Reindeer spring to mind easily when one thinks of Finnish Lapland. These gentle creatures, which are so often associated with magic and Christmas, roam across the northern third of the country in a far more extensive form of farming than is seen with other animals in most parts of Europe. Finland is a special country for reindeer herding because anyone living in the designated areas may own reindeer, unlike in Norway and Sweden, where only the indigenous Sámi people are permitted to be reindeer herders. The practice of reindeer herding is an ancient one, dating back thousands of years, and though it is now more district-based than nomadic and more regulations have been put in place as the number of reindeer and people grow, it remains a deeply significant part of the Finnish culture and national identity.
The cycle of the reindeer herder’s year is generally as follows:
The reindeer are corralled to check that the herds are intact and then they are moved to spring pastures for calving season.
The year’s calves are born, after which the reindeer roam their summer pastures.
Counting and calf marking, where the new calves’ ears are cut in a way that is specific to their owner so that the separate herds can be recognised, takes place in June.
Mating occurs, and then the reindeer are then corralled and separated into groups, which is a large community affair – the reindeer that are to be slaughtered for meat are chosen here. The reindeer are then herded to their winter pastures after they have been counted again.
Methods of herding have changed with time, e.g. to include useful technology such as snowmobiles, but the need to cope with northern Finland’s often harsh climate has remained. The reindeer have to be supplemented with food during the winter, and their particular favourite is lichen. This fungus, also called ‘reindeer moss,’ looks unappetising to the human eye but the reindeer seek it out eagerly and munch through as much of it as they can. Their stomachs break it down to glucose, to help to sustain them through the long, cold winter.
As is so often the case with traditional practices, reindeer herding faces modern threats and complications. Conflict with the forestry and tourism industries leads to disputes over land rights, and climate change affects everything from the species of trees that grow around the reindeer to the types of disease that are able to spread through the herds. Predation is also a serious problem for reindeer herders, but there is a compensation system in place that lessens the impact of wolverine, bear, wolf and golden eagle attacks on those who have made reindeer their livelihood. However, this system only works if the herders are able to find the half-eaten remains and prove that the attack took place, which is not often easy in the snowy wilderness.
Some people in Finland eat reindeer meat, often with lingonberries, and they also make use of their skins and antlers; reindeer hides are warm and thick enough that you can sit on one on the ice and not feel the cold coming through, and many antlers are used in souvenir products for tourists. Though not the largest contributor to the Finnish economy, reindeer herding is one of the most iconic and traditional industries in Finland; it is protected by their constitution and there is a general feeling of hope in Finland that it will remain active for a very long time.
Kirchner, Stefan, and Vanessa M. Frese. “Sustainable Indigenous Reindeer Herding as a Human Right.” Laws 5.2 (2016): 24. www.mdpi.com/journal/laws. Web. 15 May 2017.
With thanks to the tour guides and reindeer herders at Lapland Welcome Ltd.