In the spring and summertime reindeer enjoy grazing on the fresh new shoots that grow along the hillsides as the snow melts out. Such new plant growth is highly nutrient rich. In the springtime, reindeer can also be seen along the beach looking for new growth shoots and buds on seaweed and algae.
During the summer reindeer travel up to higher ground. In periods of high insect irritation, they can then escape to the remaining patches of snow where there are few insects, and thus enjoy some temporary peace between grazing bouts. In the late summer and autumn, they move down to low-lying areas and the valley floors to fungi-rich feeding areas.
Reindeer have a special dietary tendency amongst Norwegian fauna in that they can subsist on lichen, especially in the late autumn and winter. Although lichen lacks protein it is easily digested and meets basic dietary requirements for the reindeer. Lichen has toxic qualities for other animals, so the reindeer can enjoy this ‘delicatesse resource’ exclusively to themselves. Ground-dwelling reindeer lichen, horn Cladonia lichen, Iceland lichen and crinkled snow-lichen are those of most importance for reindeer. Lichen growing on mature trees is also valuable to reindeer, especially when winter conditions limit access to ground-lichens.
The coat of the reindeer with its thick insulating guard-hairs is well-designed for life in the Arctic. Other adaptations for conserving energy are that bulls shed their antlers annually in the autumn after the rut. Under conditions of heavy winter snows, the bulls of a herd may dig the snow more effectively for food than the smaller reindeer cows. However, the cows retain their antlers which gives them some weaponry to chase the bulls away from snow-free feeding pits. Ptarmigan may be found feeding in association with reindeer in winter, whereby they feed in the feeding pits that have been dug out by the reindeer.
Jan Ivvár and Sara Smuk marking reindeer during the calf-marking round-up. Jan Ivvár and Sara Smuk marking reindeer during the calf-marking round-up. Photo: Knut Sverre Horn
Reindeer being herded by helicopter. Photo: Jan Ivvár Smuk
Reindeer graze over wide areas and are moved to different grazing locations at various times of year. In these modern times, motorised transport such as snow-scooter, ATV, and helicopter are used for driving the animals to and from winter pastures or to corrals and pens for sorting, marking, and culling.
Due to the use of helicopter for herding and because the location of pens and fences are outside the National Park area, there is little sign of reindeer-husbandry activities in the Park itself.
During the reindeer calving period (May-June) the reindeer in monitor predator activity and other disturbance factors that may affect the calving season.
Autumn round-up, marking and culling
Calf production each year varies and is the important factor for determining how many can be slaughtered. Grazing conditions prior to the calving period affect the body condition of the reindeer and affect the proportion of adult females that produce young.
During the annual autumn round-up the reindeer are herded into fenced-off corral areas near the village of Krampenes.
Here, calves are ear-marked and certain reindeer selected for slaughter. Those not culled are then released back into the hills for a further year.
Before moving the reindeer to the southern side of the Varanger Fjord in the early winter (November/December) there is also an additional round-up for culling purposes in the fenced area at Seidafjellet mountain in Varangerbotn.
Reindeer are effective at conserving their energy during the late autumn and wintertime. Nonetheless, the winters on Varanger are long and hard, especially if there are ice-layers on the ground that prevent the reindeer from accessing their food beneath the snow. Such ‘ice-locked’ pastures may cause particular hardship for animals in springtime in districts without woodlands. In such areas, alternative tree-lichen forage is scarce. Supplementary feed is provided for reindeer when weather conditions are too harsh for the number of animals using a certain winter grazing area.
Reindeer bulls on the beach trying to escape bothersome insects. Photo: Alfred Ørjebu
Avoid disturbing reindeer
During the calving season one should avoid travelling through areas with calving cows, or cows with young calves. Unfortunately, a mother may abandon her calf if startled. This can have serious consequences because the young calf is entirely dependent on its mother’s milk.
Loose dogs can do excessive damage in a short time. Be aware of and follow ‘on-leash season’ regulations and always keep your dog on a leash when you encounter reindeer.
The most sensitive period for disturbance is during the river melt-out time
between 15th May and 15th June. During this period, it may be sensible to plan your trip close to the coastline and not in locations with calving reindeer and their calves.
If you are planning a trip far into the peninsula, conditions for travel are best from 1st July onwards.
In the wintertime reindeer may be struggling due to ‘iced-up’ forage areas. Therefore, be aware that winter is also a sensitive period for the reindeer to be disturbed.
When you meet reindeer
To have a close encounter with reindeer is a special experience. Nonetheless, by taking a few precautions you can enjoy the experience whilst you also minimise disturbance to the reindeer themselves.
- Enjoy the experience and sight of the reindeer. Aided by a pair of binoculars you can get even closer to the animals, visually.
- Keep your dog on a leash. Reindeer can experience a loose dog as a predator hunting them. Between 1st April – 20th August it is required by Norwegian law to have your dog on a leash (‘on leash season’). Be aware that in Zone A this period is extended until (and including) 9th September. However, take note that even outwith the ‘on-leash season’, dogs must be under control. A loose dog may damage or worry any wildlife or livestock, such as nesting birds or sheep.
- Be respectful and give a wide berth to grazing reindeer. Try to walk in a different direction where possible.
- If a reindeer herd is coming your way, sit down and wait for them to pass by.
- Take special attention in the springtime calving season to avoid disturbing calves and calving cows. Stop and wait and take an alternative route if necessary!