food in the heart of reindeer country. Just minutes from the North Atlantic, you will enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, and stunning landscapes.  Cheers from Icelandair Hotels!

Sign up for our newsletter

Get discounts, news and other special treats


More in Magazine