“Everything progresses in this world. We have to hang on and follow the development,” says Jaavna Allas, a 30-year-old Sami reindeer herder with cheeks glowing red after a day out following his flock near Kiruna, some 145 kilometres (90 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.
He and other herders here who have spent their careers chasing flocks of the graceful creatures with their towering antlers and bushy white tails across the wind-swept plains of Swedish Lappland insist snowmobiles, motorbikes and even helicopters have become necessary tools of their trade.
“It wouldn’t be possible to herd reindeer today on skis. The grazing areas are so few and far between,” Allas says, pointing out that the forestry industry has laid waste to many of the traditional grazing grounds, while a sharp increase in winter tourism in northern Sweden has also lengthened transit routes.
The modern herding methods, which have in fact been in use for decades, have however drawn the ire of vegetarian animal welfare group Viva, which launched a pre-Christmas campaign against Swedish furniture giant Ikea over its sale of meat from Santa’s helpers in its stores in Britain.
“We suddenly realised there was a movement in the UK with more people eating reindeer for Christmas … as an ironic holiday dish,” Viva spokesman Justin Kerswell told AFP in a telephone interview from London.
Referring to a study conducted at Uppsala University in Sweden in 2004, Viva says using motor-driven vehicles to herd reindeer causes “considerable physical and mental stress” that could be detrimental to the animals’ health.
“They can become so distraught that their muscle can literally waste away,” the group claimed in a statement.
In December, Viva sent out an appeal to more than 35,000 animal protection activists asking them to petition Ikea to stop selling reindeer meat “due to the cruel exploitation these wild animals suffer at the hands of herders.”
Ikea responded to the campaign insisting that consuming reindeer meat “is a Swedish tradition and a part of our identity as a Swedish company.”
“Reindeer herding and traditional meat production as carried out by the Sami people are a natural part of the sustainable use of natural resources and in line with (animal conservation group) WWF principles,” the company said in a statement.
The reindeer herders themselves also insist there is nothing cruel about
their herding methods.
“Of course, all machines stress the animals, but they don’t really suffer from it,” says Ingemar Blind, 49, pulling at his wool cap and rubbing the cold out of his ruddy working man hands.
“If you really want to stress a reindeer, send in a man on skis with a dog. Now that’s a sight they don’t see very often and that really gets their hearts racing,” he says, blasting the Viva campaign as “ignorant”.
Allas agrees, pointing out that his reindeer “are so used to motorised vehicles that they barely lift their heads when I drive by. They just keep grazing and aren’t disturbed at all.”
Allas says he has always used high-speed motorised vehicles for herding, but Blind recalls how he three decades ago spent days and weeks at a time skiing and hiking after his reindeer, trying to keep them gathered and moving together along the hundreds of kilometres that separate their summer and winter grazing grounds.
Today he can cover the same distance on his snow scooter or motorbike in hours, an advantage that makes it easier to deal with the dramatic decline in the number of herders forced to cover ever greater distances to keep an eye on their flocks and protect them from predators, he says.
Viva’s Kerswell however rejects the argument as “an excuse of convenience”.
“This is not to protect the animals, because obviously the biggest predator of reindeer is man,” he said, also charging that hauling the animals for sometimes hundreds of kilometres on trucks to slaughter also constitutes cruel treatment.
Allas and Blind agree the long transport routes can sometimes be trying for their reindeer, but point out they used to slaughter the animals locally but are now required to truck them to European Union approved slaughterhouses.
“We try to make the trip as comfortable as possible for them,” Allas says.
The two herders meanwhile flatly reject a separate Viva complaint that calves are often slaughtered “before they see their first snow” as “ridiculous”.
Baby reindeer are usually born in the middle of May when plenty of snow still covers the Arctic landscape they live in, they say.
And while Allas and Blind slaughter their animals when they are between three and seven years old, they point out that herders who do slaughter calves do so between October and December when the snow has already begun to fall.
“In any case, snow is overrated,” Blind says after wading through a knee-deep mound of soft powder, pointing out that a crust of wind-hardened ice and snow simply makes it more difficult for reindeer to get at their food.
He says he would laugh at the Viva campaign if he hadn’t been worried it could damage his already fragile business and the Sami way of life.
“It really pisses me off that this group has chosen to jump on a minority simply trying to scrape by and make a living,” he says, insisting that no herder he knows would harm their animals.
“If we did we wouldn’t get any calves the next year and we’d lose a lot of money. It’s simply not in our interest to hurt them.”