Reindeer research in the Nordic countries

Reindeer husbandry is, for the Sámi people, a symbol of their culture and heritage, and also an important part of their economy. However, the practice is under severe pressure from other land-use, predators and recently from climate change. Concerns are being raised that the grounds used for reindeer herding may be lost in the near future.

Read more:
Reindeer herding in Fennoscandia – same, same but different
Research on reindeer husbandry – international cooperation
Snapshots from Nordic reindeer research

 

Conditions for the reindeer herders differ somewhat between Finland, Sweden and Norway, but many conflicts and problems are comparable. It is therefore natural that researchers in the Fennoscandian countries cooperate to a large extent.

Research related to reindeer husbandry has been going on for several decades. Birgitta Åhman is Professor in reindeer husbandry at the Swedish University of Agricultural Research (SLU), and also president of the worldwide Arctic Ungulate Society. She points out three main challenges for the reindeer industry.

– First, there is the conflict between land use and land use rights, which is still far from being solved. The access to pasture land is a prerequisite for the survival of the reindeer culture. Second, loss to predators is a huge problem for the reindeer husbandry. Increasing populations of bear, wolverine, lynx, golden eagle and wolf lead to severely reduced incomes, which can only be partly recompensed by the government. Third, we have the consequences of climate change, which has made winter grazing a problem and also alters the whole ecosystem of the mountainous area. With more frequent ice barriers on lichen-rich grounds, reindeer cannot dig for the fodder, and herders are forced to give supplementary feed and even keep the reindeer in enclosures. This, in turn, creates new problems such as the spread of diseases, she says.

Birgitta Åhman, Professor in reindeer husbandry: “Loss to predators is a huge problem for reindeer husbandry”. Photo: Jens Frank.

– These challenges are the same across the whole area where reindeer herding is practiced, although the degree of each challenge may vary, she adds.

More about these challenges later, but first a short history.

Ancient culture

 

Reindeer naturally occur across the whole northern part of the globe, in Europe, Asia and North America. The animal was an important prey for early settlers soon after the glacial retreat, and evidence of hunted reindeer can be found in rock-carvings that are several thousands of years old in e.g. northern Norway. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in 98 AD about a group of people he called fenni, who hunted, dressed in animal skins and ate herbs. The first written evidence that reindeer were domesticated could have been when, in the 800s, the Norwegian farmer Ottar referred the Sámi and their managing of reindeer in herds to the English court, but there are theories that domestication started far earlier.

Reindeer herding developed in the 1500s-1700s to become the main business of the Sámi people. The herds are moved between summer and winter pastures, in some cases over large distances from the Scandian fells in the summer to the coast of Sweden in winter, or from the mountainous areas in Finnmark in winter to the Norwegian coast in summer. Some reindeer herding communities are more stationary, keeping the herds in the forested landscape.

Closed borders…

Historically, reindeer herders moved without restrictions over the Sápmi region. The situation changed when the border between Sweden and Norway/Denmark was settled in 1751. The Lapp Codicil formalised the rights of the Sámi to continue to move reindeer across the border, but the rights have changed over time and are now regulated in reindeer grazing conventions. The border between Norway and Russia was closed in 1826, and between Finland and Norway by the Finnish-Russian authorities in 1852. These closures were a severe setback for reindeer herders who historically had partly used coastal Norway for their summer pasture. The border between Sweden and Finland was closed in 1889.

…and increased intrusion

Ever since settlers began to colonise the Sápmi area, the reindeer culture has been under pressure from others who claim access to the land. The obstacles are much the same in the Fennoscandian countries: dam building for hydropower, windmills, roads, mining and tourism. In Sweden and Finland, reindeer herders share the same area as is used by forestry. In Norway hut-building areas reduce the pasture land. All these activities together represent a threat to the future of reindeer husbandry. On top of that, there is racism among the non-Sámi population, with harassment of the reindeer herders and even illegal killing of reindeer.

The gradually reduced pasture area, and particularly the reduced access to lichen-rich forests, has great impacts on the reindeer industry. While the number of reindeer remains quite stable in the region, the conditions for the herds and their opportunities to migrate, rest and feed are becoming increasingly scarce. Reduced fodder forces the reindeer owners to provide supplementary feeding, and in Finland also to keep the reindeer in enclosures. More reindeer in small areas increases the risk of diseases spreading and also causes problems with over-grazing.

Predators

Since the reindeer move freely most of the time with limited supervision, they are subject to predators, a problem in all of the countries. According to reindeerherding.org, predators are responsible for 80% of reindeer losses in Norway. Sametinget.se reports that 20,000-70,000 reindeer are killed every year in Sweden. Lynx and wolverine are responsible for the largest losses. In Finland, wolves and other predators are more common closer to the Russian border, but wolverine is the main predator on reindeer.

Climate change

A threat which has increased in recent decades is global warming, with particularly accelerating temperatures in the Arctic. Warmer winters with frequent thaw and ice periods can make the snow so densely packed that the reindeer cannot dig for ground lichens. On the other hand, longer snow-free periods could be beneficial. However, climate change is considered a severe threat to the reindeer, and long-held knowledge of where to feed and rest is no longer reliable.

Conflicts with forestry

Site preparation can reduce much of the lichens on the ground. Photo: Mats Hannerz

Forestry is, besides reindeer husbandry, the spatially most extensive activity in Sápmi. Harvesting old stands and site-preparation of the soil have severe negative impacts on access to lichen fodder, particularly during the bottleneck period in the winter. A lot of research has been conducted on the effects of forestry and processes to mitigate the conflicts. Currently, great effort is being made to find constructive solutions through dialogues between reindeer husbandry and forestry communities, but it is still a fact that the former extensive old forests are rapidly being replaced with younger and denser forests, with fewer lichens and with more disturbance of the original feeding places and migration routes.