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Arctic Herders

Nenets draught reindeer graze during a rest stop on their autumn migration, Yamal, 1993.

Traditional Life in the Arctic

July/August 2012 by Bryan and Cherry Alexander

After winter releases its grip on the Arctic, migration to summer pastures gets underway. In the Yamal, herds with long routes travel anything from 25–70 km in a day; those with shorter migrations may move only 10–25 km. The herds don’t travel all the time — herders normally rest them for a day or two after each journey, and their progress also depends on weather and pastures on the way. Along their route, most herding families have a depot where they leave their winter tents and fur garments, and collect lighter sleds, clothes and equipment.

By the time the Nenets reach their summer pastures, they have usually been joined by their school-age children, who are flown there by helicopter for the summer holidays. Often the women, children and elders will camp near good fishing places while the young men take the herd to more distant pastures. During summer on the tundra, reindeer graze on a wide variety of tundra plants including birch and willow leaves. I have always enjoyed being at summer camps on the tundra. There is usually a relaxed atmosphere, and the kids combine playing with helping their parents do chores. Boys go with their father to watch the herd, or check fishing nets set on nearby rivers and lakes, while girls help their mother with tasks such as washing up, collecting water and chopping firewood.

The calving season stretches from late April until June. (May is TyNits Iry in the Nenets language, and this translates aptly as ‘the month of mass calving’.) This is a very busy and anxious time for the herders, as they try to move pregnant females to sheltered areas with ample pasture. They also need to keep a close watch on the herd, as predators such as wolves, wolverines, bears, eagles and ravens all see newborn reindeer as an easy source of food.

The calves enter a frozen world, to which they adapt remarkably quickly. Within a few minutes of birth, a calf will stand in a wobbly way and suckle; within an hour, it can walk and follow its mother. She gives it all her attention, licking it, sniffing it and learning its features, and at the same time, the calf learns to recognize her from all the other females in the herd — this is essential for its survival. The Arctic weather poses serious danger for newborn calves. The height of the calving season is a time of changeable conditions, and blizzards (which the Nenets call suyuhut —‘storm of the newborn calves’) are common. During these, experienced mothers position their calves between their forelegs to protect them from driving wind and snow. Such severe weather can be disastrous, as herder Sergei explained to me: “We had a three-day blizzard in May—afterwards, we found the bodies of 150 reindeer calves that had frozen to death.”

The Nenets usually adopt a few calves as pets. These pets, which they call avki (singular avka), are often sick or orphaned, but some are chosen because they have particularly nice markings or colour; white calves with blue eyes, generally considered special, are a popular choice. While they’re small, avki are kept close to camp, often with a bell round their neck so they don’t get lost. The care of these pets tends to be left to Nenets children; this responsibility helps them learn about reindeer, and prepares them for their adult life as herders. In summer, the children are sent off to collect reindeer moss for their avki, but they also feed them boiled fish. Most avki develop a passion for bread too, and will often hang around camp hoping for a handout—on one occasion, I even witnessed an adult avka running off, clenching a sack full of loaves firmly in its teeth.

Although many avki get a rough start in life, they usually end up with a well-fed, cushy existence, and they’re seldom slaughtered for meat—some live as long as 20 years. “Avki are like a member of the family, just like one of the kids,” Nina, from a herding family, told me. “I had an avka called Timoyku who grew into a big bull—he was so spoilt. When themosquitoes were bad in the summer, he would shuffle into our tent on his knees. We used to let him stay there, even though his huge antlers got in the way.”Not only do the Nenets recognize the personality of each avka, but the avki also seem to recognize the personality of individual herders—which ones are worth approaching for a scratch or a titbit, and which ones they should avoid.

The Nenets name for July is Nenyang Iry — ‘the month of mosquitoes’. This is appropriate, as July is the worst month for these pesky insects. Northern mosquitoes may not carry diseases like malaria, but they make life miserable for herders and reindeer alike. The men often build fires around their reindeer, burning wet willow as the smoke drives the mosquitoes off; according to a Nenets folk tale, the forest witch Parneko was burnt on a fire and it was her ashes, blown around the world, that turned into the first mosquitoes. Herders often choose summer pastures in coastal areas because the cool sea breezes keep the mosquitoes at bay. When they’re particularly bad, reindeer calves are brought inside the family’s tent, where the smoky atmosphere acts as a deterrent.

Mosquitoes are more than an irritant; they pose a real health threat to the herd. One Russian scientist estimated that during the summer, a reindeer loses up to two litres of blood from bites, and they can also cause the animals to lose weight and strength. At this time, reindeer should eat a whole range of plants to put on fat for the winter, but when they’re tormented by mosquitos, they stop eating, and either keep walking or stand in lakes and rivers in search of relief. Cool wind and smoke are most effective at keeping the insects away.

By August, the mosquito plagues begin to subside. This is also the start of the berry picking season, as northern fruit such as mountain cranberries, cloudberries and blueberries begin to ripen; women and children often head off across the tundra carrying plastic bowls and buckets to fill. Some berries are eaten fresh and some are boiled up with sugar to preserve them for winter. At this time of year too, women are busy working with skins, and making fur clothing for the coming winter.

By late August, the days shorten, and after the first frosts, the trees start to turn yellow, brown and red. It’s an amazingly beautiful time of year, and for a brief two or three weeks the tundra is a blaze of colour. Also at this time, mushrooms begin to appear and this can cause another problem for herders—reindeer have a real passion for mushrooms and can smell them from a considerable distance. When mushrooms are plentiful the animals don’t have to wander so far, but in dry summers, when mushrooms are scarce, the reindeer wander off to find them, creating extra work for the men who have to round them up constantly. Although many Nenets like mushrooms too, the herders generally leave them for their animals.

In the Yamal, late August is the time when helicopters fly from camp to camp, picking up children and taking them back to boarding school. (All schools in Russia begin their academic year on 1st September.) Occasionally, parents want to keep children with them, and they deliberately hide their offspring when the helicopter arrives. This normally happens when children show a natural aptitude for herding; the parents believe that having a son or daughter to help them and take good care of their reindeer when they get old is a sound investment for the future. Some years ago, I met Leonid, a Khanty man from a reindeer-herding family. At the time, he was head of the orthopaedic department at the regional hospital in Salekhard. When I remarked to him that his parents must be very proud of his achievements, he told me that on the contrary, they were disappointed, as they had wanted him to help look after their reindeer.

By the beginning of September, most herders will have gathered their reindeer and begun the journey back to winter pastures. To begin with, they travel only short distances, perhaps 5–12 km a day, but once the first snows settle, and travel by sled becomes faster and easier, they will make longer journeys. Traditionally in autumn, selected reindeer are slaughtered for meat while they’re still fat from grazing at their summer pastures, and this is normally done when the herders are close to their home village. As they continue on their journey south, they stop once more at their depots to retrieve their winter tents, warm clothes and sleds before continuing toward the forest shelters where they will spend another winter.

Autumn is another precarious time for the herders and their reindeer. The weather is unstable and severe storms are common – as in spring, there is an ever-present risk of pastures icing over. This has been happening more in the Yamal in recent years, and some scientists are attributing it to climate change. Sergei, a Nenets reindeer herder, told me how a few years ago, when he and his herders were migrating south with their reindeer, they experienced very cold weather in early November. Then, the temperature suddenly warmed to well above zero before plummeting to minus 30°C. This happened several times in a few weeks, leaving an impenetrable layer of ice, which the herders, as they do in the spring, broke up with shovels so their reindeer could feed.

The late arrival of winter snow in recent years has increased the herders’ work, as the reindeer tend to range more on clear ground. Once there is snow, the animals stay closer together, particularly in forest areas. Arctic herders are used to coping with climate variations from year to year, a reality reflected in the Saami saying: “One year is not another year’s brother.”

Most herders I spoke to in the Yamal were unconcerned by climate change. Jakov, from the Tambey area, told me, “I am not worried by climate change because I think it will be good for us; there will be more vegetation for our reindeer to eat”. These herders are far more concerned at the prospect of losing their animals and pastures to the oil and gas industries that are increasingly encroaching on their territory—these threaten both their livelihood and their culture. Yerti, a Nenets herder from the Salemal tundra, stated simply: “We are not people without our reindeer.”

Editor’s Note: All photos and text published here represent unaltered excerpts from Bryan and Cherry Alexander’s book titled, Forty Below, Traditional Life in the Arctic — released November 2011. This fascinating hard-bound book is available for purchase online by visiting: www.arcticapublishing.com