Reindeer Herding Is Really a Job (In Finland)

Although not as common as it once was, reindeer herding is still a thing. Heather Sunderland [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

The cowboy lifestyle has always been romanticized. Who hasn't fantasized about leaving the modern world behind for a life defined by nature, the seasons and animals instead of iPhones, NASDAQ and the 24-hour news cycle?

But cowboys are not a purely American phenomenon. In Finnish Lapland, one of the world's most remote places, the ranchers don't wear cowboy hats or raise cattle. They dress for warmth and herd one of the world's hardiest cold-weather creatures: reindeer.

A recent documentary provided a glimpse into the lives of cold-weather Finnish cowboys. “Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys” follows the lives of the titular Aatsinki brothers as they manage a group of ranchers who tend one of Lapland's last wild herds.

Watch the trailer here:

The movie offers a glimpse into one of the rarest forms of livestock raising. Yes, some of the cowboy romance is there. The herders have the skills that allow them and their animals to thrive in the wilderness. Their lives are defined by seasons and weather. At the same time, the modern world is part of the Aatsinki's existence. Snowmobiles and helicopters are a necessity for managing the reindeer, and the brothers and their peers take time off from their herding duties to earn extra income by taking tourists on reindeer-drawn sleigh rides.

Reindeer herding history

Before oil and natural gas were discovered, reindeer rearing was one of the only economically viable activities in Scandinavia’s northernmost regions. Documents from as far back as the Roman Empire mention Northern European people who hunted reindeer. Reindeer herding was widespread by the 17th century and became more organized in the 20th century.

Although reindeer herding is not as common as it once was, the industry still thrives today, with most herders coming from the indigenous Sami tribes. However, unlike other Scandinavian countries where herding is solely the domain of indigenous people, Finns also take part in the industry.

Anyone living inside an area that is zoned for reindeer (about one-third of the country, including all of Finnish Lapland) can legally own them. Local district authorities oversee herding activities in each area.

What you do with reindeer

Yes, reindeer can be used to pull sleighs. This was common in the past, but today most Arctic cowboys rely on snowmobiles to get around. (When you see a reindeer pulling a sleigh, it's usually lugging tourists around.)

reindeer pulling a sleigh in Finland

Many people only keep a small number of reindeer, either to supplement their income or as a personal meat source. There’s a market for reindeer meat as well as hides and antlers. Reindeer can be used as pack animals. The animals can also be milked, though this is becoming less common.

Although not considered fully domesticated, tamer versions of the reindeer have been bred over the years, mainly so that they could be used as dairy sources and pack animals.

Reindeer require large expanses to roam and graze. That requirement makes for one of the most-natural forms of herding, but it also causes problems. Some areas used by Sami herders are protected from encroachment. Although others lands are zoned for reindeer, they are also used for other purposes. Finland's thriving logging industry sometimes comes into conflict with the Arctic cowboys.

In addition, nature still dominates in Finnish Lapland. Wolves, wolverines and lynx regularly kill reindeer. District authorities may compensate herders for animals killed by predators to prevent herders from shooting the wild animals, some of which are endangered.

The goal of finding a balance between industry and conservation is at the heart of the Finnish reindeer lifestyle. Wild herds like the one overseen by the Aatsinkis are carefully organized so that they can be sustained indefinitely. So in many ways, the reindeer industry is a good example of sustainability and of successfully balancing nature and commerce.