It’s cold. Minus 10, 12 perhaps, and getting dark; the butter-fingers of a rising moon evident on the eastern horizon. Ill-equipped (the forecasts were for minus five), my ears start to hurt, and I pull in my hood. By the time you read this it will be colder still. And there are still no reindeer to be seen.
Olav hands me his binoculars and tells me to focus on a hillside about three miles away across the snowy vastness of Norway’s Forollhogna National Park, a tract of ancient, ice-scoured mountains and mire, three hours’ drive inland from Trondheim.
I don’t know what I am looking for really. Nine brown animals, one with a red nose? “No, they are light coloured at this time of year. A pale creamy grey. Just behind those bushes. Perhaps …”
I see some lumps, which may be reindeer. Hundreds of them. Or then again, they may be rocks. These are among the most timid animals on the planet and have good reason to keep their distance from a species that will have their hide for a rug as soon as look at them.
We walk on. Despite getting closer, the lumps fail to resolve themselves. I make a decision that we have indeed seen reindeer and hand the binoculars to Olav. He agrees; they seem to be moving. Rocks don’t do that. Time to walk back to the car. And get warm.
Norway is western Europe’s wildest country. Unlike us, the Norwegians have failed to exterminate their entire menagerie of interesting and valuable species. Although large predators are now very rare, – there are only a handful of wolves and bears left in the wild, the arctic fox, once on the brink of extinction, is back, and there are golden eagles and moose aplenty. And reindeer. Thirty-five thousand wholly wild animals, plus thousands more (far to the north of where I am) domesticated and semi-domesticated, mostly by the Sami people, Europe’s most mysterious tribe.
The landscape is magnificent – think Scottish Highlands on steroids. And Norway is, in some ways, a very green country. It gets nearly all of its electricity from renewables. Recycling is compulsory. Electric Tesla cars purr. But there are anomalies and paradoxes here. Norway is big and the population density is low, meaning that Mother Nature is respected, but often taken for granted.
The national psyche, when it comes to green matters, is the bizarre lovechild of Jonathan Porritt and Sarah Palin, Greenpeace with a hunting rifle. Norwegian schoolchildren are taught to shoot and go on hunting trips with their class. Reindeer are killed, butchered and eaten. Hard to imagine that going down well among the pious parents of north London.
And nothing shows this more clearly than the strange story of Norway’s reindeer and its green energy programme – and how efforts to conserve a species have come into direct conflict with efforts to conserve a planet.
Because to the reindeer, the empty wilderness I see is anything but. It is a land of invisible but terrifying hazards, barriers unperceived by humans – many of them the direct result of Norway’s efforts to become self-sufficient in green electricity. The Norwegian wild reindeer may have lost, according to some scientists, an estimated 40% of their habitat – without the destruction of a single mountainside or desecration of a single forest. It is one of the oddest stories in the history of ecology and it is only now coming to light. Because to a reindeer, Norway’s environmental correctness must seem like a great green swindle.
Norway is a lucky country. It has a small population, highly educated. It is also rich beyond avarice, floating on a lake of North Sea oil. Thanks to this bonanza, its 6 million inhabitants have amassed a sovereign wealth fund of nearly a trillion dollars – enough to keep the wolf from the door for centuries after the oil runs out.
Norway also, by an equal quirk of geography, has an almost limitless supply of free energy. Norway is mountainous. It rains a lot. And its rocks are impermeable. This makes it an ideal location for hydroelectric power. The country needs about 128,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year, and 122GWh – 96% – of this is supplied by 937 hydropower schemes.
Rivers are dammed, producing lakes. The water is then allowed to flow, through a series of underground channels, to large turbine plants. There are plans to massively expand Norway’s hydropower grid, by turning the entire country into, in effect, a gigantic gravity-store – the “green battery for Europe”.
Under the scheme, any surplus energy (for example electricity produced by turbines during very windy periods or excess solar power on hot days) will be transmitted through the European grid and used to pump water up into Norway’s dammed lakes, creating vast stores of potential gravitational energy that can be turned on and off when needed. It will take a great deal of clever engineering but would solve the biggest issue with renewable energy – its inherent unreliability.
But there are unforeseen consequences. As well as flooding river valleys, hydropower schemes have hitherto unsuspected impacts on Norway’s wildlife, especially the population of wild salmon (which are prevented from moving upstream by hydropower schemes) and also for the country’s wild reindeer.
Not just the dams, but the access roads and other infrastructure form a powerful barrier to the movement of the animals, trapping them into a series of “islands”, limiting migration and the gene-mixing needed for a successful population to flourish. And the problem may get worse with the planned introduction, on a large scale, of wind power. It seems that just about anything we humans do to the landscape spooks the reindeer.
After the end of the ice age, 10,000 years ago, Scandinavia was recolonised by waves of animals – and humans. In Viking times, Norway was home to hordes of migrating ungulates – reindeer and moose – that travelled hundreds of miles a year in vast mass-movements of animals.
The country was also home to a menagerie of ferocious predators. Bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and golden eagles took advantage of this vast mobile smorgasbord. Until the advent of farming – and hunting on a mass scale – predator and prey lived in equilibrium. And then humans, as always, became the region’s apex predator. Things were never the same again.
Norway may be a green country, but it has a powerful farming lobby and the nation’s carnivores, a perceived threat to livestock, have been hunted to near-extinction. The hunters went for the wild reindeer too. Traditional pitfall traps, in which whole herds of animals were chased into stone-lined pits, decimated the population. Later, rifles were used. By 1900 the Norwegian wild reindeer was almost extinct. But a series of conservation laws, some of the first anywhere in the world, saw strict controls on hunting and the population recovered to today’s level.
The reindeer has few natural predators. The bears and wolves are mostly gone. But I was surprised to be told that even adult animals can be killed and eaten by golden eagles. “How on earth does a bird kill a large hairy mammal that might weigh 60 kilos?” I asked Olav Strand, my guide and a zoologist with Nina, Norway’s environmental research agency. “They land on the animal’s back and pierce the spine with their talons,” he explained. Nerve damage and blood loss mean that the eagle only has to wait a while for its dinner.
Now, reindeer populations are carefully controlled by licensed hunting. National parks are strictly managed; you will pay a fine of £2,000 for driving where you shouldn’t. So the reindeer should be safe. But there is another problem. The vast herds, which may number upwards of a thousand animals, have leaders. And these are not the strongest and most resilient animals, but the most timid. This makes sense; with wolves and bears around, the reindeer need to be on twitchy high alert, ready to run fast and far at the first sight of trouble. But the bears and wolves are mostly gone, and the access road to a hydro-power plant poses no real threat. Yet the anxious leaders of the herd remain keen to avoid such structures. “The reindeer, you see, is a victim of its own evolution,” says Strand.
The mountain regions, which used to be home to just two to three distinct panmictic (able to freely interbreed) populations of reindeer, have now been fragmented into 23 distinct populations. What to us looks like an unbroken stretch of wilderness is, to a reindeer, an archipelago of safe islands, all separated by psychologically impenetrable barriers; not just major roads, but the most unobtrusive service road or pylon.
A single dirt road can render 50-100 square kilometres out of bounds to a reindeer. A frozen dammed lake is 10% less likely to be crossed than a natural lake. “In effect, they have lost 40% of their habitat,” Strand says.
The Renewable Reindeer Project started, this year, to quantify the effects of human activity on reindeer movements and the health of their populations. For more than a decade, hundreds of animals have been fitted with GPS collars that allow their movements to be tracked. And for the last four years around a dozen have been fitted with cameras, so the scientists at Nina can work out exactly how the reindeer react to obstacles.
“We simply had no idea what they were doing before the use of GPS collars,” says Dr Manuela Panzacchi, an ecologist at the Trondheim offices of Nina and the scientist in charge of the project. “From a reindeer’s perspective, it is important to stress that the problem is the network of infrastructures, rather than each single one,” Panzacchi says. “The more connected humans become, the more disconnected become pristine wildlife habitats.”
The cameras and GPS trackers tell the scientists where the reindeer are and how they move; they then model the effects of various possible changes to the landscape, such as the introduction of a road, after seeing how the reindeer react to actual infrastructure additions.
It is then, hopefully, possible to work out how to mitigate the effects of, say, building a new hydro plant or wind farm. “The wild reindeer don’t like us humans,” Panzacchi says. “Given the opportunity, they even avoid large overhead power lines.”
This would seem to indicate that the only way to really protect the reindeer would be to scrap any plans to build new infrastructure. But the scientists think this is probably not the case. “You can mitigate. Our models will tell us more precisely, but it is looking like it may be enough simply to close a road for a few days a year.” The findings of the Reindeer Project are to be published in a special edition of the Journal of Animal Ecology this month.
Environmental correctness is a hard act and paradoxes and contradictions are almost inevitable. Reject nuclear power and you may find, as Germany has, that you end up massively increasing your carbon emissions by burning more coal. Wind power subsidies may suck money from more cost-efficient ways of producing green energy. Electric cars are only as green as the power stations that make their electricity. And there are unintended consequences that are wholly unpredictable. But here in Norway, at least, work is under way to make sure that green power and wildlife can coexist in relative harmony.
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