The reindeer is a semi-wild herd animal that lives in the north. Lapland reindeer resemble the habits and body structure of the mountain reindeer. In Lapland, there are more reindeer than people (about 200 000 vs 185 000). Reindeer are absolutely the symbol of Lapland. Lapland reindeer, Rudolf, is also known as Santa Claus’s most important helper.
Reindeer are well adapted to the arctic climate, with great changes in temperatures. The difference between summer and winter temperatures can easily be 70 degrees Celsius. A reindeer in good condition can survive at – 50 degrees Celsius. Winter fur starts to molt in the summer and the new fur starts to grow in August. The winter fur is extremely dense, and it can be 3-4 cm thick. The outer protective hairs are thick from the middle and have heat-insulating air pockets. An adult reindeer can have 1700 hairs in one square centimeter. For every outer protective hair, there are several under hairs that prevent the movement of air.
Female and male reindeer grow solid bone antlers that drop once a year and grow again. Reindeer are the only species in which females also grow antlers. The male reindeer drop their antlers in autumn after the rutting season ends and females, after calving in the spring. The reindeer antler is the fastest-growing antler in the world. It can grow 2 cm per day!!
The male height at the withers is around 110 cm and it weighs 90-180 kg. A female reindeer’s height at the withers is about 90 cm and it weighs 60-100 kg. The most important sense that reindeer has is the smell. Reindeer can smell lichen through thick snow. A reindeer start digging food when it has a smell of it. Reindeer cannot really see colors, but it sees whether something is dark or light. Most of the fawns are born in May.
Reindeer herding is the oldest livelihood that is still actively practiced in Lapland. It keeps villages warm in areas where other jobs and sources of income are hard to come by. In addition to the daily herding work, reindeer herder develops their products and services. Small-scale reindeer meat processing and reindeer tourism have emerged as the main sources of income. Making handicrafts, gift items, and souvenirs and utilizing different reindeer by-products are also areas that offer new opportunities. Reindeer herding has succeeded because of its versatility and ability to adapt to changing conditions.
In Finland, reindeer can only be owned by citizens of the European Economic Area with permanent residence in the reindeer herding area, herding cooperatives, and the Reindeer Herders’ Association. The number of reindeer owned by a herder is private information. You should never ask how many reindeer herder have! If you still ask it, a herder will typically respond vaguely, for example with the phrase “on both sides of the tree”. One person can maximum own 500 reindeer. There are around 4,400 reindeer owners in Finland, 40 % of them are women.
Reindeer meat and clothes
Spring is the time for making dried reindeer meat. The meat is salted and hung out in the open air on a wall. It is protected by netting and left to dry in the sun and cold air. Dried meat is an excellent snack for a journey or hike, for example. This method works only in the northern climate. Otherwise, meat would be rotten.
Reindeer meat is fine-textured, tender, quick to cook, and easy to digest. The back fat under the reindeer’s skin can be used for cooking and frying. In addition to the meat, the reindeer’s heart, liver, kidneys, tongue, fat, blood, and milk are also highly nutritious. Usually, Finns use as much as they can from reindeer. The most valuable cuts of reindeer meat are the fillets and the haunch. Fillets make for delicious steak dishes. Topside is the best choice for cold smoking. Silverside, thick flank, shoulder, and chuck are good cuts for sautéed reindeer. All cuts can also be used to make traditional dried reindeer.
Reindeer meat can be bought directly from reindeer owners or from supermarkets. The best time for buying meat is in October or November. The European Union has granted a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) to reindeer meat from Lapland, dried reindeer meat from Lapland, and cold-smoked reindeer meat from Lapland. PDO status brings added value to traditional products. Meat is low in fat with good fatty acid composition, rich in proteins, plenty of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.
Reindeer fur is different on each part of the parts of the animal’s body. According to the body part, there are many uses for it. For example, the skin on the legs is used for making footwear. This is because of its resistance to wear and tear. Hoof tips and bones are usually used for jewelry making. The hide can be dried on a wall outside. As the fat on its surface dries, it becomes waterproof. These whole hides are traditionally used as bedding or bench covers outdoors, dog sleds, etc. Hides can be tanned naturally with bark, for example with willow bark, to make bark-tanned leather. By industrial methods, reindeer hides can also be worked into soft nappa leather or smooth, lightweight suede, as well as materials for souvenirs and interior decorations.