When you come to Norway, reindeer are a must-see. I admit that I was very excited at the prospects 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. (In fact, now I have grown quite fond of reindeer for dinner and have even learnt a couple of Norwegian recipes.)
There was actually 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. (It is certainly much easier to eat a cow than a majestic king of the forest.) In fact, in Northern Norway reindeer have been domesticated for centuries by the Sami. Reindeer 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 reindeer skin for dressing their lavvos (the Sami equivalent to an American Indian teepee). It is also common to dress snow caves or places like the Igloo Hotel in Alta with reindeer skin as it is the best fur you can use in Norway for warmth.
To me, reindeer skin is similar to kangaroo skin – it is quite bristly, but just a little longer. However, the skin doesn’t always look beautiful. 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 between, the reindeer look very scruffy. Their lovely winter coat falls out in patches and the reindeer fur on the antlers peels off. This is very annoying to the reindeer – I guess kind of itchy – so they scrape their antlers on rocks and trees to get off their fur. This usually leaves bits of bloody, dried fur hanging off their antlers like leather straps. (At first I thought the Sami had 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. It is recently thought that the Vikings were the first people to herd reindeer. During the time of the Vikings the Sami lived as settlers and were just hunting reindeer. It wasn’t until the 16th century (I guess after the big mean scary Vikings had all died out) that the Sami became nomads, herding reindeer.
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 actually herd their reindeer onto large barges which take the reindeer to fresh grazing grounds on the summer islands. When you come to Norway you can even be a part of reindeer herding. In Finnmark during Spring every year (the snow stays in Northern Norway until Summer) some Sami families invite tourists to help herd their reindeer from the mountains to the coast. There is normally several thousand reindeer in the herd and it takes about two weeks to drive them down. The moving normally 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. Normally everything is provided and they say all you need to bring is a camera and a toothbrush. You can find out more about reindeer herding experiences from Destination Kautokeino or Ongajok.
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 very used to reindeer and welcome the ‘hello’. However, every time I see a reindeer I still have to stop to take pictures. They are very calming creatures. The only wild reindeer on mainland Norway are down south. They are free game during hunting season. There is another species of reindeer only on Svalbard which are also wild, however, they are protected.
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 went last year – you can read the post World Reindeer racing Championships in Kautokeino. It was so much fun that this year we are definitely going again! (Of course, I have to defend my world record title! – although, I’m not sure if they will let a big fat pregnant woman loose on a reindeer.)