How does a Herts GP’s daugh­ter end up as a rein­deer herder in Scot­land? Meet Tilly Smith who swapped vil­lage life in Wel­wyn for the wilds of the High­lands

Hertfordshire Life - - HEMEL - WORDS: Julie Lu­cas

Tilly Smith is be­sot­ted by rein­deer. She owns Bri­tain’s only freerang­ing herd, more than 150 strong, in the Cairn­gorm moun­tains of Scot­land. With a GP father, and a brother who has taken over the prac­tice, medicine may have been the ob­vi­ous ca­reer route for this 59-year-old. But it was her father’s other keen in­ter­est, as a self­taught and in-de­mand deer ex­pert (he ad­vised and helped es­tate man­agers and sci­en­tists), that lit a fuse.

‘Our child­hood was im­mersed in nat­u­ral his­tory,’ Tilly ex­plains. ‘My dad Oliver Dan­sie was a doc­tor in Wel­wyn and his pas­sion was deer. He passed on his in­ter­est to me. I first stud­ied the lit­tle munt­jac that you find in the Hert­ford­shire woods. My dad used to be pre­sented with many a live deer, one we hand-reared.’

She stud­ied for a de­gree in zo­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol and learned of the rein­deer herd which has roamed the 10,000 acre Cairn­gorms Na­tional Park since 1952. The herd was the brain­child of Dr Ethel Lind­gren and her hus­band Mikel Utsi, who kept Swedish moun­tain rein­deer. It may seem far-fetched, but rein­deer were once na­tive to Bri­tain, with the last wild rein­deer recorded here in the me­dieval pe­riod.

Tilly vol­un­teered to help the project as a fresh grad­u­ate in the sum­mer of 1981. It was a de­ci­sion that would change her life in more ways than one.

‘I got in touch with Dr Lind­gren and ended up in Scot­land. The keeper Alan wasn’t bad look­ing so I mar­ried him!’

Fall­ing in love with both the keeper and the rein­deer, Tilly never looked back. Ty­ing the knot in 1983, she moved up to the High­lands and the cou­ple bought the herd in 1988 fol­low­ing the death of Dr Lind­gren (Mikel died in 1979). The cou­ple have two chil­dren, Fiona and Alex, who are also both in­volved in the busi­ness. And there is now a third gen­er­a­tion, 10-month-old Hamish, Alex’s son.

What was it about the herd that ini­tially pulled on Tilly’s heart­strings – tak­ing her from the lit­tle woods and fields of the Wel­wyn coun­try­side to the sub­arc­tic Cairn­gorms?

‘I love see­ing the rein­deer rang­ing on the moun­tain­side in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, free to come and go as they please. But I also really en­joy han­dling the rein­deer, hal­ter­ing them, lead­ing them off the hill and train­ing them to har­ness for Christ­mas.’ The males help to gen­er­ate in­come and aware­ness of the herd by pulling sleighs on a UK tour of Christ­mas fes­ti­vals each year. ‘They are in­cred­i­bly quiet, trust­ing an­i­mals and al­ways a joy to work with. But when the wind and rain is driv­ing in your face on the hill it can be hard work.’

While the weather can be chal­leng­ing, she says she could never leave. ‘If you came up here you wouldn’t think you were at­tached to the rest of Great Bri­tain. It’s wild and it’s ex­pan­sive and just beau­ti­ful. We get a lot of peo­ple who come from quite builtup ur­ban ar­eas and they just love the soli­tude. Ob­vi­ously we have to cope with the long dark nights in win­ters. We may have our first snow­fall in Septem­ber herald­ing the win­ter time, which is of course when the rein­deer ab­so­lutely do their best.’

The an­i­mals all have dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics ex­plains Tilly. ‘Some are very docile, trust­ing and gen­er­ally friendly. Some are greedy, oth­ers shy. None of them are dan­ger­ous. Their tame­ness comes from thou­sands of years of do­mes­ti­ca­tion.’

Most rein­deer are a brown-grey colour, but they can be jet black or even pure white and each rein­deer pro­duces its own unique-shaped antlers, which are shed each year and re­grow in the same way.

‘We have had rein­deer that only grow one antler – the most re­cent is Mer­rick, a young bull, he’s a bit lop­sided,’ laughs Tilly.

The calves are named on a dif­fer­ent theme each year. Th­ese have in­cluded trees, cakes and bis­cuits, and even creepy crawlies. ‘This year the calves will be named af­ter fic­ti­tious de­tec­tives. We don’t name the rein­deer af­ter Father Christ­mas’ ones - they are im­mor­tal.’

Does she have a favourite? ‘It was Olympic, a big strong dark­coloured Christ­mas rein­deer. He seemed to seek out my com­pany when he was young, I sus­pect be­cause the big­ger rein­deer bul­lied him (he was a bit of a mummy’s boy). Then he got a bit aloof and he’s now the bully. So now my favourite is At­lantic, who is four years old. He is a beau­ti­ful rein­deer with lovely shaped antlers and very tame.’

And do they ever sell them? ‘Ab­so­lutely not. They are born in the herd and die in the herd.’

While it’s a love af­fair for Tilly, the real pur­pose of the herd is ed­u­ca­tion. The site’s vis­i­tor cen­tre al­lows peo­ple of all ages to en­gage with the an­i­mals – to get up close and learn about their lives.

‘Some peo­ple think the antlers are made of wood and one gen­tle­man said to me he thought rein­deer were myth­i­cal crea­tures only found in story books!’

The key role of ed­u­ca­tion is also the driver for Tilly’s writ­ing on the species. The au­thor of sev­eral books, her lat­est, Rein­deer:

An Arc­tic Life, has just been pub­lished.

Al­though the rein­deer live in the wild, they are do­mes­ti­cated, much like ponies. ‘The won­der­ful thing about rein­deer is that one minute you can be han­dling them, hal­ter­ing them and trav­el­ling away from home and

‘We don’t name them af­ter Father Christ­mas’ ones – they’re im­mor­tal’

the next minute you can put them back on the moun­tain and they will look af­ter them­selves. They are amaz­ing an­i­mals. When man do­mes­ti­cated cows, sheep and goats he fenced them in, but with rein­deer you can’t do that, they need to move. It’s still the case to­day up in Rus­sia and Scan­di­navia. The herders live by their rein­deer but they have to ac­cept that the rein­deer mi­grate and move and we semi-ex­cept that here - part of the herd are al­ways on the move, wan­der­ing around, and part of them are in a fenced area.

‘I know 150 sounds a lot, but we have tabs on all of them, we know them in­di­vid­u­ally by name, we know their char­ac­ters. When you meet the herd you are meet­ing a group of in­di­vid­u­als. It’s not just the fam­ily, we have ded­i­cated staff who day-in day-out talk rein­deer – we are all nut­ters really.’

Tilly is shortly to fly out to Kam­chatka – the most east­erly point of Rus­sia. ‘All my hol­i­days are bus­man’s hol­i­days - I want to ex­pe­ri­ence rein­deer herd­ing in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.’

With all the Smiths – mum, dad, son and daugh­ter – ded­i­cated to the herd, the legacy of Tilly’s father’s in­ter­est in deer has been a pow­er­ful one. She re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion with an in­dige­nous rein­deer herder: ‘A Swedish Sami said to Alex: “You are the first Scot­tish in­dige­nous rein­deer herder”, and so is his sis­ter, Fiona. In a sense a tribe has to start some­where and I sup­pose in some small way that tribe has started.’

Rein­deer: An Arc­tic Life by Tilly Smith, pub­lished by The His­tory Press and priced £12.99, is out now.

Two bulls and five cows were in­tro­duced to the High­lands from Swe­den in 1952 to see if they would thrive. Over the next few years 18 more were in­tro­duced. Ini­tially the herd was re­stricted to an area known as Moor­more to es­tab­lish whether their graz­ing af­fected conifer growth, but by 1954 the Forestry Com­mis­sion granted 1,100 acres on the north­ern slopes of the Cairn­gorms. To­day the rein­deer en­joy an ad­di­tional 6,000 acres of free-range graz­ing on the moun­tain tops

LEFT: Christ­mas pa­rade in Stir­ling. One of the events on the Cairn­gorm Rein­deer Herd’s an­nual UK Christ­mas tourRIGHT:Tilly met rein­deer keeper Alan in 1981, and fell in love with both him and the an­i­mals

ABOVE:Vis­i­tors are taken on hill treks to see the 150-plus herd in sum­mer

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