Did you know Norway is the natural habitat of reindeer?

Or that the animals are perfectly adapted to life in the Arctic Circle? Here is an account of a wildlife conservationist that throws light on the snow-covered landscape and the animals owned and cared for by the traditional Sami people.

Many years ago, I joined a team of wildlife experts and travelled to Norway, near the Arctic Circle. This is the natural habitat of reindeer. Apart from wild reindeer or caribou, there were hundreds of almost tame ones that were herded by a traditional community called the Sami.

It was the most amazing snow-covered landscape-the entire ground was white as far as the eye could see. It was freezing cold and though all of us wore several layers of sweaters and jackets, our hosts gave each of us a full snowsuit with a hood, snow boots and thick gloves.

The reindeer herd was out grazing in a pasture far away. We travelled in motorised sleds to see them. It was a thrilling but scary ride. The young Sami man driving the vehicle took us at breakneck speed over the powdery snow, swerving expertly between trees and almost flying up and down slopes. I held on tight, grateful for the snowsuit that protected me from the chilly wind and icy spray of snow that blew up in our wake.

From a distance, the reindeer looked like dark shadows against the almost blinding whiteness of the snow-covered open meadow. As we approached, they continued to graze peacefully. They were semi-domesticated, allowed to roam free without being tied up or confined, yet owned and cared for by the Sami families. There were about a hundred reindeer in the herd with many fawns. The adults looked majestic with their crowns of beautiful branching antlers.

Cone-like tents or Lavvus

Sami families move along with their herds and camp in huge inverted cone-like tents called 'lavvu' wherever they want to stop. Reindeer are big animals-almost like horses. Both males and females have antlers and they are sturdy and strong with long legs to help them walk in deep snow.

Reindeer have two layers of fur to keep out the cold-a fluffy inner layer and a hairier outer one. Even their hooves are hard and horny to enable them to walk easily on ice and snow.

Interestingly, the fawns are born in winter. They have extra fat in their bodies which insulates them against the intense cold.

In short, they are perfectly adapted to life in the Arctic Circle, where the temperature is below zero for much of the year.

Looking for lichen

I wondered what they were eating, because there was not a blade of grass or leafy bush to be seen anywhere! Then I noticed the big reindeer were digging the ground with their forelegs. They were looking for lichen or 'reindeer moss’ growing on the rocks underneath. This was the only food available to them in winter. Lichens are a combination of a fungus and an alga. Usually they are found on the bark of trees or on stones and rocks. The reindeer use their sharp hooves to scrape it off from rocks and boulders that lie beneath the snow.

When the snow thaws in summer, the ground becomes marshy and spongy, so the reindeer’s hooves develop pads to help them to walk and run. In the few months of the short Arctic summer, grasses and plants grow quickly and abundantly. The reindeer then feed on the lush, fresh vegetation till winter returns.

Dressed in woollen fabric

After showing us the herd, our host took us to a group of tents belonging to Sami families. A few women and men came out to greet us, dressed in colourful red and blue traditional coats made of embroidered woollen fabric and wearing elaborate reindeer fur hats and thick boots also made of fur. They invited us to have dinner and spend the night in their home which was a typical lavvu. The snow all around was so soft and deep that I sank up to the knees with every step. I envied the reindeers long, strong legs!

In the centre of the lavvu, I was surprised to find a log fire burning with a huge pot of steaming stew on it! After a meal of delicious stew, bread and jam served by our hosts. I crawled into a sleeping bag as near the glowing fire as possible. I was still wearing the full snowsuit with its fur-lined hood to cover my head, as well as thick gloves and wool socks, yet the bitter cold had me shivering and sleepless all night. I was filled with admiration for the Sami, as well as for the reindeer, who had both adapted to such a harsh climate.

Picture Credit : Google 

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