Climate change challenges reindeer husbandry

UEF Bulletin 2017

The future of reindeer herding is overshadowed by concerns of over-grazing and continuity.

Text Sari Eskelinen Photos Soili Jussila, Lehtikuva and Varpu Heiskanen

Lichen damage caused by reindeer was a much-discussed topic in Finnish Fell Lapland in autumn 2016. Shortly after, an international study concluded that extreme weather conditions constitute a threat to the reindeer herding culture of the Nenets people living in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia.

“Reindeer herding cultures have been able to adapt to climatic, social and economic changes. Despite the challenges, I believe there is a future for reindeer herding,” says Associate Professor Timo Kumpula.

For several years, he’s been a member of an international research group studying the reindeer herding culture of the Yamal-Nenets people. Kumpula has also carried out extensive research into reindeer herding issues in Finland.

“For a geographer, reindeer pastures constitute an interesting topic of research. We can look at reindeer pastures from the viewpoint of lichen and draw conclusions based on that. However, reindeer husbandry is a socio-ecological system, and this makes over-grazing a difficult question, for example.”

Possible over-grazing by reindeer has been a topic of discussion in Finland and the Yamal Peninsula alike. It has been speculated that overly large reindeer flocks caused the outbreak of an anthrax epidemic in the Yamal Peninsula in spring 2016. However, another and more likely possible culprit could be the exceptionally warm summer.

“The Yamal Peninsula suffered a major anthrax epidemic in the 1940s, and dead animals were buried deep in the permafrost. Due to last summer's exceptional warmth, the active soil layer melted deeper than before, and it is suspected that this melting caused the release of anthrax pathogens.”

What does the discussion on reindeer over-grazing in Finland focus on? Several studies have established that the amount of lichen is considerably smaller in the northernmost parts of Finland than across the border in Norway. There is a reindeer fence on the Finnish-Norwegian border, preventing reindeer from moving between the two countries.

“A simple explanation is that the areas by the border on the Norwegian side are winter pastures, with reindeer grazing there only in late winter.”

On the Finnish side of the border, on the other hand, the lichen areas are summer pastures, resulting in lichen trampling and lower coverage. According to Kumpula, pasture rotation could be one solution.

“In some districts, reindeer herders practise pasture rotation, keeping winter and summer pastures separate. This prevents reindeer from trampling on fragile lichen in the summer.”

In Finland, however, the system of several reindeer owners’ associations makes pasture rotation difficult: there are 54 separate owners’ associations, each of them an independent regional administrative unit. For these associations, increasing pasture rotation would mean an increased amount of work and costs, as reindeer would have to be more intensively herded from one pasture to the next.

“Practices vary between associations. Some of them gather their reindeer inside fences for the winter and feed them there. However, there are also associations that let their reindeer graze freely, without any additional food.”

Another thing that has been totally missed in the recent over-grazing discussion is the impact of other land use on lichen pastures.  

“Most herding districts have suffered from heavy forestry, and old forests with arboreal lichens have disappeared. Arboreal lichen growing on old trees has constituted very important winter fodder for reindeer. Now that it’s gone, supplementary feeding is of course needed, and there is greater pressure on remaining ground lichen pastures.”

Lichen is only one indicator used in analysing the condition of pastures. Preliminary research findings suggest that reindeer also play a significant role in preventing the growth of shrubs in fell areas.

Kumpula and researcher Teemu Tahvanainen have studied the effects of reindeer pasturage on ground vegetation in the operating area of the Näkkälä reindeer owners’ association in Enontekiö, Finnish Lapland. In the early 2000s, 15 experimental fences were set up, and the preliminary findings suggest that reindeer help in keeping fell vegetation at bay.

“In the experimental areas, willows have started to gain length. In Norway, shrub vegetation was higher in the fell areas, possibly contributing to the fact that snow melts away sooner there. This, in turn, affects global warming.”

Global warming constitutes a challenge for the traditional reindeer herding culture of the Nenets people in the Yamal Peninsula in particular. In winter 2013–2014, exceptionally large areas used for reindeer pasturing froze after heavy rain, resulting in the death of more than 60,000 reindeer.

The pasture areas froze because of exceptionally low ice coverage in the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, and that brought humid air masses to land and caused rain on snow.

“If the sea remains open longer and more often, these kinds of climatic phenomena will become increasingly frequent. Pasture freezing is more common towards the west, but climate change is moving the boundary of unsettled weather conditions increasingly eastwards,” Kumpula says.

In Fennoscandia, pasture freezing is not that significant a problem for reindeer herding, as there is a possibility to provide reindeer with additional food.

“In the Yamal Peninsula, however, providing additional food is not a possibility, as the area doesn’t have fields or an extensive road infrastructure. If widespread pasture freezing becomes common in the Yamal Peninsula, making additional food available to reindeer could be a solution for preventing large-scale reindeer deaths.”

However, if reindeer herders continue to struggle with climate-related problems, the traditional livelihood may lose its appeal among the younger generations.

“So far, the younger generations have wanted to continue reindeer herding and living on the tundra.”

The study on the effects of pasture freezing on reindeer husbandry in the Yamal Peninsula was published in Biology Letters in November 2016. The study constituted part of a series of studies led by the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, with the University of Eastern Finland participating in them.