How to catch 200 deer in an open field without killing one

Do you know what it a “bull”? It’s a reindeer. They stand in separate herds, or right next to chums in a small corral. By the way, do you know what corral is? It’s an enclosure for deer. It is usually quite large, with enough space for conducting veterinary and zootechnical treatment. Sometimes small corrals are made up for the “bulls”, so that they are always within reach. Large ones are made up rarely, usually twice a year – in the spring and summer, for the piece count (corralization) and marking the herd. Otherwise, deer graze in an open field, procuring reindeer moss with their hoofs within 3-5 km from chum. And do you know what is a “piece”? It’s a part of a herd that departed the main group and went roaming God knows where.

It’s not difficult to trace the “piece” and get it back to the herd in winter. Deer rarely go further than 5 km within one night, which, compared to the size of tundra is just a block away. It’s more complicated when a “piece” joins the herd of the neighboring brigade, since it’s hard to separate them without a corral. Even if there are 10 heads in the “piece” it’s quite some problem, what to expect, when there are 200…

It does occur quite rarely. The “pieces” sometimes do leave the herd, it does indeed happen. But the probability that it would come across another herd in the vast territory of tundra, is very small. Moreover, the migration routes of deer are predetermined and mutually agreed upon in advance. But it does happen every now and then. And if it does, want it or not, the brigades need to catch the “alien” deer and get them back to their herd.

To witness this large scale operation you need to have quite some luck. Matvey, our guide in tundra, said that he has seen it for the first time in the last 10 years. Usually you catch deer for meat, and you only need just 1-2 heads. It takes some 10-15 minutes, maybe even less. Thus, the major part of the photos documenting the process are set acts. Photographers simply do not have enough time to get good photos within such a short period of time, and ask reindeer herdsmen later on to pose, as if they are noosing with tynzyan (Nenets noose for catching deer). I have seen myself a few times how this kind of set acts are taking place.

This time, though, the situation was completely different. The process of catching 200 heads, took… 2 whole days! Not counting an extra day for the preparations. Both me and Sasha Sorin had a chance to watch this process for 5 hours, and even to participate in it. We could have continued to take part, but we were tapped out by then – running in banks of snow, sinking into it up to your waist is quite tiresome.

So, here are some photos from the large scale deer catch. With some comments.


We wake up before dawn. It’s -10 in chum, quite cold notwithstanding the Arctic sleeping bag and thermal underwear. I was happy to realize that the body that leaned to me throughout the night and made me feel quite uneasy, belonged to a dog.


While the man on duty heats the potbelly stove, I force myself to get out of the sleeping bag, dress up as fast as possible, and run out to the toilet. Outside temperature is -20, it’s windy and beautiful. The sled is turned on one side, so that dogs don’t get on it.


After having some tea, we get into the snowmobile, and drive for some 15 km to the meeting point of the two brigades – there, were the mixed herd stands. Here come also the reindeer herdsmen from the other chum – on snowmobiles and sleds.


The task is to separate about 200 heads from the herd with some 1000 or more.


Sun rises, and the fog is thinning.


There’s a cloud above the herd, it’s the breath of the deer. Inside the herd it is usually 5-10 (and sometimes more) warmer than in an open field.


Anything yummy? The “bull” gets interested. Deer like salt a lot, it’s enough to spill a pinch of salt, they would surely try to lick it.


We start to rake the herd to a better position – vast open field, bordered on both sides with a river bend, and, thus, with a gorge with high trees and deep snow.


The herd is pocketed by the snowmobiles and sleds, pushing it in the needed direction. Dogs take active part in the process.


The herd is positioned, reindeer herdsmen position themselves in the field.


Other reindeer herdsmen direct the deer from all sides of the field, so that they run directly through the line of the catcher. A deer would never tromp a man. Even if a man would appear on its way unexpectedly, a deer would make a sharp turn, in the worst case covering a man with a pile of snow. The probability of getting injured, of course, remains, but it’s very small.


Before noosing with tynzyan, the catchers watch the deer running by attentively. Despite the fact that the deer have a mark on their ear, reindeer herdsmen recognize almost all of the deer in the herd by sight. And not only that, they even know how they are related between each other – which one is a mum, which one is son, etc.


It’s not scary to be in the open field, even if sometimes, deer run by very closely.


– There it is, catch it! – the reindeer herdsman shouts, and nooses the tynzyan.


It’s easier to catch a deer that has horns. Otherwise, you have to noose the neck or feet. It’s not always that the tyanzyan reaches its aim – according to my observations it happens in about half of the cases. I tried to noose, but none of my 5 attempts was successful.


It’s not enough to noose the deer, you also need to hold down the running deer, approach it and cast it on the ground. A deer is cast, holding it to the ground and twisting the horns. If there are no horns, you need to twist the head. In any case, you can’t do it alone. It takes at least two – one casts it and the other ties its feet from one side, forefoot and hindfoot. In such a way, the deer cannot move, and simply lies on a ground, waiting.


There is nothing bad, however, awaiting them in this case. When the catch is over, the main herd is directed aside, while the captured deer are untied and moved in the opposite direction.



It’s unusual to see so many people together in tundra – there was about 20 of us.


When we had caught (or rather photographed) enough, we moved back. There are still more than 100 km on snowmobiles to Naryan Mar, where we need to get today by all means. On route, we stop by the chum of the fourth brigade to have some tea and warm up. There are women and children here, and thus, it’s tidy and the food is tasty.


30 km further, we stop by the private chums, where people, who are called here “farmers”, are staying, get a package from them to take with us, and move further towards the town. The sun already sets, last 90 km we make in complete darkness.

It was an unforgettable trip. Many thanks to our guides, the “rulers” of tundra, Matvey and Igor Nikolayevich. You can also read a story about this trip, written by Alexandr Sorin in his blog.

My thanks to Karen Hovhannisian for translating this post in English.


7 thoughts on “How to catch 200 deer in an open field without killing one

  1. Nice story about people and places we don’t hear much about in our daily life. Best Regards, Jens Illemann

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