LEADING THE HERD
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
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