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Nenets Laika centre to be set up in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area

On 18 May, the Project office for Arctic Development (PORA) held a discussion on the topic ‘The Nenets Laika – the path of the breed to recognition as a National Treasure’. “It is a rare, endangered breed that requires special attention,” said co-moderator of the event Yan Turov, Director, NGO “Economic Programs Foundation”, member of the Board of the Association “Arkhangelsk Regional Association of Territorial Public Self-Government”.

The meeting summarised the results of the Nenets Laika conservation project over the last 3 years. This project was one of the first to receive a grant from the Project office for Arctic Development in 2018. During this time, team members together with scientists have collected genetic samples of dogs to make a data bank, a kennel is in the process of being established, and an update of the breed standard in the Russian Cynology Federation is currently under discussion. “The registration of the breed in the International Cynology Federation and organisation of tourist events related to the Nenets Laika is being discussed. Project office for Arctic Development is going to form a working group on the Nenets Laika,” PORA CEO Alexander Stotsky announced.

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The Nenets Laika – a reindeer herding dog – is a unique northern dog breed. As its name implies, these dogs are bred mainly by the Nenets people who lead a nomadic lifestyle. These dogs are adapted to survive in extremely low temperatures in the tundra, as well as to shepherd work – they guard and help guide herds of reindeer.

Representatives of Sweden, who studied a similar Scandinavian breed, the Swedish Lapphund, shared their experience in the cynological field. Peter Savolainen, head of the Department of Genetic Technologies (Science for Life Laboratory, Royal Institute of Technology) spoke about the project on DNA sequencing of dogs. To date, researchers have compiled a fairly large database of samples of genetic material from all across Eurasia, which allows them to trace the migration and evolutionary pathways of the domestic dog. Among other things, such samples have shown that the Swedish  Lapphund is genetically closer to Scandinavian hunting breeds than to the Nenets Laika. “The question remaining now is whether to cross breed in regard to traits and phenotype or genotype? The Nenets Laika is still a strong contender for enhancing the gene pool of the Swedish Lapphund”, says Peter Savolainen.  

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The Swedish Lapphund’s numbers has been declining, in part because of changes in the lifestyle of the Sámi people, said independent researcher Malin Widlund, who worked on the project with Peter Savolainen. “The Sámi becoming resident, which took place in the twentieth century because of reindeer grazing laws and compulsory schooling, has affected the way the dogs live. Today, when herds are sometimes driven by drones, the Lapphunds’ ability to follow reindeer for long distances is unnecessary. Back in the 1940s, the breed almost went extinct and attempts to breed it again ran into inbreeding issues. Now the Lapphunds are mainly companion dogs, which are losing their herding skills due to being bred for appearance (dog shows),” said Ms Wiedlund. The Swedish researchers warn that the maintenance of the working qualities and genetic diversity of dogs only occurs in their natural habitat, and not through artificial breeding.  

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“The most important thing is to preserve the breeds for the needs of reindeer husbandry. The main dog handlers who preserve traditional knowledge are reindeer herders,” said Timur Akchurin, Executive Director of the Union of Reindeer Herders of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area. He announced the creation of the Nenets Laika Centre in Yamal, which will work to preserve the breed in its natural habitat. Ekaterina Flerova, director of science at the Yaroslavl branch of the Federal Scientific Center for Forage Production and Agroeconomy named after V.R. Williams, agrees that breeding dogs in artificial conditions reduces genetic diversity.

Boris Shirokiy, a zoologist, cynologist, independent husky expert, agrees with them: “The Nenets Laika will exist as long as nomadic reindeer breeding exists. No bans on exporting the breed abroad work [for preservation], the awareness of its value does. The reindeer herders appreciate purebred dogs, it is necessary they become even more aware of the uniqueness of the Nenets Laika, see that others dream of buying such a dog in other countries. Then they will make more efforts to preserve the breed”. 

For reference: The Nenets Reindeer Breed Standard was approved by the Presidium of SOKO RCF (Russian Cynological Federation) on December 23, 1999. The current standard was adopted by the RKF Standards Commission on March 13, 2016.

By Julia Nikitina & “Arctic Development Project Office”, Moscow, Russia.

Photos: Sergey Karpukhin, Olesya Kuzhel, Yan Turov.

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