Wild reindeer have been present in Norway since the inland ice retreated about 10,000 years ago. People followed these reindeer and small groups made their way inland to hunt them. The reindeer provided these people with everything they needed in terms of food, clothes and tools. Simple methods were used to hunt the reindeer. The hunters built pitfall traps and archers’ hides. The reindeer were chased off cliffs or into lakes. The hunters learned the reindeer’s migratory routes and which areas the animals used throughout the year.
Wild reindeer mainly live in the mountains above the tree line, but they sometimes move down into the forests in search of food. Unlike other members of the deer family in Norway, the wild reindeer is a typical herd animal. Several reindeer keep watch while the other animals graze. Wild reindeer have a nomadic lifestyle where they migrate over large distances in search of the best grazing and calving grounds.
Wild reindeer are particularly well-adapted to life in the barren mountains. Their winter coat is thick and provides insulation against precipitation and freezing temperatures. Their hooves are wide and cup-shaped and act almost as snowshoes. They are skilled at digging up food from beneath the snow and are excellent swimmers. Male reindeer (bulls) and female reindeer (cows) both have antlers. Female reindeer keep their antlers right up until the calving season begins in the spring. This gives the cows a higher status in the herd when they fight over the best winter grazing grounds. Wild reindeer have a particularly well-developed sense of smell. This is important both for sensing danger and for finding food deep under the snow.
Wild reindeer are dependent on accumulating fat reserves during the summer. This is especially the case for cows carrying calves. Various species of willow, grass, sedge, European goldenrod and fireweed are all important grazing plants. The wild reindeer often move down into the forests during the autumn in search of mushrooms. During winter, wild reindeer keep activity to a minimum and use the energy reserves they have built up. This is when lichen makes up most of their diet.
Thousands of years of hunting have caused the wild reindeer to shy away from places where people are found. They always move into the wind and can often smell you before you see them.
The wild reindeer’s natural fear of humans and their need to use different parts of the mountains throughout the year are important factors in understanding the threats wild reindeer face.