Followed the melting ice
In Scandinavia, the last ice age ended some twelve thousand years ago, and the early Norwegians were hunter-gatherers. Archaeological finds show that the reindeer was a primary prey.
The reindeer thrives in a tundra-like landscape, making the Norwegian mountains and highland plateaus a perfect habitat.
The humans moved with the animals
The reindeer is a migratory animal – moving between seasonal feeding and birthing grounds.
Early Norwegian human family groups followed the wild reindeer on its journey. The animal provided food and warm clothing in a harsh environment.
The Norwegians call the female reindeer a simle, a cow – the male a bukk, a bull, – and the young a kalv, a calf. The species live in herds and can reach an age of up to 18 years.
The birthing season is in May-June, and the cow typically gets one calf only.
Both the female and the male reindeer grow antlers – and develop and lose a new set every year. The bull loses his antlers in the late autumn – after the mating season. The pregnant cow, however, keeps her antlers until after she has given birth in the spring.
By keeping her antlers, the pregnant female reindeer has the upper hand throughout the winter – when competing for food with the males and the young individuals.
The reindeer’s coat is white-grey-brown and particularly dense. This allows the animal to live under freezing weather conditions: minus 40 degrees centigrade and more.
The evolution shaped the reindeer’s cloven hoofs so that they make it easier to walk on snow during the winter – and on marshland during the summer. The hoofs are also adapted to dig for food through the snow.
Sometimes, the reindeer gnaws on shed antlers found on the ground, or even antlers still on a fellow reindeer’s head. Possibly to stock up on minerals and nutrients.
The abundance of summer
After the long and dark winter – often with snow for as long as 8 to 9 months – comes a short and intense summer. During the summer months, there is full daylight almost 24 hours a day.
The reindeer feeds on fresh herbs, grass, and available bushes. To survive the winter, they must eat as much as possible during spring, summer, and autumn.
With the summer also come the insects, plaguing the herds. Often, the reindeer seek areas with remaining snow patches – places where they can rest and be away from these relentless tormentors.
Autumn – the mating season
The reindeer mating season takes place in late September and in October. The bulls fight each other, and the victorious individual gather his herd for mating.
With winter comes snow and darkness
During the winter, the reindeer seek areas where the snow is not too deep.
The primary winter food is lichen – a plant-like and rootless organism that grows on rocks and trees. The animals also eat dry grass, leaves, moss, and more.
In harsh and stormy weather, the reindeer lies down and lets the snow build up around it. Some individuals will often remain standing, fronting the group and facing the wind; possibly to make sure that there is no danger ahead. After a while, they too will lie down to rest.
The first winter is often a make-or-break for the calves born in the spring.
The wild reindeer
The Norwegians of today differentiate between wild and half-domesticated reindeer – villrein and tamrein. Today, we find most of the Norwegian wild reindeer in the mountains in the southern half of the country.
The wild reindeer are still hunted in an annual hunt, lasting from late August until the end of September. No person owns these wild animals – but the right to hunt them follows land ownership and other ancient hunting rights.
In 2018, some twenty-five thousand wild reindeer roamed the mountains of mainland Norway.
The Sami and the half-domesticated reindeer
The Sami peoples – today a Norwegian minority umbrella group – persevered in their ancient hunter-gatherer way of life well into our own time. Many Sami families still do, albeit now living in contemporary houses and utilising modern-day transportation tools – like the snowmobile – snøskuter – and motorised fishing vessels.
Historically, some of the Sami sub-groups hunted the wild reindeer. The reindeer was their primary source of food and clothing, and the hunters and their families moved with the animals, following age-old migration patterns.
Other Sami sub-groups lived along the rivers and the coastline – and focussed more on fishing and other ways of harvesting Mother Nature’s many offerings.
As the wild reindeer population decreased, possibly because of overhunting, some Sami groups began to breed and develop their own herds of half-domesticated reindeer – tamrein. This created a more stable and predictable food supply.
Like the wild reindeer, the half-domesticated reindeer lives in the wild all year round – but they are legally owned by their herders.
According to ancient roaming and feeding rights, the half-domesticated reindeer utilise an area totalling 40% of mainland Norway. These old roaming rights are not linked to land ownership, meaning that the animals can feed on land not owned by their owners.
Today, we find around 75% of Norway’s two-hundred-and-fifty thousand half-domesticated reindeer in Finnmark – Norway’s northernmost region. But such herds also exist as far south as in the region of Hedmark, where there are also a few non-Sami reindeer-keepers.
Historically, the Sami also kept a few fully domesticated reindeer individuals close to their living quarters – used for transportation – and for the cows’ milk.
Predators and birth
Today, apart from the humans, the reindeer’s main predator is the wolverine – jerv. This is a smallish animal with the ability to kill prey many times larger than itself.
The golden eagle, the wolf, and the bear also pose a significant threat, especially to the young calves.
During the birthing season, the reindeer are particularly vulnerable. When the cow is preparing to give birth, she usually moves away from the herd – looking for the part of the terrain that offers the best protection. After the calf is born, the mother eats the afterbirth to avoid attracting predators.
The newborn calf has a colour that makes it difficult to spot in the landscape. If it senses danger, its pulse will weaken, and it will lie completely still and be almost smell-free.
The reindeer calf can normally stand upright less than an hour after it was born.
Sources: Skoglund, Terje. Villrein – fra urinnvåner til miljøbarometer. Teknologisk Forlag 1994. | villrein.no | Store Norske Leksikon snl.no | EGP.00059.