SÁMI REINDEER herders in Sweden are in court this week, defending what they describe as their 'historic right' to graze lands in Norway.

The herders, whose culture is the basis of the festive notion of a 'Lapland' populated by fur-wearing reindeer farmers, are fighting to overturn a 2005 Norwegian law that set limits on grazing around Altevatnet lake, which sits on the frontier between the two Scandinavian countries. They are seeking both an end to the grazing restrictions – and compensation for the losses they have suffered during the past 14 years as a result of those restrictions.

The Norwegian state permits Swedish grazing, but only between May 1 and September 14. The herders insist that they have the right to use the grazing lands year-round, although they also say that they would not do so – they just want the fixed start and end dates dropped to give them flexibility to adapt to year-to-year variations in grazing availability.

Matters are complicated by centuries old treaties which recognised the indigenous Sámi people's right to migrate across borders and practice reindeer herding, particularly the 1751 agreement that established the border between Norway – which was previously a part of Denmark – and Sweden – which then included Finland.