South Georgia plans removal of reindeer herds with Norwegian advisors
The South Georgia Government has released the report of a reconnaissance trip by two experts from the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate investigating the practicalities of eliminating reindeer from the South Georgia Island.
According to the May edition of South Georgia Newsletter the two Norwegians, Henrik Eira, a Sámi (Lapp) reindeer herder and Carl Erik Kilander were accompanied during their trip and much of the time by GSGSSI CEO Martin Collins.
Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia by Carl Anton and Lauritz Larsen a century ago as a food supply for the whalers. The deer adapted well to their new habitat and flourished. In a study of the reindeer made in the late 1950s, Nigel Bonner regarded this as an 'excellent example of a successful introduction' and observed that 'overgrazing problems…do not seem to exist' except for the elimination of burnet.
However, a more detailed study by Nigel Leader-Williams in the 1970s revealed that there had, in fact, been extensive overgrazing, leading to modification of the vegetation and erosion. This, in turn, had affected the invertebrate fauna and the nesting birds.
Since then, the future of the South Georgia reindeer has been debated. The population is interesting scientifically because the two herds (estimated as numbering 2000-2500 in the Barff herd and 1000 in the Busen herd) descended from less than a score of deer introduced from Norway, and they have adapted to eating tussac grass rather than lichens.
The animals are something of a tourist attraction, especially when wandering through a king penguin colony. Nevertheless, they are aliens and have had a serious impact on the island flora and fauna. The Environmental Management Plan for South Georgia, published in 2000, recommended their removal. Since then, consultations have revealed a broad consensus.
The need to eliminate reindeer came to a head with the plan to eliminate rats in South Georgia. Reindeer would affect this by eating the poisoned bait intended for the rats, which would also cause undue suffering to the deer. It is therefore necessary to remove the reindeer before the rats. The Norwegian report gives ample reason for getting rid of the reindeer, with photos showing extreme damage to the vegetation. It also shows how exclusion cages that prevent grazing allow the vegetation inside to recover quickly.
The plan is to use traditional Sámi methods of herding and corralling reindeer, with shooting by experienced marksmen of deer that are inaccessible. This system will enable compliance with strict animal welfare regulations. It will also allow the hygienic butchering of carcasses for human consumption.
Martin Collins has said that every opportunity will be taken to collect samples for scientific study, such as gathering more information on the 'genetic bottleneck' caused by the introduction of so few animals.
Removal of the Busen herd is planned for this austral summer, with the Barff herd in the following year. This timetable will allow the rat elimination programme to proceed as planned.
The pdf of the report “Report from reconnaissance January 1st - 31st 2012 regarding eradication of reindeer on South Georgia” was posted on the South Georgia website in May.