Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A day with the Reindeer

Think of Lapland, and once you've got the image of a fat, jolly man with a bright red suit out of your head, you'll probably turn to Reindeer. With their distinctive antlers and evolution to cope with the extreme cold, Reindeer far outnumber humans across the snowy north and can be found wandering along roads (causing huge numbers of traffic accidents every year) and through the forests.

What I hadn't realised before our trip was that there are no truly wild Reindeer in the whole of Lapland. Although set free for the majority of the year, each animal is owned, with distinctive ear markings identifying a herd. Some Sami families continue to rely on Reindeer as a primary measure of wealth, and asking how many someone owns is considered a great insult (in line with asking a stranger how much money they earn). Whilst some families still own hundreds of the beautiful beasts, others have smaller farms with tamer animals.

What hasn't changed over time is the importance of Reindeer meat to Sami (and Finnish Lapland in general) culture, with the rich, gamey taste absolutely delicious and tender. Whilst in Inari, we made sure to order a Reindeer-based meal one evening, and also paid a visit to a local Sami women to learn about her family connection to the animals and how she balanced tradition with her modern life.

It was an interesting afternoon - her family still keep around twenty Reindeer, a much reduced number from just a couple of generations ago, who split their time between wandering the surrounding forest and staying in the extensive back garden space. Every year, one is chosen for slaughter to provide meat for the family, although they no longer rely solely on Reindeer for the meat aspect of their diets.

We helped feed the animals tasty lichen (they mostly forage for their own food, but it is topped up during the winter months), hopping backwards as they all rushed forward at once for dinner. Gentle, with soft warm eyes, it was very hard not to fall for them as they gently munched on handfuls of the mossy treat. Despite the bulky antlers, they were very agile, weaving in and out of each other's way as the sun set behind them. It was sad to hear that so many are killed every year on the roads, although having seen two jump out in front of the car one evening, I'm not surprised.

After visiting the Reindeer, I was keen to learn more about the history of the region, and paid a visit to the excellent Sami museum in Inari. With interactive displays, large purpose-built spaces and a well-laid out route, it was a superb and very informative place. We saw the huge variety of ear markings used over time, and well as witnessing (through the wonders of time lapse), the effect of the changing seasons on Lapland's landscape. I'd highly recommend a few hours put aside for a visit there.


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