By Justin Kerswell, Viva! campaigns manager
Every year without fail, Viva! is approached to make comment about someone selling reindeer meat in the run up to Christmas in Britain. And almost without fail – with a couple of notable exceptions – all the tabloids really want is a story about some supermarket or other ruining Christmas by serving up one of ‘Santa’s four-legged helpers’.
The media delights in the sensationalism of the story, whilst either skimming over or ignoring completely the underlying issues.
The reality is that the boom in novelty reindeer meat in Britain, and other countries that don’t traditionally eat it, has led to environmental destruction, animal cruelty and loss of large predators on a shockingly large scale across parts of Scandinavia and Siberia.
Earlier this month, we were contacted by The Finnish Nature League after licences to shoot wolves were issued in the reindeer herding area. They were concerned that wolves are now persona-non-grata in huge swathes of the country, saying: "The situation is not sustainable where one business basically controls the natural environment of such a large part of the country."
Sami Säynevirta, of the Finnish Nature League told us: “Poaching of wolves is a big problem all over Finland but the northern part of the country, which is dedicated to reindeer herding, is a killing zone for wolves under permits granted by government. The price of reindeer meat is that wolves get shot.”
It is not just Finland, wolves, wolverines, lynxes and even bears with cubs have been shot in Sweden to protect the reindeer industry. Wolf populations in reindeer herding areas have been decimated and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency admitted that wolverines and wolves are seriously endangered yet allowed hunts in the past few years. A hunt earlier in 2013 was halted only after conservationists appealed to the courts, but not before three wolves were shot dead.
Cecilia Mille, International Affairs Manager of Djurens Rätt, Sweden, Scandinavia’s largest animal rights organisation, says: “Large predators are hunted and killed in Sweden to protect the reindeer industry. Wolves are most exposed, and the entire reindeer grazing area are kept free from them - that covers more than half the country. Popularising reindeer meat in Britain will make the situation even worse.”
Again, wolves are basically not tolerated in reindeer herding areas in Sweden. This has led to remaining wolves in the South being marooned after natural routes from Finland and Russia have been effectively closed. This has led to inbreeding and weakening of the gene pool in the remaining packs.
Charges of overpopulation of wolves in Siberia – another area with large scale reindeer herding that supplies large retailers in Britain such as Lidl – have led to officially sanctioned wolf hunting competitions in 2013. The natural prey in the area – such as rabbits – had declined to such a point that wolves had been forced to seek sustenance elsewhere and had killed horses and reindeers in the area. The important issue of why rabbit populations had been in such terminal decline beyond lack of food was ignored in favour of just killing wolves. In other parts of Siberia whole ecosystems are under threat because of increased reindeer herd sizes and uncontrolled overgrazing. Essentially they are eating the food that prey animals would normally subsist on – and leaving large predators without their natural food source.
Persecution of large predators is nothing new in Siberia. Sizeable bounties are put on wolves to encourage hunting and they are often seen as a ‘pest’ to be eliminated. Möngün-Taiga (Tyva, republic in south-central Siberia, Russia) was recorded as telling WWF Russia Altai-Saian Ecoregion: "... virtually all people said that wolves should actively be hunted. They are perceived as pests and a threat to livestock that needs to be eliminated." Altai (Southern Siberia): “[hunters agree] ... wolves should be hunted by specialized hunters and preferably eliminated altogether.”
The novelty tag also hides the significant welfare issues for reindeers themselves; gentle animals that react so badly to stress that it can cause their muscles to literally waste away. This is combined with often long journey times to slaughter, which can be in excess of 1,000 km, and frequent painful mutilations, such as earmarking and castration, without anaesthesia. A 2010 investigation by WSPA showed the suffering of herds of reindeer as they are rounded up, transported and slaughtered for their meat in Sweden and Finland. An undercover investigation by the Sunday People this year at an abattoir in Siberia that supplies Lidl showed how they could process 20,000 reindeer a season. The investigation detailed how the Russian veterinary watchdog reportedly found a number of rules being flouted and how offcuts are being used to feed animals on fur farms.
Whilst meat consumption in Britain continues to decline – with many choosing to reduce consumption and growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans – some are now choosing ‘game’ meat as an alternative to factory farmed meat. However, this switch is wrong-headed as reindeer meat is increasingly intensively produced.
Whilst the public image of bucolic reindeer herding by indigenous people persists, the reality is increasingly intensive methods with helicopters, motorcycles and snowmobiles. Previously small scale, demand is causing it to turn into a major industry – with all that entails and attracting big business interests. Much of this increase is not being driven by indigenous people of the regions (many of who do not make a profit from reindeer herding). Indeed, in Finland, less than a third of the reindeer herded are done so by indigenous people. With increased demand this intensification can only persist and the problems associated with it. Are we now effectively talking about factory farming without walls?
A frightening illustration of this came earlier this year, when Finland refused a request for 100,000 extra reindeer by a German company over fears that increasing the herd would further damage the environment in the country. Finland does not produce enough reindeer to satisfy its own demand and already imports around 10,000 reindeer carcases from Siberia annually.
Ilkka Hiltunen, Wolf Campaigner at the country's Nature League says that situation is already unsustainable and does not resemble the romanticised view of reindeer herding sold to the public: “… wolves and other predators cannot be blamed as the main culprit for the reindeer herders' losses. The main issue is that reindeer herding in its current, intensive form is unsustainable. Because of over-grazing, which has severely damaged the environment in large areas, the reindeer have to be fed artificially.”
Hiltunen continues: “We also think that while it's clearly not easy to combine reindeer herding and large predators, alternative methods to prevent predation should be considered. These may include fencing (for night time) and the use of guard dogs and shepherds. In any case there is a great need to reduce the amount of reindeer.”
Of course, whilst Finland may have refused for now it is unlikely that other countries or regions – especially Siberia – would be so choosy.
Lidl and Ikea have been selling reindeer meat for a number of years now, but it is unlikely that their customers – who are sold it as ‘just a bit of fun’ – have any understanding of their unwitting role in the destruction of natural habitats abroad. Due to aggressive promotion of reindeer meat on the run up to Christmas it can only exacerbate the problems. But as long as cash registers continue to trill many large businesses simply appear not to care.
Lidl have recently announced more than doubling their stores in Britain from 600 to 1,500. If they persist in the mentality or treating the world as an unlimited larder then, sadly, the future of Europe and Siberia’s large predators looks increasingly bleak.