Reindeer in the Lakes - On the fells at Predator Experience near Cartmel
- Credit: not Archant
Not all reindeer will be pulling sleighs this month. This herd will be busy in the fields near Cartmel
This is a busy time for reindeer, but far away from the festive hustle and bustle, Rudolph, Vixen and Blitzen are living the dream.
This trio won't be seen pulling Santa's sleigh - their task is to graze the land at Predator Experience, an eco-tourism business at Ayside near Cartmel.
'We wanted an alternative grazing animal,' explained Dee Ashman who runs the visitor attraction with her husband, Daniel.
'Although we are not by any means anti-farming, we are anti-intensive farming. We advocate more traditional methods of tending to the land because it's more conducive to a healthy eco structure. And believe it or not, reindeer were actually native to Lakeland at the time of the Vikings so being able to bring back a 'lost' species was appealing to us, even if it's in a more controlled environment than a release programme, which wouldn't be suitable in the Lake District now.'
The reindeer are also kind on the land as their long snow shoe hoof span makes little impact on grassland, keeping the land tidy for visitors to Predator Experience.
'All of our experiences are geared around the natural world, the concept of evolution, biodiversity, and healthy eco-structures, so Christmas activities aren't part of our policy,' said Dee.
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'The reindeer have access to a very large area and have a highly contented life with us, and guests are always surprised and fascinated to see them all year round when they arrive for an experience.'
However, the Ashmans haven't completely ruled out introducing a reindeer experience in the future. 'We have often discussed it, particularly as they are so popular with our guests who can see them wandering around and are always curious. But if we do, the focus won't be on Christmas, it will be on the role of grazers, how they influence landscapes, and the evolution and incredible physiology of reindeer,' said Dee.
'Reindeer are very adaptable and develop coping mechanisms for the wild. In the winter, their hooves go hard and grow a blade for digging in icy snow.'
They can also use their legs as thermostats and can lower the temperature in them to keep their bodies warm. But global warming is a problem for reindeer. Their numbers are decreasing and they are on the world's 'vulnerable species' list. As milder temperatures bring more rain, the snow gets wetter and leaves a thick layer of ice which makes digging for food difficult.
Rudolph, Vixen and Blitzen eat grass, and lots of mosses and lichen which they often find in the stone walls, as well as on the ground. The Ashmans also feed them specialist reindeer nibbles and they like eating straw but are not fond of hay.
The care of reindeer is specialist, the feed they eat is specific, and they cannot be integrated with sheep or other farm animals due to bio security. They could catch a variety of illnesses from sheep.
Dee said: 'Also there is the rut to consider, a bull reindeer in rut is not to be trifled with! Mating and fighting is all Rudolph has on his mind at that time of year, which can be challenging.'
Rudolph, affectionately known as Rudy, and Vixen were just six months old when they arrived in Lakeland in 2012, not from Santa's Lapland farm, but from a reindeer breeder in Norwich.
Vixen became pregnant in 2017 and baby Blitzen was born in May last year. 'We felt like the proud parents,' said Dee, whose own birthday falls at this special time of year.
But the reindeer are far from the main attraction at Predator Experience which aims to educate its many visitors about the role of predators in eco structures.
It is the only place in the country where people can enjoy 'walking with wolves' experiences as well as Fox Encounters and Bird of Prey experiences.
Predator Experience has featured on many television programmes including the BBC's Countryfile where a film of John Craven howling with the wolves was voted to be the nation's favourite magic moment of the programme's 30th anniversary.
And in Predator Experience's 10th anniversary year, expansion plans have been approved which include new animal housing and viewing rooms, an indoor flying room to provide year-round wet weather facilities, a reception area, education, training and conference room, staff room, parking and comfort facilities with disabled access, and a new animal hospital. Up to five new jobs will be created and the development is expected to bring around £1.1 million into the local economy each year.