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Reindeer

Domesticated reindeer are descended from the wild reindeer that still live in Norway and Siberia. They are an important element of Sami culture and economics. The reindeer is the only deer where both the male and the female have antlers. When reindeer walk, each step makes a snapping sound that helps the herd stay together in poor visibility.

  • The reindeer is an Arctic deer. It can be found on the tundra of northern Eurasia, northern North America, Greenland and several Arctic islands. In Sweden, the wild reindeer disappeared in the 19th century. Nowadays, all Swedish reindeer are domesticated and belong to the Sami people who practise reindeer herding.

  • About the reindeer
    Scientific name:

    Rangifer tarandus

    Order:

    Even-toed ungulates

    Family:

    Deer

    Weight:

    60–170 kg

    Height at the withers:

    90–140 cm

    Sexual maturity:

    1.5 years

    Breeding season:

    September to October

    Gestation:

    228 days

    Number of young:

    1–2

    Lifespan:

    Approx. 20 years

    Eats:

    Plants and lichens

    Number in Sweden:

    Domesticated reindeer herding is practised from Idre northwards. In total, there are 250,000 reindeer in Sweden

  • The Sami name for the reindeer bull is a ‘sarv’. The cow is called a ‘vaja’, and a castrated bull is called a ‘härk’.

    Constantly on the move

    Reindeer are constantly on the move between winter grazing land in the forest and summer grazing land in the mountains. Their diet consists primarily of various lichens, but they also eat a large number of other green plants. Once the snow clears, reindeer build up a substantial layer of fat in readiness for the winter.

    Adapted to long, cold winters

    The reindeer is a medium-sized to large deer with a body length of 120 to 220 cm, and a height at the withers of 90 to 140 cm. Its weight varies between 60 and 170 kg, depending on sex, age, time of year and habitat.

    The reindeer is adapted to long, cold winters. Its fur is long and dense, with a dark greyish-brown colour. Its hair strands are hollow, making them good at insulating against the cold. The reindeer has a kind of heat exchanger in its legs, which means that the cooled blood coming from the hooves is warmed up before it reaches the heart. In this way, the reindeer is not affected by general cooling.

    Both males and females have antlers

    The reindeer is the only deer where both the male and the female have antlers. The growing antlers are covered by a skin called velvet, which protects the antlers. The velvet is scraped off every autumn when the antlers have finished growing. The bulls usually have the most impressive antlers, reaching 50 to 130 cm in length. They shed their antlers in December and January.

    A cow’s antlers are 20 to 50 cm in size. Unlike the bulls, they keep their antlers during the winter as they are linked to gestation. They shed their antlers only after giving birth to their calves in May. The antlers give the reindeer cows a high status in the herd. They can use their antlers to repel much larger reindeer from grazing pits. Each group has a hierarchy based on the size of the antlers, and sometimes there are even ritual-like battles.

    Digs in the snow

    Reindeer hooves are divided into two section and are tough, allowing the reindeer to move across rocky and muddy ground. They also use their hooves to dig into the snow in the winter to find moss, which is part of their winter diet. When reindeer walk, each step makes a snapping sound. This helps the herd stay together in poor visibility.

    The history of the reindeer

    For thousands of years, reindeer have been the lifeblood of northern peoples. It is thanks to reindeer that the foundations have been laid for human existence in northern Sweden. The domestication of reindeer probably began during the Middle Ages. The Sami, the Khanty, the Chukchi and other indigenous peoples still make their living from reindeer herding in northern Scandinavia and Siberia.

    A central place in Sami society

    In Sweden, reindeer have long been at the heart of Sami society. They have a remarkable ability to withstand the cold and to form social bonds. The reindeer’s distinctive migratory behaviour has forced humans to adapt to the animal’s seasonal migrations between pastures. During the summer, the reindeer graze in the mountains. The Sami follow them and live there in their summer lodgings. During the winter, the reindeer graze in the coniferous forests east of the mountains, where the Sami live in towns and villages near the grazing areas.

    Almost the whole of the reindeer is used after slaughter. The skin is made into leather, and the bones and antlers are made into tools. For reindeer herders in northern Scandinavia, the sale of reindeer meat is their main source of income. Not only does reindeer herding provide income and attract tourists to the mountain region, it also contributes towards a social and cultural sense of belonging. It is an important carrier of the Sami language and culture.

You can find the reindeer here