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What is a reindeer?

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) belongs to the species Cervidae. The species is a natural part of Northern ecosystems and is resident in the northern parts of Europe, Asia and North America. The reindeer has several sub-species of which one of them is Caribou. Reindeer are also divided into mountain reindeer and forest reindeer. There are 7 different sub-species of Rangifer tarandus and some of them called reindeer and some caribou:

  • Rangifer tarandus tarandus – Eurasian tundra reindeer
  • R. t. platyrhynchus – Svalbard reindeer
  • R. t. fennicus – Eurasian forest reindeer
  • R. t. granti – Alaskan caribou
  • R. t. caribou – Woodland caribou
  • R. t.groenlandicus – Barren-ground caribou
  • R.t. pearyi – Peary caribou

Mountain reindeer migrate between summer and winter pastures while forest reindeer graze in the woodlands throughout the year.

What is reindeer herding?

Reindeer herding is when reindeer are herded by people in a limited area. Currrently, reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal which naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in 9 countries; Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. A small herd is also maintained in Scotland. There are about 30 reindeer herding peoples in the world and 3,4 million semi-domesticated reindeer. The intimate connection between humans and animals is perhaps best embodied by this relationship as reindeer husbandry represents a connection ancient in origin and practiced almost identically wherever it is found.

Climate and environment have always determined the conditions by which reindeer herding is practiced, and since the development of nation states, various regulatory bodies have evolved that determine many aspects of how reindeer herding is practiced. As a result, although the practice of reindeer husbandry has more similarities than differences, the management regimes they operate under are quite different. Reindeer herding has since time immemorial been of economic importance for reindeer herding peoples. Reindeer herding creates a lot of employment and reindeer meat is in great demand, most particularly in Scandinavia. However the importance of the livelihood goes beyond mere employment. Reindeer herding has also always been important both culturally and socially and is a vigorous and central part of many indigenous peoples’ cultures. Reindeer can be owned by both individuals and nation states. In Scandinavia for example only individuals can own reindeer whereas in Russia the state owns the majority of reindeer.

What is the difference between reindeer herding and reindeer husbandry?

The term ‘Reindeer herding’ is about how the work of reindeer herding is organized and how practical reindeer herding tasks are carried out. Reindeer husbandry concerns a wider aspect than reindeer herding as it includes both the practical work with reindeer but also the whole reindeer herding industry, biology, science, management, and even hunting and fishing in areas where they are a part of reindeer herding rights. In other words reindeer herding is an older concept and focuses only on the work with reindeer while reindeer husbandry focuses more on the transformation of reindeer herding into an economically, socially and biologically sustainable industry.

Who conducts reindeer herding?

Reindeer herding is conducted by individuals within some kind of cooperation, in forms such as as families, districts, Sámi villages and sovkhozy (collective farms). A person who conducts reindeer herding is called a reindeer herder and approximately 100,000 people are engaged in reindeer herding today around the circumpolar North.

How long has reindeer herding existed?

Current archaeological evidence (cave paintings) seems to suggest that the domestication of reindeer emerged perhaps 2-3 000 years ago and that connection between human and reindeer, foremost in form of hunting, is a great deal older.

How is reindeer herding organized?

Every country where reindeer herding is conducted has regulations which state how reindeer herding is to be organized. Norway, Sweden and Finland for example have specific reindeer herding legislation which handles districts, Sámi villages and individuals rights and duties but also how external interests should be take into account when reindeer herding is impacted. The are wide variations in legislation related to reindeer husbandry in all countries where it is praticed. Reindeer herding can usefully be divided into tundra region and taiga region reindeer herding. ‘Tundra’ refers to long migrations between winter and summer pastures.

In the summer reindeer and herders migrate to coastal or mountain areas to flee insects and access better pastures. Winter pastures are primarily located in the interior where the climate is more stable and where lichens are found. Tundra herds tend to be large, up to several thousand and migration routes are long, often many hundreds of kilometres. In recent history, tundra reindeer herding has a focus on meat production. Taiga reindeer husbandry is geographically widespread, is characterised by smaller herds and much shorter migration routes in forested or mountainous areas. Animals are primarily used for transportation and milk production. In both tundra and taiga reindeer husbandry, reindeer provide food, clothing, shelter and transportation.

What kind of challenges does reindeer herding face?

Reindeer need exensive, undisturbed areas the whole year round where they can find quiet. Both reindeer herders and many researchers have stated that intrusions – or loss of pastures – are the primary challenge that reindeer and reindeer herding faces in the future. National parks, military activities, mining activities, cottage areas, pipelines and wind power expansion are examples of common intrutions. And all the time, new types of activities occur and the number increases. Intrusions often lead to a massive loss of pastures for all time. This together with high levels of predators and climate changes constitute major negative threats to reindeer herding.

Why do most reindeer herders say that they could not think of other way of living?

Such a statement is associated with strong emotions. In particular, people who have grown up with reindeer herding and who choose to continue with reindeer herding themselves often believe that they can not imagine living a different life than with reindeer herding. The lifestyle has often been passed down from generation to generation and the knowledge on how to work with the reindeer has often been taught to him or her by an older family member or relative. A life as a reindeer herder is a special life, and few have the opportunity to engage in this livelihood. Reindeer herding is associated with an enormous amount of traditional knowledge about nature, animals and how to survive in nature. The contact between reindeer and a reindeer herder can be both intense and emotive. Since nature sets many of the conditions, nothing can ever be taken for granted. Additionally, a reindeer herder does not know if she or he can expect financial gain from his/her reindeer herding activities from one year to another because she or he cannot govern the terms and conditions that may devour any of the profits. Therefore reindeer herders often say that “you should not start out with reindeer herding if economic freedom is important for you”.

Is reindeer herding a threatened lifestyle?

As reindeer herders rarely can determine the conditions for their management and because negative conditions increase all the time, we can say that ‘traditional’ reindeer herding to some extent, is a threatened lifestyle. External factors such as weather, loss of pastures and predators affect reindeer survival rates and the future development of reindeer herding. Reindeer herding must constantly adapt to the changes in its surrounding environment. Some say that it is a disadvantage for reindeer herding that reindeer are so effective at adapting to change. This means that reindeer herding must adapt so much that ultimately it is no longer possible to carry on reindeer herding, at least not the traditional form of reindeer herding.

Are reindeer threatened?

Generally, you can say that the reindeer are at risk if conditions reindeer need for their survival are threatened. We know that for example that loss of pastures is continuing and increasing all the time. Reindeer herders try, as far as possible, to protect the reindeer against all kinds of threats such as loss pastures and predators. Climate change can also limit the opportunities for semi-domesticated and wild reindeer to flourish in an area.

What biological characteristics specific to the reindeer?

Reindeer are well adapted to the Arctic climate and have the capacity to cope with long, cold winters. Their abilities are due to their physiological structure and unique characteristics. Reindeer have the capacity to absorb so much nutrition from summer grazing that they can survive a tough winter, when food is scarce. But this presupposes that the reindeer succeed in accessing nutritious grazing throughout the summer. It is therefore important that reindeer are not are disrupted by unnecessary activities during summer grazing period. Reindeer have a highly developed sense of smell which helps them to find food in winter.

In winter lichen is their main diet but they also eat other plants under the snow pack as well as lichens that hangs from trees. During summer they graze different types of grasses, herbs and leaves and have a great fondness for mushrooms that grow in the late summer and early autumn. Reindeer is a ruminant and has a unique ability to absorb lichens, which are highly nutritious. Another advantage of the reindeer is that it has a good ability to adapt its behavioural patterns to pasture availability. If it is able, it takes only the best parts of the pasture. However, a ruminant will have difficulties to survive if pastures are suddenly altered because the micro-organisms in the stomach need a certain amount of time to switch to new pastures. If a reindeer starves, it may have a negative affect on its ability to digest food even if it gets enough food after a period of starvation.

In some areas reindeer are fed artificially (with grass or specially developed reindeer pellets) for various reasons, to prevent starvation. The weight of a reindeer varies with age and access to nutrients. In the autumn, the live weight of cows is usually 60 to 100 kilos and 90 to 180 kilos for bulls and bullocks. A newborn calf weighs 4-6 kg and already by the autumn it weighs between 30-50 kg. Bulls and bullocks in woodland areas weigh more than mountain reindeer as summer pastures in the woodlands are more favourable than the mountain pastures. The thick heat-conserving winter coat of the reindeer is shed in summer and begins to grow again in August. The coat of a fully grown reindeer consists of outer bristles and an underfur. The outer bristles are thick and straight, and they form numerous air pockets which provide insulation and prevent body heat from escaping.

The underfur creates a thick pile for the winter coat and prevents the movement of air inside the coat. However, the cold does not present a problem for a healthy reindeer, which can survive in temperatures below -50ºC without increasing its production of heat energy. The legs of the reindeer are also able to withstand the cold well, and the blood circulation in them is improved by specialized system of veins and arteries and by the presence of oleic acid in the marrow of the lower legs. Oleic acid has a melting point of +15ºC and acts a kind of anti-freeze, keeping the legs unfrozen even in very cold temperatures.

Both male and female reindeer have antlers and they make new antlers annually. Calves also make antlers and they begin to grow already during their first weeks of life, and by the autumn they usually have 10 20-cm-long almost unbranched tines. The antlers are important in competition between the male animals, and they serve as identifiers and status symbols during the rutting season in autumn. The antlers also have a beneficial effect for the females, especially when they are pregnant, in the difficult snow conditions of winter. Bulls drop their antlers in the winter, and the non-pregnant females drop theirs early in the spring. Only the calves and the gravid females have antlers at the critical time in April and May. The latter animals now enjoy the highest status, and they can ensure sufficient nourishment for themselves and their fast-growing foetuses. The pregnant cows usually only drop their antlers after calving and begin growing new ones in the good feeding conditions of early summer.

What is a wild reindeer?

Reindeer are wild or semi-domesticated. The total reindeer number in world is about 5 million and of those are about 3 million wild. Wild reindeer are found in Russia, the USA, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Finland.

How long do reindeer live?

Female reindeers can be 18 years old but they usually live a little over 10 years. Non castrated male reindeer do not live as long as female reindeers, usually living about 10 years. Castrated male reindeer can live as long as female reindeer.

What do reindeers eat?

Reindeers adapt their eating to the grazing access. Studies show that reindeer eat over 200 different kinds of plant species. If a reindeer can select, it prefers to eat the newest parts of a plant because it can absorb the elements better as they do not contain plant fibres. Reindeer is a ruminant and has a special ability to absorb lichens. In winter, lichens are the main diet but also hanging lichens and other plants under the snow. In winter lichen can constitute approximately 40-90% of a reindeer’s diet. In the summer reindeer graze on herbs and leaves and in autumn fungi is an important source of nourishment.

If winter pastures are limited because of, for example, icing on the ground, some feed their reindeer with artificial feed, hay or imported lichen in limited periods. Reindeer are the only semi domesticated animal which usually grazes free during the whole year. Reindeer migrate between different seasonal pastures. Some pastures are better suited for summer grazing, while others are better suited to winter and/ or autumn. The pattern is the same from year to year.

Why do reindeer gather in herds?

Reindeer are gathered in herds for certain purposes in different seasons, as for marking of calves, slaughtering and dividing in winter groups/siidas. Nowadays in Scandinavia, it is common for reindeer herders use assistive technologies, such as motorcycles, snow scooters and even helicopters in their gathering work. In many areas in Russia, however, access to technical aids has actually been reduced over the last 15 years. Many herding peoples in Russia still have limited use of such technologies and migrations are undertaken much the way they have been for centuries – walking with the reindeer, riding reindeer (in some areas), using dogs and using harnessing reindeer to sledges.

How will climate change affect reindeer herding?

As reindeer herding is carried out in the natural environment and is in all ways strongly connected to climatic conditions, changes in the climate will certainly affect reindeer herding. But nobody can yet say with certainty when, how and how much reindeer herding will be affected by climate change. Predicted changes will mean for example shorter and warmer winters. Warming will also bring earlier thawing and later freezing. It is for example still unclear how mountain flora will withstand warming and what kind affect it will have on insects and how they will in turn affect the reindeer. In some reindeer herding areas, summer heatwaves will be a larger threat than warming periods in the winter and vice versa.

Why are reindeer always thought about at Christmas?

Read this article here on the Reindeer Portal to find out about Santa and his reindeer

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