Reindeer herding is based on common pastures

Reindeer herding in Finland is based on common pastures. Although different families and reindeer herders own the reindeer, they all are grazing in same herds.

Also reindeer herding activities are carried out in cooperation between the reindeer herders. The activities are directed to the whole of the reindeer herd in a similar fashion. This guarantees that also those, who own only small numbers of reindeer, gain the benefits of large reindeer husbandry, where the expenses per one reindeer are smaller. It is obvious, that unequal treatment by, for example, the state, of different groups of reindeer herders would ruin the common grazing system of reindeer herding.

Reindeer herding began in the Middle Ages
It is estimated that reindeer herding for meat producing purposes started in Finland in the end of the Middle Ages. It started to spread rapidly in the end of the 17th century from South-Western corner of Lapland. Within a hundred years it had spread to the whole of Lapland.

Reindeer herding has been carried out the whole of the present reindeer herding area since the 18th century. The fully nomadic reindeer herding of those times meant that the families roamed hundreds of kilometres with their reindeer and all their belongings, from summer to winter pastures and vice versa.

Especially the Fell Sámi started to be more dependent on reindeer herding while Forest and Fishing Sámi did not own as much reindeers. Outside Finland only Sámi have exercised reindeer herding.

Finnish farmers produced reindeer meat and furs already at that time as well. In addition to this, reindeer were used as draught animals.

The farmers’ reindeer herding varied initially very much in various parts of the reindeer herding area in Finland. In Western and Upper Lapland, for example, the Finnish and Sámi reindeer herding have always been very similar and the vocabulary of reindeer herding has been almost the same.

The role of Lapp villages was initially large
Traditionally the Lapp village was responsible for Sámi reindeer herding activities. The reindeer grazed relatively freely until the end of the 19th century, when the Government of Finland obliged the reindeer herders to establish the reindeer herding cooperatives in 1898. Since then everyone who owned reindeer had to belong to a reindeer herding cooperative as a condition for free reindeer herding on state-owned lands.

All in all 70 cooperatives were established. They were given official names and borders, and the chairmen responsible for the activities of the cooperatives were elected by the members. The cooperatives were also given responsibility to make inventory of its reindeer annually.

Since then the regulations for reindeer herding have not changed much. After Finland gained its independency, the first Reindeer Herding Act was adopted in 1932. It was revised in 1990.

Neither did the reindeer herding itself change very much, until 1960s. This was the decade when snowmobiles began to change reindeer herding. The snowmobiles gave the reindeer herders an option to overnight at home instead of several weeks’ stay in forests during the herding seasons, sometimes even during religious holidays. At the moment the reindeer herders own more than one thousand snowmobiles.

Snowmobile changed reindeer herding
Snowmobiles made it possible for Sámi to move to domiciles. In the end of 1980s a new technical invention, the ATV, all-terrain vehicle saw daylight. For a reindeer herder’s summer the ATV meant the same as snowmobile meant for the winter.

The mechanization of reindeer herding resulted to higher expenses and smaller employment. Because machinery and liquid fuels can be purchased only with money, the reindeer herding moved from natural barter economy more and more towards monetary economy. This is why also the reindeer herder also had to sell the reindeer or all processed products made from it in order to get money.

This, in turn, was also the reason why the scale of reindeer herding increased. However, it was extremely difficult to increase the return per reindeer. This resulted in enormous amounts of reindeer. This led to the deterioration of the pastures, which in turn caused, together with a couple of hard-climate winters, some really bad years for reindeer herders.

Presently the amount of reindeer left alive for the winter is regulated by government, in order to safeguard the pastures. The amount is roughly 200,000.

Reindeer are herded on one third of Finland
The Finnish reindeer herding area consists of Lapland and the northern and eastern parts of Oulu province. All in all its land area is 114,000 square kilometres, which is 36 percent of Finland’s land area.

All Finnish citizens who live in this area are allowed to own reindeer. At the moment there are over 7,000 reindeer herders in Finland.

There are 56 reindeer herding cooperatives in the area. They have established a Reindeer Herders’ Association as their representative. The tasks of the association are to lead and promote the reindeer husbandry and its research in Finland, and maintain its relations with the rest of the society.

The association has also built a 2,000 kilometre long fence for reindeer on the Northern borders of Finland. The association is responsible for maintaining this fence.

Each member of the reindeer herders’ cooperative has as many votes in its general meetings as is the number of his/her reindeer.

The borders of the reindeer herders’ cooperatives are drawn in such a way that they follow, as well as possible, the reindeer’s annual routes from one pasture to another. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry regulates the amount of reindeer by establishing the maximum amounts for every reindeer herders’ cooperative.

The cooperatives have to ensure that the reindeer do not cross their borders. In addition to this, it also has to prevent the reindeer from damaging, for example, agricultural fields or courtyards.

Reindeer’s year begins in May
The reindeer herding activities are defined by the reindeer’s annual life. For example, reindeer herding cooperatives’ budget year begins in the end of May when the new reindeer generation has just seen the daylight.

Around Midsummer the reindeer are gathered in “summer pens” where the calves are marked by cutting a mark in their ears. Every reindeer herder has his or her own mark, and the calf is given the same mark as its mother.

All in all there are 130,000–150,000 reindeer calves born annually in Finland. At birth the calves usually weigh some 5–7 kilos each.

After this the reindeer are left out from the summer pens to the forests. Towards the end of the summer the reindeer herding activities are limited to gathering hay and leaf fodder for the winter.

Slaughtering takes place in autumn
In the beginning of autumn the cooperatives have general meetings where the reindeer herding activities for the winter are planned. Later in the autumn the reindeer are collected in autumn pens with the help of ATV’s, terrain motor bikes and, when there is snow, with snowmobiles, even with helicopters.

The reindeer which are to be slaughtered are sorted out from the rest of the herd in autumn pens. Those which are not slaughtered are counted up, given medicine against parasites and left free in the forest. Many of the male reindeer are castrated. Some are taken into domestic use.

Slaughtering is supervised by an official veterinarian. Slaughterings usually end latest at New Year.

Winter is the hardest time for a reindeer
During the first months of the year reindeer are herded and fed on winter pastures. On mountainous areas reindeer are herded almost around the year by snowmobiles and ATV’s in order to prevent them from roaming to neighbouring reindeer herding cooperatives.

In wintertime the share of lichen, twigs and other fibre-rich plants increases in reindeer’s nourishment. After the first snowfalls reindeer starts to eat its natural winter nourishment, lichen on the ground and trees. Reindeer is the only large vegetarian animal, which is able to effectively use them as nourishment and the share of them may increase up to 30 or even 60 percent of reindeer’s nourishment.

The profitability of reindeer herding has traditionally been largely dependent on the reindeer’s ability to find the winter nourishment itself. Sufficiency and availability of wavy hairgrass (Deschampsia flexuosa) as well as lichen on the ground and trees is a key factor.

Lichen on the ground is more important in the northern parts of reindeer herding area, where reindeer are able to dig it during normal winters through the snow layer till springtime. In central and southern parts of the reindeer herding area reindeer start to eat lichen on trees instead.

Slaughtered reindeer are mainly calves
Annually there are 125,000–140,000 reindeer slaughtered in Finland. Over 70 percent of this is calves, that is, reindeer younger than one year. A male reindeer gives 50–60 and a female 35–40 kilos of meat. A calf gives around 20 kilos.

2–2.5 million kilos of reindeer meat is produced in Finland annually. It is less than half a kilo per every Finnish citizen and it represents some 0.5 percent of the country’s meat consumption.

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Reindeer herding began
in the Middle Ages

The role of Lapp villages
was initially large

Snowmobile changed
reindeer herding

Reindeer are herded
on one third of Finland

Reindeer’s year begins in May

Slaughtering takes
place in autumn

Winter is the hardest
time for a reindeer

Slaughtered reindeer
are mainly calves


Feeding reindeers. Photo: Reindeer Herders' Association / Veikko Maijala
 Even though the reindeer are also fed, the profitability of reindeer herding has traditionally been largely dependent on the reindeer’s ability to find the winter nourishment itself.


Reindeers and herders. Photo: Reindeer Herders' Association / Veikko Maijala
Around Midsummer the reindeer are gathered in “summer pens”. The herders hold a tool called 'vimpa' which is used to catch the reindeer.

Marking a reindeer calf. Reindeers. Photo: Reindeer Herders' Association / Mauri Nieminen
At the summer pens the calves, which are born in May or June, are marked by cutting a mark in their ears.

Reindeers. Photo: Reindeer Herders' Association / Mauri Nieminen
During the summer the reindeer roam free but are gathered together again in the autumn and the ones to be slaughtered are sorted out.

Slaughtering a reindeer. Photo: Reindeer Herders' Association / Jori Kontio
Some 125,000–140,000 reindeers are slaughtered annually in Finland. Over 70 percent of this is calves.

Machinery used by reindeer herders. Photo: Reindeer Herders' Association / Jouni Filppa
Mechanization of reindeer herding makes it possible for the herder to get home every evening, be it winter or summer.
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