Text by:
Nils Gustav Labba
February 1999

Web-edition by:
Hanjo Schlüter
Sept. 1999

Reindeer Herding in General

We know from the early written sources that the Sámi people as early as the 9th century had developed a technique for hunting reindeer, where tame ‘decoy reindeer’ were used. The reindeer was also on an early stage used as draught and load animals. When the stock of wild reindeer dramatically increased during the 16th and 17th centuries, a gradual transition to domesticated reindeer herding and nomadism took place which required extended areas of grazing land and continuous movements between seasonal pastures.
The developed reindeer nomadism with larger and larger herds of tame reindeer competed with the hunter gatherer culture about the same resources.
The hunting culture dissolved and many Sámi became settlers by the sea or the coast with fishing as the main supply, combined with farming and a smaller number of tame reindeer.
The Sámi culture based on reindeer herding developed. Reindeer herding became a Sámi life style and the most important basic trade. Sápmi was divided into Sámi communities functioning as administrative units.

Unique Trade

Reindeer herding is in its own terms fairly unique as an areal trade. It is the only trade with no control over environmental factors as climate and temperature, access to grazing and natural disturbances. In principal the personal input of work-force is the only thing that can be controlled. Growing claims on access to hunting and fishing grounds in the mountain range combined with increased snow mobile traffic and tourism make even the human disturbances out of control. The free licensing of hunting and fishing in the mountain range takes place entirely beyond the control of reindeer herding management. The same applies to other forms of recreations and leisure activities.

Spring Winter (March-April)

In March and April the movement from the winter grazing land to the summer and calving lands in the mountains takes place. The forest Sámi move their reindeer to their calving lands in the forest area.
The time for the movement varies according to snow and grazing conditions.
The reindeer cows (vajor) trod voluntarily along to the low mountains to their old calving land. The mountain reindeer seeks out its calving place on the south slopes of the low mountains or in the sparse mountain birch region where bare spots on the ground show early. The food consists mostly of lichens.The access to tree pendant lichens is very important since the vegetation on the ground is not accessible due to the snow crust during spring winter.

Spring (April-May)

In May the reindeer calves are born in the low mountains and in some regions in the forest land. The reindeer cows are drawn to southern slopes where the access to grazing is good and the snow melts away early, making way for new vegetation growing fast.
The reindeer cows ordinarily have their calves on the same time and place each year. The terrain should be rather hilly with small slopes and protected from the wind. The reindeer cow has one calf per year, weighing 4-6 kilos. The calf from the previous year is rejected before or during the calving. During this time the grazing consists of lichens, grass, herbs and leaves.
The calving time is very sensitive to disturbances since the reindeer cow easily might abandon the new-born calf due to too much disturbance.

Beginning of Summer (June)

After the calving time a calm period arrives for both the reindeer and the herders. The reindeer now seeks out birch forests, marshes and brooks where the fresh vegetation comes quickly. For the forest Sámi the wet lands are important.
The beginning of summer is something of a recuperation and restoration period for the reindeer. It can graze in tranquility, at least until the time when heat, mosquitoes and insects arrive.
Fine grazing in the beginning of summer gives the grown reindeer the opportunity to gain whatever weight they might have lost during winter.
For the reindeer herder this is a time of building and repair of enclosures, buildings and other facilities for reindeer herding.

Summer (June-July)

This is the time when the reindeer go high up into the mountains or on the wide ranges where the heat and the insects are less bothering. The reindeer are especially sensitive to parasite flies with reindeer as hosts. In the end of June the reindeer herders start collecting their herds preparing for the marking of the calves. This is an extremely hectic time for the reindeer herder, working evenings and nights for several summer weeks, taking advantage of the cooler climate at night. The collecting of the reindeer can take many days, according to the weather conditions. The reindeer are normally spread over large areas and are gathered with the help of helicopters and motor-cycles, but reindeer herders on foot also help out.
The Sámi communities have several calving enclosures in different places, used at different times, according to the direction of the gathering.
In the enclosure the calf follow the reindeer cow. This makes it easy to spot the ownership of the calf. With the lasso one catches the calf and marks it. The mark is a combination of cuts made in the calf’s ears. Each owner has his special mark.

Beginning of August 

The reindeer graze in the birch forest and in the marshes. The access to green fodder is still good and they eat leaves, grass and herbs. The reindeer is also very fond of fungae which is rich with protein and phosphorus. This period from the end of July and onwards is very important as a restoration period for the reindeer. They now build up their muscle weight and the fat supply to ensure winter survival. A calm situation in terms of grazing is important, since this growth period is crucial for the reindeer’s possibility of surviving a rough and hard winter.
The latter half of August, before the rutting period of the reindeer bull, the collecting of reindeer bulls for slaughter starts. They are now big and fat after grazing the whole summer in the mountains. The rutting of the reindeer starts during the latter half of September and the slaughter of the bulls must be finished before it.

Autumn (September-October)

The reindeer are mostly in the low mountain region. The early frost nights in late summer lessens the nutrients of the grazing.The reindeer dig up roots and plant parts. In October the first snow influences the reindeer’s choice of grazing plants, and they mostly eat various ground lichens. In the latter half of September the bull slaughter is completed. A full-grown reindeer bull just before the rutting period can reach a weight of 100-150 kilos. The bulls consume practically all body fat and also a considerable amount of muscle weight during rutting, which normally lasts some two or three weeks. During this time the reindeer are let to tend for themselves. It is a calm period for the reindeer herder, who now has time for fishing for household needs and other things needing tending to in a reindeer herding enterprise.

Beginning of Winter (November-December)

This period begins when frost and snow stays permanently. The reindeer look for grazing land with remainders of green vegetation, grassy forest areas and marshes. This grazing is used as long as the snow cover is less than 30 centimetres and before the strong winter cold starts. The reindeer then gradually starts grazing on lichens. The reindeer’s movement to the winter grazing land starts now. During the beginning of winter the reindeer are gathered for separation into winter groups and for slaughter. The main part of the autum slaughter is done in November-December. The calves now weigh something between 30 and 50 kilos. The reindeer cow also reaches its top weight in November. Full-grown cows can weigh 60 to 90 kilos.
After the slaughter the winter herd consists of some 75 per cent female animals. This is also the time to divide the reindeer into their respective winter grazing group. The reindeer of the Sámi community are gathered in a specially designed enclosure. The Sámi then move with their reindeer to their respective winter grazing land.

Winter ( December-March)

At this time the reindeer are now divided into smaller winter groups (sijdor) kept apart and moving between different grazing land throughout winter. In the winter land the various winter groups graze in the coniferous forest belt mainly. The grazing mostly consists of lichens and berry plants. The reindeer is well adapted to an arctic climate. The winter fur is dense, consisting of a bottom layer of wool and longer air-filled cover hairs. The reindeer can save both water and energy when it is cold.
The access to winter grazing not only depends on the size of the area and the growth of lichens but also on the accessibility of the food. Winter grazing is the limiting factor in reindeer herding. The great problems are icing of the grazing land or hard ice crusts on the snow. Snow conditions for the reindeer deteriorate due to large clear cuts with unfavourable snow conditions and destroyed or damaged lichen cover.
The lack of tree pendant lichens cause immediate risk for malnutrition, due to inaccessible ground grazing. In such situations reindeer owners give spare fodder to the reindeer, or in the worst case, provide full diet foddering, to prevent extensive death in the herds.
Winter grazing land is in most cases not one continuous piece of land. Various land uses such as clear cuts, rail roads, roads, air fields, military premises, town expansion etc split up the land.
Winter groups therefore have to move between different grazing lands. The task of the reindeer herder in winter is to guard the edges of the herd and protect it from predators.

The Sámi Community

The Sámi community as an administrative unit for reindeer herding purposes is created in 1971, but its history stretches far back.
During the 17th century the older Sámi society based on the ‘sijdda’ system fragmented and a new one developed.The decreasing number of wild reindeer combined with the changed policy of the national states concerning the Sámi people and a new tax system caused the change. The Sámi were forced to find new ways of supporting themselves. They increased the number of reindeer in the herds and starting from the 17th century reindeer herding became the main trade. A new administrative and social co-operation among the Sámi formed and the long process towards today’s Sámi community was started.
Reindeer herding in Sweden is now divided into 51 Sámi communities, stretching from Karesuando in the north to Idre in the south. Most Sámi communities move with their reindeer between the winter grazing land in the forest area to the summer grazing land in the mountains. They call themselves mountain Sámi community. Some ten Sámi communities do reindeer herding all year round in the forest area, and are accordingly called forest Sámi communities.
In terms of organisation the Sámi community today resembles an ‘economic co-operation’ for private reindeer husbandry performing reindeer herding within the grazing land of the Sámi community. The organisation of the Sámi community is regulated by law, the Reindeer Husbandry Act, 1971.
 The Sámi community is also a geographical area stretching in east-west direction, divided into summer, spring, autumn and winter grazing land. The length of a typical mountain Sámi community varies between 50 and 200 kilometres, stretching between summer and winter land, while forest Sámi communities are somewhat more elliptical. 

Reindeer Grazing Acts

The first reindeer grazing act meant wide-spread changes to Swedish reindeer herding and a virtually detail regulation of the activities of the Sámi communities. The most important change was the division into ‘Lapp communities’. The ownership of the private Sámi to the various tax grounds in the mountains was transformed into a ‘collective’ and common right for the Sámi, by dividing the grazing land in the mountain range into Lapp communities, each with its set borders. Interests set for each tax ground and the letters of registration delivered for private Sámi persons was withdrawn and cancelled. Looking back, the division into Lapp communities was a gigantic socialisation of the traditional grounds in terms of taxes and ancestry.

The Lapp communities:
The first Lapp communities in Jämtland, Härjedalen and Dalarna were nine of them. 
From the north they were:

  • Frostviken (Klumpvattnet, Millestskog, Badstugunäs, Orrnäs and Blåsjö mountain
  • Hotagen ( Gåxsjö, Murklump and Vinklump mountain)
  • Offerdal (Olsders mountain, Ansätt and Sten mountain, and Sösjö and Grubbdal mountain
  • Kall (Kålås and Skjäcker mountain)
  • Åre (Tranris and Hitting mountain, and Bunner and Täfverdal mountain
  • Oviken (Ovik mountain Sámi community), Tåssås, Hundshög, Sällsjö and Anaris mountain
  • Storsjö (Skärvadal, Mittådal, Ljungris and Grönfjället tax mountain
  • Tännäs (Rut mountain tax mountain)
  • Idre (Särna northern state reservation with Lugn and Sluge mountain)

Merges and Dividing

It did not take many years before the first merging of Lapp communities took place, after the first dividing into Lapp communities. As early as 1891 Åre and Storsjö Lapp communities were re-organised into Åre-Storsjö Lapp community.
Next re-organisation came in 1915, when the eight Lapp communities were divided into 14 communities. According to the Lapp sheriff “a better reindeer herding” would be achieved with smaller communities.
Frostviken Lapp community was divided into present Frostviken north, middle and south.
Oviksfjällen Lapp community was also divided into three new Lapp communities: Tåssåsen, Anariset and Tranris.
The formerly merged Åre-Storsjö Lapp community was divided into present Mittådalen and Handölsdalen communities.
Offerdal Lapp community got its present division in 1915, into Sösjö and Offerdal communities. 
Starting from 1947 Anariset and Tåssåsen became present Tåssåsen Sámi community, while Tranris Lapp community later was merged with Handölsdalen.