In Sweden, a long journey home
Sami reindeer make their annual migration across the frozen wilds of northern Sweden. (Gary Latham)
A cry goes up from the forest. A snowmobile shoots out onto the frozen lake, skirts the trees and disappears. Nasti the Lapp dog – two pointy ears protruding from a mess of black fur – yelps and whines, eager to be on the move. Deep within the trees ahead, a strange whooping and hollering crescendos and subsides, before rising 90 degrees to the left and once again fading to nothing.
‘Ah, here comes my brother,’ remarks Lennart Pittja, looking up from the smoked reindeer meat he has been slicing with a hand-carved knife. Nasti can wait no longer. He bounds across the lake to the treeline, only his tail visible above the snow.
There, a couple of hundred metres beyond him, are the reindeer. They appear as a trickle, a single-file struggling through the deep snow towards us, but are soon pouring out of the forest at a pace and number it’s hard to keep up with. On and on they come, a stew of antlers and hooves and kicked-up snow, the occasional snout poking out above a rolling carpet of fur.
And then, just as suddenly, all is still. The reindeer stand motionless on the lake, sometimes nosing the ground and otherwise looking a little surprised. Nasti perches on the back of a snowmobile, apparently aware that he’s had his fun, and the drone of engines is silenced as the riders gather round for a chat. The first morning’s work of the annual migration is done.
The depth of winter has now passed in the World Heritage site of Laponia, more than 3,600 square miles of pristine forest, mountain and lake in Sweden’s far north, 40 miles beyond the Arctic Circle. For Lennart, the weather is positively balmy. He draws air deep into his lungs and smiles. ‘Ah, it is like the Outback here today.’ It is 15°C below.
A warm hug of a man forever bubbling with good humour, Lennart is the latest link in a chain of reindeer herders that stretches back nigh on six millennia. His brother Kenneth, with the deep voice, long whiskers and imposing girth of a fantasy novel character, is the main herder. Like their ancestors, their lives are intricately woven with that of the reindeer and the land on which they tend them. Theirs is the story of the Sami, the indigenous people of Sápmiland, an area extending over the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – and more familiar as Lapland to anyone who’s ever written a pleading letter to Father Christmas.
‘Every Sami person has a special relationship with the reindeer, it’s difficult to explain,’ says Lennart, gesturing to the 300-strong herd milling about on the lake. ‘Without the Sami, you wouldn’t have this many reindeer, and without the reindeer, there would be no Sami. It’s thanks to the reindeer that we are still here in the north; they let us survive.’
Emerging from the woods where they have spent the last four months foraging for food among the birch and spruce, the reindeer are on their way to summer pastures in the mountains some 200 miles to the west. Here the females will calve and the males will get fat, ready for slaughter in the autumn, before the herd makes the long journey back to the forests for the winter.
The migration takes around 10 days, through marshland, forests and mountains, at a pace dictated by the herd rather than the herdsmen. ‘We are following the reindeer – they set the programme. I have a plan but the only thing I can say for certain is that we won’t follow it,’ explains Lennart as the reindeer move off at a steady trot.
Kenneth is quick to notice if an animal is missing – he knows every single one of his reindeer by sight. He has urged the herd into the family corral at Stubba, a few miles north of the forest, and stands amid a boiling mass of animals in the central enclosure, thoughtfully chewing on a blade of straw. He picks out a small bull with stubby antlers buried deep within the pack, raises his arm slowly above his head and lets the lasso fly. Bingo. The animal bucks against the rope, his front legs struggling to find purchase in the snow as Kenneth hauls him in.