Rain on snow – how do people and reindeer learn to survive?

This winter and spring we hear again disastrous news from sudden temperature rises and falls, leading to thick ice-crusts on reindeer pastures that block reindeer’s access to their pastures. While the most famous of these events happened in 2014 in the Centre of the Yamal Peninsula, West Siberia, the phenomenon is known probably to reindeer herders all over the Arctic, and several of our colleagues have extensively published on this. In Yamal, however, this does not endanger reindeer herding as a livelihood altogether. The scale in the world’s number one reindeer herding region is different from more marginal regions, which also have less possibilities to help with emergency measures in comparison to the Yamal government that is one of Russia’s richest financially. The winter/spring 2021 icing event in northernmost Yamal raises to me a new question on how we study the movement of adaptation-knowledge between wild animals, domestic animals and humans. Read below how.

For example, after the rain and snow event this winter in northernmost Yamal, herders whose herds suffered from inaccessible pastures got emergency-fodder for their reindeer, as well as petrol to ensure their mobility, and food supplies delivered all the way to the furthest North. The municipal authorities established an emergency commission and claim to assist herders as long as there is need. Аs Kirpanova writes in the Novaya Gazeta, there is always room for improvement, but those who have been in other reindeer herding areas know that the situation is still MUCH better in Yamal than almost anywhere else.

Kamchatka in the Russian Far East is in comparison much less well-off. There, ice-crusts have made pastures inaccessible for the reindeer around the village of Ust-Khairyuzovo, and we do not know anything about generous emergency measures . So far it seems they found 300 dead reindeer there, which about the entire yearly number of animals slaughtered for this group of herders.

In northern Yamal, the nomads have been herding their domestic herds for decades in close vicinity to the wild reindeer herds from White Island (Ostrov Belyi) and the neighbouring Gydan Peninsula. This situation has some interesting questions for us human-animal adaptations scholars in store: faced with iced pastures, usually the herders follow one of two strategies: either they emergency-feed their animals with imported fodder, industrially produced, as has become almost the rule yearly in Finland. However, herders report that not only do reindeer that are not used to this artificial feed encounter digestion problems – they also lose their feeding instinct and search less for natural feed. Thus, animal behaviour changes over time. If artificial feed is not available, herders tend to let their reindeer roam freely and search for accessible pastures whereever. This leads to mixtures of herds of different owners, who need to search for their herds (they are doing this right now), which need to be separated again before the summer, in case they survive the pasture shortage.

Now in northernmost Yamal, a report by Galina Chebykina from the “mk” newspaper says that herders assume their domestic animals mixed with wild reindeer ‘learning’ from them their feeding behaviour. A biologist from the neighbouring Tazovski nature reserve maintains that wild reindeer do hardly suffer from iced pastures at all, as they are more mobile and live in smaller groups. Now some of the domestic animals might have joined the wild herds on their spring migration on the way to the Gydan Peninsula, so herders and experts plan to go there and try to catch out those domestic reindeer from the wild herds. This incident raises interesting questions for the human-animal relation: if only domestic reindeer are vulnerable to iced-pastures, could they increase their resilience by coping the feeding pattern of their wild counterparts? And if herders observe that, can they adopt that knowledge into their herding practice? I think that would be a more cost-effective and culturally appropriate way of increasing resilience than importing artificial feed that kills the animals own feeding instinct and spoils their stomach. And then such reindeer who forgot to feed on their own can be transferred to a ranching system in fences. Weren’t the problems with this transition well described by Tim Ingold and Hugh Beach in the 1980s?

In Yamal now our colleagues Terekhina and Vokovitsky went up North to learn with the Northern Yamal herders about this process. I look forward to their report.