Reindeer calving season in Lapland

The reindeer calving season takes place in May and June in the far north of Lapland. I could also have titled this article “Cute baby reindeer photos” but that would have been click-bait, right? Keep reading though, as there will be tons of cute baby reindeer pictures in this article!

Brown reindeer calf in Finnish Lapland
A few days old reindeer calf perfectly hiding in the vegetation.

Reindeer are the soul of the North

The reindeer has been providing food and raw materials for clothing and tools since it was tamed in the 17th century.

Nowadays, there are about 200,000 reindeer in Finnish Lapland. Reindeer herding is the traditional way of life of the Sami, the only indigenous people in Europe. The Sami live in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland as well as the north-western part of Russia.

Reindeer herding is not only a way of life, it is also a source of livelihood. In Finland, it is estimated that reindeer herding is the main source of income for about 1000 people, and an additional source of income for another 1000 people. Meat processing occupies by far the largest part of this income, with tourism generating more and more activity in the past few years. Reindeer leather is also used in the fashion industry, and antlers are used for handicraft and as powder in some eastern medicine.

White reindeer and her calf in the forest in Finnish Lapland
White reindeer and her tiny grey calf in the forest.

In Finnish Lapland, reindeer herding is organised in cooperatives, each occupying a certain geographical area. In each cooperative, a maximum number of reindeer is permitted. This is to ensure that reindeer can find sufficient food in the nature as they are most of the year completely free animals that need to find their own food.

Petri Mattus, who I have been visiting for the past few years, belongs to the Hammastunturi cooperative where the presence of up to 8000 reindeer is permitted. Petri invited me to join him on a full day taking care of his herd. This allowed me to write this article and take all these pictures.

What happens in spring in Lapland?

Reindeer herders have a close connection with the seasons in nature, to which the lives of the reindeer are strongly related.

Female reindeer just about to give birth in Finnish Lapland
Female reindeer just about to give birth.

May is usually the first spring month in Lapland. Spring is the season of birth in nature, when the snow cover is (almost) fully melted, trees soon start getting their leaves again, migrating birds are back and reindeer and elk females give birth to their calves.

Earmarking of the reindeer calves

In Lapland, each reindeer is owned by someone. Traditionally, all herders have their own earmark for their reindeer. This allows to identify the owner of each reindeer just by looking at the shape of the earmark, which is cut by a sharp knife.

Not all reindeer herders work in the same way especially in the calving season.

white reindeer calf yawning in Finnish Lapland
White reindeer calf yawning. How cute is this?

The majority of herders will leave the animals alone during the calving period in spring. In summer, the reindeer usually move to the higher fells to escape from the bloodsucking mosquitoes. There, the calves are briefly captured (usually by lasso) and placed into a closed fence. They will receive a number around their neck or painted on them before being released. Because calves always follow their mothers, the herders can easily take note of which calf number corresponds to which mother. Then the calves are briefly captured again, and the same earmark as their mother’s is cut into their ears.

Petri will also carry out the earmarking in such a way, however, this will take place after his process as described in the next section.

Some reindeer herders do the earmarking even later in the year, at an autumn roundup. This would be then usually in October.

Petri’s earmarking process

Some other herders like Petri proceed differently. He explained to me that his method, which he learnt from his father, has the advantage to protect the calves from being taken by predators thanks to his almost constant presence.

Reindeer herder feeding the reindeer in the forest in Lapland
Petri is providing extra food to the female reindeer.

In this alternative way, the females are separated from the males around April, just before giving birth. The males are left free in the wilderness, while the females are gathered in a large (several kilometres across) fenced area. This allows Petri to give the reindeer complementary food (pellets and lichen) in this time of their life when they need the most energy.

Petri explained to me that when a female feels that she is about to give birth, she would usually walk away from the rest of the herd. He pointed three females that he thought would give birth very soon and of course he was right. Two of them gave birth right in front of us. Well, I should rather say a couple of hundred meters away. Luckily, I had my binoculars. The third one gave birth a little bit later and we saw the calf when we came back in the evening.

Female reindeer licking her minutes old calf
A reindeer mother is licking her minutes old calf.

When a calf is born, the mother will lick it dry. This is very important for the survival of the calf. Although it was quite warm and snow was gone when I was there, it often happens that calves are born on the snow in freezing temperatures.

From the pictures, you probably notice that many of the reindeer calves are brownish or grey and almost completely disappear in the vegetation. This is the best natural camouflage and allows the calves to remain invisible from the predators. White reindeer are much more at risk.

reindeer calf eating his mother's milk
Reindeer calves depend on their rich mother’s milk when they are born.

When they are a few days old, Petri will cut his earmark onto the calves. Because only his own reindeer are gathered in the fence, there aren’t any second thoughts on which earmark to apply.

reindeer herder carrying a white calf in order to earmark it
Petri carrying a reindeer calf in order to earmark it.

He will also cut the earmark of one of his sons on some of the calves. In this way, when they grow up and decide to become reindeer herders, they will have a herd to begin with.

reindeer herder earmarking a calf
Petri earmarking a calf. The process only takes half a minute.

In the evening we retreated to a nice lavvu (the Lapland equivalent of a tipi). Isn’t this the best hotel room that one can dream of? Nothing but trees all around and infinite silence are so enjoyable.

lavvu in the middle of the forest in Finnish Lapland
The lavvu in which we spent the night. At this time of year in May, the sun only set for a couple of hours.

The fire inside the lavvu kept us warm on this chilly night where the outside temperature dropped close to 0°C. We ate dried reindeer meat and enjoyed some drinks around the fireplace before turning in for the night.

fire in the lavvu with the reindeer herder in Finnish Lapland
After a long day’s work, a well deserved evening in the lavvu around the fire. By the way, this is not water in our cups!

What happens after the reindeer calving season?

After a few weeks, when all the calves are born and marked, all the reindeer are released back into the wild, where they will spend the entire summer with no human interaction. This is the only time of the year when the reindeer herder can take a couple of weeks of holidays.

White reindeer calf in Lapland looking through the legs of the adults
White reindeer calf through the traffic of all the adults legs.

I am incredibly grateful that I was able to spend a whole 24 hours with Petri observing him at work. If you happen to travel to the Inari area in Finnish Lapland, you should definitely pay him a visit!

Stay tuned for more reindeer articles, as I plan to write about the other seasons in the life of the reindeer and their herders.

In the meantime, check out my gallery of reindeer in winter pictures.

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