When you come to Norway, reindeer are a must-see. I admit that I was very excited at the prospect of seeing Santa’s reindeer grazing in a field or walking across the road, and even more excited to be able to ride a sleigh. What I didn’t expect was to see my first reindeer sitting on my dinner plate. The first few bites were excruciating but I let my taste buds open up and realised, ‘Hey, this doesn’t taste half-bad.’
There was one bit of information that made reindeer easier to swallow, something that they seem to leave out in encyclopaedias. Reindeer are considered to be just like cows here in Norway. It is certainly much easier to eat a cow than a majestic king of the plains. In fact, in Northern Norway reindeer have been domesticated for centuries by the Sami. They are a part of Sami everyday life, and in Norway the Sami are the only people who are allowed to herd them.
Even though reindeer are herded they are still considered wild game to keep the traditional slaughter practises of the Sami. Reindeer meat is sold in supermarkets as steaks or shavings for reindeer stew. Small goods companies make reindeer salami and jerky. Reindeer skin is used as outside clothing and shoes, and also as throw rugs. Sami use the skin for dressing their lavvos. It is also common to dress snow caves or places like the Igloo Hotel in Alta with reindeer fur as it is the best to use in Norway for warmth.
Reindeer fur is quite bristly and thick. In winter, the reindeer’s coat becomes nice and thick, even their antlers grow a fur coating for protection against the winter cold. This makes them look very cuddly. In the summer, reindeer have a thin, short coat with their antlers bare. This is especially good for the bucks who need their antlers sharp for competing for females. But in the spring, the reindeer look rather scruffy. Their lovely winter coat falls out in patches and the reindeer fur on the antlers peel off. This is very annoying to the reindeer–it itches them. They scrape their antlers on rocks and trees to help get off their fur. This usually leaves bits of bloody, dried fur hanging from their antlers like leather straps. (At first I thought Sami tied leather on their antlers.)
Just like cows, reindeer are very placid. They get skittish when there is too much excitement around but if you are calm and still the reindeer will happily graze around you. Reindeer like open places with mossy ground. They can eat leaves and mushrooms but lich is their main source of food in the winter. Reindeer dig down in the snow with their hoofs to find the lich underneath.
Today herding reindeer is synonymous with the Sami culture. However, it is recently thought that the Vikings were the first people to herd reindeer. During the Viking Age, Sami lived as settlers and hunted reindeer. It wasn’t until the 16th century (I guess after the big mean scary Vikings had all died out and so it was safer) that the Sami became nomads and herders.
Each Sami family have their own herding area and patterns. They move their reindeer around from the mountain plateaus to the valleys and coasts. There is one particular Sami family who herd their reindeer onto large barges which take the reindeer to fresh grazing grounds on the summer islands.
In Finnmark, during spring some Sami families invite tourists to help herd their reindeer from the mountains to the coast. There is normally several thousand reindeer in a herd and it takes about two weeks to drive them down. The moving takes place at night while there is crust on the snow so you can walk on it without sinking through. Herding is done with snowmobiles (so you need a licence to participate) and it is amazing to watch the Sami ‘snow-cowboys’ doing jumps off the snow dunes as they rein in the break-aways.
Even though reindeer are ‘kept’ animals, they are not kept in pens or fences like cows or horses. They are free to run around and graze wherever they like. It is quite common for reindeer to venture into the towns to graze on the fresh grasses. People here in Northern Norway are used to reindeer and welcome the ‘hello’. However, every time I see a reindeer I still have to stop to take pictures.
One of my most favourite experiences is reindeer racing. Every year in Kautokeino there is the Sami Easter Festival with the Sami Music festival, Film Festival and the World Reindeer Racing Championships. We go nearly every year to join in the festivities.