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A visit to Rudolph

Six reindeer live in Switzerland’s deepest valley. It wasn’t Santa who brought Rudolph and his fluffy friends here, but Reto Summermatter, from Valais. Other people breed cows or goats but 34-year old Reto has always wanted to have his own reindeer herd.

TEXT:Deborah Bischof

Reindeer in Valais, Switzerland

Reto Summermatter lives at 1,280 m above sea level in Herbriggen, a small village in the community of St. Niklaus, in the Matter valley. Ever since he was a child he has been fascinated by reindeer.  Some unused land from his father gave him the chance to realise his dream of having his own reindeer herd.  “Unfortunately,” he says, “it was all a lot more complicated than I had expected as I had to obtain twenty permits and take a two-year course as a gamekeeper before they would let me have reindeer.”  But eventually the hard work paid off and in 2014 the first four reindeer, Rudolph-Theophil, Norway, Mulan and Anima moved into his pen. 

The next generation

The original four reindeer have expanded to six. “Currently,” says Reto, a proud owner, “I have two bulls and three cows plus one calf. Little Leevi was even born here.”  And Reto Summermatter has every right to feel proud because breeding reindeer is not so easy.  Reindeer have one rutting season per year and a cow carries for 8 months, which is quite a long time.  Switzerland only has about 50 reindeer and so artificial insemination can’t be practised here.  Reto Summermatter had to travel a long way with Anima – Leevi’s mum -  to meet a bull and then he just had to hope for offspring because it’s a long time before you can see if a cow is carrying or not.  Little Leevi’s birth in May 2017 was therefore a very special event.  

Keeping reindeer needs high standards

Caring for these woolly animals requires a certain amount of specific knowledge. “Reindeer need a lot of crude fibre.” explains Reto Summermatter.  As his land is mainly forested the animals find a lot of grass, lichens and bark.  As a complement, Summermatter also feeds maize in the mornings and concentrated fodder in the evenings, comprising soya, and pressed lichens.  There are always three mounds of hay from the first or second cuts available. Premium quality is very important as reindeer, like their local counterparts – the European deer –only eat the very best and are highly selective. 

Summermatter has 3.5 hectares for his Valais reindeer herd which provides the deer with plenty of space. Just as they do when they live wild in the north they spend both summer and winter outside. They have absolutely no problem with the colder months – in fact quite the opposite: after a hot summer they can hardly wait for the first snowflakes.  “You can really see how the colder weather makes the reindeer more lively and how they flourish in winter.”  Reto Summermatter makes use of the winter days for  pleasant walks with them in the snow.

Amiable wild animals from the high north

Reindeer’s natural habitats are the polar and sub-polar regions of Europe and Asia.  They are by no means cuddly pets, but wild animals.  You’d better not underestimate them as they can weigh up to 150 kg and be 150 cm tall. Nevertheless, they can be very tame when they know you.  “I only need to whistle when I visit and they come running out of their corners to greet me.” says Reto Summermatter, “and then they let me stroke and pet them.”