Slipping the reins

I have recently become rather concerned over what appears to be a new pre-Christmas trend. The exhibiting of real reindeer at fetes, events and in town centres locally seems to be increasingly fashionable. In an age when animal circuses are dying out and face fierce opposition, it seems a bit reductive that we’re now making exhibits of large cervines in order to attract the public. I realise fully that the activity complies with all the relevant regulation set out by DEFRA and the like, and there’s no question of animal cruelty, but all the same, this strikes me as being unnecessary and somewhat unfortunate.

I first spotted this last year, but last week fellow blogger and twitter user Linda Mason observed some deer on show in Lichfield.

From the twitter stream of Linda Mason, Saturday 28th November 2011.

Deer are cloven-footed beasts, with feet better suited to turf, grassland and soft soil. It disturbs me to see these majestic beasts, caged in small pens, surrounded by people and stood on paved surfaces with no apparent refuge. Yesterday, there were another two deer appearing at Walsall as part of the Christmas Festivities promoted by Walsall Town Centre Management Team. A picture, proudly posted by the team, appeared on their Facebook page.

I don't feel at all comfortable with this. Picture from the Walsall Town Facebook page.

I really don’t think this is the kind of thing that council-funded bodies should be doing. Whilst I understand that this is all legal and above board, it leaves me feeling very, very uncomfortable, and I don’t really see the benefit, except for the fact that the owner of the animals has reputedly been paid around a thousand pounds for the appearance.

There is something a bit darker here, too, that has caused me a deal of concern. When the pictures of this went up on Facebook and Twitter yesterday morning, posted by a proud team, users reacted with some dismay, like I did. We posted comments – polite, considered, eloquent – on the posts themselves. For some reason, the people behind the Walsall Town Centre page chose to delete many of them. This is utterly against the spirit of free debate, and that generally exhibited by social media channels in use by Walsall Council, who normally accept intelligent, polite opposition as part of the medium.

A screenshot of one of the posts with critical comments deleted. You can see that 'Jon' replies to me, but my comment has gone. Several other contributions were also removed.

Fortunately, I shared the picture to my own profile, and a comment thread also developed there, which can’t be tampered with. Since commenting – and in response to my protests at the deletions – Walsall Town Centre has invited me and several other posters ‘to meet them for coffee to discuss this’ – a blatant attempt to take debate from public view. I have said this before, and will say it again – I will not have my opinion farmed. Anything that’s fit to say to me on this subject is fit to say in public. The other folk who were concerned deserve an open, public response. I don not engage in shady meetings in order to be buttered up.

This behaviour is clearly an aberration, as Walsall Council’s social media presence is normally open and accepting of criticism, and I have nothing but praise for the engaged, receptive attitude towards new media. I think perhaps some folk need a bit more guidance in the field.

If you want your children to see deer, the best way to do it is to visit Chasewater or Cannock Chase, where the careful explorer can find red, fallow and muntjac deer (the latter if you’re very lucky) in their natural environment. The deer in some parts of the Chase are now so familiar with humans that they come to be fed. I guarantee that seeing the majesty of such beasts – and fallow dear are far more akin to the Christmas image of dear than real reindeer – in their normal environs will be a magical experience that you will remember for the rest of your lives. Wouldn’t you rather do that than seeing a cooped, sad animal in the confines of a steel cage in a crowd burdened urban shopping centre?

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24 Responses to Slipping the reins

  1. I echo your comments totally!

  2. ianrobo says:

    seen the debate earlier bob and support your stance 100%

  3. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    here, here. It will be Great Pandas next..you’ll see!

    cheers
    David

  4. Andy Dennis says:

    Hear! Hear!

    Deer are often to be seen on Brownhills Common, if you are quiet.

    If it’s really reindeer you’re after, why not visit Scotland, where they roam wild? There is even a Cairngorm Reindeer Centre where they find them for you.

  5. goodcuppa says:

    Gosh they have very little space to move. Where I live, we have a garden centre that has reindeer, but before you get on your boxes, It is part of a sanctuary for them to come too, The owl centre it run along side it. All the injured babes go there to get better. I have the owls in my back garden.They live in a small wood attached to the big house in the other lane. It has got a protection order on the wood because of the owls.
    So Bob If you want to bring your bike up for a few days, you are welcome. It should be easy, IT’S FLAT HERE.
    I have found the the council sites delete posts too. I posted on the Belfast council web page, and so did hundreds more, (that is not an exaggeration either), and most post were deleted. Shame on Belfast council for making people so angry they felt the needed to comment on a decision they made and they know they were and still are in the wrong. and they deleted most. I and others will still post on their page at the outrageous decision they came to. .POWER TO THE PEOPLE. Went off on one then.

  6. martin says:

    I think you’re making a lot of fuss about not very much…

    All they’re doing is standing about in a town centre for a bit, they’re not pulling sleighs or anything like that.
    I doubt their little hooves are going to come to any grief in that short time, and as you point out, there are regulations to prevent harm coming to them anyway.
    You can’t compare them with circus animals either, they’re not performing stupid, unnatural tricks and continually travelling the length and breadth of the country.

    I think you ought to support the traders and the council a bit more here – they’re trying to bring people into the town centre to use the shops and facilities. That won’t happen if they stroll out on Chasewater, will it?

    I think the most you can accuse the council of here is lack of taste, but in the home of Pat Collins, what can you expect?
    Save your bile and ire for something really important

    • Your assertions here are a little odd.

      The deer are clearly a travelling event – they didn’t just do Walsall. Therefore they’re hawked around, and I imagine, doing this in many places during the Christmas season. So I’d say they are travelling and standing in such conditions quite a lot. I don’t think we should be encouraging that.

      Your contention about getting people into the town centre is a bit daft – I very much doubt a single person came to see those deer. They were just an adjunct to a bigger event. Their presence, or not, would not have made one iota of difference to that day’s trade. There are plenty of other attractions that could be employed instead for a grand.

      As to encouraging people to go to Chasewater, the two are not mutually exclusive, are they? That’s one of the daftest things I’ve ever seen you write. Heaven forbid our kids should temper their slavery to Mammon with a bit of wildlife awareness.

      My point still stands – this is unnecessary and ill-jedged. I doubt it serves any practical use except for channeling funds to the reindeer wranglers.

      Bob

  7. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    I gave my view after seeing two fully grown male reindeer encased in an enclosure too small for them in Lichfield last Saturday. They have nothing to do with my kind of Christmas . On Monday I again went to Lichfield, this time to say thankyou to the Mercian Soldiers, to applaud them and their relatives. The whole town stood and applauded. No bile or ire, but my deep sadness that some seem to have everything to learn about the true nature of Christmas, shoppers and shopkeepers alike, perhaps
    Bob, I endorse your view.
    cheers
    David

    • martin says:

      I still think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

      Reindeer are very tough animals, they wouldn’t survive being herded by Lapps in the Arctic circle if they were wimpy, over-bred domestic beasts, so moving them fairly carefully, from what I saw, is not really something to get your knickers in a twist about.
      Circus animals are an entirely different matter, they are ‘trained’ to perform tricks to amuse us and apparently frequently mistreated as part of the training; to add insult to injury, they are carted about for long seasons and don’t get to return to open pasture after each engagement. The reindeer, from what I gather, are rounded up, transported, exhibited and returned to their field.

      As for getting people to the town centre, at this time of year, it’s all about getting people to visit the struggling shopping centres (not shopping malls) so anything to encourage visitors has got to be worth a try. I thought the town was actually quite busy, probably busier than it has been for a while so I think a number of people probably did turn up to look at the reindeer, or if they didn’t make a special journey perhaps they stayed a little longer and spent a couple of quid more than they would have done.

      I know the fuckwit quotient at the council is fairly high but credit where credit is due: this is one of those rare cases where they’re actually doing something almost good.
      You airing your personal opinion on the welfare of a cloven-footed beastie simply detracts from the wider debate about breathing new life into our town centres and makes already nervous officals even more twitchy.

      Other than that, power to your elbow!

      • Martin,

        People turned up for the Christmas event. They’d have been there for the that, deer or not. There was no need for it, and by the cacophony of support (ie. you, on your todd), I’d say that me, and the others like me who found this display regrettable and retrograde had a point.

        Thank you for allowing me my own opinion on my own blog, your generosity is touching.

        The idea you keep promulgating – that Walsall Town Centre’s fate is irrevocably tied to two sad, caged reindeer is ludicrous. Perhaps if the town centre team spent less time inventing pointless logos and engaging in stunts like this, then they might focus n the real issues that are damaging town centre trade – chaotic traffic, expensive parking, sky high rents and town planning straight from Satan’s drawing board. The idea that I’m not behind the traders because I don’t like to see caged animals exhibited like curios is, frankly, daft.

        You clearly seem to be labouring under a misconception about dairy farming, too. By far the majority of the national productive herd are grass fed animals with room to wander. Even barn reared cattle have space to associate and move. Unhappy cattle do not produce milk. Interesting to note that the first US-style intensive dairy farm in the UK (Lincoln or Norfolk if I recall correctly) – which still allows a degree of free movement, and nothing like the reindeer cage – has met with massive opposition, much of it from within the NFU.

        Bob

        • martin says:

          Bob,
          I generally enjoy your blog but I’ve noticed that you really don’t like people disageeing with you.

          Don’t go getting all uber-knowledgable about dairy cattle; I’ve helped out at milking time more often than I care to think about and I know exactly how it works, I wouldn’t presume to draw the comparison otherwise.

          Most dairy cows do indeed stroll about and ‘associate’, as you put it,
          but at milking time they are all squeezed into a stall and forcibly restrained until their udders are sucked dry by a machine; they are turned back out to pasture and the process is repeated 8 or 10 hours later, and again, and again, day in, day out throughout their productive lives (probably 4 or 5 years) when they are sold for their meat, often because they’ve contracted mastitis from continuous milking.

          The ‘sad, caged reindeer’ stand in an enclosure for a day or so now and again and their welfare is far more carefully regulated than that of the ‘national productive herd’ because they have a higher profile; the national herd is now part of the backdrop that we don’t notice or know much about.

          Back to the original point: the town centre team tried to do something that wasn’t anywhere near as bad as you tried to make out and you’re getting arsey with me for calling you on it.

          And I wasn’t being generous at all, I was applauding your efforts

          • Martin,

            I love it when people disagree ith me. That’s why I write the blog, to debate and share opinion. That I don’t agree with yours and challenge it is just part of the debating process. If you choose to comment here, expect to have your assertions challenged – you know how this works. You’re a long time commentor on many local blogs and I’m surprised, frankly, that you don’t write one of your own. That either of us should say something doesn’t mean anyone should acquiesce. This is about difference, not conformity.

            Your comment is welcome then, but your tone and use of terms like ‘grandstanding’, combined with your somewhat maverick opinion lay you open to treatment in kind. I saw the reaction to this in several places, thought about it carefully and my opinion hasn’t wavered. The spectacle of the deer was unnecessary and few seemed to find it enjoyable. I hope the town centre team have learned from this and find better stuff to spend a grand on next year – after all, lots of other attractions could be employed. I still can’t see anyone saying ‘well, I’d shop in Walsall but there’s live deer in a cage in Lichfield’ – they will go where the best parking deal is, where the environment is most pleasant, and where they feel welcome. Walsall is failing on most of those fronts, so the idiocy with the animals seems akin to arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I love Walsall, and support it, but they gave to start getting stuff right. Sticking on corn plasters won’t help. I’ve watched my town carried to dust and now Walsall is going the same way. This whole thing just showed up a lack of civic imagination.

            The dairy question is just a non-sequitur. You either accept dairy farming or you don’t; we can abandon it tomorrow, but the rise of the Fresian Holstein has been unstoppable for better or worse, and millions would be malnourished without it. I don’t accept that milking is cruel, and I find dead animals as tasty as the next man. Standards can be improved, but that’s not the point here. We’re talking about the pointless presentation of cervines for entertainment rather than food, by a council, as a gimmick.

            In the context of the rest of your commentary, the line about what I did being decent came over as patronising; my apologies if that was not the case, but your tone appeared somewhat unfortunate.

            I’m happy to debate anything, but be prepared to roll with it. I don’t bow to anyone’s percieved authority, and neither should anyone else.

            Best wishes

            Bob

  8. goodcuppa says:

    Martin, it is the fact the space they were in is to small for them. A photograph does not really justify the size of these animals. what ever they are standing on.

    • martin says:

      ever seen the space in which a dairy cow sepnds a lot of its time?
      twice or three times a day, they’re squeezed into a space thay can barely breathe in and we don’t bat an eyelid.
      I think you’re being a bit precious about a well-intentiond (albeit slighly naff) attempt to give the town a bit of atmosphere

  9. Dan Slee says:

    Golly. So much to comment on. Where do I start? I’m wearing my hat as Walsall Council press officer for this. I’ve had a chat to Jon. He’s a hardworking chap and definitely one of the good guys.

    Firstly, the issue of whether or not reindeer should be brought to town centres. It’s a reasonable debate to have. To re-iterate the points in your blog this met all the animal welfare requirements and as you point out, Walsall isn’t alone in bringing in reindeer for events.

    Our animal welfare officer made background checks on the company who are DEFRA-registered and the right paperwork for movement between sites was completed. The event was sanctioned by the borough Safety Advisory Group which has the ability not to give permission..

    It’s worth stating that the company who we worked with had comprehensive plans in place in case the animal became distressed and had a vet on call in case of any problems. Their trained staff work with the animals around the year and know the animals well. The advice from the company is that they very much need to be penned for the public’s safety as well as their own. Those big antlers can give you a bit of a clout if they catch you awkwardly and it makes sense with sometimes excitable children around.

    The town centre team arranged this after talking to the business community in the town which meets regularly under the Walsall Town Centre Champions umbrella. There are representatives from small and large traders. Certainly, the feedback on the day from shoppers was overwhelmingly positive. Chatting to Jon, there were dozens of feedback forms completed from people who attended the Santa and reindeer event and none were negative. Feedback from traders was that they thought the event helped bring people into the town.

    One of the feelings for this event was that it was a chance to see animals like the rabbits and goats – not just reindeer – close up.

    That said, we wouldn’t be deaf to comments and complaints. If people are not happy then by all means raise this here. One other route is through the council’s complaints process. You can find more information here: http://cms.walsall.gov.uk/complaints_compliments and you can also talk to your ward councillor (you can find the link here: http://cms.walsall.gov.uk/index/council_and_democracy/find_your_councillor.htm)

    We’ve actually got a pretty good record as a council in trying to listen to online criticism via Facebook, blogs and Twitter and I’d defend us to the hilt on that. I think Jon accepts with some hindsight that maybe leaving negative comments up would have been the best thing to do. But these are new channels. Who was it I read recently who said ‘local government must use and experiment and not be shot the first time they put a foot wrong?’ Everyone must live and learn new web 2.0 skills whether they work in the public sector or not. That includes me.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t remotely agree that Jon offering to have a chat about this over a cup of coffee with you – or anyone – is somehow a ‘shady meeting.’ That’s a bit daft. You do yourself a disservice saying that. It’s actually an olive branch to talk and listen. Coffee or a cup of tea is after all the original social media and a talk through of the issues can often bring common ground.

    Best regards,

    Dan

    • Hi Dan

      Compliments of the season, and thanks for your considered response.

      The deer weren’t necessary and I doubt anyone came to Walsall to see them. You and I know that they complied with the law, but it wasn’t an edifying sight and they didn’t look happy or comfortable. I’d have thought a council with the excellent record the Walsall has with Environmental Health and Animal Welfare would not be dabbling in such tasteless sideshows. Hopefully, you won’t again.

      Your town centre team are doing a good job generally, but as with the logo, they seem to have judgment issues occasionally. I’m sure they’re all very hard working, stroke passing cats and love their mums. This was still a poor decision, as groups often make, and they should learn from it. Deleting stuff they didn’t like – whatever the guff about new media – was never going to end well. That’s outside your own policy and any measure of common sense.

      The Council’s record with social media is excellent on the whole, which is why this was such an aberration.When required, I’ve stepped forward and defended your mostly excellent engagement. When there’s been silliness, I’ve pointed that up, too. I’d tenure decent training sorts that kind of thing out, however new the medium.

      Lastly, you may not agree, but there seems to be a common tactic afoot – I think it must be in the LocalGov little red book of dealing with obstreperous punters – that a an invitation to tea can smooth everything over, at least until the fuss dies down. I’ve seen this applied by so many officers from so many organisations now that there really should be a name for it – perhaps I’ll call it the Earl Grey Pacifier. It’s very generous and I’m sure the tea is lovely, but there is a wider point here.

      I’m using social media to raise and talk about a complaint that was raised by a number of folk publicly. Were I to go and deal with it in secret, that would indeed be shady. Transparency suggests that this approach of getting public comment – where there’s a written record for all to see, search and comment on – is far better. There’s nothing at all that can be said on this matter that cannot be said in public. And it saves putting a gallon of Tetley on Expenses.

      I just hope that Walsall Council think hard next time before employing the services of such displays. Like most people, I find the sight of what is a majestic, powerful beast trapped in a tiny cage more than a little sad. I think there are better images of Christmas to engender.

      Best wishes

      Bob

      • Dan Slee says:

        Thanks for your considered response and the kind words, Bob.

        I’m quietly proud of the work we’ve done in social media at Walsall. But more proud of the people who have siezed the baton and done amazing things. Like Morgan Bowers the countryside ranger.

        I’m tempted to say ‘Aww, I’m rumbled. You’ve nailed the Sinister Tea Wheeze’ but the truth is there is no LocalGov little red book. The fact that there isn’t makes my job challenging / interesting. I’m genuinely fascinated by how the public sector can look at new media to communicate in both directions to improve understanding on both sides.

        The excellent Birmingham blogger Nicky Getgood kick started a 101 ways to communicate with your council list a short while back.

        Writing a blog, Facebook update or having a cup of tea were all listed – and valid – but at the end of the day her aim was to get the council to start a conversation to listen better. That’s a good aim.

        If the key to it is trying to listen better and if that’s over a cup of tea then all to the good. But it shouldn’t be the only way.

        Anyway, I’ve been telling people for months you’re actually an automated traffic generating Google bot that doesn’t exist : 0)

        Best,

        Dan

  10. Dan,

    At last someone from the Council who is able to articulate themselves well and has a balanced view! I contributed to the debate over the weekend about the reindeer (I am not at all in favour), but whoever was taking care of the Walsall Town Centre FB page did make matters worse by deleting comments – this surely should not happen, unless the comments are abusive.

    So, I have 2 recommendations for you and your colleagues, firstly, please consider the negative reactions about the reindeer before you book them in future and secondly, please make a decision within the social media teams as to the policy regarding deleting of posts and let your contributors know what this is so that we are aware in future which comments can and cannot be made!

    Best wishes,
    Angela

    • Dan Slee says:

      Thanks, Angela.

      Firstly, think I’m right in saying that all views get taken into account by the town centre team when they look at assessing how well things worked. They do assessment forms on the day too.

      Your second point is a good point. We do try to encourage keeping negative comments on Facebook and not blocking non-spammers. From my perspective, I’m keen to encourage people within the council to engage and listen where we can.

      Jon is definitely one of the good guys. He was RTing police messages during the summer disorder that – thankfully- didn’t spread to Walsall. Doing that has helped shape our approach to future police incidents.

      There isn’t anyone inside or outside local government who has social media utterly nailed. (Me included).

      Every day, as they say, is a school day…

      Dan

  11. Ian says:

    Take an olive branch when offered, Bob. No need to grandstand yourself over it. You are a voice of Brownhills folk whether you wish to be or not, however honourable your stated intent is; it’s always wise to talk, and why not over a cuppa?

    • Heh.

      I’m not grandstanding. Had I agreed to meet, I’d guarantee that the above response would never have been made publicly – neither here, nor on Facebook, and that’s what it’s about. Dan has his job to do, and it’s about smoothing things over. From a PR point of view, it’s always better to take stuff out of the public domain. I don’t think that’s fair on the others who complained who deserved an explanation from the council, not me.

      This isn’t about olive branches or voices of Browhills. It’s about a public body appreciating objections. I remain respectful of what they do, and they probably do so to my work.

      I’ve been doing this for some time now, and I understand how these things flow.

      Best wishes

      Bob

  12. Ian says:

    You could agree to discuss it over a cuppa PROVIDED you were allowed to post details on here, perhaps? I see your point though and hadn’t appreciated it from that angle.

  13. Caz says:

    hi Bob, i agree entirely with you on this issue. These beautiful creatures do not belong in a cage in the middle of a town centre. Far from encouraging me to visit Walsall, it makes me feel ashamed that our council would allow this to happen.
    Martin,if you think it’s a fuss about nothing, just standing around in a cage in the town centre, perhaps you should don a reindeer suit and do it yourself……now i would travel to Walsall to see that, lol.
    There are plenty of ways to encourage people to shop in Walsall, exploiting animals, isn’t one of them.

  14. Ian says:

    Poor blighters were back in Lichfield yesterday, before being shunted into a trailer and taken back.

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