Reindeer husbandry is considered an industry that is vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Changing weather and snow conditions impact especially on the reindeer’s ability to find food.

Traditional reindeer husbandry methods have gradually been replaced with new ones due to unfavorable changes in the grazing conditions on pastures located on fells and in forests. In addition to climate change, the state of pastures is also shaped by the long-term grazing and the effects of other forms of land use. Reindeer grazing may slow down or accelerate the impact of climate change on the Arctic nature.

In northern Finland, climate change could at its worst trap Arctic animals in a narrow strip of land between the Arctic Ocean and the approaching forest zone. Rising temperatures affect the utilisation of Arctic nature in numerous ways.

Extreme variations in weather in late autumn make feeding more difficult for reindeer

In the northern parts of reindeer herding areas, reindeer eat lichen and dwarf shrubs they dig out from the snow. If thaw and rains wet the snow and ground high on the fells where most reindeer graze, the snow cover will freeze into a strong and dense layer of ice when the temperature next drops below zero. This forces foraging reindeer to spend more time and energy on breaking the hard layer of snow, and an ice cover may even make it impossible for the reindeer to get food.

These problems might arise already in early winter if the ground does not freeze properly. Good grazing conditions are formed when the snow is dry and granular already in early winter, the ground is properly frozen and the snow cover has not frozen over the vegetation. These kinds of conditions keep the vegetation edible and available for reindeer to dig.

Reindeer body condition decreases during winters with difficult snow conditions or icy snow winters, resulting in reduced calf production in the spring. Some of the starved female reindeer may abort already in February and March. On the other hand, the early melting of snow makes availability of food easier in late winter reducing mortality and improving the health of the reindeer, thus also improving calf production. When green plants emerge earlier in spring, foraging conditions by reindeer also improve. The early onset of spring cannot, however, completely compensate for the problems experienced during the winter season.

Harassment caused by insects increase as temperatures rise

The autumn weights of calves have dropped after exceptionally warm summers due to the stress and harassment caused by insects. According to one hypothesis, the problems caused by insects will become more common as the climate becomes warmer. This will not, however, happen if dry springs slow down the development of the larvae by blood-sucking insects that require humid conditions for their reproduction.

Warmer summers may, on the other hand, expand the living areas of several parasitic insects towards north. Deer ked, which so far has been a nuisance in southern Finland, can also intrude the fur of reindeer causing discomfort to the animals and sometimes ruining their hides.

Fortunately, reindeer herders have access to even better technologies and treatments which have already helped the reindeer herding livelihood to adapt to the changing conditions. Reindeer husbandry does, however, still have several challenges to overcome in the process of adapting to climate change, but it is also a livelihood with a relatively high adaptation potential to the changes. Still, it might be forced to replace some traditional reindeer herding ways and practices, which change it more similar to cattle breeding. If this happens, the traditional cultural significance of reindeer herding may also diminish.

Luke makes research on the effects of climate change on pastures and reindeer husbandry
Luke examines among other things reindeer pastures and changes in the pasture environment as well as how the factors dependent on pastures, reindeer herding methods and weather and snow conditions impact the productivity and economics of reindeer herding. One of Luke’s main research subjects is how the changing weather and snow conditions will affect reindeer husbandry in Finland.