Reindeer herding adapts to climate change for Vilhemina Northern Herding Cooperative

Reindeer herding is already being affected by climate change. The formation of ice in the early part of the winter and reduced levels of frozen snow crust in early spring are amongst the changes that have caused problems for reindeer herding in recent years. Vilhemina Northern Herding Cooperative has developed tools to track the movements of their reindeer and to aid consultation with other land users.

Reindeer herding in Sweden is undertaken by the Sami people. In the summer months, the reindeer from the Vilhemina Northern Herding Cooperative feed up in the mountains, and in the winter they move down into the forests to the east. Climate change is bringing about changes to both temperature and rain and snowfall in the reindeer husbandry area. Reindeer herding has a history of adapting to different weather conditions but climate change involves a greater and more long-term challenge.

GIS-map illusrtates the areas reindeer used in winter.
The signals from the GPS-necklaces showing how the reindeer move on the GIS map. We can see the difference between the areas reindeer used in winter of 2007 (in red) and in winter of 2009 (in blue). Illustration Vilhelmina norra sameby Enlarge Image

Vulnerability of reindeer herding in a changing climate

Warmer temperatures and a change in patterns of rain and snowfall mean that conditions for reindeer husbandry are changing. Timings for moving the herd and for slaughter have had to shift, and warm, dry summers can cause problems for the reindeer with their sensitivity to heat and insects.

GIS-map illustrating external factors on the Sami village.
The opportunity for the Sami village to move in the winter pastures is affected by both other industries and infrastructure. This GIS map showing the Sami village boundaries (black solid line), built and approved wind farms (black areas), wind farms under investigation (burgundy surfaces) railways (black dashed lines), public roads (pink lines), hydropower magazine (blue areas), peat (pink surface), applied for exploration permits for mining (blue squares), granted exploration permits for mining (yellow surfaces). Forestry is also conducted throughout the Sami village winter pastures. Illustration Vilhelmina norra sameby Enlarge Image

Winter is now the most critical time of the year for reindeer husbandry. In early winter a layer of ice forms at ground level, locking in the reindeers’ winter feed, and in the spring it is more difficult for them to move up to the higher ground because there is less frozen snow crust. Climate change means that the reindeer herders need to be more flexible and have access to several different types of grazing land. It also means that the reindeer need to be able to move across a larger area than they have in the past.

Cooperation

Many areas of grazing land used by Cooperative reindeer herders in warm winters are today not available to them, due to other uses such as extensive infrastructure, forestry, wind power and tourism. To improve its chances of adapting, the Cooperative must therefore influence and cooperate with the other industries in the area. Vilhemina Northern Herding Cooperative has increased its influence by using facts provided by the RenGIS data tool to support its arguments.

Reindeer husbandry plans and RenGIS

Working together with the Swedish Forest Agency and researchers, the Cooperative has developed a reindeer husbandry plan to be used when consulting and communicating. Reindeer at Vilhemina Northern Herding Cooperative have been equipped with GPS transmitters, and for a number of years now the Cooperative has been gathering information about the movement of reindeer in different weather conditions. The reindeer husbandry plans feature in a geographical information system called RenGIS. The mapping tool handles and presents information about the area and the movements of the reindeer using a clear visual format.

With RenGIS, the Cooperative is now able to provide a clearer picture of its use of land and its needs. In consultation, the system lends even more credibility to the Cooperative’s arguments since the information is based on data coming direct from the reindeers’ GPS transmitters. An important part of the climate change adaptation process is being able to show which areas of land the reindeer use during warm winters. These are areas that are likely to assume increasing importance in a changing climate.

Financing

The reindeer husbandry plans and RenGIS were developed on behalf of the Swedish Forest Agency by researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) together with a consulting firm. The project was government funded, and RenGIS can be downloaded and used free of charge by all Sweden’s herding cooperatives. However, the work on RenGIS was very labour intensive, and the operational costs of the reindeers’ collars are high.

The future

Vilhemina Northern Herding Cooperative feels that there are great opportunities for reindeer husbandry to adapt to a changed climate, but that this does require geographical space. The key to adaptation is the fact that other industries largely accept the changes based on the perspective and needs of the reindeer herders.