May 3, 2006

Arctic Town Builds Anti-Reindeer Fence

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

HAMMERFEST, Norway -- Fed up with reindeer wandering the streets, one of the world's most northerly towns is building a 20-km (12-mile) fence to keep the animals out.

"Having reindeer walking around sounds exotic but it isn't for those who live here," Alf Jakobsen, the mayor of the port of Hammerfest on the tip of the Norwegian Arctic, told Reuters.

"We've just begun building the fence. Reindeer are a big nuisance, they come into town, get into (hotel and business) receptions, into churches, into the traffic," he said. "The reindeer around here have become too tame."

Pointing out of the window of his office in the town of 9,600 people, he said there had once been 50-100 reindeer on the grass in the square outside his office.

"We have just started building the fence," he said, adding that it would probably be completed this year. Jakobsen said he knew of no other town in the world with an anti-reindeer fence.

The wire fence, about 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) high, would run 20 km through the barren hills on the side of the town not open to the sea and cost 2-2.5 million Norwegian crowns ($325,900 - $407,400). The municipality would install grates on roads into the town.

The reindeer were apparently attracted by grass in some municipal parks -- a break from lichen that is the staple diet of the animals during the cold and dark winter months.

Snow still covers the mountains around Hammerfest, on the same latitude as northern Alaska or Siberia. No reindeer were in Hammerfest.

The town can afford a reindeer fence amid an economic boom spurred by a nearby natural gas plant being built by Norwegian energy firm Statoil. Property taxes paid by Statoil total about a fifth of the municipal budget.

Reindeer apparently go into buildings in summer to seek shade when it gets warm. "I have reindeer coming into my garage at home," Jakobsen said.

Hammerfest, originally built on fisheries and trade with Russia with an ice-free port warmed by the Gulf Stream, calls itself the world's most northerly town. But other smaller settlements, such as Honningsvaag or Longyearbyen in Norway or Barrow in Alaska, dispute the title.

"We're already spending about 300,000 crowns a year to clean up after the reindeer," Jakobsen said. Reindeer were an especial menace in schools or in traffic.

Norway has an unsentimental approach to reindeer -- farmed for their meat, skins and horns. Neighboring Finland has been more successful in marketing itself as the home of Father Christmas and his reindeer.