Tilly Smith’s Reindeer: An Arctic Life, which has been recently reissued in a lovely hardback edition, was a book which I wanted to incorporate into my winter reading. Thankfully, I found a copy whilst browsing in the library, and settled down with it on a chilly Sunday afternoon. The book was first released in 2006, and was originally entitled The Real Rudolph.
I love books about animals and the natural world, but have never read anything specifically about reindeer before. The blurb describes Smith’s memoir of sorts as follows: ‘In this enchanting book, self-confessed “reindeer geek” Tilly Smith leads the reader through the extraordinary natural history of the reindeer with charming anecdotes about her own Scottish herd.’ Smith is the owner of Britain’s only ‘free-living’ herd of reindeer, which roam in the Cairngorms in Scotland, an area which provides ‘Britain’s only sub-arctic habitat’.
Reindeer have lived in the Cairngorms since 1952, as part of a move to reintroduce the species into Scotland. The country ‘offered a habitat very similar to their homeland [of] Lapland’, and as a result, the herd thrived. One of the really interesting elements of Reindeer: An Arctic Life is the information about the couple – Sami Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel John Lindgren – who were responsible for reintroducing the animals.
Reindeer: An Arctic Life has been split into 15 chapters, which feature details about Smith’s reindeer. It also, quite sweetly I felt, includes a reindeer family tree, with not a Rudolph in sight. In her first chapter, Smith writes of the adverse weather conditions about to hit the Cairngorms, complete with 100mph winds. She then comments: ‘In Alaska, one of the countries where caribou are naturally found, they say there are only two seasons, “snow” and “no snow”, and caribou thrive there. They are lowly Arctic animals, totally at home in the coldest places in the world.’ During the wintry storm, therefore, the reindeer are quite in their element. Reindeer, Smith tells us, ‘are amazing creatures; their coat is so well insulated that they can lie on the snow without melting it. Also, snow that lands on their backs doesn’t melt – it remains frozen and can itself add to the insulation…’.
Reindeer: An Arctic Life is peppered with lovely woodcut illustrations. Interesting facts about reindeer – called caribou in some countries – have been placed into small grey text boxes, and placed throughout. Whilst I did enjoy reading these, their random placement was a little off-putting, and it was a little difficult to concentrate on the main body of text in consequence. These facts could have easily been incorporated into the narrative, and did sometimes repeat details which had already been written about.
Smith’s writing is fine, but at no point did I feel blown away by it. She does include a lot of information and detail – different species of reindeer and their habitats, as well as the way in which the creatures have adapted over time; how different seasons affect the herds; how reindeers socialise with one another; and the human influence upon reindeer, from the destruction of vital habitats, to the close bonds which can be formed between human and reindeer – but I felt that there was a strange lack of emotion throughout. Some of the chapters end very abruptly too.
Whilst Reindeer: An Arctic Life is a nice enough wintry read, it lacks a little something – perhaps due to the overall detachment of Smith’s commentary. I would recommend it for anyone keen to learn more about reindeer and their reintroduction to the United Kingdom, but it is by no means the best written book which looks at a single species.