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Reindeer in front line of climate change

Above the Arctic Circle, reindeer have returned from the coast to inland grazing areas as they eke out an existence through the thick snow, as they have for thousands of years.

In Norway, between 400 to 500 indigenous Sami families own 180,000 reindeer which can roam largely unfenced to Finland, Sweden and western Russia.

But the reindeer herders of Noway are worried about climate change.

Tor Mikkel Eira’s people have been tending reindeer for generations. He says that in Finnmark (the northern part of Norway) the winters over the past years have become warmer, the summers cooler and there’s more rain.

“Moss for the reindeer is not growing as before, rain turns to ice and it is trapped beneath the snow,” he said at his Karesjok home in late summer just before his herd at the coast made the migration hundreds of kilometres to the elevated interior.

Warm weather in winter means more trees are growing faster meaning so during summer they shade grass and moss which doesn’t grow as well to provide food during winter.

Bugs such as mosquitoes are not being killed off during winters, meaning the reindeer are increasingly agitated during summer, he said.

Eira’s wife, Anne May Ollii, says the animals were a part of the cultural makeup of the country, and she thinks politicians who make decisions about Norway’s energy future need to think about them.

The country is a massive exporter of oil and gas.

“They [politicians] are making the rules in isolation, throwing rocks in the river but they don’t see the impact of the ripples on the water – what it means to people here.

She says there’s acknowledgement the climate had changed quickly before, but the rapid changes of the past decades were worrying the couple who have two son, aged 16 and 12.

“They will have this life here but I don’t know about my grandchildren when they come along,” she said.

Everybody needs to know that the oil money will not last forever – it will take another million years to come back. We need to look at industries that are sustainable, such as viable farming.”

Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami parliament, points out a new threat to the animals as renewable energy powered Norway expands its domestic generation. Wind farms – with infrastructure such as roads and power lines are being being built in the north, in the midst of the reindeer habitat.

“And in the winter they throw lumps of ice and snow and can be dangerous to both animals and people.”

Reindeer farming isn’t bad right now. The herds are passed from father to son and are identified by marks cut into their ears.

Eira says prices are good right now after a slump three years ago. A reindeer in good condition can fetch up $12 a kilo for the farmer and they can weigh up to 100kg. Their antlers go to China for medicinal supplements and that market’s been booming in the recent years.

He said Sami believe the reindeer are on loan to them.

“We will die off but the reindeer keep on going.”