Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight? Meet Dudley Zoo's resident reindeer

A herd of trusty reindeer pulling a present-laden sleigh through the night sky is a much-loved festive scene.

But their tireless work for Father Christmas is not the only reason to love these majestic animals.

Weekend paid a visit to Dudley Zoo to find out more about these inquisitive creatures and met keeper Ellis Robinson and her charges Blizzard, Bracken, Maggie, Lily, Sunflower, Jasmine, Minnie-Mag and Ivy.

Blizzard, aged 15, is the oldest of the all-female group which spans several generations and the youngest is two-year-old Ivy.

“They’re great to work with because they’ve all got their own personalities and qualities. I think they so under-appreciated the rest of the year that I like to give them a little bit of extra love,” 23-year-old Ellis tells Weekend.

The reindeer live in a family group just as they would in the wild. Maggie, 12, is mum to nine-year-old Minnie-Mag and Ivy. Minnie-Mag is mum to six-year-old Bracken.

Blizzard is mum to 10-year-old Lily and three-year-old Jasmine and Lily is mum to three-year-old Sunflower.

“We’ve got a calm herd with some older and wiser ones to keep the younger ones in check. Blizzard is the oldest and the most happy-go-lucky reindeer. Maggie is also very calm as she was hand-reared and is very people-focused.

“Lily is second in command in the group and is quite a feisty character. Minnie-Mag is a bit of a handful. She’s losing the velvet on her antlers at the moment which can be quite itchy so she’s a bit grumpy.

“The youngest three are very playful and very cheeky. Jasmine loves playing with water and biting the hose to get at the water spray,” says Ellis, who has been working with the reindeer for five years.

Sunflower and Jasmine are very popular with visitors as they hit the headlines when they were born out of season, arriving in the height of summer.

Sunflower made her appearance on July 19, 2016 which was one of the hottest days of the year as temperatures rose to over 30c while half-sister Jasmine followed during the heatwave on August 14.

They surprised the delighted keepers as reindeer calves are usually born around April and May following the September rutting season.

But their father Ghost, who had arrived from the Scottish Deer Centre in Cupar, Fife, just before Christmas in 2015 had immediately made an impression with the girls and got down to business.

The alpha male later moved to Blackpool Zoo after also siring three other youngsters in Dudley including Ivy.

Keepers are hoping to introduce a male to the herd next year so they can continue their breeding programme.

“It’s taking some time finding one because all of our females are related and we need to make sure the new male is not related to them in any way,” says Ellis, who also looks after the zoo’s giraffes and tapirs with the other keepers in the ungulates team.

At this time of year the reindeer are among the star attractions at the zoo’s Winter Wonderland grotto,which is open every day until Christmas Eve in the castle courtyard.

They’ve spent the past few months learning the ropes with Ellis putting them through their paces so they are ready to greet visitors.

This has included getting them used to their halters and harnesses as well as familiarising them with the route from their enclosure to the cobbled castle courtyard.

The training also comes in handy whenever they need a medical check-up as it enables them to be walked out of the paddock to the vet. Three reindeer will be on duty at the grotto each day and usually a younger one is accompanied by their mum and another older adult.

It’s important that more than one reindeer is taken up to the grotto each time because they are a herd animal and could get distressed if they were alone.

The groups of three are rotated and over the years the keepers have learned from experience what combinations work best.

“We know all of their different personalities and even though they all live together as a herd, we know who they get on better with and who they might clash with. Maggie doesn’t like going up to the grotto with Lily, they rub each other up the wrong way,” explains Ellis, who first joined the team as an apprentice. Ahead of December, the reindeer girls also spend time grazing on the grass in the courtyard to help get them used to their festive diet.

“They can get bloated from eating grass if they aren’t used to it so we let them graze in the castle courtyard and they can also run about and get that out of their system so they are nice and calm for when visitors get here.

“In the wild they would eat things like grass, moss and shrubs but here they get a reindeer diet as well as sugar beet, maize, bran, oats, hay and straw.

“These reindeer must be the only reindeer that don’t like carrots, I’ve never known a reindeer not like carrots,” says Ellis. While some of the reindeer are on grotto duty, the others remain in the paddock and the keepers like to make it look festive to encourage families to pay the girls a visit too.

“We like to put up Christmas decorations and lights to make it fit in with the grotto theme and it’s nice for people to see the reindeer here as they can get over-looked,” says Ellis. “It’s great working with them because they’ve all got individual personalities and they all bring something different to the herd. It’s great training them to wear the halter and harness and getting hands-on.

“I’m happy to take all the credit when they’re well-behaved but if they do something naughty, then I say it’s nothing to do with me!”

See www.dudleyzoo.org.uk for Winter Wonderland opening times and more information.

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