Thursday 23 January 2020

Climate crisis means a race to save Sweden's reindeer

The herders, like those from other districts in Sweden, have been forced to bring their 6,500 reindeer in from mountain pastures a month early. Stock image
The herders, like those from other districts in Sweden, have been forced to bring their 6,500 reindeer in from mountain pastures a month early. Stock image

Richard Orange

It has been a race against time to bring in the reindeer from their summer grazing grounds in Lapland's mountains, but Per-Martin Kuhmunen, a 39-year-old traditional Sami herder, is triumphant.

"We brought them in today," he says with a grin, as he and other herders sit exhausted, bruised and battered, in a cabin in the village of Abisko in the far-northern corner of Swedish Lapland.

The herders, like those from other districts in Sweden, have been forced to bring their 6,500 reindeer in from mountain pastures a month early after unusually early and heavy snowfall linked to climate change meant their animals could not find food.

"The problem comes when the ground is still warm," says Kuhmunen. "When you get snow on warm ground, you get ice at the bottom, and the food which the reindeer eat becomes frozen."

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Inside the cabin, there's a fug of sweat, wet clothes and boiled reindeer meat. Parked outside are the snowmobiles, dayglo lassos hanging from the handlebars, on which the men have spent four days ranging over the slopes in search of their animals.

"There's a little bit of a panic to get the reindeer down," says Kuhmunen. "They can't find any food up on the mountain, so they have to come down to the forest."

This corner of Sweden is seeing dramatic weather pattern changes. The Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute says temperatures here were on average more than 3C higher between 1991 and 2017 than between 1961 and 1990, more than six times the 0.5C increase for the world as a whole.

"The biggest thing is the temperature differences: it can be pretty warm one day, -30C the next," Kuhmunen explains. "We haven't seen this before. This is new for us."

Warmer Arctic air makes the weather more changeable. This can push cold Arctic air down over Sweden, bringing short cold spells and unusual warmth. The trend is towards later snow and earlier thaws. Last year, summer droughts led to a shortage of food for the reindeer, and in December, not enough snow.

© Telegraph

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