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Reindeer migration

Published: September 20, 2016

By Jessica Dina Korynta

It’s a busy time of year in Northern Norway.  Life above the Arctic Circle means something a bit different when you start preparing for the changing seasons.  As with most people who live in a colder climate, Norwegians will be busy finding the jackets and hats they packed away and  weather-proofing their homes.  But the region is also home to thousands of Sámi and their reindeer who spend their October moving their herds from the coast back inland to prepare for the coming winter.

While many of us think of reindeer as a natural part of the Sámi lifestyle, herding the animals didn’t start until 17th century as a result of the nation forming going on all around them.  As Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia were each trying to claim territory, they were also each trying to claim the Sámi as part of their population and began taxing them accordingly.  While the Sámi had long relied on wild reindeer, they suddenly required a lot more animals as they paid their taxes with meat and hides since they had no monetary money and thus reindeer herding and husbandry became a necessity.

Sámi herder, Marit, with her herd.  Image from

Over the centuries, the herders have become more skilled in their trade and gained an encompassing knowledge of what it entails to be a reindeer herder.  Among other things, they know what is required of them and their herd heading into the brutal winter at the top of the world.  

Autumn for the herders involves moving and marking their herds.  The herds are moved from the coastal pastures inland where the reindeer will be able to survive on lichen throughout the winter.  One main issue that arises during this time is lost reindeer!  The animals have more freedom in the summer and can be difficult to control as the herders start to move them.  They may wander off at night and have to be found the next day which can be tricky when the snow has not yet started to fall so there are no tracks to follow.  To help with this, all of the animals are marked (all calves are required to be marked by 10/31 of the year they were born, so autumn is a busy time!).

Herders trying to lasso the calves to mark their ears.  Image from

Similar to branding with cattle farmers in the United States, the reindeer herder mark each of their animals to be better able to keep track of what is theirs.  Instead of a hot iron brand, however, the Sámi use earmarks (a unique set of cuts to the ear of a reindeer calf).  However, according to the New Norwegian Reindeer Herding Act from 2007 (Lov om reindrift 2007) the right to earmark requires that the person is a Sámi and themselves, their parents or their grandparents have or had reindeer herding as their primary occupation.

Published reindeer earmarks.  Image from

Once a person is granted the right to earmark their reindeer, they then need to have the earmark approved.  The earmarks can be inherited but new marks will be designed for each new member of the family if needed.  While some herders may know the marks of others in their area (some claim to know upwards of 600 different marks!), booklets are also printed with all of the marks used in one region.  There are over 200,000 reindeer in Norway with the average herd consisting of 70 animals.  That's a LOT of different ear marks to keep straight!

Once the markings are done, the rest of the season is spent figuring out the future of the herd.  That entails everything from  choosing which animals to slaughter for sale or domestic consumption to deciding which animals to castrate prior to the rut beginning.  Herds are divided into smaller groups before winter sets in and the hunt for lichen begins.  

The herders are now prepared for the times ahead and will hopefully arrive back at the coast in the spring with a happy, healthy herd, ready to start the cycle all over again!

Looking for more information about Sámi reindeer husbandry?  Check out the Reinlykke series from NRK!  The documentary series follows the Eira family from Kautokeino through the migration, calving, marking, and slaughter.  The program is in Norwegian with subtitles.  You can also check out this video from for an impressive aeriel view of the migration.