Reindeer herding in the land of the midnight sun

  • Europe
  • Thursday, 14 Jan 2016

Man against beast.

It all happens in the blink of an eye. Anssi holds a long pole with a noose at the end and the reindeer are huddled in a group. As soon as the noose is raised, as if hearing a starter pistol, they are off around the perimeter of the enclosure. Anssi runs along and within moments, he is tugging at a reindeer’s antlers, man against beast, trying not to be dragged along but also concerned not to damage the new-growth antlers.

I am at Kopara reindeer farm in Luosto in Finnish Lapland just after the calving season, when the reindeer herding starts. Reindeer farmer Anssi Kiiskinen is attaching a GPS tracking device on his prize bulls to make sure he can find them as they roam in the wilds of Lapland.

But the major task is to tag his new calves. His 13-year-old son, Santeri, is on hand to assist, sitting astride the captured calf, one hand in its mouth, to hold it down. Anssi cuts the Kopara ear-mark into its ears. He takes the first furry piece off the ground and puts it in his pocket. “You must keep the first ear for good luck,” he said. All the while I was watching the calf, sceptical of his assurance that the process was painless. Only, the calf did not even blink.

Tagging or branding might be an easy task on a regular cattle farm but Finland’s reindeer roam the 100sqkm of Finnish Lapland. The 200,000 reindeer are owned by some 4,000 farmers. When the calving season arrives in May, reindeer owners wouldn’t know which of the 120,000 new calves belong to them and have to find ways of identifying them.

For Anssi and other farmers, their year starts in June, a month after calving. Reindeer don’t live in one colony but are solitary creatures; the ones belonging to Anssi and his nine neighbours roam in a 30km area. Working as a group, owners would have to find and herd them together to identify the calves and tag them. Nature aids this process; at the end of June, mosquitoes would hound the reindeer and all the solitary reindeer find strength in numbers. Groups of 1,000 huddled together would produce enough heat and odour to repel the mosquitoes. This works to the advantage of the farmers.

Man against beast.
Man against beast.

Unlike the cowboy films we are used to, everything is done on foot. Anssi and his friends have constructed 20 fences in different spots, each with three different-sized corrals. From groups of 1,000 reindeer, 100 are herded into another corral. The calves are separated into the smaller corral and each tagged with a number and then released to join their mothers.

Armed with a stack of sheets with numbered oval outlines representing the ears of a reindeer, each farmer replicates the marking on its mother’s ear on the outline bearing the calf’s number. When this is completed, the calves are separated into another corral and tagged. The tagging takes place late at night when the temperature is cooler so it does not stress the animals, explains Anssi. Thanks to the midnight sun, which starts late June, they can work in natural light. The whole process takes four to five weeks. It is hard work but for Anssi, this is the best part of his life as a reindeer farmer. He enjoys the outdoors. “This is a nice time to be in nature. If I’m hungry I get fish from the river, I get water from the river to make coffee. It does not get dark. You can work all the time.”

I understand his sentiment when we retire to a campsite complete with a log cabin and toilet facility. Firewood provided by the forestry service is kept in a shed, together with an axe. Anssi gets Santeri and his friend Alexi to gather kindling from the forest to start the fire while he and Jari Luoma-aho cut the wood. Jari came into reindeer farming after retirement and bought reindeer and the ear-mark from Anssi.

Within moments the fire is roaring and Anssi fills the kettle, blackened from the wood smoke and places two round loaves of bread on the purpose-built toast rack.

Over slices of warm bread with pieces of cured reindeer meet from Anssi’s farm, we talk about reindeer farming. Anssi explains that tagging with cuts on the ear, used traditionally by the Sami reindeer farmers, is more effective.

Fitting the satellite tracking device
Fitting the satellite tracking device.

“We tag using the knife because we can see the ear mark from a distance. It stays forever. It is also easier. If we use plastic mark, we would need to catch the females in order to read it. Now we can just walk around the fence. I can see the ear-mark from 20m.”

Catching a reindeer is hard work. Imagine having to catch thousands. “It is also stressful for the animal. With our tagging we can see the ear-mark from 20m away and the animal only needs to be caught once in its lifetime.”

You have to be a Finnish citizen and live in Lapland to own reindeer. Ear-marks are registered to owners and are passed down the generations or when an owner decides to sell the reindeer. Anssi has 10 ear-marks and has reserved two for his sons.

Lapland has 185,000 people and 200,000 reindeer. By law the reindeer population has to be kept to the same number, hence farmers can put a percentage of their animals to meat production. Each year 120,000 new calves are born. Unfortunately 40,000 are lost to predators like bears, wolves, wolverines and lynx so the farmers only have 80,000 reindeer to earn an income from. Anssi is aggrieved by European Union legislation that seems to favour wild animals. He remembered a time when they only lost around 10,000 reindeer to predators.

Cutting the Kiiskinen earmark onto the calf’s ear.
Cutting the Kiiskinen earmark onto the calf’s ear.

Before they can select the animals that go to the slaughterhouse, they have to count them. Once again, nature assists the farmer. October is the rutting season and male reindeer, which make up 5% of the population, collect the females together. “This helps us as there are no more mosquitoes to help with herding.” Herding them takes a day and a half.

Reindeer husbandry can be lucrative. Quality reindeer meat costs about 50 euros (RM240) a kilo in the supermarket but are sold at 10 euros (RM48) per kilo for whole animals. Anssi can secure double this price by slaughtering and processing his own meat. “People also prefer to buy directly from the farm,” he said. It takes him six weeks to do this, slaughtering in the evening and processing the meat at night. The process is also done collectively by the farmers.

From November the temperature dips to 0°C to -50°C. The reindeer eat moss or lichen that grows on trees found in old forests of 100 years or more. The best is spruce but spruce is not being replanted by the forestry industry unlike pine, as it is not valuable. Anssi remembers a time when reindeer could be bred without having to feed them on the farm all year round, with plenty of food available from the forest.

“So we have now to bring some reindeer to the farm to eat in winter and also take hay and silage into the forest. The money from the meat goes to the feeding.” However, Anssi now has diversified and gets some income from tourism.

Reindeer farmer Anssi Kiiskinen and his son, Santeri.
Reindeer farmer Anssi Kiiskinen and his son, Santeri.

For the last 15 years, he has been developing a tourism business to give people who have come for the winter sports in Pyha-Luosto to get up close and personal with reindeer. His reindeer sleigh rides are very popular, led by trusted males, which Anssi trains himself. By this time, the reindeer have fully grown their fur, which had dropped in the summer, and their new antlers are looking majestic.

Tourists also pay to feed the reindeer, helping Anssi with some of the food bills. But dealing with the different nationalities requires some knowledge of socio-anthropology, it seems. Already Anssi knows the different ways he needs to address different coachloads. Some cultures need to be coaxed, while others can be spoken to directly. Some have to be watched closely when they refuse to listen to the guide and endanger themselves by getting too close to the reindeer.

The 40,000 visitors also get a great welcome when they return to the visitor centre with fresh bread and delicious reindeer soup. Over coffee and cake, Anssi explains about reindeer farming. He is always patient with the visitors and seems keen to know that everyone understood what he said.

I later learned that he was a mathematics teacher. He came into his father’s business after having a career of his own. That probably explains why he is determined his sons will not go straight into the family business. “They have to go to university first. They must see the world first and then decide.”

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