Reindeer have been herded for centuries by several Arctic and Subarctic people including the Sami and the Nenets. They are raised for their meat, hides, antlers and, to a lessening extent, for milk and transportation. Reindeer are not considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds.
The reindeer population originated from the wild deer that were used for luring other wild deer during hunting, or they were used as beasts of burden or draught animals. In a society of self-sufficiency, people used reindeer for many things. Reindeer were used as draught animals and beasts of burden, they gave meat and milk and the materials for clothing and tools. From early times, reindeer have been privately owned.
In Finland both indigenous Saami and non-Saami Finns can practice
reindeer husbandry. In Sweden and Norway this is an exclusive right of
the Saami. See also the map of the main reindeer herding areas.
Climate Change and Reindeer Husbandry
Climate change (causing long-term warming and changes in
precipitation and snow conditions) is expected to have both positive and
negative impacts on herding.
- Warmer early winters with varying temperatures and events like
rain-on-snow may lead to more frequent icing of snow and basal ice,
which can hinder reindeer access to ground lichens.
- Warm autumns may also result in the growth of mycotoxin-producing microfungi (molds) below the snow in reindeer pastures.
- Warmer summers with increased precipitation may lead to more severe insect harassment and more frequent parasite epidemics.
- Cold summers with heavy rains are considered harmful to young calves.
- Warmer winter weather can help reindeer keep fit.
- Early snowmelt and increased availability of fresh forage
in spring are favorable for lactating reindeer and the new-born calves.
Source: Rasmus, Turunen, et al. 2020.
Herding vs. Husbandry
Reindeer herding is when reindeer are herded by
people in a limited area. It is about how the work of reindeer herding
is organized and how practical reindeer herding tasks are carried out. Reindeer husbandry
includes both the practical work with reindeer but also the whole
reindeer herding industry, biology, science, management, and even
hunting and fishing in areas where they are a part of reindeer herding
The history of reindeer herding
The reindeer is a member of the moose family and it was tamed from the wild deer in former times. Reindeer herding has its origins in deer hunting. Seemingly, the reindeer population originated from the wild deer that were used for luring other wild deer during hunting, or they were used as beasts of burden or draught animals. In a society of self-sufficiency, people used reindeer for many things. Reindeer were used as draught animals and beasts of burden, they gave meat and milk and the materials for clothing and tools. From early times, reindeer have been privately owned. The Norwegian tribal chief Ottar, who lived in the 800’s, was said to have owned 600 reindeer. In reality, the reindeer may have been owned and herded by the Sámi in Ottar’s tax area.
The Birth of Large-Scale Reindeer Herding
There was a gradual change from small to large-scale reindeer herding. Large-scale reindeer herding originated in the fell areas of Sweden and Norway in the late Middle Ages. As wild deer decreased, the Sámi in the area developed a new livelihood - reindeer herding based on tending and travelling nomadically. During the year, the reindeer grazed over an extremely large area. In winter, they found their nutrition in fields of lichen in forest areas. The summer grazing grounds were high up on the fell moors or on the hay-covered shores and islands of the Arctic Ocean. The journey in one direction could be as much as 400 kilometres. In the forest areas south of the fells, the herds stayed in a smaller area and reindeer herding was semi-nomadic.
The Spread of Reindeer Herding to Finland
Large-scale reindeer herding gradually spread from the fells of Sweden and Norway to Finland via Enontekiö and Muonio. The livelihood developed differently in Finland. The Finnish new settlers and peasants adopted reindeer herding as a livelihood at an early stage and it began to be practised far away from the dwelling areas of the Sámi. In the 1600’s, according to the decree of King Kaarle IX, an attempt was even made to settle reindeer in Southern Ostrobothnia. These distant experiments were not altogether very successful but a relatively extensive reindeer herding area was ultimately established. By the mid-1700’s, reindeer herding was practised north of the line going from Kuhmo to Oulu, approximately where it is today. The southern spread of the livelihood stopped as settlements became denser and lichen areas decreased.