Photo: Olav Strand
Grey-brown, wirehaired coat, also between the hooves and on the muzzle. Both sexes grow antlers. The Svalbard reindeer has a denser coat, is more compact and has shorter legs.
Up to 220 cm long, with a shoulder height of up to 125 cm. A bull can weigh up to 270 kg, with a slaughter weight of 50 to 140 kg. The female is considerably smaller.
Reindeer reach sexual maturity at the age of one and a half. The rutting season is from the middle of September until the middle of October. The gestation period is approx. 225 days. Almost always only one calf, twin calves are rare. Calving takes place in May-June.
During winter, lichen from the ground and from trees constitutes 40-80 per cent of the reindeer’s diet. The remainder is made up of dry grass and shrubs. During summer, reindeer eat herbs, grass, dwarf shrubs and some lichen.
Northern parts of Europe, Asia, North America, Svalbard and Greenland. Domestic reindeer have been introduced on South Georgia and Iceland. In Norway, wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) are only found in the mountainous areas in the south, from Sør-Trøndelag and southwards. In addition to the wild reindeer in mainland Norway, Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) are found on the Svalbard islands. Domestic reindeer are herded in large areas of northern Norway and as far south as parts of Oppland and Hedmark.
Way of life:
In Norway, reindeer are diurnal animals that live in herds. The reindeer are nomadic, i.e. they travel varying distances between their summer and winter pasture areas.
A low grunting or snorting sound
The hunting season varies in length, starting around 20 August and lasting until the end of September.
Also see Svalbard reindeer (Norwegian Polar Institute)
Up to 18 years.
In Norway, reindeer live largely in the bare mountains, but in certain wild reindeer areas forests form a significant part of their habitat
The reindeer’s hoof print is crescent-shaped, 9-10 cm wide and 8-9 cm long. This varies depending on age, sex and the surface underfoot. Reindeer excrement consists of small, irregular balls 12-15 mm long and 7-10 mm wide. Their excrement varies depending on their diet.
The reindeer is a member of the deer family but, unlike other deer, both sexes grow antlers. Even reindeer calves grow antlers in their first year of life. The bulls keep their antlers no longer than necessary and shed them after the mating season. The females, however, keep their antlers until their calves are born in spring. This gives the females the edge when competing for sparse food resources in winter and spring. The pregnant females need enough nutrition to ensure that their calves are big enough at birth.
The reindeer’s winter coat is extremely thick and heavy and has three times as many overhairs as the coats of other types of deer, with approx. 700/sq. cm in its winter coat. In addition, reindeer have a woolly undercoat. Its thick coat provides very effective insulation from the wind and rain, and the snow on which it often lies during winter. Reindeer have four deeply cleft hooves, which act as specially designed ‘snow shoes’, enabling them to walk in deep snow in winter and on marshland in summer, and they are also well-suited for digging down through the snow.
Reindeer have a particularly well-developed sense of smell, and make extensive use of their scent glands for communication. Their excellent sense of smell enables reindeer to find lichen during winter, down to a depth of 60 cm under the snow.
Photo: Anders Mossing
What do wild reindeer eat?
The reindeer’s ability to use lichen as winter fodder is its most distinctive feature. Lichen mainly contains easily digestible carbohydrates which make it good maintenance food, but it contains too little protein to stimulate growth. In winter, reindeer prefer cladonia stellaris (reindeer moss) and cetraria nivalis, but if these are not available they eat other types of lichen, leaves and other plants with a lower nutritional value. If they have access to nutrition from other plants, reindeer are by no means dependent on lichen. We see an example of this in the reindeer introduced to the island of South Georgia, which live almost exclusively on grass as there is very little lichen. Since reindeer were introduced there between 1909 and 1925, two viable populations have developed. Another distinctive feature of reindeer in winter is their ability to gnaw on old antlers that have been shed, or on the antlers of other reindeer. Researchers are not sure why they do this, but it is thought that it may be in an attempt to stock up on minerals and nutrients, which are in short supply in their ordinary winter diet.
If reindeer are to acquire enough protein for growth and reproduction, they need access to plants in an early phase of germination. Reindeer find germinating plants when the snow melts in spring and early summer. They follow the green wave up the mountains, which gives them constant access to the ‘freshest’ plants and enables them to eat as much protein as possible to stimulate growth. Reindeer are able to digest 30-40 per cent of the plant material they eat in winter, but they can utilise 70-80 per cent or more of the spring vegetation. This is obvious from the animals’ growth during summer and autumn.
At this time of the year, reindeer eat a number of different herbs and flowering plants that grow in the mountains. They can also eat the leaves of bushes such as dwarf birch (Betula nana) and willow (Salix spp.). Examples of such plants are alpine bistort (Bistorta vivipara), hairgrass (Deschampsia flexuosa) and various sedges. Another special spring phenomenon is nutritional stress, which may cause the reindeer to eat very ‘unusual’ food such as small rodents and birds’ eggs.
Mushrooms provide important nutrition during autumn, when reindeer may undertake long journeys down into the birch forests to look for them, in places where they would never venture the rest of the year.
Kvitkrull. Photo: Anders Mossing
Rutting, mating and a new life
Adult females normally become pregnant every autumn from the age of one and a half until they are 12-14 years old, but this can vary. In Forollhogna, four-month-old females are known to have been impregnated. Reindeer bulls also become sexually mature at the age of one and a half, but they generally have to wait until they are between three and five before they can take part in mating.
At the end of August, the concentration of sex hormones in bulls makes them more aggressive and they start regarding each other as competitors. Rutting has started! The bulls are now ready to defend their harems against other bulls, and devote all their energy to doing so. The rutting season lasts from the middle of September until the middle of October. The mating act itself does not generally take more than 10 seconds, and the female stands completely still during the act. Immediately afterwards, the bull will turn his attention to other potential ‘female admirers’ in order to mate with as many of them as possible.
Before the females calve in the spring, they find calving spots. Many of the wild reindeer areas in Norway tend to be high up in the mountains in slightly hilly terrain with bare patches. The females generally calve in early May having carried their young for approx. 225 days (7-8 months). Calving times vary from area to area and from year to year, but the time is fairly synchronised between females in the same herd. The calving itself generally only takes about 15-20 minutes, and the calves try to find their feet soon after they are born. After a couple of days, the calf is ready to follow its mother and can accompany her to better grazing ground.
Photo: Kjell Bitustøyl
Use of habitat
Wild reindeer are often referred to as the nomads of the mountains. The term nomad is usually used about communities of people who are constantly on the move, but the term is also used to describe the way in which wild reindeer use their habitat.
‘Safety in numbers’
The wild reindeer’s use of habitat is very different from that of other members of the deer family. Moose, red deer and roe deer live in the forest and rarely form large herds. Wild reindeer, on the other hand, live mainly in herds in the mountains. The size of a herd can vary from ten to several hundred animals. It is assumed that the wild reindeer herd structure is a result of cohabitation with predators. We see the same in other species, such as the gnu on the African savannah. The more animals there are in a herd, the less chance there is of being killed by a predator.
Bull groups and cow/calf groups
Wild reindeer in Norway generally live in two types of group. Bull groups are smallish groups ranging from just a few animals to roughly a hundred, and are mainly made up of bulls of different ages. The cow/calf groups can contain up to several hundred animals and mainly comprise calves, cows and young animals.
The bull groups and cow/calf groups often join forces in autumn and live together until the mating season is over. The bulls then lose their antlers and status and withdraw once more into their own group. The bulls use the outer parts of their area, while the females and calves use the central parts. This is most apparent in spring, when female reindeer often choose to return to their established calving areas, often far into the mountains. Here in the broken terrain, each female reindeer can find a safe place to calve. They are relatively safe from predators and they are also left in peace with their calves.
In spring, the groups of bulls choose a completely different strategy. They head for the outer areas where the first fertile and nutritional spring grazing grounds are to be found. This means that bulls are often observed far into the forest, often close to houses and roads. Many people are surprised to see wild reindeer so close to houses and roads, but we must remember that bull groups have a completely different threshold for interference than the more reclusive cow/calf groups.
The wild reindeer’s use of area compared with other cervids. Reindeer = reinsdyr, Moose = Elg, Deer = Hjort, Roe Deer = rådyr. Source: Wild Reindeer & Society, NINA, Thematic report 27
Need a lot of space
A herd of several hundred wild reindeer requires a lot of food. The marginal and unstable existence in the mountains means that wild reindeer must roam across large areas. Climate, vegetation and geographical factors determine where wild reindeer will find food in the different seasons. In the large wild reindeer areas in Norway, we see that summer and winter grazing grounds are in very diverse areas with respect to the amount of snow and access to food. Winter grazing grounds are often areas with little snow and a good supply of lichen, while spring and summer grazing grounds are areas where the snow melts early and there is good access to fertile grazing. We can thus conclude that wild reindeer need to have large, continuous mountain areas if they are to be ensured good conditions for survival in the future
Photo: Anders Mossing
The culture bearer
Long before our Nordic ‘hunter genes’ parted company with the remaining ‘farmer genes’ in central Europe, reindeer were the most important sustenance for our European forefathers. Wild reindeer have been in Norway since the inland ice retreated approximately 10,000 years ago, since which time reindeer provided the existence basis for hunters following the animals as they migrated between the different seasonal grazing lands.
Trapping and trapping methods
In order to obtain facts and knowledge about the migration of the reindeer in the original wild reindeer mountains, extensive historical information has been acquired about the design, scope and age of old trapping systems. Knowledge of the wild reindeer’s migration habits combined with the use of pits, probably provided the most effective trapping method ever. The oldest traces of wild reindeer being hunted in Norway are roughly 10,000 years old Most of the trapping systems we find traces of today, however, date from the period between 500-1350 AD. Today, these pits and their remains are found spread across the Norwegian mountains and continuous efforts are being made to uncover new trapping systems.
A distinction is normally drawn between earthen and stone-lined trapping pits. The earthen pits are dug out of the earth and gravel, and have wooden supports on the inside. These pits are found all over the Northern Cap. The stone-lined pits are generally situated higher up in the terrain and the chamber itself is lined with stone. These pits can be completely buried in the ground, partially or completely lined with stone right up to ground level. Individual pits are found, as well as systems consisting of several hundred pits. This type of system can be seen today in the Dovrefjell mountains, where more than 1,200 pits have been mapped between Dombås and Kongsvold.
It has been calculated that a reindeer pit had to be approximately 2 metres deep, 2 metres long and 0.7 metres wide. The location of the pits in the terrain was crucial, and guiding fences were used to lead most of the animals into the trapping area. Reindeer trapping also took place in the areas where the animals crossed rivers and lakes, and ancient settlements have been found near such places (e.g. Sumtangen on the Hardangervidda mountain plateau).
In recent decades, extensive mass-trapping systems have been found in Southern Norway, and similar systems have also been found in North America. The main principle involved the use of long guiding fences to lead the animals into an enclosure or trap that they could not get out of. Nature’s own trapping aids have also been used. We see examples of this where crevices and cliffs make formations that have been used for trapping. In addition to the hunting methods mentioned, several bow rests have been found in the Norwegian mountains. These have been found near trapping pits and systems, and also along wild reindeer migration routes.
In southern France, there are a number of famous caves in which our forefathers painted the fauna around them. The Chauvet Cave, however, has two distinctive features. The first is its age; dating shows that the first paintings were made roughly 30,000 years ago. The other unique feature is the amazing paintings of the animal that was the artists’ main source of food. Inside one of the rooms, among the paintings of long-extinct mammoths, cave bears, wild horses, Irish elk, lions and wild cattle, there are some beautiful realistic paintings of the most Norwegian of all Norwegian animals, namely the reindeer. Several archaeological excavations have shown that the inhabitants of these areas lived on reindeer. Reindeer was for a long time their main form of sustenance, in addition to being one of the most important sources of tools and clothes.
When the ice retreated after the last Ice Age, the reindeer followed. From then on, the history of wild reindeer and Norwegians has been closely interwoven. Just as our forefathers in Europe were inspired to hunt and trap this resource 30,000 years ago, so the tradition continued in Norway long after the reindeer migrated north after the last Ice Age.
Mapped pits and other trapping systems in Southern Norway (2009). Possible earlier habitats are indicated in light brown (mountainous areas). Copyright: Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA)
Photo: Anders Mossing
Wild reindeer live in extreme environments. Winter challenges include snow, ice, wind, and extreme cold, while in the summer the reindeer have to cope with high temperatures, humidity and insects. In order to survive an extreme environment, wild reindeer need to be extremely adaptable with respect to physiology, herd behaviour and habitat use.
Life on the edge
We often say that wild reindeer have a very marginal existence. This means that they are very easily disturbed, with negative consequences for health and reproductive ability. Continuous disturbance will reduce the time reindeer have to eat. This will lead to a lower body weight, which in turn will reduce the reindeer’s ability to tolerate a harsh climate. In addition, the reproductive cycle may be affected so that calves are born later in the year, which means that the newly born reindeer will have a shorter grazing season before the winter. The calves will have less time to accumulate the necessary fat reserves to get them through the winter.
A hundred years ago wild reindeer were facing extinction in Norway as a result of too many animals being killed. Protected status and increasingly stringent hunting regulations allowed the population to gradually increase again.
Today, however, wild reindeer are exposed to other threats that are every bit as serious. The most serious threat to wild reindeer is encroachment on its habitat. The other serious, but more unpredictable threat is climate change.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that we face great challenges in connection with climate change. The climate experts believe that the changes will mean rising temperatures and more extreme weather. These changes can also have consequences for the wild reindeer living in the Norwegian mountains.
The properties of the snow and ice and the amount of snow will change as a result of climate change. Milder winters and more precipitation in the form of snow in the mountains will increase snow density, also increasing the risk of grazing lands being iced over. For wild reindeer, this means that some of their winter grazing grounds will deteriorate significantly.
Warmer summers will lead to increased melting of mountain glaciers. These are important areas where wild reindeer can cool down and seek refuge from insects in summer. A reduction in mountain glaciers will therefore lead to increased disturbance and stress for wild reindeer.
Warmer summers will improve conditions for insects and other parasites that live on wild reindeer. In recent years, we have seen an increased incidence of disease in deer and musk oxen, due to insects or bacteria that reproduce faster in warmer, more humid climates. An example of this is the outbreak of pneumonia in the musk oxen in the Dovrefjell mountains. The National Veterinary Institute has concluded that the outbreak of pneumonia in musk oxen is the result of a particularly warm and humid summer, and that the problem may also affect wild reindeer:
Arctic species such as the musk ox and the wild reindeer have adapted to a very inhospitable environment – they live on the very edge of what is possible. Even minor changes in their living environment can lead to major changes in these animals’ ability to survive. What is happening now, with the greater incidence of disease in these species as the climate gets warmer, may also give an indication of what may happen to the balance between disease and survival in other species. In this context, the well-monitored population of musk oxen in the Dovrefjell mountains provides a model for observing how climate change affects animals that have adapted to a cold climate.
Wild reindeer and climate change
In Norway, the original wild reindeer mountains consisted of four main regions. There was probably a great deal of internal cross-movement of animals within these regions. The regions represent areas with clear climatic differences from west to east and from south to north. The mild, high-precipitation areas along the coast were good for calving and spring/summer grazing grounds, while the cold, low-precipitation inland areas provided attractive winter grazing with little snow and large amounts of lichen.
The Dovre/Rondane region is a good example of a formerly continuous habitat with a clear east/west gradient. The eastern parts of the region (Rondane, Sølnkletten and Knutshø) were formerly important winter grazing grounds, while the eastern areas (Dovrefjell and Trollheimen) were spring and summer grazing grounds.
Today, the situation is very different. The presence of the railway and the E6 road across Dovre has blocked the original migration route between east and west. In addition, there have been a number of encroachments and disturbances which have led to the original Dovre/Rondane region now being divided up (fragmented) into seven more or less separate areas.
The normal protection instinct of wild reindeer is to move away. In order to find grazing grounds all year, a reindeer’s natural behaviour pattern is move to new or better grazing grounds. In the current situation where infrastructure and human activity bar the old migration routes, wild reindeer have fewer migration options.
This situation applies to all four of the original regions in Norway. So today we have 23 more or less separate wild reindeer areas in mainland Norway.
We currently differentiate between at least four different effects linked to technical encroachments and disturbances:
Loss of habitat as a direct result of encroachment
These effects are directly related to the encroachment itself and are often of limited scope. The exceptions are cases in which the physical encroachment covers large areas or where the encroachment itself has the effect of creating a barrier. Examples that show that such encroachment can have severe consequences for wild reindeer are the hydroelectric reservoirs created in special reindeer grazing grounds, and holiday cabin developments that interfere with important migration routes.
Physiological and behavioural reactions in individual animals
Such effects have been documented in a number of species, and most often in connection with experimental studies in which animals are exposed to a number of different stimuli. These effects are directly linked to a specific disturbance and often disappear quickly. An example of this is accelerated metabolism and reduced hunting time as a result of human traffic.
These effects can either arise as a result of major changes in the reindeer’s habitat or the building of longitudinal barriers that block normal migration between areas. Roads, railway lines, power lines or oil pipelines are examples of such barriers. The reduced exchange of genetic material, changes in grazing load and changed access to seasonal grazing grounds or important habitats (e.g. calving areas) are biological effects of the creation of such barriers.
Total effects of various disturbances and encroachment
The sum of the different disturbances, encroachments and limitation to the natural environment is often referred to as the cumulative effects. The cumulative effects have a measurable impact on wild reindeer in the form of impeded growth, reproduction and survival.
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