The Reindeer Man - Steve Swinnerton of Blithbury Reindeer Lodge
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 December 2016
With their gentle ways and doe eyes, reindeer seem to capture the magic of Christmas. Derbyshire Life goes in search of the elusive red-nosed reindeer and finds a herd of stars instead
Just across the Derbyshire border, a little bit of Scandinavia can be found. Travelling round the twisty lanes and rolling fields, it is something of a surprise to stumble on Blithbury. Here is no ordinary farm. Instead think film stars, celebrity status and reindeer – a place that lives and breathes Christmas even in the height of summer.
During the festive season, Blithbury Reindeer Lodge sees around 17,000 visitors pass through its doors, some from as far afield as New Zealand. With friendly reindeer to feed, sleigh rides, Father Christmas and stories by the log fire with Mrs Christmas, it’s no surprise that people return year after year and it is all due to one person.
Simply known as the Reindeer Man, Steve Swinnerton is, in his own words, ‘a reindeer farmer’ but it soon becomes apparent that he is the well-respected authority on all things reindeer. Steve is on ‘speed dial’ to everyone from vets and zoos to film directors.
‘All the zoos in England have their reindeer from me, because of my reputation and the fact that we have a zoology licence here. If they’ve got a problem they’ll get in touch, even vets call on me for advice. People also phone up from all over the country to ask about bottle feeding – I’m a little like a midwife.’
Steve is so highly thought of that his skills and knowledge are even respected and used within Scandinavia. So how did a dairy farmer become a reindeer guru?
‘I’ve always handled and trained animals for film and television,’ says Steve matter of factly. ‘I was working in Ireland and one of the horse handlers said there were three reindeer for sale in Norfolk. He said, “I bet you £20 you can’t take them on and train them.” I took the bet.’
It was, however, no flippant wager. Steve took it seriously and made contact with the Sami people, spending eight weeks in the Arctic Circle learning the trade. ‘When I first went over I was on a round up and I had to lasso a reindeer,’ explains Steve.
Once he had caught it they made him kill it – something animal-loving Steve was not expecting. ‘I asked the Sami why and he explained that the Sami families were watching me. Their philosophy is that if you are going to kill and eat a reindeer you can keep reindeer. To the Samis they are not pets. They are working animals – a bit like cows – and you have to respect that.’
‘I am different,’ ponders Steve. ‘I keep them until they die, my oldest reindeer died at 17. But when you’re out there you do things their way – I had to work with them and live in the tents with them.’ During his stay the Sami people taught him how to train the reindeers to pull sleighs. ‘The system that we use here is the one they use in Scandinavia. Reindeers have been pulling sleighs for thousands of years but it wasn’t until the law was changed in 1946 that Samis could live in houses,’ says Steve. ‘Prior to that they had to move wherever the reindeer were grazing and every time they moved they had to take all their tents down, pack up all their food, logs and everything, and put it into sleighs. They trained the reindeers to pull the sleighs, that’s how they did it. But now the Sami people live in houses – they just use the reindeers to pull sleighs for tourism reasons.’
The Sami people were obviously impressed by Steve. The head of the Sami Federation asked to meet him and he has since gained a bit of a cult following, appearing on television and even being asked for a ‘selfie’ with the local Scandinavian police.
‘I handle reindeer every day you see. I am a farmer so if someone genuinely asks me for advice, I am happy to give it,’ he says. ‘We handle reindeer all the time, the Sami don’t. They just bring them in three or four times a year, that’s as close as they get to their reindeer, athough more recently some have been giving sleigh rides for tourists at ski resorts at Christmas.’
Steve’s expertise comes from his wealth of experience. Having worked with animals all his life, he is used to the 24/7 nature of the work. ‘I’ve always had animals. When I was nine years old I used to walk three miles to feed my Dad’s chickens and the pigs, collect the eggs and then walk to school – and do it again after school. I trained as a cow man when I left agricultural college in 1970. I had my own smallholding and progressed from there.’
But it hasn’t all been easy. Steve has come under criticism for bringing reindeer to England – something that clearly upsets him. ‘What people don’t realise is that in the next village they do a Horn Dance with reindeer antlers. The antlers have been carbon dated to 1226 so perhaps I am bringing reindeers back into the area.’
Steve also notes that reindeers are safer in England away from natural predators that are ‘out of control’. ‘Wolverines kill 78 reindeers in a day and I’ve seen bears kill no end of baby calves.’ Add to that the 36,000 reindeers killed on roads because they are addicted to salt, and Steve argues that reindeers are at risk. ‘The Samis told me that if they don’t control the predators, in 20 years time there won’t be any large herds.’ He also believes that rising temperatures mean their natural habitat is changing. ‘It’s getting warmer in Lapland, they’ve had more rain this summer and the snow is falling later,’ reasons Steve.
The reindeers certainly seem very content at Blithbury. Steve puts this down to the fact that they are very adaptable animals and the presence of their extended family. ‘We have a field at the back with ten retired grandpas and grandmas. When we bring new reindeer from Scandinavia we always put grandma and grandpa in with them and within 24 hours they are in bed by 7pm and queue up for dinner. They look upon the older ones for guidance,’ he says with a chuckle.
‘People ask me what reindeer are like but you have to own them to know. You can never explain to people. Reindeer act like cattle, graze like goats, their husbandry is like sheep, you herd them like pigs and their brain is like that of a good border collie. When they’ve learnt something, they don’t forget. We have 180 reindeer here and no two are the same.’
It is that uniqueness that has resulted in the Blithbury reindeers appearing on television and in Hollywood films. ‘I’ve worked with everyone, it’s just part of your job. It can mean a decent day’s wage which will pay the vet’s or feed bills,’ says Steve humbly. ‘Some story boards aren’t feasible, though. I won’t do anything that makes the animal look silly or puts it at risk. I know which animal will do what and I’d rather use their characters than train them to perform.’
So, how do you get a reindeer to follow a script? ‘I pick the characters of the reindeers for the story boards. Training an animal to do something daft is strenuous for them, so I look at the story boards and say we will have to go to b and c to get to a. The funniest one was on Get Santa,’ reminisces Steve. ‘The director said “Steve, we’ve got a scene we don’t think you can do.” I said give me an hour and we can do it, but we’ll need three cameras because you’ll have to get it in one take. The crew had a sweepstake because they didn’t think I’d do it. But we did!’
When filming, lichen is a useful aid. ‘Reindeers love lichen and can smell it a metre under the snow – it’s a little like chocolate to them! When we do a Christmas show, there is always a moss bucket in the trailer. Children are always amazed that a reindeer will take moss from them. Reindeer can’t bite you because they only have teeth on the bottom of their mouths, like cows and sheep.’
The magic moss means Steve frequently takes a 2,000 mile trip to Scandinavia. ‘I like to get the lichen direct. The Sami people pick the moss from the central area of Sweden or Finland, then dry-pack it into blocks and it will keep for 12 months. When you look at the moss, there is a silver bit on top which is bacteria that will help settle their tummies if they are under par. Underneath are brown shreds that look like shredded wheat and are like sugar to them. There’s no feed value in it – it’s just something the reindeers like and it helps their digestion.’
The Blithbury reindeers also sparkle outside the farm – their star-like qualities have often given festive cheer to people who really need it. According to Steve, reindeers are intuitive. ‘We only ever use our voices to train the reindeer. They have a sixth sense and know whether you’re a good person or not.’
It is this special magical quality that can bring so much joy to people. ‘I have taken reindeer into hospices to meet sick children. The children love them. The reindeers know,’ says Steve.
A few years ago Steve was asked to take a reindeer into hospital for a little boy in a coma. ‘We were in intensive care with a little night light on and the reindeer just plonked his head straight on the little boy’s chest – the reindeer was so close he was breathing up his nose. The reindeer started nuzzling him and the boy opened his eyes. The nurses were crying. Within a day the boy was on the main ward.’
This is a side of the job that Steve wasn’t at all prepared for but has embraced nevertheless. ‘Sometimes you have to give a bit to take a bit, we are all put on this earth for a reason. When we visit hospices and things like that we aren’t paid, it’s one of the jobs we do – it’s the magic of Christmas.’ A little bit of St Nicholas’ goodwill – right here in the heart of England.
Blithbury Reindeer Lodge is open for the Christmas Experience on selected days to 24th December. For details go to www.blithburyreindeerlodge.co.uk or call 01889 504300