– There’s something about reindeer, you know. Think about it: in the worst storms imaginable, in the middle of winter, in frost and snow, wild reindeer are outside and survive. We know that much, but we have never been able to see it – before now.
Olav Strand stops and looks out over the landscape in the Forollhogna National Park, in the middle part Norway. He has hiked here many times before, and knows what to look for. He’s used to finding and observing wild reindeer at a distance – but the past four years he has had help from the reindeer themselves.
These pictures are completely unique.
He picks up his binoculars and surveys the landscape. On the ground, the grass is brown, the mountain birch has shed its leaves, and only a few, rotting berries that nobody has bothered to pick cling on to the blueberry bushes. The air is humid, and a bitter wind from the north reveals that autumn has arrived in earnest in the mountains.
As a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), Strand travels all over Norway to observe the last of the wild eurasian reindeer in their natural habitat. He knows the 23 protected areas for the animals in the country like the back of his hand.
Even though Olav Strand has spent much of his childhood in the mountains, has a keen interest in wildlife and extensive experience as a researcher, there are still things he doesn’t know about the reindeers’ lives.
– We may observe the animals for days on end, and we certainly know a lot about them: what they eat, how they live and where they stay. But we always have to watch them from a distance, and can never keep track of them all the time, he says.
But now new technology makes it possible to almost become part of the herd. Strand and his colleagues at NINA have come up with a new approach: instead of observing the animals at a distance with binoculars, telescopes and cameras when the weather allows it, they have fitted nine reindeer with cameras and GPS transmitters on a collar around their neck. For the first time ever, the researchers have been able to see what the wild reindeer do and where they go; every day, all year round.
The project has resulted in 140,000 pictures over four years. The pictures mainly show fur, fur and even more fur – but in between, there are some brilliant shots. The best pictures have now been collected in the upcoming book «Midt i flokken» («In the Midst of the Herd»), and provide a unique narrative about the everyday life of wild reindeer in the mountains.
Huge range necessary
Reindeer need vast areas to survive. The animals have traditionally migrated between the areas in the mountains where food is most accessible, and they have always been an important resource for humans. When the reindeer drifted north after the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, humans followed – and we are still here.
– We used to depend on them, but now they depend on us. Today, human influence is the greatest threat against wild reindeer, says Strand.
– It doesn’t take much human activity to frighten reindeer. We humans have hunted them for at least 40,000 years, and are their most important predator. No wonder they’re nervous, says Strand.
Suddenly he spots them. A couple of reindeer are on the move on a hill on the other side of the valley. I pick up the binoculars and look. Even though I search the same area repeatedly, I’m unable to spot any reindeer.
– Such luck! I exclaim.
Olav looks at me.
– Well... I mean... Thanks to your professional skills, I try to add.
We decide to cross the valley to get closer to them. What we thought were a few animals turns out to be a large herd of several hundred reindeer. Olav knows exactly where to walk and which direction to take to get as close as possible without frightening the animals. He’s done this before.
– What it really takes is patience. It’s important that we stay calm, keep quiet, and remain upwind from the herd. They’re very sensitive to the smell of humans, he says.
Like fast food
We slowly approach the reindeer herd. The animals stare at us, but remain calm. Some are grazing, others have laid down to rest. The mating season is over, but some males still try to make a pass at the nearest female. They are forcefully rejected.
We sit down about a hundred metres from the herd. Like many other places in Norway, some stray tame reindeer have joined the herd of wild reindeer in Forollhogna. This makes the animals less wary of humans, especially when we approach carefully.
For people who were used to hunting mammoths, reindeer must have seemed almost like fast food.
I’ve never thought about the sounds reindeer make. It turns out that the females emit soft grunts, while the males sometimes roar loudly or emit a sort of rasping, guttural noise. It’s not easy to guess what they’re talking about as they graze by the edge of a marsh.
– Imagine the first people who encountered reindeer, says Strand.
– Then imagine how they compare to mammoths, with huge tusks, a really bad temper and an almost impenetrable hide. Then suddenly 500 of these Rudolphs come past. They must have seemed like fast food! says Strand.
Reindeer have been important prey for humans for millennia, something finds of arrowheads, pitfalls and remains of larger fence traps bear witness to.
When efficient firearms became widespread in the 19th century, extensive hunting led to a sharp decline in the reindeer population. A law to protect them was passed in 1905, and hunting restrictions and licenses were introduced to ensure sustainable management of the herds.
But the authorities had little or no knowledge about the actual number of reindeer in the mountains, and established far too limited hunting quotas. This led to too many reindeer and too little food for them.
– The authorities’ need for better knowledge has been an important driving force for research on wild reindeer in Norway. Conflicts about the size of hunting quotas made the need for improved understanding about the biology and behaviour of reindeer evident, says Strand.
We still need to improve our knowledge about reindeer. A census of the animals is taken every autumn and spring to enable hunting quotas to be fixed more precisely. But even though we now know a lot more about the approximately 35,000 wild reindeer in Norway, many unsolved riddles remain.
– Fitting the reindeer with cameras was basically a stunt. We didn’t know exactly what it could provide us, or what we might use it for, says Strand.
The hope is that the research effort that has been carried out now will make it easier to manage the remaining reindeer population in Norway.
If we fail to protect the wild reindeer, can we manage to protect anything at all?
– Wild reindeer have had an enormous significance for humans throughout history. Now it’s up to us to take care of them. We have to find ways to use the knowledge we have, and impose restrictions upon ourselves. If we fail to protect the wild reindeer, can we manage to protect anything at all? asks Strand.
New threats to wild reindeer
Human influence was an important backdrop for the start of the research project with cameras and GPS transmitters in 2011. How do they migrate over time? Which areas do they stay away from? And what do they actually do in the different mountain areas? This are some of the questions the researchers hope to be able to answer.
Deep in the national park, it’s hard to imagine that we humans can be a problem. The pristine plateau stretches as far as the eye can see, and there are vast areas of reindeer moss for the animals to graze upon. Besides the narrow road we have driven and walked along, there’s nothing artificial in sight. Well, except the tiny cabin on the nearby slope. And the trail we’re following, of course. And maybe the huge hydroelectric dam we passed further down the valley.
Only long-term monitoring can answer these questions. Following the animals every day of the year is an impossible task – but luckily, technology has come to the researchers’ aid.
Land use change is presently the greatest threat against wild reindeer. What seems to human eyes to be an innocent gravel road, almost without traffic, creates a barrier that wild reindeer are extremely reluctant to cross. A stretch of railroad or a motorway is an insurmountable obstacle that efficiently keeps the wild reindeer away – and cuts them off from traditional and perhaps crucial grazing grounds.
Nervous reindeer on Snøhetta
From Forollhogna we have a view of the majestic Snøhetta mountain. There are wild reindeer there as well, but of the more nervous kind. The population here is a good example of wild reindeer being influenced by humans, says Strand.
Roads, cabins and hydroelectric development in the area around Snøhetta have steadily encroached on the traditional grazing grounds of the reindeer. Today, the wild reindeer limit themselves to areas they formerly only used to graze on in summer. Human activity, primarily the E6 motorway from Hjerkinn to Oppdal and the Dovrebanen railway, has cut them off from the winter grazing grounds further east.
For now, the wild reindeer in and around Snøhetta have survived. But after the artillery range in Hjerkinn was closed, human activity in the area has increased. This includes traffic to the tourist cabin Snøheim, where a gravel road goes all the way to the door. The road leads through the former artillery range and part of the national park. Transport on the road is therefore limited to buses at certain times.
One of the reindeers’ traditional migration routes passes right across the road. The question is therefore to what degree the reindeer are affected by the increased activity in the area – and how humans can share the area with wildlife causing minimal disruption.
The map below shows how the reindeer migrate in the area around Hjerkinn. Together with footage shot by the reindeer themselves, it’s evident that the herds avoid the areas close to and between the roads where people often walk.
– The herd can remain between the path and road for some time, but often run when crossing obstacles like these. The park management works actively to protect this area, says Strand.
Using GPS data, pictures and video, the researchers now hope to be able to analyse the effect of the various measures that have been put in place to shield the migratory route of the wild reindeer.
The video below contains more footage from the lives of the reindeer on Snøhetta.
We were lucky
The wild reindeer we have followed are done grazing, and start heading across a small hill toward the south. Some stragglers run to catch up with the herd. We watch them until the last animals disappear below the horizon. Soon the landscape will be covered in snow, making it more difficult to find food – but the herd will surely survive this winter as well, as they have done for so long.
Olav watches them leave.
– We were certainly lucky to find them today, he says.
– Lucky? I ask.
Olav just looks at me, and smiles knowingly.