While we don’t have any reindeer down at Kentish Town City Farm, it’s the time of year to learn all about these wonderful animals!
Reindeer, or rangifer tarandus, are a species of deer found in the Arctic Tundra, and adjacent boreal forest nations of Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, and Canada. They have been domesticated mainly in Europe, particularly in the north of Finland, in the Lapland region. There are two types of reindeer, tundra reindeer and forest reindeer.
Tundra reindeer are much more numerous, migrating in huge herds of up to half a million in an annual cycle between tundra and forest areas. Male reindeer can be more than four feet tall at the shoulder, and weigh more than 550 pounds. Females are a little bit smaller. They have cloven hoofs, like cows, so their feet are able to spread out on soft ground and snow without sinking or hurting themselves. Reindeer’s fur shifts colour through the year, from brown in the summer to white in the winter. Male reindeer can grow antlers of up to 1.4 metres long, with up to 44 points. They are also the only deer species where females are able to grow antlers! Males lose their antlers after their October rut, when after four years of age they fight each other for a mate. Female reindeer keep their antlers all winter, allowing them to defend their food sources. Antlers grow back annually, and get bigger every year.
Reindeer are the only deer species to have hair that completely covers their noses! This helps to warm cold winter air before it enters their lungs, and also heightens their sense of smell. This helps when hunting for food under the snow. Reindeer like to travel into the wind, to help them pick up all the scents around them. In the summer, reindeer eat grass, sedges, green leaves on shrubs, new larch, willow, and birch growths, and mushrooms. In winter, reindeer actually slow down their metabolisms and rely on lichens called reindeer moss, which are high in carbohydrates and sustain them through the snowy months. Reindeer moss is found by digging down through the snow. Domesticated reindeer also enjoy vegetable snacks!
Reindeer are extremely important animals to traditional herding communities, such as the Sami of Scandinavia and Russia, where they are kept as pack and draft animals, and also used as sources of meat, milk and hides. Antlers are often carved into tools and totems.
There is a third very rare subspecies of reindeer, rangifer tarandus magicus, who are found only in a very small group living in isolation at the North Pole. It is not known how old these reindeer are, as their number rarely changes, and no fawns have ever been seen. Until 1949, there were eight confirmed members of this group, until a ninth appeared in September of that year. It is not known where this ninth deer came from; the small herd are all females, as evidenced by their keeping their antlers until past Christmas, and no known male rangifer trandus magicus are known to exist. This ninth reindeer is often celebrated in literature and music due to its well documented genetic abnormality of a red, bioluminescent nose.
While scientists have attempted to study this mysterious subspecies, they are always chased away by the reindeer’s protectors, a little-known Norse tribe called huldufólk, or ‘hidden folk’. The huldufólk live without electricity as they are so far from the electric grid, but appear to have harnessed power from the aurora borealis. They live with the reindeer group in warm, spacious wooden buildings, ensuring they are extremely well-cared for. The huldufólk appear to be led by an equally mysterious man, known only as Sinterklaas.
While the huldufólk never leave their village, Sinterklaas leaves once a year, accompanied by the reindeer, and is rumoured to leave gifts made by the huldufólk for small children under trees and in shoes. Sinterklaas and the reindeer are in turn thanked for their generosity, and given gifts of milk, cookies, and carrots, before returning to their mysterious home at the North Pole.
A visit to our farm is always exciting! Walking through our gates, you’re immediately in a whole different world of exciting sounds and sights. And the very first sight for most of our visitors, are our geese! The cheeky duo, Greta and Cynthia, have been at the farm for about twelve years, since they were goslings. They are so full of personality, and are always up to something! Like naughty children trying to sneak sweeties, they are always trying to break into the farm office where we keep all our donated fruit and veg for a sneaky treat!
Geese are one of the earliest domesticated animals in the world. There is archaeological evidence for humans keeping geese for over 4000 years. This would be when the Bronze Age came to Britain, or around the time of the Sphynx in Egypt being built! It is possible that geese were domesticated even earlier, up to 11,000 years ago during the Neolithic period, but the practice was popularised in Egypt 3000 years ago.
Domestic geese have been bred to be much larger than their wild cousins, up to about 22 pounds, rather than the 7-9 pounds that wild geese tend to be. This is due to humans selectively breeding larger geese for meat, eggs, and down – the filling for pillows, duvets, coats, and so on. The difference in body weight between domestic and wild geese has changed geese body shapes. Wild geese have a horizontal posture and are slim towards their backsides, whereas domestic geese have a fatty tail end, giving them a much more vertical posture. Although being heavier affects their ability to fly, most domestic geese are able to take flight. They need a lot of space to run far enough to get enough momentum, so most smallholder geese will instead happily waddle on the ground.
Like their wild cousins, domestic geese are highly protective, making them ideal working companions on smallholder and city farms. Geese will protect their immediate family, their flock, and any animals they see as part of their wider family, including lambs and people. Although this protectiveness can make them seem aggressive, geese are just looking after their family, and their loud honks at strange noises and danger will help keep animals and property safe from intruders! There was a sacred flock of geese in the temple of Juno in ancient Rome, said to have warned the Romans of an attack from enemies in 390BC. In modern times, geese acted as warning signals during the Vietnam War, guarding the South Vietnamese planes when they were parked up at night.
Geese are grazing birds; on your next visit to the farm take a moment to watch Greta and Cynthia have a delighted poke around the grass and foliage on the farm! Geese will naturally eat grasses, seeds, roots, and grains. They also love a tasty insect when they find them, and certain fruits and vegetables. Geese living around a pond will also stick their heads in the water to munch on aquatic plants. They prefer to be herbivorous, and won’t eat fish, so will happily live alongside fishy friends!
Wild geese are migratory birds, preferring to spend winter in warmer climates. Some wild Canada Geese have made permanent colonies in southern Canada and northern United States, although this is not the norm. Spotting a flock of migrating geese is usually a sign of the weather changing! Geese fly in a V formation – their big and powerful wings create air vortexes from their wingtips, allowing them to conserve energy in flight. This is really useful for their incredibly long migratory journeys, which are often thousands of miles long.
Domestic geese are descended from two ancestral species, the Greylag and the Swan Goose, which are still found in the wild everywhere. Four breeds from these species are native to the UK, the Brecon Buff, the Shetland, the Pilgrim, and the West of England. Our geese are Embden, who originated in north Germany. They have orange bills and legs, but have you noticed that they have amazing blue eyes?? Embden have all-white feathers, but if you’re lucky enough to spot a gosling, you might see a few grey feathers! These are typically found on the female geese, and will disappear as they grow.
Both parents take care of the nest. The hen will select a spot, usually in a slightly raised area on an open plain or grassland, in order to be able to easily spot predators. The nests are usually near water, and the hen does most of the nest creation, using plant material such as moss and grasses to create a wide, circular nest. Once the hen starts laying eggs, she adds feathers and down to help keep the eggs warm. Geese will lay 2-8 eggs in every clutch, and incubate for 25-28 days. Goslings will leave the nest within a day, and can swim straight away.
Geese are super smart, as evidenced by Greta and Cynthia not only figuring out where we keep our vegetables, but managing several successful heists when our backs are turned! This intelligence is one of the traits that make geese much loved as pets and smallholder animals.
At Kentish Town City Farm, although our animals are not pets but rather working animals, our geese will live out their lives in happiness and comfort. The oldest known wild goose was a Canada Goose, who reached 33 years of age, more than doubling the expected life span. Domestic geese can live for up to thirty years, so we fully expect Greta and Cynthia to be making mischief for a long time to come!
Book a free visit and see Greta and Cynthia soon.
Sheep are one of the most widely domesticated animals in the world, and are a staple of many city farms. Sheep are widely raised for milk, wool, and meat, although those at Kentish Town City Farm are, like many other sheep over the world, beloved members of our farm family and don’t work!
There are around one billion sheep in the world, and over 900 different breeds. The sheep at KTCF are Jacobs, a rare breed that is especially popular with small farm holdings and city farms. Our current flock have been Jacobs for a while now, and we love how popular Valentina and her family are with our visitors!
Jacobs are small sheep compared to other rare smallholder favourites like Oxfords and Whitefaced Woodlands, and have distinctive spotty fleeces. They have large, impressive horns; while generally they have four horns, some sheep have been known to have six! Both ewes and rams are horned, but the males tend to have larger, more impressive horns. Jacobs are heirloom breeds, meaning that they have survived through the centuries with very little human intervention or selective breeding. They exist as they have done for hundreds of years – the sheep you see today are almost the same as the ones Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth the First, and James the First would have seen!
While the origins of Jacob are not known, they have been bred in the British Isles for several hundred years. It is thought they get their name from a Bible story about Jacob who, while working as a shepherd until he could marry his beloved Rachel, became a breeder of spotty sheep. Jacobs have a starring role in one of the oldest love stories in the world! There is also a legend that Jacobs first came to Ireland from a Spanish shipwreck, which is an exciting start to their life! Indeed, Jacobs were referred to as ‘Spanish Sheep’ for much of their early history in the British Isles.
A 2009 genetic study investigating the history of sheep as domestic animals, found Jacobs to be more closely linked to sheep breeds from Africa and South-West Asia than any other British breed. All domestic sheep breeds can be traced back to the Middle East, however, which means our Jacobs’ ancestors had a very long journey before our flock ended up in Kentish Town!
Jacobs are a great sheep to have, and produce soft wool that is especially popular with handspinners (those who spin wool by hand, instead of machine). They are hardy, and naturally very resistant to parasites and hoof problems, which many sheep breeds can be affected by. Although they can be skittish around people, if handled properly and daily, they can become loving, affectionate pets! Like most sheep, Jacobs are very intelligent, can remember around 50 different sheep faces for many years at a time, know their own names, and recognize other species. They have an IQ close to that of pigs, who are often believed to be the most intelligent farm animals. They love the outdoors and don’t mind if it gets very cold or hot, and are excellent scavengers, meaning they can find something to munch on just about anywhere! Jacobs find lambing easy, and make great sheep mums! Like other sheep, Jacobs live in flocks, but don’t feel the need to stay bunched together – they are happy to shout at each other across a field!
At KTCF, our Jacobs are sheared yearly, and produce more wool than we can use. We love that our local community are able to use the wool for projects, some of which you can see around the farm! We use the wool in our gardens as a natural slug and snail repellent. Our slimy friends are unable to climb over the wool, and so we surround our seedlings to stop them being munched! We also line our hanging flower baskets with wool. The lanolin, a type of oil in the wool, is perfect to ensure that when our plants get watered, the wool holds moisture without the plants getting soggy roots. Wool used in this way is an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic sheeting! Our friends at the Spinners and Weavers Guild also use the wool for projects, including some amazing jumpers!
Lifespan: Jacobs live for ten to twelve years, and ewes can carry lambs for many years
Diet: Herbivorous – Jacobs eat grasses and vegetation, and are partial to the occasional apple or pepper as a treat!
Physicality: Sheep have four stomachs! This means that they chew and regurgitate food, moving it through their stomachs to thoroughly digest the vegetation they eat.
Conservation level: Jacobs are a band six on the rare breed scale, meaning they are threatened, but not in imminent danger – there are thought to be around six thousand Jacobs in the UK alone!
Wool: Unlike wild sheep, Jacobs are unable to shed their wool, and need to be sheared every year. If left alone, their wool will continue to grow and grow!
I see ewe! Sheep have rectangular pupils, which gives them amazing eyesight! Their field of vision is between 270 and 320 degrees – not far off total vision, which is 360 degrees. In contrast, humans can only see 155 degrees.
You can book a visit to see our Jacobs and find out plenty more interesting sheep facts. We are open seven days a week and entry is free.