Sweden’s reindeer at risk of starvation

The reindeer are made for cold climate and cannot stand too much heat, but even more are they endangered by food shortage. The origin of the problem is the same – climate change!

After this summer’s unprecedented drought and the destruction through wildfires, saying their future is at risk as global warming changes the environment in the far north, as the guardian writes.

About 12.000 years ago the reindeer’s habitant included most of Europe and the species lived as far South as the Pyrenees in Spain. The human population growth and especially the warmer climate made the arctic circle their last safe haven. There, far up North, reindeer became companion animals for the indigenous people and in harsh winters when food is rare the herders use to support them with additional feed.

Sami woman observing reindeer selection and calf labelling near the village of Dikanäss, about 800km north-west of Stockholm. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Although a little help through the winters was already common in history, this summer brought an unseen situation to Lapland. In some days in July, when temperatures rose up to 30 degrees, forest fires were registered throughout the country of Sweden and even in the polar circle. In August the Swedish government announced five major investigations aimed at preparing the country for the kind of extreme heatwave it experienced in July 2018. However, they still have to come up with a solution for the 4,600 reindeer herders and their almost 300,000 animals. According to the guardian the owners are asking for emergency funding to help pay for supplementary fodder as a replacement for winter grazing lands that could take up to 30 years to recover from the summer’s drought and fires. 

“We are living with the effects of climate change. The alarm bells are ringing. We face droughts, heatwaves, fires. This is about the survival of the reindeer, and of Sami culture, which depends on them.”
Niila Inga, Swedish Sami Association

Herders are warning that some animals might not survive the year. Particularly young reindeer calves may have become so weakened by the prolonged drought that they could be unable to follow their mothers to new feeding grounds.

Although warmer summers help lichen – the natural nutrition of the reindeer – grow, warmer and wetter winters are increasingly leading to rainfall rather than snow. When the ground is moist, and temperatures fall back below freezing, impenetrable sheets of ice cover the ground that would normally be covered by a much softer snow layer. This leaves the reindeer, who habitually feed by digging into the snow and then grazing on the lichen beneath, unable to smell the vital food source or dig down to get to it, leading to some herds starving to death. Scientists have held out hope of finding ways to spread lichen more readily in forests, but more funding was urgently needed, Niila Inga said.

The value chain created by selling reindeer meat as well as their fur and antlers is crucial for the local communities in Lapland to survive culturally. Similar it is important for the reindeer which are, although living in their natural habitat, more and more dependent on the support of their herders.

Renjer, as an integral part of the value chain of reindeer meat production, carries out a noteworthy role in the protection of reindeer as a species as well as in keeping the culture of indigenous Sami people alive.

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