Reindeer are semi-domesticated animals that live all their life outdoors. They are not accustomed to human handling and find it stressful. According to the Norwegian scientists, the modern reindeer are no longer as tame as some decades ago. However, reindeer are handled and transported, for example, to summer and winter pastures, as well as for slaughter.
Variation in regulation and methods
The EU regulation on transporting animals 1/2005 and the regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing 1099/2009 regulate the transport and slaughter of reindeer. Member States may, however, lay down stricter standards of animal welfare at national level. In Sweden and Finland, reindeer intended for slaughter must always be stunned before bleeding (in practice by a bolt gun). Norway, which is not an EU country, still permits killing reindeer without prior stunning by sticking a special knife in their neck so that the knife destroys the reindeer’s central nervous system and spinal cord. Using the knife is only allowed when the meat goes to the Sami people’s own household needs.
In both Norway and Sweden, there are about 250 000 reindeer in each. In Finland there are just under 200 000. In Norway, 85 000, Sweden 60 000 and Finland 73 000 reindeer are slaughtered annually.
Transported reindeer must be in good condition
Reindeer are transported for slaughter or between pastures with varying vehicles, such as trucks, lorries and trailers. Before transport, the reindeer are collected for loading. Slippery loading ramps can cause injuries. During transport, reindeer may get stuck with their antlers and hurt themselves or other conspecifics, and therefore reindeer with large antlers must be transported separately. Large, osseous antlers may even have to be cut off before transport. There are arteries and nerves in the still growing, velvety antlers, and damaging them is painful for the reindeer. Reindeer with these not yet osseous antlers must not be transported at all.
Only animals transported in good condition may be taken for slaughter. However, it is sometimes hard to tell if a reindeer is fit for transport because semi-wild reindeer are hard to handle.
Semi-domesticated reindeer stress on human contact
When separating the reindeer intended for slaughter, circular fencing is used, in which the reindeer are naturally running in a big circle. In a rectangular fence, the reindeer would panic and try to climb the walls and hurt themselves. People who handle reindeer are standing in the middle of the circle and catching the passing reindeer. Previously reindeer were caught with a lasso, which was very stressful for the reindeer. Nowadays using a lasso is largely abandoned.
For one’s own consumption, reindeer can be slaughtered at the fence. The reindeer for commercial use are transported to slaughterhouses. Ideally, the slaughterhouse is in the immediate vicinity of the separation fence, allowing the reindeer to walk there with their own feet. Seasonal slaughter of reindeer differs from the year-round slaughter activities of many other farmed animals. Reindeer slaughterhouses may also be temporary or transferable due to seasonality. These mobile slaughterhouses are used at least in Norway.
Separating, transporting and slaughtering reindeer depend on the weather conditions. It is sometimes difficult for authorities to monitor transport and slaughter if the date of slaughter is decided only on the same day. Reindeer are often brought to slaughterhouse in the evening or at night, when there is dark, and it is challenging to observe the condition of the reindeer after transport. While the reindeer are waiting in the slaughterhouse, they should be provided with pure snow, water and fodder. Certain slaughterhouses regularly keep some reindeer in their own fence to make it more homely for slaughter reindeer arriving there.
Handling and transport are critical
When properly done, stunning and subsequent slaughter of an animal are no issue for the animal’s well-being, but the treatment and transport before them can be. In Norway, helicopters are used to herd reindeer, unlike in Finland and Sweden. In Norway, the transportation to slaughter varies from 20 minutes to 8 hours.
According to Norwegian veterinarians, reindeer and their carcasses have more traces of injuries than other animals in slaughter. Bruises and subcutaneous hemorrhages may occur when some of the animals lie down and remain stomped by others. Lameness, bone fractures, stress diarrhea, stomach ulcers and starvation may also occur. The levels of stress hormone cortisol measured before slaughter have been very high in the reindeer. Stress not only weakens the welfare of the reindeer, but also worsens the quality of meat.
Reindeer wants to be close to his fellows
It is important to keep the reindeer together, because getting separated from others is very stressful for a reindeer. Good practice in terms of animal welfare and herd behaviour would be to take two reindeer at a time to stun with two people stunning and bleeding. The other stuns the first reindeer and the second bleeds it right away. Meanwhile, the second reindeer is stunned and also bleeded immediately afterwards. In this way, no reindeer will be left alone in the stunning site. In cattle, research has confirmed that stunning a bovine in front of other conspecifics is not stressful, but more stress is caused by separating the animal from others. The same is likely to be true with reindeer, and therefore, it is necessary to do the stunning and bleeding quickly by two people.
The slaughter and welfare of the reindeer were presented by veterinarians Cecilie Mejdell from Norway and Lotta Berg from Sweden in the Wild Animal Welfare Seminar in October 2019. All seminar presentations are viewable on Youtube.
Finnish reindeer herding cooperative’s best practice guide for transporting live reindeer is downloadable here (in Finnish)