Reindeer are adjusting to life in Seaham, County Durham

PUBLISHED: 22:19 09 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:29 20 February 2013

A young calf

A young calf

Have you herd the news? Reindeer are adjusting to life in County Durham. Words and Photography by Helen Johnson

Most of us have a seasonal relationship with reindeer we all know how Rudolph led the sleigh that foggy Christmas Eve, and we can name a few of his colleagues but for George Richardson reindeer are not just for Christmas.

George has always been fascinated by the deer and now has a small but growing herd of them near his home at Cold Hesledon, near Seaham.

And while the reindeer may not be native to our part of the world, George sought advice from experts in their homeland before he bought his first deer. In Norway he attended the international reindeer racing festival at Tromso where he made friends with several Sami, the professional reindeer herders of the far north who live a semi-nomadic life, as the reindeer are herded thousands of miles from the winter pastures to the summer grounds

George started with three reindeer and now has thirteen, but says that although his Sami friends have been good friends, generous with their advice, they laughed when he first told them about his reindeer: Eldbjrg has five hundred, and Roar has two thousand. They run the herds as family co-operatives.

Reindeer are accustomed to eating a variety of wild food. In summer the native diet would be soft meadow grass, young tree leaves, and berries. In winter, they dig through the snow and eat reindeer moss, a form of lichen. We have dried reindeer moss brought over from Norway.

In summer, we supplement with glucose. Thats because in the Arctic summer, theres twenty-four hours of daylight, so the plants grow well and make lots of sugar. UK grass doesnt have enough sugar for them, so we have a specific feed pellet made up for them, to a Norwegian recipe.

The reindeers habits are adapted to their arctic home, and, he says, In summer, theyre gluttonous to build up reserves, because in winter theyre on starvation rations.

Georges herd is growing. Bulls compete to mate with the cows in autumn. Each year, they grow a new set of antlers. The antlers are delicate when they are growing, covered in a soft velvet full of blood vessels. The shed antlers are used to make gifts, such as key fobs.

Calves can be born anytime from April until June, and George has been lucky so far, and hasnt lost a calf. His Norwegian friends, however, lose many calves to predators including wolves, bears, sea eagles, wolverines and pole cats.

There are no such threats here, although cows and sheep pose a threat to the herd George keeps at the garden centre he runs with his wife Tracey. Reindeer shouldnt be mixed with other farm animals, particularly sheep, because sheep carry a disease that doesnt affect them, but will kill reindeer so were very careful.

Historically, reindeer travel thousands of miles from one area to another. So they have no capacity to cope with a worm burden like our domestic cattle and sheep. So worming is a big priority.

George names his reindeer for their qualities: Nosey is insatiably curious, Minstrel is chocolate brown, and Donut loves sugar. Other names include April, Snowy, and Solstice and the herd has a strict pecking order. Nosey is in charge, George said. Minstrel used to be number one, but then Nosey had a calf, and that put her up the pecking order. Now Minstrel is number two.

They all have their own personalities. They love snow theyre like kids, playing in it. But they dont like rain, weve got field shelters for them.

George has trained Donut and Pancake to pull a sledge. It takes a lot of practice but we have an antique Norwegian sledge, and we hire them out at Christmas. In November and December, we also bring a few of the reindeer down to the garden centre each day they work in rotation. We have a machine that dispenses a quantity of reindeer moss and pellet, so that the public can feed them. But reindeer are not just for Christmas.

They need year-round care, and I love them to bits.

* See Georges reindeer at Richardsons Garden Centre, Cold Hesledon or go online to

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