Justin Hopwood is the Manager of Pets’ Corner, the farm that has been at the centre of our Town Park for over 50 years.

What is Christmas without reindeer, Santa without Rudolph? But I wonder how many of you have actually seen a reindeer. Not many children have, so getting the chance to meet one can really add something special to their Christmas.

At Pets’ Corner we take our reindeer to visit local primary schools, nurseries and care homes to bring a bit of Christmas magic. We also like to support different charities each year with a reindeer visit – this year we are supporting PACT for Autism.

We work with Jimmy Docherty, who you might know from Jimmy’s Farm and on TV alongside celebrity chef Jamie Oliver , to breed our reindeer. We actually help set up Jimmy’s Farm back in 2002, supporting him as he tried to revive the “Essex pig” breed. Our efforts with the breed were unsuccessful, but the farm has become a huge success, developing into a Wildlife Park, and we now share practices in animal keeping.

We are also fortunate to receive training from London Zoo. Not many people are aware, but as we have many exotic animals at Pets’ Corner, we actually need a zoo licence to keep them and this means we have to meet the same standards as any big zoo.

Recently four of us attended London Zoo on a two day workshop learning about target training the animals, enrichment, restraining and handling techniques as well as how domestic species are just as important as non-domestic in a zoo.

Our domestic species, such as our pigs, as actually some of our most popular animals, with ‘Mr Darcy’ being one of the best examples. Mr Darcy – sadly no longer with us – was a micro pig bought by James Argent (‘Arg’) for Lydia Bright in the reality TV programme TOWIE. When Mr Darcy grew too big for Lydia, she donated him to Pets’ Corner and he even featured in a few episodes. He had quite a following, so we had many young visitors coming in search of him – in fact we still do.

Pets Corner horse Boo Boo

We are looking to build on the popularity of our animals and are launching our new branding, which brings some of our animals to life. One of our other lines of work is trying to make Pets’ Corner a key part of our local community and we have recently been working with dementia training providers to try and make Pets’ Corner as dementia friendly as possible.

As part of this work, we have started to take the reindeer into care homes to meet residents who cannot leave the home. Watching people’s faces light up as they get a special visit from our reindeer ‘Sparkle’ is lovely to see.

We are also launching our first Carer’s Carer event, which recognises the commitment of carers and giving something back to those who give up so much of their time for others – something we feel is important, particularly at this time of year. The carers get to experience Pets’ Corner all to themselves, as well as choirs singing carols, Santa and plenty of mince pies!

It wouldn’t be possible to offer these kinds of events without our volunteers. We have around 37 volunteers, who work anything from 2 hours a week to 3 days, and are aged 14 to 82.

They help keep Pets’ Corner open across the Christmas period – we only close on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Although we close to the public on Christmas Day, we allow our volunteers to come in if they would like to. Some of our volunteers live on their own, so the chance to come in, muck out and be with familiar faces gives them a lift and feeling of celebration, rather than sitting at home on their own.

Currently our volunteers are working with the Friends of Harlow Pets’ Corner and Phoenix Theatre School to prepare our annual nativity play, which takes place this weekend on the 14 December at 5pm.

This involves local children working and acting with the different animals in Pets’ Corner which always makes an interesting watch –‘never work with animals and children’ I believe is the saying…..but it’s good fun and really kick starts our Christmas.

Check the Pets’ Corner Facebook page for further details and dates for when Father Christmas will be visiting Pets’ Corner in his grotto.

Merry Christmas from all the animals, staff and volunteers at Pets’ Corner!