ARE THEY donkeys with antlers? Do they fly? Just a couple of the banal questions from comedy-challenged adults regularly fielded by Richard and Becky Burniston whilst taking some of their Riggmoor Reindeer herd to towns such as Carlisle, Huddersfield and Hornsea in the run up to Christmas each year.
The couple, based near Ripon, now have one of the largest reindeer herds in the north of England having started with them just five years ago when Richard purchased four from a breeder-come-importer in Derby.
With their seven-week season from early November onwards taking them all around the country, typically to 120-plus events by Christmas Eve, they now have a herd of 50 and a team of 20 people.
“It’s crazy but we love it. There are days when we can have as many as eight teams out at once but we always make sure that we swap which reindeer are taken out each day, as they never go out two days in succession. They’re docile and friendly animals but they can be bored just like the rest of us would be if we had people just staring at us all day, so we give them time off.”
Their initial idea of keeping reindeer was borne out of Becky wanting to do something different from the pet shop in Boroughbridge that they once ran, but Richard now dreams of running an even larger herd.
“If I get my dream I’ll buy my own land and have a herd of a couple of hundred but I also love what I do at the moment. I’ve worked for JC Lister Farms for 27 years and look after 600 head of beef cattle with a couple of lads working with me and I couldn’t ask for a better boss than David Lister.”
The variety of taking the reindeer to all sorts of places and all manner of events is also something that Richard and Becky enjoy, and no more so than one that they attend every year on Christmas Eve.
“The very last Christmas job with the reindeer is also the best one of the year. It’s up at Center Parcs near Penrith and Santa disappears over the hill with his sleigh being pulled by a team of reindeer.”
Richard found himself taking a keen in interest in reindeer very quickly from having bought his first couple.
“I went down to Derby to buy just two, but came back with four as I fell in love with them. Before Christmas that year I went down to Kent and bought another two. At that point we started with a few little jobs for schools and Christmas Lights turn-ons, but then Becky started calling people saying we had reindeer and would they be interested in having some at their event and it has just snowballed from there.
“We’ve also been really well supported by Becky’s best friend Charlotte who has been with us since we started with them and is constantly going out in one direction with a team while Becky and I are heading off in two other directions.”
Making sure of the right stock is now paramount in Richard’s mind when adding to his existing herd and two years ago he made his first visit to Gothenburg, Sweden where he purchased a consignment. Earlier this year he added another 28. The visits have made him more aware of the background associated with their homeland.
“It’s an eight hour drive from within the Arctic Circle so they are rested overnight in an area about a mile out of Gothenburg. The biggest difference when they are over here is that because there are times when they can’t get to the food when up in the Arctic they are used to shutting their bodies down for Christmas. That’s something we have to be aware of and replicate in some way so we now import wagon loads of moss from Sweden, which is what they will eat just after Christmas.”
Richard and Becky know that without one essential part of their reindeer they wouldn’t have the aspiring business they have now.
“Antlers are more important to us than anything. What good is a reindeer in a pen without antlers? That’s why we watch them very closely. Every year they cast their current set and grow a new set that is covered with a soft furry skin that is called velvet. It is the velvet that provides the blood supply to the growing antler.
“While the antlers are growing they are quite brittle and can break easily. They are usually cast just after Christmas and the new set starts growing again in April. By August they are back to being fully grown and are set but until that time there’s always a danger of breakage.
“We have 15 cows in the herd presently and one stag, all the rest are castrates and because of being castrates they never go into ‘the rutt’ (mating season) so they keep their velvet and people enjoying touching their antlers because of this.
“The cows are in-calf now and have a seven-month term that will see them calve in April/May. Getting 50 per cent of the cows in-calf each year is about the norm.”
Reindeer meat is sold widely in Scandinavia but Richard has absolutely no intention of ever going down that track.
“We keep everything. Nothing ever goes for meat or ever will. All our reindeer have names and if anything is named here then it stops here for the rest of its life. We pride ourselves on that.
“Our six-year-old son Angus can tell you what each one is called; and I’d now rather be out with him and my reindeer than down at the pub.”