They are one of the world’s oldest still-existing migratory animals. They have strong endurance, can migrate thousands of miles, can live comfortably in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius, and their meat is a much sought-after delicacy.
They are one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. I completely understand Bruce Parry’s reaction (in a TV series about the Arctic) when he wants to take one home with him and live with it forever.
A reindeer head has the strong features of a horse and the sleek beauty of a seal. Reindeer skin is very soft to touch because every hair is hollow and full of air. A reindeer foot is like something out of a fashion detail for Cinderella’s ball – a neat white fur triangle sitting on an elegantly tall Cuban hoof, showing off a pale slim ankle. Yet this design feature makes the reindeer sturdy, resistant to cold, able to run in deep snow, and flexible enough to scratch its own ear.
Reindeer in Sweden are ‘semi-domesticated’ – that is they are all owned by someone, but they move with the seasons to new feeding places and in the summer to avoid the insects. They are gathered together a few times a year for marking and for slaughter. Only the Sami are allowed to herd reindeer, which is the traditional occupation (though these days reindeer-herding Sami are in the minority in the Sami population). Very long ago reindeer were wild, and hunted, but another breed of reindeer developed which could be herded and it is their ancestors that are in Sweden today. However, reindeer will usually run from humans and other animals. They cannot be fully domesticated, always retaining a wild streak. You’ve got to like them for that.
People coming to Kiruna like to see reindeer, and so do we. If there are reindeer on the E10 there are likely to be several cars kerb-crawling nearby, zoom lenses pointing hopefully in their direction. They’re lucky if they get more than reindeer bottoms in view. (That’s all we usually get.)
My most vivid memory of reindeer is seeing a herd on a distant hill, a line of narrow legs and tapering heads silhouetted against a pink sky. Like watching birds, the pleasure of seeing reindeer is that you sense their freedom, their ability to roam at will and visit places we find hard to reach. It’s great to see the animal close at hand, but it is that distant view of the herd that is for me the real thrill. Perhaps it’s no co-incedence that we associate them with being able to fly.
Oddly enough it seems to be elk (or ‘moose’) that people are really keen to see when they come to this part of the world. Elk are magnificent creatures – but for me a group of reindeer is a better sight by far. If you want to see reindeer here you have a few obvious choices. You can book onto a tour to visit a Sami village, see some of the herd that are kept there for tourists, and learn about the yearly cycle of the reindeer herder’s life. You could also visit the Sami museum in Jukkasjärvi where there are some semi-tamed reindeer (kept in corrals and trained to pull a sled from a young age). You’ll be able to see the animals in captivity at least, and learn about their habits in the wild.
Alternatively (and my favoured option) you could choose to get out in the landscape, take your chances, and hope that, at some point, you’ll be lucky enough to see a group of reindeer moving slowly by. Or, better still, see them running, very determinedly, into the far distance, somewhere you cannot follow.