In 1911 Lauritz Larsen, the manager of the Ocean Harbour whaling station, and his brother CA Larsen, introduced ten reindeer to the Barff Peninsula as a reminder of home and for recreational hunting. In a letter to the then Magistrate (Edward Binnie), CA Larsen wrote "I feel sure they will thrive and become prolific in time, if they are left alone, which would most assuredly be an asset to South Georgia". Further introductions were made to the Busen Area in 1911 and 1925 and, as Larsen suggested, the reindeer thrived.
The areas to which reindeer were introduced were two of the largest snow free, and consequently most biologically productive, parts of the island. During the whaling era numbers were, to a certain degree, controlled by hunting. Since the 1980s no hunting or management of the herd has occurred, and as a consequence the herds expanded substantially. Reindeer overgrazed plant communities, and the removal of the vegetation cover and, consequently, topsoil had negative consequences for native burrowing birds such as prions and petrels as nest entrances were exposed and burrows more prone to collapse.
South Georgia’s large glaciers acted as barriers to the reindeer and restricted them to the two peninsulas. However, rapid glacial retreat meant that soon these dispersal barriers were likely be removed and so urgent action was required to prevent reindeer from spreading to new areas and causing further damage to the native flora and fauna.
GSGSSI signalled their intent to eradicate the reindeer in the Environmental Management Plan for South Georgia (2000). This led to the relocation of small numbers of reindeer to the Falkland Islands, where they now thrive. As no one had ever before attempted a reindeer eradication, GSGSSIconsulted with a wide range of experts to determine the most appropriate technique. Work to remove the remaining reindeer from the South Georgia began in January 2013.
The first herd to be tackled was the smaller, Busen herd that stemmed from an introduction of seven animals at Husvik in 1925. Depending on the terrain, one of two methodologies was utilized. In central areas, the team of Sami reindeer experts gathered the reindeer into a corral where they were humanely killed under veterinary supervision. In outlying areas, where the terrain meant it was not possible to herd, animals were shot by experienced marksmen from the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (SNO).
In total approximately 1,000 animals were gathered in in the herding operation. Meat was recovered from these animals and processed into steaks, mince and roasting joints on board a converted fishing vessel. This excellent meat continues to be sold to visiting cruise ships and in the Falkland Islands. A further 1,012 animals were shot in outlying areas and during a final sweep through the area once the herding operation was complete.
The second area occupied by reindeer was the Barff Peninsula. This population originated from ten animals that were introduced to Ocean Harbour in 1911. The Barff Peninsula is a much larger area than the Busan and has more suitable grazing meaning the reindeer population was consequently much larger. During the first phase of the eradication operation, shooting on the Busen took less time than anticipated, shooters were deployed on the Barff Peninsula where they reduced the population by 1,555 prior to full-scale eradication the following year.
In early 2014 six Norwegian marksmen returned to South Georgia to complete the operation on the Barff Peninsula. The rugged terrain and lack of suitable anchorages on the Barff Peninsula meant that herding was not a viable option, so ground shooting was used as a stand-alone method. The marksman were based in tented field camps and supported by the GSGSSI fisheries patrol vessel the Pharos SG. Despite challenging terrain and severe weather, the marksmen completed systematic searches of all areas with reindeer and shot 3,140 animals in a six-week period. A small number of animals are known to remain and it is planned that these will be shot in early 2015.
Alongside the work to remove reindeer, several scientific research projects have been undertaken, including the collection of samples for genetic analysis and filming for behavioural research. Projects have also been established to monitor vegetation and bird communities to track the recovery of the island’s systems after the eradication. Although it will take a number of years for the full benefits of the eradication to be realised, there are early signs of vegetation recovery, especially in the Busen area, which has now been free from reindeer for over a year.
The eradication of reindeer is one of a number of projects (including eradication of rats, mice and non-native plants) that are designed to safeguard the native species, habitats and landscape of the unique environment of South Georgia.
Date of issue: 14th October, 2014