How family and their 25 reindeer spread Christmas joy to kids around the country

How family and their 25 reindeer spread Christmas joy to kids around the country

For most people, Christmas comes just once a year, but, in a corner of sleepy Suffolk, there’s one family who enjoy a daily dose of merriment: the Owens need only open their curtains to see a herd of beautiful reindeer.

The run-up to Christmas is a busy time for the family, whose reindeer are so in demand that they travel everywhere from the Isle of Man to Scotland, but they manage to spare the time to show me around their farm.

The first port of call is the stables, where we feed sliced parsnips and small pieces of Scandinavian lichen to two docile, coffee-coloured reindeer. They’re much smaller than I imagined – waist height, but their velvety antlers add another foot or two to their stature.

‘Watching the expressions of children’s faces when they see our reindeer for the first time is really something,’ says Emma, 52, laying a hand on one of her favourites, Miss Bubble, a gentle creature who has appeared on a Cadbury’s advert. ‘You can see them trying to work out if the reindeer are real, and we’re often asked where their wings are.’

Emma and her partner Daniel, 43, work with a small team of staff to make sure the animals are available to spread as much Christmas cheer as possible.

The creatures are sent out in pairs, visiting fairs, holiday resorts, special needs schools, private parties and even television studios. Comfort and safety is always paramount: wherever they go, the reindeer are given a large pen to roam in, plenty of hay and a gazebo covering them, plus visitors are never allowed into the animals’ enclosure.

Emma and Daniel also ensure there are no trailing wires nearby, as the curious creatures would be likely to give them a good chew (one of the herd has even worked out how to undo a zip!).

‘These animals are our babies and we can’t help but feel soppy about them,’ says Emma. ‘Once you’ve spent a chilly night keeping a reindeer company while she gives birth, or fed a newborn calf a bottle, you really do feel attached to them.’

Emma puts some rather festive looking leading reigns on the animals, and we walk them out of the stables and into the extensive grounds to meet the rest of the herd. I soon learn that not all reindeer are the same: as well as many grey and brown animals, there’s a snow white bull called Bertie, and there’s Philipa, who was ill as a calf and has never grown any antlers.

Thankfully, Emma assures me that, far from being ostracised like poor old Rudolph, she is very much part of the herd.

The family’s reindeer adventure began nine years ago when they adopted their first pair, rescued from the Scandinavian meat trade. Emma’s daughters from a previous marriage, Tilly and Bella, now 17 and 15, were just eight and six at the time, and accepted their new pets earnestly.

‘When I first told Bella about the latest addition to our menagerie she said, in all seriousness, “Mummy, these reindeer we’re getting, are they real?” I said yes, and she wandered off, coming back later to say, “These real reindeer that we’re getting, are they related to the unicorn at all?”’

Emma and Daniel come across a surprising number of people who aren’t quite sure how magical reindeer really are – and it isn’t just kids. ‘I recently had a conversation with a grown-up gentleman and his young son at a fair,’ she says.

‘They asked me how we got here and I said that we flew into the local airport, and that we’d had to square it off with the local air traffic control people because we fly quite low with the sleigh. The dad was nodding along very seriously, and his little boy was looking up at him and thinking, “My father is quite bonkers.” I never worked out whether he really believed me.’

Looking after so many reindeer is no easy task, but it’s hard to imagine a more well cared for bunch. Like horses, the animals require plenty of open space to exercise, and cosy stables to sleep in at night.

At the Owens’, the stables have special cat flaps in the doors for the mice-catching farm cats to potter in and out of, and a family of chickens that roost in 
the rafters. In the summer, the reindeer even have a paddling pool to splash around in.

They also get through an awful lot of food. Each week, the herd munch their way through several sacks of parsnips and carrots, 300kg special pellets, 75kg tubs of sugar beet pulp, and a rather alarming amount of special lichen imported from Scandinavia. ‘This stuff’s like catnip to them, and there isn’t much they won’t do for a bit of lichen,’ explains Daniel, holding up a crinkly piece of duck egg blue lichen.

‘In the wild they’d eat little pieces that they find on trees, so we just give them a piece the size of a two pence piece – it’s also very expensive.’

Just like Father Christmas’s mythical helpers, these reindeer have been on an adventure or two. ‘They’ve appeared on a fair few TV shows in their time,’ says Emma.

‘When we went on  Michael McIntyre’s Big Show: Christmas Special , Daniel had to dress up. He thought he might be dressed as a cossack or something manly, but when we arrived they had an elf outfit ready. He’s 6ft 2in and had to be sewn into it.’

The old adage about actors and presenters never working with children or animals definitely applies to reindeer, as Emma and Daniel found when they took Snowy and Flapjack to appear on  Blue Peter . Reindeer naturally shed their antlers every winter, before growing a new set. ‘We set out from our farm with two of our boys, who had beautiful antlers,’ remembers Emma with a smile. ‘But when we arrived, they’d shed them! So we ended up on live TV holding the antlers on and hoping nobody would notice.’

Emma’s daughters get to choose all the names for newborn calves, so the herd features reindeer called Latte, Pixi, Flora, Petal, Clover, Marigold, Anna and Elsa. ‘The girls get quite nonchalant about having reindeer, and have to act surprised when the reindeer get wheeled out at Christmas,’ says Emma. 

There aren’t many people who wouldn’t be cheered up by an encounter with these gentle creatures – even the local police. ‘A couple of years ago, just before Christmas Eve, we were driving along with two reindeer in their specially converted horse box, when Tilly said, “Mummy, there’s a man waving at us.” So we pulled over and it was the transport police, in an unmarked car. They asked what we had in the horse box and when we said it was a couple of reindeer, they said, “Pull the other one.” I asked if they wanted to see them, and they were in there taking selfies and sending them to their kids.’

Looking after reindeer is hard work, but for Emma, there’s no better job in the world. ‘Christmas is very commercialised these days, so it’s wonderful to feel we’re helping to bring back some Christmas magic to the world.’

Reindeer facts:

  • Reindeer first became part of Christmas lore because of the 1823 poem by Clement Moore  A Visit from St. Nicholas , which features eight reindeer pulling Father Christmas’s sleigh.
  • Reindeer were some of the first creatures to be domesticated by humans, more than 2,000 years ago. But many Arctic societies still rely on them for clothing and food.
  • Reindeer communicate through clicking. In dark and snowy conditions, it can be hard to keep track of the herd, so the animals use the sound of tendons slipping over bones in their feet as they walk.
  • In winter, reindeer have a thick, fluffy coat, which they shed to a suede-like inner layer for summer. They can survive in temperatures of up to -70ºC, using extra eyelids and closed nostrils to prevent them from freezing.
  • Reindeer’s eyes change from gold in the summer to blue in the winter, to allow them to let in more light in the dark months.
  •  Reindeer are the only female deer that have antlers.

For more about the Owen family and their herd, go to





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