It does not fear harsh winters and snow. It is owned by people but is more at home in the wild. Lapland would not be the same without it. Let us introduce the reindeer, a semi-domesticated herd animal tamed from the wild Scandinavian mountain reindeer.
There are more reindeer (200 000) than people (180 000) in Lapland. The area for reindeer husbandry covers over one third of Finland’s total area. Reindeer may graze freely in the area regardless of landownership.
Unlike wild animals, semi-domesticated reindeer are owned by people. Each reindeer herder is a shareholder in one of the 54 herding cooperatives.
Mari Konttaniemi at Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm is one of them. For her family, reindeer husbandry is not only a source of living but also a way of living. “We live and breath reindeer.“
At her family’s farm, only 7 kilometers from downtown Rovaniemi, their reindeer give rides to visitors and are also available for film groups. Outside the tourist season, the animals roam freely in the wild.
Konttaniemi has more reindeer than those specifically trained for pulling a sled and being around people. How many altogether remains a secret, as a herder never tells the number of reindeer she or he owns. Or the answer is very ambiguous, something like “on both sides of the tree.”
Konttaniemi knows her own reindeer by their earmark. All reindeer herders have their own earmark consisting of different cuts for their reindeer.
A herder’s year
The knowledge and skills of reindeer herding have long traditions, which run in the family.
At the time of the interview, Konttaniemi is busy getting ready for autumn round-ups. Gathering the reindeer from the forest for the round-up can take weeks. “We do welcome visitors to watch the round-up but the problem is that it is very hard to tell when the actual round-up is going on. We don’t know it earlier than the day before.”
In the round-up, the reindeer are counted, reindeer from other cooperatives are returned to their owners, and finally, the livestock is separated from the ones chosen for slaughter.
Autumn is also the rutting season. The males grow mighty antlers for the battles between each other and to get the attention of the females. “Even though reindeer usually run away from people, in the rutting season, the males can be very aggressive, so it is wise not to go close to them,” Konttaniemi advises. After the rutting season, the males drop their antlers.
In winter, reindeer which have trained for 3-4 years for pulling a sled are busy working at Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm. “The reindeer work in shifts. We think carefully which reindeer, all with different characters, is given to which customer. The wellbeing of the animals always comes first,” Konttaniemi explains.
The rest of Konttaniemi’s livestock spends the winter in the forest. A reindeer is well adapted to harsh winter conditions with a lot of snow and cold temperatures. The structure of its hooves enables it to move easily across the snow. Its thick outer hair has heat-insulating air pockets, and the fur underneath is extremely dense. The reindeer has an unbelievably good sense of smell. It can sniff out lichen through thick snow. The reindeer cannot be called a picky eater: its diet consists of over 300 plants. However, in winter, the herders tend to bring extra food like hay to the forest to guarantee that the animal have enough food. “Problems occur especially when the surface of the ground freezes over, and the icy layer prevents the animal digging food out of the ground.”
Female reindeer give birth in May, after which they shed their antlers. The calves are dependent on their mother’s milk, which helps them quickly double their weight. At the age of 1-2 months, the calves get their earmarks.
Summer also means preparing hay for winter, repairing fences, which separate different cooperatives from each other, and cleaning round-up areas.
“And in autumn, it all starts all over again,” says Konttaniemi who hurries back to the computer to answer requests and reservations for the upcoming winter before heading to the forest to help with the round-up.