Yamal reindeer herders hemmed in by gas fields and pipelines

A Nenet woman among a herd of reindeer

The Yamal peninsula in the Russian Arctic may look like an empty frozen waste, but since gas companies started moving in the 15,000 nomadic reindeer herders who live in this territory the size of England have begun feeling cramped.

I was beginning to despair of ever finding Reindeer Brigade number four. We had been bouncing along for hours in our Trekol - an all-terrain vehicle designed for the Siberian tundra with chest-high pillow-soft tyres.

We passed larch trees bent like old men by the fierce wind and spindly clumps of willow shrubs. But as we drove northwards the vegetation petered out and we were enveloped in a white desert.

At last I saw a row of six conical tents - or chums - on the horizon. As we drew closer, hundreds of moving brown dots magically transformed into reindeer.

The Yamal region in northwest Siberia is the only part of Russia where reindeer herding did not decline or stagnate after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yamal peninsula

In fact, it has been steadily growing and today this area boasts the world's biggest herds, with roughly 600,000 reindeer managed by 15,000 nomads.

It is an isolated wilderness where winter lasts eight months a year and temperatures can drop to -50C.

Yamal means "the end of the earth" in the language of the Nenets, the indigenous herders who have lived here for more than 1,000 years.

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We are encouraged to dip chunks of raw meat in a bowl of congealed reindeer blood”

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The brigade leader Nikolai Khudi came to greet us.

Under Communism herds were collectivised and organised into brigades - but Nikolai says these changes were superficial. Even then most families had some privately owned reindeer and after the transition to a market economy they acquired more.

I was about to ask exactly how many Nikolai owned but Florian Stammler, an Arctic anthropologist travelling with us, hissed in my ear:

"Don't ask, that's rude! It's like wanting to know how much somebody has in their bank account."

So instead I hurriedly admired Nikolai's malitsa - a hooded coat made of reindeer fur turned inside-out.

A smile creased his weather-beaten face. "We spend our whole life with the reindeer, they're our close friends," he told me.

"We sleep at the same time as the reindeer, get up together and together we're constantly on the move. They provide our transport, our clothing and our shelter."

A Nenets 'chum' - or tent

Inside Nikolai's chum, made of wooden poles and reindeer hide, it is clear the animals are also the Nenets' main source of food.

As we sip our tea we are offered chunks of raw meat. It tastes fresh, but a little bland, so we are encouraged to dip the meat in a bowl of congealed reindeer blood.

"Nenetsky Ketchup!" jokes Nikolai.

Our producer Albina, a lifelong vegetarian, would not last long in the tundra, but there is not much else to eat out here in winter apart from muksun - a Siberian fish which the herders also eat raw and icy cold, cut into slivers with a knife. It's delicious.

Reindeer habits

A Nenets reindeer herder
  • Run at up to 80km/h (50mph)
  • Eat mainly lichen in winter, which they digest in their four stomachs
  • New antlers are covered in velvet
  • The only mammals that can see ultra-violet light
  • Warm air in their nostrils before it enters the lungs

Then it is time to get ready for bed. My sleeping bag is totally inadequate so I am given a reindeer skin coat to throw over it.

The herders look exhausted, especially the women, whose job it is to pack dozens of sledges and dismantle and put up the chum every two or three days.

They had just arrived at the foot of the Yamal peninsula after a punishing, day-long crossing of the frozen River Ob.

In the winter they travel south to take refuge in the forest but are now heading back north to their summer pastures at the tip of the peninsula by the Kara Sea.

It is a tough existence but Nikolai's wife Nina says she could not imagine living any other way.

"I can't sleep indoors - it's too stuffy," she says.

"Out here on the tundra you can breathe properly, you feel free. I just go to the village to buy stuff and have a bath - that's it."

Some Yamal Nenets have settled in villages and the regional capital Salekhard, on the River Ob, but about half are still genuine nomads.

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Yamal is tiny - where else can you go? There are neighbouring brigades left and right”

End Quote Yevgeny Khudi Nenets herder

That does not mean that they are cut off from life in the rest of Russia. The men have to leave the tundra temporarily for their military service, and Nikolai tells me tales of army life from his stint in the Far East near Vladivostok. The market savvy herders have also long been exporting velvet antlers know as panty to the Chinese, who use them in different medicines.

Most Nenets women now give birth in clinics and all the children aged seven to 16 have to spend the autumn and winter months in boarding school in the village of Yar Sale.

Many herders have mobile phones, snowmobiles and generators. I spotted satellite dishes mounted on sledges so they can watch TV in their chums at night. Otherwise, though, the 21st Century seems a long way off.

But now the herders fear that their centuries-old way of life is under threat because of the global appetite for gas.

For decades more than 90% of Russia's gas has come from the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Area, but now the old fields around Noviy Urengoy are almost depleted and companies have to move further north.

This summer the Bovanenkovo field, halfway up the Yamal peninsula, developed at huge cost by Gazprom, the world's biggest producer of natural gas, will start production.

Find out more

Two reindeer

Listen to the full report on Radio 4's Crossing Continents on Thursday, 10 May at 11:00 BST and Monday, 14 May at 20:30 BST.

Potentially, there is enough gas under the permafrost to heat a quarter of the homes in Europe for the next 35 years.

Nikolai is painfully aware of the changing landscape, not only because the Bovanenkovo field is on the brigade's migration route, but also because it happens to be the place where he was born.

"For Russia the development of the region may be a good thing but we herders are against it because we are losing more and more of our pasture lands," he says.

Unlike their counterparts in the Canadian and the Alaskan Arctic, indigenous people of the Russian North have no statutory land rights. So Nikolai feels it is best to play the diplomat and negotiate with the company.

Gazprom managers have tried to meet some of the herders' concerns by raising pipelines off the ground so reindeer can cross the gas field.

They have also provided a special material to lay down on road surfaces so that the herders sledges can slide across them.

But that's not enough to placate Nikolai's younger brother, Yevgeny. He complains that the gas workers leave rubbish all over the tundra and some abandon their dogs which then turn wild and attack the reindeer.

A drilling station in Siberia Gas fields are moving steadily further north

Although at 122,000 sq km (47,000 sq miles) the Yamal Peninsula is nearly the size of England and might look like an endless, frozen wasteland to outsiders, over time it has been carefully divided between different herds.

That is because in winter reindeer are reliant on lichen for food. They dig for it under the snow with their hooves and antlers, and when it runs out, it is time to move on.

The more the tundra is carved up by tarmac roads, rail tracks and drilling towers, the more the herders feel hemmed in.

"Now we have to take another route to get around the gas fields but we are not the only herds migrating," says Yevgeny.

"Yamal is tiny. Other herders also have pasture land by Bovanenkovo and if we get pushed on to their route by the time we get up there, there is no lichen. Nothing but sledge tracks on the tundra.

"Where else can you go? There are neighbouring brigades left and right."

Global warming is another complication. The Arctic is changing fast. Rivers freeze later and thaw earlier making migration more difficult and sometimes risky.

The Yamal Nenets survived Tsarist colonisation and Communist collectivisation. They survived Stalin's terror and the free market chaos following the collapse of Soviet power.

Nikolai hopes that his children and grandchildren will be able to follow the nomadic herding tradition but at times I catch the doubt in his eyes.

Listen to the full report on Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 10 May at 11:00 BST and Monday, 14 April at 20:30 BST.

Listen again via the Radio 4 website or download the Crossing Continents podcast.

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