What do reindeer eat?

It’s customary to leave out a mince pie and a glass of milk for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve night. While I’ll sidestep the part where none of the other reindeer get anything despite doing more work collectively than Rudolph, I wondered: can Rudolph eat a raw carrot? And what do reindeer actually eat?

The first question has a general answer: no. The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd says that because carrots aren’t native to the sub-Arctic areas that reindeer are from, they haven’t adapted to eating them and their teeth aren’t prepared for chewing the crunch orange stuff. Phil Endsor aka “The Reindeer Whisperer” backed this up in a quote from The Independent:

“Carrots aren’t part of their natural diet and reindeer struggle to digest carrots because they don’t have any incisor teeth on their upper jaw – we’ve never seen any of the reindeers we look after eat one.”

via The Independent

However, Aoife McElwain from The Irish Times spoke to Kevina O’Connell, the manager of Glendeer Pet Farm and she said the opposite:

“Carrots are great for reindeer,” confirms O’Connell. “They love them and they give them energy. And, of course, carrots help them to see at night.”

Despite her 28 years of running the farm, I’m inclined to agree with The Reindeer Whisperer on this one. But one thing they all agree on is what reindeer definitely eat and that’s Cladonia rangiferina or reindeer lichen, a moss-like fungus that forms an important part of a reindeer’s diet. You find reindeer lichen in habitats like forests, particularly in boreal forests like those found in Canada.

Since reindeer are herbivores, they mainly eat vegetation including herbs, grasses, mosses, and bits of shrubs and trees. If you live near green areas, you could swap the carrots for more green and aromatic options like these to keep Rudolph and his stomach happy.

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