A report in The Sunday Times alleged that reindeer imported to Britain for grottos are dying prematurely after exposure to diseases from British farm animals. The investigation, carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), claimed that 500 reindeer have been imported in the past five years. Animal experts warned of "a sharp increase in deaths in young reindeer, also linked to bad diet, poor welfare and the stress of being uprooted from their natural habitat".
Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler told Amateur Gardening magazine: "Reindeer can't cope with the stress of frightening, alien environments such as garden centres. The animals start to break down physically and mentally. Clearly, a serious animal welfare price is being paid."
Many garden centres use reindeer at Christmas to launch or promote Christmas displays and grottoes. But Tyler added: "Boycott garden centres with reindeer this Christmas — and write letters of complaint to retailers who are exploiting these animals for profit."
In response, HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted said: "Many zoos, open farms and other visitor attractions have a range of animal species they care for and make accessible to their visitors. Garden centres are not alone in that and any business will look to provide the highest available standards of care for any animal within its environs."
He added: "I can't believe anyone wouldn't look after any species in a right and proper condition."
Stewarts keeps four reindeer year round with its cattle herd in Christchurch, Dorset. Owner Martin Stewart said: "We are well aware of the husbandry issues of reindeer and in particular their vulnerability to diseases borne out of damp.
"We started keeping reindeer at the beginning of this summer, adapting one of our own cattle fields to home them. They are very happy there. You only have to stand at the gate and watch their manner — something we do every day. They are friendly but cautious with the most engaging habits and mannerisms. They make everyone who sees them smile.
"It is true they are not in their natural habitat but ironically there are signs of Scandinavian herds developing fluke [an intestinal worm] as the conditions there are becoming milder and therefore less ‘dry'."
Stewart added that threats to reindeer in their natural habitat include avalanches and predators such as wolves, lynx and bears. Golden eagles may be seen to kill calves up to six months old by using their talons to puncture their lungs.
Parasites include warble flies, mosquitoes, ticks and nose bot flies. Roundworms, tapeworms, meningeal worms (Paralaphostrongylus tenius) and sarcocystis can also afflict reindeer. In some Canadian provinces, caribou are commonly infected with giant liver fluke, Fascioloides magna. Diseases include brucellosis, foot rot, keratitis (white-eye), and sarcocystosis.
Stewart said: "We have had regular vet visits and have been in contact with the RSPCA and the local council. All have raised no concerns whatsoever; indeed I was only speaking to our vet yesterday and she said she had no concerns about the way they were being treated. She felt they were very comfortable and relaxed.
"I understand totally the concern for animal welfare but one only needs to watch the habit of these wonderful animals to see that they are fine, relaxed and not in the slightest bit fazed by their surroundings. Our animals are very content and happy. They have a carefully administered diet, the highest standards of welfare and are not the slightest bit stressed."
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