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The great reindeer move

Jess Smith
27 November 2013
Jess Smith finds out how Kew's knowledge of mosses and lichens helped to introduce 300 Lapland reindeer into northern Canada, over 100 years ago.

The idea behind the reindeer

In 1907 a medical missionary to Newfoundland and Labrador, Wilfred Grenfell, introduced 300 Lapland reindeer and three herder families to the north coast of Canada. Until then, the people of Labrador were reliant on harp seals for food and savage dogs for draught animals. The rapid extermination of harp seals had left little food available and the draught dogs were so savage they had been known to kill Inuits and whole flocks of sheep.

Grenfell wanted to help the people of Labrador and believed by importing reindeer, a sustainable source of meat, milk, clothes and bedding could be provided. The reindeer could also be used as draught animals, meaning people no longer had to rely on the vicious dogs.


Woman in formal dress sitting near a reindeer herd [1909?] (The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, VA 118-40.4, International Grenfell Association photograph collection)


Sir William MacGregor

After meeting Grenfell, the Governor of Newfoundland, Sir William MacGregor, became very interested in this idea and started his own botanical research into the availability of lichens and mosses in the area as a basis for reindeer food. He went on several collecting trips around Labrador (mainly to Anse Sablon and the Chidley peninsula) as well as receiving various collections from members of Grenfell's mission.

Having been friends with Kew's third director, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, he decided to send these collections on to Sir David Prain, Thiselton-Dyer's successor. Kew Gardens was heavily involved in the determination of these specimens and concluded that at least four species found in Labrador would serve as a food supply for reindeer. As these lichens were common in the area, it was estimated that there was enough food to support over 3 million reindeer.  

There are several letters in the from MacGregor, referring to these specimens and to Kew's involvement in the Reindeer experiment. MacGregor also sent a press cutting from Newfoundland's Evening Herald, regarding the lichen and moss specimens which had been sent to Kew. Kew Gardens was, and still is, considered the highest authority for botanical matters.


"What I most desire to know is the value of the mosses & lichens in that district as food for the Reindeer. It would be of vast advantage to Labrador to have that animal introduced & bred there" (Archive ref: DC 201 f.67); Press cutting (Archive ref: DC 201 f.68).  

The results

At first, the experiment appeared to be successful and was widely pubilcised, for example in this article in the New York Times. However, the Lapp herders were finding the climate too cold and one family left after just the first year. The others soon followed and the herding was left to locally trained men. By the fourth year, the herd had increased to 1,000 reindeer but had begun to face increased poaching and abandonment by the locally trained herders.

Ten years into the experiment, the herd was drastically reduced and the remaining reindeer were shipped away to Millertown. Grenfell still regarded the experiment as a success but, unknown to him, the reindeer carried a parasite. Although there is no direct evidence that the reindeers passed this parasite on, it affects caribou in Newfoundland up until this day and this is the only place in the world where caribou are known to carry the parasite.

Reindeer swimming in a lake (From the International Greenfell Association Lantern Slides Collection, credit: the Maritime History Archive)

There are so many interesting stories and insights into the past to be found in Kew's archive of letters. By digitising them they can be accessed by people all over the world. See what you can find among the Directors' Correspondence by searching under 'Free Text' on the JSTOR Global Plants website.

- Jess -  



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