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Reindeer Herding in Norway

By Sanna (Jennifer Foster)

The Sami have practiced traditional reindeer herding since the 17th century. Reindeer herding is more than just a profession but a way of life. Time is measured in the passing of the seasons and home is where the lavvu is set up on the migration trails.

The reindeer have been a valuable resource for the Sami and it is difficult to imagine the Sami surviving without the reindeer. In traditional herding, reindeer were used for food, clothing, trade (reindeer as a form of money), and for labor. Even before reindeer herding began the Sami lived on wild reindeer.

Before the 17th century the Sami were able to live on wild reindeer for clothing and meat. They would have a few tame reindeer as draft animals. The Sami’s needs were simple and they only took what they needed from nature. They would complete their diet with hunting of birds and fish and with gathering of berries during the summer. They were a small group and they had a very minimal impact on the environment.

The Sami’s way of life underwent major changes during the 17th century as a result of nation building among the four regions they occupied (today Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula of Russia). Each nation was fighting for territory and wanted to include the Sami as part of their population to help build the nation. As a result the Sami were taxed by at least one nation and in some cases by several governments. The Sami did not have monetary money and so they paid the taxes in the form of reindeer hides and meat. The Sami needed additional reindeer to pay taxes. This was the beginning of reindeer herding.

Because of the taxes the Sami’s need for reindeer increased dramatically. Reindeer herding provided not only for their personal needs but also a form of wealth to pay taxes. There were also demands from the outsiders for reindeer as draft animals. The outsiders exploited the Sami and the reindeer for mining. The Sami were forced to provide reindeer as draft animals to move materials from the interior to the coast and back.

Finally, not all Sami become reindeer herders in the 17th century. Some Sami lived on the coast year-round and survived by hunting and fishing. Other Sami lived away from the coast in the mountains and along the inland fjords. A small proportion of Sami became reindeer herders and lived a migration lifestyle.

Traditional Reindeer Herding (17th century–WW II)

Reindeer herding in Norway takes place primarily in northern Norway in an area called Finnmark. Herders follow the same migration paths from year to year and each family will have their own pasture areas but all the land is communal. Herders will respect each others areas but if conditions are poor in certain years it is understood that herds may have to find other pasture areas which might be other families traditional areas.

Reindeer herding involved the entire family and often several families worked together and camped together. Women had as much of an equal role in herding as the males and the children were given appropriate chores for their age. The tradition of reindeer herding was passed from one generation to the other. The children went along on the migrations learned by experience.

The Sami are nomads and home is the laavu, a portable tent that is the “house” for the family. The Sami lived in the laavu for most of the year but some would also have a more comfortable and solid house they would stay in during the spring season. They migrate with the help of draft reindeer and sleds. During the winter, skis would help with herding.

To be a good reindeer herder requires many skills. First and foremost, the reindeer herder must know his or her herd, which comes from close observation throughout the year. The herder must know the behavior and movement of the herd and understand how wind, geography, and climate will effect the herd’s behavior and movement.

The herder has a role both in the actual herding but also in husbandry. Husbandry deals with the composition of the heard. In husbandry the herder must decide how many castrates there should be, which animals should be slaughtered, which animals will become draft animals, which animals are marked for the children or as a dowry, and what is the overall size of the heard. The herd needs to be in proportion to the grazing land that is available.

The herder is able to distinguish his or her reindeer from other family’s herds by knowing the reindeer and by the earmarks. Reindeer are branded by making small cuts into the ears of calves. Each family member will have their own earmark and part of the skill of a herder is knowing different family earmarks. There are thousands of different earmarks in Norway.

The Seasons

Time is divided into four seasons: summer, autumn, winter, and spring. There are no exact dates for each season. Every season depends on the reindeer and the climate. During the spring and summer months the herders move out towards the coast and during the fall and winter they move inland. Each season involves a different aspect of reindeer herding and husbandry.


The summer season is generally from June through September. During the summer the herds are along the coast or on islands just off of the coast. The reindeer swim out to the islands. Some herds will stay more inland in the forest but this is a small minority. The coast provides a plentiful source of grasses rich in protein and minerals. The summer is a time for the reindeer to gain strength and weight, especially for the newborn calves. If the summer pastures are not good the reindeer will have a difficult time making it through the winter.

For the herders it is a time of relative relaxation. Once they have found good pastures the reindeer are given more freedom to wander and find the best vegetation. The herds are there to keep the reindeer from falling off cliffs or wondering too far away. Another concern during the summer is the insects and reindeer will often head upwards to a glacier and stand on sheets of ice where the mosquitoes cannot bite them.

Several herds may be grouped together during the summer with families working together. The herders will try to earmark as many calves as they can during the summer.

The herder’s knowledge of their reindeer will help determine which animals are slaughtered during the summer. Reindeer are mostly slaughtered during the summer for their hides. In the late spring they start to shed their winter coats. Growing under the winter coat is a shorter coat with even hairs. Calves’ hides are particularly valuable for making clothing and calves that are injured, lost from their mothers or suspected to be a problem are slaughtered. This is where an intimate knowledge of the reindeer is most valuable so that the herder makes the wisest decision. A few animals will be slaughtered for fresh meet but the summer is not a big slaughter season. Herder’s diets will be complemented with fish from the coast.


The autumn season is from September through October and is a very intense time for the herders. The reindeer herds start their migration inward from the coast feeding on grasses and mushrooms. The reindeer have become accustomed to the freedom of the summer and can be difficult to control. The males will wander off in search of food and the calves are becoming more independent. The reindeer will search for vegetation and during the night the herder will lose control of the reindeer. Making it even more difficult is that the snow has yet to fall so the reindeer do not leave any tracks to follow the next morning. Herders will spend a great deal of time looking for lost reindeer and keeping the reindeer together.

All reindeer move up to the next age class during the autumn. Calves are not distinguished between the sexes until after their second summer. Reindeer are divided into the following categories: calves and yearlings, junior cows (females), senior cows, junior bulls, senior bulls, and castrates.

The herder will finish the earmarking started in the summer. The larger herd of the summer will be divided into smaller herds for the winter. It is a critical time for the herder to ensure that he or she finds all of the families’ herd and that the calves are properly marked. Separation into smaller herds will be composed of several smaller families or a group of extended family.

It is during the autumn that the herders make important decisions about the herd composition and knowledge of the herd is vital. Reindeer are slaughtered during this period for sale and to some degree for domestic consumption. The herder will be looking at the females who did not produce a calf that year, also called rodno. Will the herder give the rodno another chance to produce a calf or will he need to slaughter her? The female will be fat and a good choice for meat. Herders will also choose some males for slaughter. Usually some castrated males are slaughtered as well as younger males who might not be as strong going into the rut. The herd will decrease is size during this period.

The herder must also decide which males are to be castrated before the rut begins. Part of the skill of herding is deciding how many bulls and which ones should enter the rut each year.

The reindeer have traditional places where the rut takes place and usually the herder will return to the same rut area each year. The rut begins with the senior bulls fighting each other to find out which is the strongest. The strongest bull will then have a harem of female bulls. The strength and size of the bulls will be a key factor. This is why herders will castrate or slaughter weaker bulls.

During the rut the herders try not to disturb the animals. The herders will keep watch on the calves that do not receive any milk from their mothers during the rut.


The winter season lasts from October through April and two months of the season are total darkness. The separation of the herd into smaller herds is completed during winter. This is important because of the snow. The reindeer pack down the snow and make it difficult to get under the snow for food. Large herds of reindeer make the situation worse, so; smaller herds have less impact on the environment.

The herds have migrated inward from the coast to their winter areas but the winter is the season most affected by the climate. The snow conditions will affect where the herd lives for the winter and the herder is always prepared for alternative plans. The reindeer live on lichen, which is buried under the snow. Different snow conditions will make it easier or harder for the reindeer to get to the lichen. If they are unable to get to the lichen the herder will have to move to another area. If the reindeer are unable to get to the lichen it can be disastrous.

The Sami language has a rich vocabulary for describing snow. For example, the following Sami words illustrate how much description is in each word:

Seanas: the dry, large grained and water-holding snow at the deepest layers, closest to the ground surface, found in late winter and spring. It is easy for reindeer to dig through seanas.
Skarta: when there has been rain, and the snow has fastened itself to the ground; a hard layer of snow on the ground. This causes poor grazing conditions.
Čuohki: an ice sheet on pastures formed by rain on open ground that subsequently freezes. This causes the worst grazing as the reindeer are unable to dig down to the lichen.”

These are only a few examples of Sami words for snow but they show how important snow conditions are to reindeer herding.

A positive aspect to the snow is that it makes finding lost reindeer much easier because the herder can follow the tracks. This is another reason to have smaller herds and to keep the herds separated. If there are too many reindeer or herds too close to each other there will be many different tracks. The reindeer are easier to keep together during the winter because they naturally stay grouped close together.

Now that the herder has only his or her own reindeer they can take inventory of their herd. The winter slaughter is mostly for domestic consumption and the meat will be dried and saved for the spring. Herders will choose which castrated males they will train to become draft reindeer and spend the winter training the animals for the spring migration.

The winter is a peaceful time and a chance to spend time with family. It is also a chance for the Sami to socialize which each other. Courtship through the winter season is common and many who have courted during the winter will be married at Easter.


The spring season marks the movement outward and back towards the summer pastures. The reindeer will start heading toward the cost for several reasons. One, they will be searching for new grasses to replace the diet of lichen. They are also searching for salt, which can be found on the coast. Finally, they are returning to their calving areas from the year before. Calving is the primary activity of the spring season.

The herders will separate the females and calves from the males for the spring migration. The females feel more comfortable calving without the males present. The male herders will usually stay with the females and the rest of the family will take the males. The male reindeer will join back up with the female reindeer and calves in the summer pasture.

When calving takes place will vary from herd to herd. Some will go straight to the summer pastures and then calving will begin, but most will travel to a traditional calving area and then proceed to the summer pastures. If calves are born early before the males and females are separated they will be left with their mother and the male herd to start the migration later. If calving begins while on route to the calving grounds then the herder may have to place the calf on the sled as the herd continues the migration. The herder must be prepared for anything.

The herder is looking for a calving area with rich pasture of lichen and grasses so the mothers do not wander far for grazing. The ground should be dry for the calves to sleep and it should be an open ground so herders can watch for predators. The herder will keep a close watch on the older females and must keep the herd together so that the females do not try to hide when they go into labor. If the birth is difficult the herder will need to intervene as a midwife. During this time the herder is acting as a protector of the new calves from predators.

As in all other seasons, the spring is a time to gain critical knowledge of the herd. The herder is looking for relationships between the mothers and their calves. Does the mother produce enough milk? Let their calves suckle? Do they reject their newborn calves for the offspring from the previous year? If their newborn dies, was it the fault of the mother? These are all questions which help the herder decide which females to slaughter later in the year and without the herder being there to see the calves and the mothers the herders will not have the critical knowledge to make the best decisions about the herd.

It will be a few weeks after the calving is complete till the final migration to the summer pastures can take place. The calves will need to gain strength for the journey. The herder may move small distances to find better pastures. The male herd and the rest of the herder’s family will join the female herd at this time. The two herds are still kept separate but the herder will be able to move between the two herds and be joined with the family.

The final migration to the coast will begin when the calves are several weeks old. The herds will travel apart with the male herd taking a faster, but more difficult route, and the females and calves taking a slower route. The male herd will be able to travel at night when the snow on the ground will be easier to travel across. A few herders and family members will stay with the females and calves for the longer trip. The calves will still need to rest often and have a plentiful supply of vegetation for the trip. The herders will often have to help the calves cross rivers and other difficult parts of the migration. The journey will take several weeks compared to a few days of the male herd.

Changes, Modernization, and the Impact of the Government

All of the conflicts between reindeer herders and the outside are a result of the Norwegian government both directly and indirectly. The Norwegianization, which began in the 19th century and continued into 20th century, impacted the Sami.

For many centuries the Sami lived in peace in the northern tundra of Scandinavia. Slowly, outsiders moved northward to traditional Sami lands. The Sami were an accepting people and relations between the foreigners and the Sami were friendly most of the time. However, nationalism and agriculturists conflicted with the Sami way of life.

At no time in their history, have the Sami owned the land. The idea of ownership was not part of Sami culture. Everything was collective. However, the Western world believed in ownership and the growth of nationalism increased the desire to claim the land in northern Scandinavia. Because the Sami avoided conflict, they did not fight for the land. Instead they moved to another area of Sapmi.


The colonization from southern Norway north continued and eventually the Sami could not go any farther north and conflict began. The farmers settled land in Sapmi, which disturbed either the summer or winter pasture areas or the migration routes. As a result there were fewer grazing areas for the reindeer. Because the Sami did not own the land and the farmers who were Norwegian did, the reindeer herders had no rights.

Another impact of colonization from the south to the north can be seen in mining and industry. The creation of inroads and railroads conflicted with traditional reindeer migration paths and grazing areas. The reindeer were in danger of being killed by trains or by cars. They also had to find new migration paths to avoid the human settlement. The creation of the Alta dam of the Kautokeino River also impacted the reindeer herders. Once again, the Sami did not own the land and were unable to control and protect the reindeer areas.


The assimilation process started in the beginning of the 19th century affected the reindeer herders through their children. Sami children were forced to leave the families and go to boarding schools to learn Norwegian. They were not allowed to speak Sami and because they were away from their families they did not receive an upbringing in their culture.

Reindeer herding is not something you can learn in the classroom but you must learn by experience. In traditional reindeer herding the children were with their parents for most of the year and they learned by experience and observation of their parents. By being sent off to school the tradition of reindeer herding was not being passed on to the children. In addition, because children were not learning their mother tongue of Sami they were missing out on learning the rich vocabulary of words for reindeer, snow, and terrain.

The Norwegian government’s colonization from south to north, the industrialization of Sapmi, the assimilation of the Sami, and the governments lack of recognition of the Sami’s right to land all had a negative impact on reindeer herding. In the second half of the 20th century, the government’s role in reindeer herding negatively impacted reindeer for a very different reason.

Government Involvement: Transition from Subsistence Herding to Market Economy

In the 1970’s the government became involved in direct control of reindeer herding. The idea was to decrease the number of reindeer herders in the profession and decrease the number of reindeer. The government envisioned fewer reindeer of greater weight, which would increase profit. The government offered incentives for older reindeer herders to get out of the profession and they limited the number of new reindeer herders entering the profession.

The government’s measures failed dramatically and instead of decreasing the number of reindeer the number increased. The governments did not consult the Sami in the government’s program to control reindeer herding and did not understand the cultural aspects of reindeer herding and this is why the government program failed.

Part of the government's program was to provide subsidies. Herders were given subsidies for herding as well as cash rewards for slaughter. The result was a smaller percentage of reindeer being slaughtered but a higher number of reindeer slaughtered. The size of the herd increased at a greater rate than the number of reindeer slaughtered.

The poorer herders who had fewer reindeer needed the money from slaughtering in order for their families to survive. By slaughtering so many of their reindeer they had significant loss in their principal capital, the herd.

On the other hand, the herders with larger herds had less reason to slaughter their animals. The exact opposite occurred. Because they received a general stipend, which could be used for anything, they have less need to slaughter their animals. In traditional herding they had to slaughter animals to provide money for household goods. But now the subsidies provided money for household goods; therefore, they slaughtered fewer reindeer and their herds grew.

Reindeer herding was shifting from subsistence based herding to a market economy. In traditional reindeer herding, the Sami used all of the reindeer including the skins, the organs, the meat, the milk, and the blood. The Sami used only what they needed to live. The government’s involvement was based on meat production for profit. By increasing the size of the reindeer so that there are fewer reindeer will produce as much meat but with less effort and overhead costs. The shift of values had a profound impact on reindeer herding.

This conflict in values can be seen when comparing the modern use of the slaughterhouse vs. traditional reindeer slaughter. The Sami slaughtered the reindeer to best maximize all parts of the reindeer. When reindeer are taken to the modern slaughterhouses they are only being used for the meat. The slaughterhouse lets the blood drip on the ground whereas the Sami would have carefully collected the blood and made into a gruel for their dogs. In the slaughterhouse there is no attention paid to cutting the legs. A traditional slaughter would have preserved the sinews for sewing clothes and boots for the Sami. Almost all of the needs of the Sami were met with the slaughter of reindeer but in modern times they only get cash for the meat of their slaughtered reindeer.

The government never consulted the Sami on the best practices of reindeer herding. Instead, they imposed laws that did not respect Sami culture and reindeer herding. First, having fewer herders and more reindeer per herder decreased the herder’s ability to collect knowledge about his or her reindeer. Without intimate knowledge of the reindeer the herder was unable to make the wisest husbandry decisions.

Second, the government mapped out summer pastures based on the Western idea of ownership. If the designated grazing area was poor one year the herders would be unable to move to other areas. Also, the increase of herd sizes would result in over grazing and destruction of the most valuable part of reindeer herding, the land.

Finally, the idea of cooperation among the Sami was starting to disappear. Part of a market economy is competition. The Sami had never competed against each other. However, they did start competing against each other to some degree to get to the best pasture areas and to ensure that that there reindeer were earmarked as their own. Reindeer poaching was on the increase as the divide between those who had something and those who had nothing increased.


Part of the government’s involvement included the introduction of modern technology to reindeer herding. Centuries of traditional herding were about to undergo significant chances after World War Two.

In an effort to manage the reindeer herds, the government built fences and corrals. The fences were designed to keep the reindeer on designated pasture areas. The government created borders to divide the pasture areas. However, the outcome was overgrazing along the fence lines. Traditionally during the summer the reindeer were given more freedom to wander the summer pastures looking for the best food. The fences to some degree hindered the reindeer’s movement.

In addition, the government wanted all herds on the autumn migration to pass through corrals, which acted as check points. The corrals provided the government a chance to count the number of reindeer for taxation purposes and keep control of the reindeer herds. The corals were traumatic for the reindeer because of the handling by the herders and the confinement to the corral area.

Modern technology was also introduced to the tundra in snowmobiles, helicopters, transport vehicles, and boats. All of these transportation systems made reindeer herding far less time consuming but at what cost?

The snowmobiles replaced skis and sled as a means to transverse the tundra and control the reindeer. However, the snowmobile is loud and it frightens the reindeer. It also packs the snow down making it difficult for the reindeer to dig under the snow for lichen. When there is no snow, the all terrain vehicles tear-up the ground and disturb the grazing areas.

Helicopters, boats, and transportation vehicles help to manage the herd migration. Boats are used to transport the reindeer to the summer pastures on the islands. Transport vehicles help to move the migration much faster. Helicopters are used to steer and control the reindeer when migrating.

The biggest problem with the transport vehicles is the concept of time. The Sami concept of time is different from the Western concept. For the Sami, time is measured in the seasons and the cycle of the reindeer. The transport vehicles are on a clock system of time. They expect the reindeer to be at certain locations at a specific time so that the reindeer can be transported. Reindeer herding cannot work in such a system. It might take one week or two weeks to get the reindeer to where they are suppose to be.

All of the modernization, which has occurred in the past 50 years, does help with herding and allows herders to have greater numbers of reindeer. However, what is lost is protection of the environment from overgrazing of fences, impact of snowmobiles, and the noise pollution of all transport vehicles. In addition, the herder looses the intimate connection with the reindeer and the knowledge of each reindeer, which was always present in traditional herding.

The Sami can never return to traditional herding but hopefully they can find peace and understand from the Norwegians. Part of the process is for Norway to give the Sami more control over Sapmi. A large bureaucratic government in Oslo could never understand the complexities and the needs of the Sami reindeer herders. By giving them more control over their herding the Norwegians would be giving back to the Sami what they have taken for centuries. I believe that only the Sami can learn to use modern technology in ways that will preserve the environment.


Robert Paine. Herds of the Tundra: A portrait of Sami Reindeer Pastoralism, 1994.

Nils Jersletten. "Sami Traditional Terminology: Professional Terms Concerning Salmon, Reindeer, and Snow." In Harald Gaski Sami Culture in a New Era, Karasjok 1997.

Johan Klemet Haetta Kalstad. "Aspects of Managing Renewable Resources in Sami Areas in Norway." In Harald Gaski Sami Culture in a New Era, Karasjok 1997.