Finnish Lapland has a reindeer population of about 200,000. That’s 20,000 more reindeer than people!
Image: Jason Charles Hill, Location Levi. From Visit Finland
They are the only indigenous people in Europe. The Sami people live in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The total population in these four countries is estimated at approx. 80,000. A total of nine different but closely related Sami languages are spoken in the Sami region. They have more than 100 different words for snow.
Reindeer herding is an important part of the present and historical Sami culture. The Sámi have been herding reindeer on a large scale for at least 800 years.
The traditional Sámi livelihoods are fishing, gathering, handicrafts, hunting and reindeer herding and the modern ways of practicing them. Out of the traditional livelihoods, reindeer herding still functions as one of the cornerstones of the Sámi culture, offering both a language arena as well as material for, among others, clothing, Sámi handicrafts and food culture. Ever since the development of reindeer herding, reindeer has been an important form of transportation.
The strong long-term relationship they've developed with reindeer has created a culture that's intimately connected with herding.
It has always been a tough existence, and it remains a truly challenging way of life. It's a year-long job, you have to look after literally thousands of animals, and it involves long days spent exclusively outside in freezing cold weather. These days the Sámi supplement their income with tourism, including Christmas-led holidays in the winter and salmon fishing breaks in summer.
These creatures are fascinating. Did you know reindeer eyes change colour, the only mammals known to do so. Their eyes actually change with the Arctic seasons, either going gold or blue depending on the levels of light. It seems to help them spot predators in their strange environment, a place of extreme light and dark, sometimes totally light or completely dark for 24 hours a day.
They are also great travellers. They have a range of just under 200 square miles and are highly social herd animals, resting, feeding and travelling in large groups of as many as several hundred. But the spring sees these smaller herds combine into massive crowds of 50,000 to 500,000 animals, which steadily make their way a thousand miles or so south searching for food.
Interacting with reindeer
December is the busiest month of all for the Sámi, the time when thousands of us visit to enjoy a little magic, enjoying reindeer sledging, gold panning, ice fishing, the legendary Northern Lights and reindeer sleigh rides. Get whisked away in an enchanting sleigh ride through the snowy forest and get your souvenir reindeer driver’s license.
Other reindeer farm experiences include spending time at a reindeer farm learning about the animals and their herding history while getting to greet the reindeer. Often incorporated with spotting the northern lights, gathering around the campfire and enjoying delicacies such as sausages and blueberry tea.
Sadly the reindeer are losing their habitat, because of logging and mines, as well as facing climate disaster. Herders are struggling to keep their way of life as the Arctic warms up.
The ancient reindeer herding culture is dying. Young Sami are heading for the cities and an easier life, and while they're doing everything they can to keep the old traditions alive, it's difficult. Luckily the Sami are strong people, and they know how to change and adapt to survive, with initiatives designed to help young Sami protect their language and continue their traditions.