DAYBREAK on the outskirts of Salla, a town in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle in Finland, so remote that its slogan is “Salla: In the Middle of Nowhere”. The last lambent wisps of the northern lights have vanished. Outside all is quiet.
Inside, Raisa Korpela has been up for a while. As her three daughters yawn into the kitchen she grabs hats and gloves from the detritus of childhood strewn across the room. She checks homework, brews coffee, and slips wedges of cheese between slices of rye bread for breakfast. And then her partner Aarne Aatsinki walks in, clutching a bag of organs from one of his recently slaughtered reindeer: a tongue, heart and intestines floating in bright red blood.
“I don’t know where the reindeer end and he begins,” Ms Korpela says of the man she has spent 23 years with. Mr Aatsinki’s family has been herding reindeer for centuries, part of the long almost symbiotic relationship between humans and Rangifer tarandus. Some of the earliest images carved on stone in Europe are of reindeer. In 1751 the “Magna Carta of the Sami”, named for the indigenous people of Arctic Europe and negotiated by the Nordic countries, gave the Sami the right to follow their reindeer across borders. Only in the 19th century, after Russia hived off Finland from Sweden, was the Swedish-Finnish border closed for the Sami. By then Finns had adopted Sami practices, using reindeer for milk, meat, transport and as decoys for hunting other animals.
But this long relationship may be drawing to a close. Mr Aatsinki is finding it harder to make ends meet. The average herder has lost money for more than a decade and earns less than one-third of a Finnish farmer’s average wage. Mr Aatsinki and Ms Korpela both have second jobs. They worry that their children may not continue in the millennia-old tradition.
Today most of Europe’s 2m reindeer live in Russia, with another 600,000 split almost evenly across Finland, Norway and Sweden. In Finland both Sami and ethnic Finns, like Mr Aatsinki and Ms Korpela, herd reindeer. Nomadic herding is no more. Since 1898 Finland has divided the area in which herding is permitted into paliskunta, or co-operatives, which today number 54 (see map). At an annual “reindeer parliament” their representatives discuss how to meet Finland’s annual reindeer quota, which is meant to avoid overgrazing.
A herder can have no more than 500 reindeer. How many any particular herder has, though, is hard to say. Asking is considered rude, says Ms Korpela—like asking a city-dweller how much he earns. Faced with such affrontery, a herder will be resolutely non-quantitative: “I have reindeer on both sides of the tree,” is the most you are likely to get.
The reindeer industry comprises less than 1% of all Finnish meat production. But swish Helsinki restaurants have embraced the lean meat. Michelin-starred Chef & Sommelier has offered dehydrated reindeer heart atop a Jerusalem artichoke. Ari Ruoho, head chef at Nokka, says that his reindeer tartare tastes like tuna sashimi and goes well with a fruity Italian red. He adds that meat butchered in autumn carries the flavour of mushrooms, on which reindeer graze to build up fat for the winter.
But overall meat production is falling. Across Finland, 71,580 reindeer were slaughtered in 2013-14, versus 127,999 in 1994-95. Herders say this is because they are not the only ones after the reindeer. Their biggest worry is wolverines, which since 1995 have been protected by Finnish hunting regulations; almost as if they know this, more and more have come over the border from Russia. A family group of wolverines can get through 90-odd reindeer a year. They, like the herders, favour the calves, so to keep the herd size stable, the herders have to take less.
More predators mean more money spent protecting herds. To be fair, it also means more compensation for reindeer killed by carnivores. There were 344 reindeer claims in 1986, 4,126 in 2013-14. But to claim the compensation the herders have to find their ravaged reindeer—no easy task in dark, frozen forests.
Predators also have a social effect on herders. When some lose animals but others do not, this creates tensions within the collective. And in a communal activity like reindeer herding such tensions could threaten some co-operatives’ future.
All of which led your correspondent to wonder, after two days spent mostly among dead or soon-to-be dead reindeer, hearing stories about vicious wolverines and poor herders, about the practice’s enduring appeal. Why were these Finns working so hard to preserve a loss-making business? A day in the company of Lauri Aatsinki, Aarne’s father, Ms Korpela and other Salla herders as they searched for still-breathing reindeer provided something of an answer.
Like many Finns, the elder Mr Aatsinki, who has been herding for 70 years, is not terribly loquacious. Asked why he still goes out, at the age of 80, in sub-zero temperatures, he replies, “I just do it. This is a normal day.” Questions about why he just does it provoke befuddlement, as if a swallow were asked why he heads south for the winter. “I just do it,” he says. “It’s not a miracle.”
The other herders are similarly laconic. Stepping out of the van, the elder Mr Aatsinki and Ms Korpela greet a dozen or so of their friends heating kettles and sausages on a campfire. Lauri sits next to Mauri, an old friend whose first round-up took place in 1961, after his father had told him and his two brothers that at least one of them had to carry on his legacy.
A natural struggle
Mauri, now retired from his other job in forestry, rarely misses a day of herding. “I don’t know why I still come,” he says. Ms Korpela says that for these men “it’s a way of life.” The younger Mr Aatsinki agrees, adding that one can only be born a herder.
At first the idea that this is simply done because it is done seems unsatisfying. Surely the opportunity to be at one with nature offers something inspiring, something sublime. But if it does, the taciturn Finns are not saying. Herders rarely mention their love of nature, says Ms Korpela. “It’s obvious so we forget,” adds Rainer Hourula, another herder, looking up at the cobalt sky.
Tim Ingold, a British anthropologist, has noted that the Sami and the Finns both find their identity in nature, but in different ways. The Sami derive meaning from the forest. Their landscape is benign. In Sami communities “one works with the world, not against it.” But for Finns the forest is something to exploit, whether for lumber (the “green gold”) or reindeer. “Life for [the Finns] is regarded as a struggle,” Mr Ingold has written, “in which people pit their energies against nature.” Through such struggles a “fiercely” Finnish form of rugged individualism emerges, something “as much emotional as rational”.
And for many of the Salla herders, this struggle brings with it something special; they never feel alone. Mr Hourula, now 54 years old, took over his father’s herd when he was just 15. “I am an only child,” he says. “This is my extended family”. Noora Kotala, the partner of Mauri’s nephew, voices a similar sentiment. She shows the pendant her partner gave her, a replica of her bespoke calf marking. For a herder this is a sure sign of commitment. Paliskunta issue every reindeer owner a pattern that they cut into the ears of newborn calves. Today there are about 12,000 unique marks. Looking at hers, Ms Kotala says: “Once you start with reindeer then you can’t give it up.”
Mr Ingold wrote about the importance of the word talo. Roughly translated, it means house. But it also has a deeper meaning. When Finnish herders are raised in a talo, it is not simply that they grow up in one place. “A house,” explains Mr Ingold, “is a total establishment, an organic unity of place and people, cumulatively built up through the work of generations.” It is not something that can be shaken off. When Aarne says that herders are “born” to do it he is not being flippant. Like his father, he feels he had little choice. Nor does he regret that. Raisa explains that “this is what we want to do. There’s a richness to this wild way of life.”
That remains true even as threats from climate change, logging and other signs of expanding human footprints impinge on their vast emptiness. But throughout the centuries herders have adapted to changes wrought from outside. They have embraced GPS tracking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and drones.
After five chilly hours, the herders finally receive the call: the reindeer have been spotted. Some spring into their ATVs and drive off in clouds of dust, while others prepare to marshal the animals into the corral when they return.
Suddenly Ms Korpela leaps off the rock. “Let’s go,” she shouts. Approaching is a blur of brown and white, like an avalanche of dirty snow pouring through the trees. Not far behind are the cowboys driving in semicircle formation, herding hundreds upon hundreds of reindeer. Though the forest stretches as far as the eye can see, they have managed to nudge the animals into a queue no more than 30 meters wide. Within seconds the reindeer funnel into a wooden corral the size and shape of a velodrome. The cowboys jump off their vehicles and the herders jog inside after the reindeer, shutting the fence behind them.
To the untutored observer it is all a blur. But Ms Korpela has spotted something. In the throng are familiar calf marks. They belong to a reindeer that goes by the name of Kepo (pictured, with Ms Korpela, on the previous page). She had thought this member of her herd to be lost for good. “Kepo has found her home!” she says with delight.
As friends gather around to stroke Kepo’s furry antlers, it seems she is not the only one.
De THE ECONOMIST, 24/12/2016