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Finnmark 2007 Diary » Blog Archive » Herding in a time of change

Herding in a time of change


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While in Langfjorden, we met Inge, a member of a reindeer-herding family who, together with four other families, owns a herd of 2,500 reindeer (winter size). The herd is currently in its winter range, the Örve Pasvik valley close to the Finish border, some 80km southwest from Langfjorden. This border has been fenced against reindeer cross-border migrations since 1955. There are also some large fenced areas on the other side along the Russian border. Reindeer are under structural pressure just as humans are: their movements, migration, and strategies for survival are impacted upon by economic, social, and environmental change, as well as by national policies. Yet, what bothers a reindeer does not necessarily bother a reindeer-herder: fences strengthen human control over the herd and help to avoid eventual problems as the one we witnessed yesterday when a whole border-guard operation was set off by a few reindeer that had crossed the Russian border.. Reindeer-herding families in this area also use fences to close the winter pastures after the herd has left for summer migration up in the Barents coast in the North.

No fence can stop air pollution though, and this whole area has suffered from the heavy smog that has been floating for decades over the neighbouring town of Nickel on the Kola Peninsula. This industrial pollution reached its peak in the middle-to-late 80s, and has since decreased to the point where it is no longer perceived as a major problem by the reindeer herders we met. In fact, this contented family did not express any significant worries. Even so, they have had to develop certain strategies to assist the reindeer in adapting to environmental change.

Winter forage feeding: This interesting and somewhat controversial strategy has not been adopted everywhere in the reindeer-herding world. But in this family’s opinion, giving additional grass-food in winter is the best way to prepare the animals for bad seasons when plant resources might be scarce or not accessible because of icy tundra. A rainfall in early winter is enough to “lock” lichens (reindeer’s natural winter food) under an icy blanket, leaving the herd without food. The winter 2006/7 encountered this problem and it is likely to become more common as climate change continues to develop. Thus Inge argues that all herders in the future won’t have any choice but to feed their reindeer with winter forage. If the animals do not adapt to this feed, the herders will struggle. In this respect, Inge’s reindeer are adapting well to climate change and, interestingly enough, they are larger than other reindeer in the region.
No vaccination campaigns: While Inge domesticates his reindeer with additional winter food, he refuses to treat them against insects or possible infection. He argues that reindeer have to develop immunity and/or resilience to both insects and disease, and so will adapt more easily to possible effects of global warming.

Herd sizes: Unlike the well-known strategies towards expanding herd sizes and reindeer production that have been once applied (especially on the neighbouring Kola Peninsula and the Soviet North), the reindeer-herding owners in the area have set rules on upper-limit herd size (2,500) and one-family animals in a herd (500). As herd size is mostly controlled through slaughter, the latter acquires significance not only for the community’s economy but also for the community’s social relations. That is why at the time of the slaughter corral in late November ­ early December, the families also do the calf marking, which is a far from simple exercise: each calf gets the mark of the herd, the mark of the family, and the mark of the herder that owns it! Marking a calf is a social statement about taking ownership, responsibility, accepting rules, and developing social relations.

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