Ranching the Moose in Kostroma, Russia
By Nikita Krivtsov
Moose are common in northern Russia. The ‘wild animal crossing’ signs one can see here and there on the roads in Russia, suppose the moose crossing. But the idea of seeing the moose staying in the stables like cows was very inspiring one.
Kostroma, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, is frequented by thousands of tourists. But only a few know that just 15 miles east of the city, near village Sumarokovo, there is a unique moose farm.
Bread for Yakutia
A dusty rural road brought me to the edge of the forest, where there were gates and some small buildings, – one of them turned out to be a kind of visitor center with a canteen and a souvenir shop. Behind them, all along the edge of the forest, a fence stretched out.
I was an unexpected guest, but herd manager Dmitry Kudriashev whom I met at the entrance was quite inclined to show me around and explain everything.
‘Go this way, along the fence, and meanwhile, I‘ll take some bread,’ he said.
The path along the fence brought me to another hedge, at the opposite side. Behind it, I saw a little house and some tiny moose calves walking around on their absurdly long stilt legs, permanently stumbling and teetering.
They, by contrast with grown-up animals staying and lying behind the fence I was walking by, were light brown, even more humpbacked and, in their face, seemed to be absolutely two-dimensional.
And they were producing piteous groans, not bleat, but something in between cheep and moan. They looked not meager, but quite affecting and funny at the same time.
‘They are only a few days old,’ said Dmitry, who caught up with me. ‘Last cow dropped a calf just on April 29. Don’t pet them by any means.’
Do you anticipate transmission of infection?’
‘Infection and trail. They are destined to go away to the forest, they have to stay wild, and if they have any strange trail, no other moose will accept them. Moose are mope-eyed, but their nose overcompensates that.’
We turned around to the opposite fence. Just behind it, some grown-up moose were staying – they were attracted either by the familiar voice of the herd manager or by the smell of hunches of rye bread lying in his bucket, or, maybe, driven by curiosity. The moose were wearing collars.
The names on the collars read Yakutia, Yara, Nemo…
Dmitry began narrating about the farm and the moose. And I don’t know what was of more interest – to know about the ways and habits of the animals or about the history and functioning of the farm.
The brainchild of an Unsuccessful experiment
This moose farm near the village of Sumarokovo has existed for over a half-century. “Once, there were six farms like this in the Soviet Union, but now only one remains. It’s the only farm of this kind in the world.” said Dmitry. But the history of the efforts to domesticate the moose can be traced back to much earlier times.
‘Moose are wild animals, and they, like the wolves, always look towards the forest,’ Dmitry Kudriashev says. ‘They never can be domesticated completely.’
Though there is some evidence that in olden times in northern Europe and Asia moose were used, among other things, to carry riders and loads across inhospitable terrain. Alexei Ivanov, Russian modern novelist and a great expert in the old Urals, vividly describes Mansi people (Voguls) using the moose as ‘combat vehicles’ in his book ‘Cherdyn, the Princess of the Heights’.
Swedish Cavalry using Moose
Around 1700, during King Karl XI’s rule, the Swedish cavalry experimented with moose as ‘combat vehicles’. The animals have better stamina and terrain mobility than horses and were expected to terrify enemy forces. Alas, the king’s grand plan came to naught. In the Swedish army ‘moose regiments’ existed only until first battles.
The moose are smart animals and were leaving the battle fields at the first signs of real danger: the trainers could never get them to quit running away from artillery, muskets, pikes, and other weaponry.
After the eighteenth century, moose husbandry became a forgotten art for over two hundred years, but it resurfaced in the 1930’s Soviet Union. Soviet scientists tackled the issue of moose husbandry systematically and were successful.
They discovered that moose could be trained to give milk, carry loads or riders, pull sleds and logs. At the same time, it was suggested that moose cavalry could be efficiently used even in the deep snow.
In 1934, the Soviet Government’s Nature Reserve Committee ordered the creation of moose reserves and breeding centers in support of the effort. However with the onset of the Soviet–Finnish war in 1939 followed closely by WWII, the entire idea of a cavalry was swept away.
Though military moose training operations came to a halt, the efforts to domesticate the animals continued, with the focus on agricultural use – to raise these animals for meat, since meat production was always a headache for the Soviet economy.
Farming Moose Meat
It was thought that the moose could provide an ideal way of improving the utilization of the biomass production potential of the taiga of northern and eastern Russia.
If the moose could be farmed, they could be provided with feed practically for free, giving them the by-products of timber harvesting: tree branches and bark.
The very idea – on the paper, at least – looked very attractive. The first experimental moose farm was launched in 1949 by the staff of the Pechora-Ilych Nature Reserve in the Komi Republic. Then, the Kostroma moose farm was created.
But the problem was how to feed the moose properly. Moose need a diet only of fresh food – twigs, moss, foliage, acerose leaf, bark, water plants. It means it’s impossible to harvest food for them in advance. And the moose are not the social animals, unlike deer, their kin.
Research quickly showed that being penned in stalls is not conducive to moose biology; moreover, it would be very expensive to supply captive moose with suitable fodder, as the moose are picky eaters and will not eat branches thicker than some 0.4 in or so. So, meat production this way was absolutely inefficient.
Ranching instead of Farming
But Sumarokovo farm survived, since they discovered and adopted the more feasible technique of moose husbandry that can be called ‘moose ranching’. It is somewhat similar to the semi-domesticated reindeer husbandry pursued by the people of the tundra, or the sheep herding of the steppes.
During a large part of the year, the animals are allowed to roam free throughout the forest. They usually do not go too far, however, because they know the farm (or the winter camp, as the case may be) as the place to get their favorite foods and as a safe place to give birth to their young.
In winter, the animals spend much time at the woodlots in the nearby forests where trees are being cut, feeding on the byproducts of timber operations. The abundant supply of forest foods, plus daily rations of oats and salted water keep them around the woodlot even without the fence.
And though the moose wear collars and got used to people, they are still wild animals.
Giants of northern woodlands
‘We have only does here,’ Dmitry gives a piece of bark to Yara that is leaning its head over the fence. ‘When the bulls grow up, we hiss them away. Otherwise, they will attack the people.’
‘This fence is quite symbolic,’ he goes ahead. ‘It’s for people, not for moose. A mature moose can easily vault over it, or breach it.’
A moose is a big and strong animal. When facing it, you should not squat or bend, otherwise a bull moose can hit you with its hoof: it got used to consider every creature of shorter height to be an enemy, let’s say, a wolf. Moose is able to rip the wolf’s belly just with one blow by the hoof.
Under no circumstances one should run away; as a last resort, one should put up hands to look more formidable.
Long Distance Swimmers
The moose are able to cover easily long distances, crossing the opens and swimming across the rivers and even the lakes. Dmitry told me that some years ago a moose calf, just few days old, chased by a dog, swam across the river Volga almost a mile wide.
In short, when in summertime the moose are set free for feeding on their own resources, they can get away quite far away. However, nurslings are always kept in view – all of them have a tracking device attached to the collar.
During the rut, many bulls are roaming around the farm. And people should avoid an encounter with them – moose are the most dangerous beasts in the northern lands during this time and will attack anything that’s unlucky enough to wander too close.
‘Nursery’ and ‘kindergarten’
The Kostroma moose give birth to their young in April or May. A farm-born moose calf is taken from its mother within 2–3 hours after birth and is raised by people. It is first bottle-fed with a milk substitute, and later fed from a bucket. The resulting imprinting effect makes the growing animal attached to people; the steamed oats will remain one of its favorite foods for the rest of its life.
In the meantime, the mother moose is being milked by the farm’s milkmaids; due to a similar imprinting mechanism, the cow moose will soon recognize them as her ‘substitute children’. At this point, it can be released to the forest; it will come back to the farm every day to be milked during the rest of her lactation period (typically, until September or October).
If the calves are born in the forest, it will be impossible to get them used to the farm timetable, and cow will never come to the farm again. And if the cows consider the milkmaids to be their children, the calves take the farm staff as their parents.
‘This is our nursery,’ Dmitry says, pointing to the pen, where the calves are lubberly toddling around. ‘Here, the suckling calves are kept.’
When they improve in strength, the calves are moved from the ‘nursery’ to the ‘kindergarten’ – a semi-open pen. There they become almost tame. But when the calves are about one month old, they are free to go to the forest, but they never go too far away; meal they got used at the farm will always keep them around.
Though the moose can eat almost everything that grows in the forest – from bark to fly-agarics (almost 350 kinds of vegetal fodder!), they are very fastidious about the water. They drink only spring water, or water from natural sources like rivers, lakes and bogs. They refuse to drink tap water. So it’s necessary to bring water to the farm from a spring in a special barrel.
Moose cows are milked twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. They return to the farm at varying times and enter the stable to be milked. The average moose cow gives 0.5 to 0.6 gallons of milk a day. But some, most productive cows, give 1.5 gallons and even more. The lactation period is very short; it lasts only 120-140 days.
12-15 milk-producing moose cows are kept at the farm at a time; their number is limited by the feeding possibilities of the area.
But in spite of the small milk yield, it was the moose milk that gave the farm a chance to survive – its unique properties were discovered here.
First of all, moose milk is very curative, it is useful for the treatment of many diseases. The moose milk is rich in protein and fat – from 12-15 % to 18 % at the end of the lactation period, which is 4-5 times as many as ordinary milk.
And, furthermore, moose milk can stay pure for 3-4 days at room temperature.
The milk, reported to be rich in vitamins and micro-elements and to be useful for the treatment of peptic ulcers and radiation lesions is supplied to the nearby Ivan Susanin Sanitarium. There, it’s congealed with liquid nitrogen and thus can be used for treatment the ulcerous persons all year round.
‘Since the moose mainly feed on bark, their milk contains no carbohydrates, and that contributes to its healing properties as well,’ Dmitry adds.
Small quantity of the milk is left at the farm to give the tourists a treat after the tour, a kind of a cherry on top!
But milk production is only one line of the farm activities. Another goal is to maintain a gene bank of the moose, and moose population recovery. Moose husbandry laboratory functions at the farm, and it’s a research venue. And last but not least, Sumarokovo moose farm is a center for ecological education and very interesting tourist attraction.
Researchers involved with the project emphasize that although much has been learned about the moose biology, and the techniques for semi-domesticated moose husbandry have been developed, raising animals like this is a not an easy affair.
In the wild, moose is solitary animal. But here it almost became a collective one, and it shows some attributes of gregarious behavior. Though we can’t say that Sumarokovo farm has solved the problem of domestication of the moose, but they have made a step forwards that nobody had made before.
Nikita Krivtsov is a freelance travel writer who lives in Moscow. Historian by education (Ph.D. in history), he travels widely and contributes his stories to leading Russian travel and inflight magazines; author of ten books published in Russia and UK.