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Reindeer Reindeer herding is practised mainly among the indigenous people living in the arctic regions of northern countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and the U.S.A. The various wild and domesticated reindeer types found in these areas, including the caribou of the North America, are all subspecies of the wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus).

Picture on left: Finnish reindeer.

In Finland, wild reindeer were hunted for centuries. Eventually, animals were taken into captivity for breeding, and reindeer became semi-domesticated livestock. Nowadays, the only surviving original species of wild reindeer in Europe are found in Norway.

The Finnish reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) has been semi-domesticated from the wild mountain reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus), a subspecies of the wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Another subspecies of the wild reindeer is the wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus). It was common throughout Finland until the end of 19th century, when it became extinct, probably because of uncontrolled hunting. New small populations reappeared in the 1950s, when some wild forest reindeer wandered to Finland across the border from the then Soviet Union.

Since the semi-domesticated reindeer are allowed to graze freely outdoors, wild reindeer are prone to mix with them.

Reindeer fillet Various measures have been taken in order to prevent crossbreeding and preserve the genetic identity of the wild reindeer. These measures include the building of deer fences and setting up protected areas, among other things.

Picture on right: sliced piece of tender and succulent medium rare reindeer fillet, served at the Finnish restaurant Aino in Helsinki.

Reindeer herding in Finland

In Finland, reindeer herding used to be an important mean of livelihood, especially among the indigenous Sámi people of Finnish Lapland. However, nowadays it hardly ever is the main income to the reindeer owners.

Wild forest reindeer at Helsinki Zoo Unlike in other countries where it is practised, reindeer herding in Finland is not a right exclusive to the Sámi only. According to the Reindeer Husbandry Act, any citizen of a country belonging to the European Economic Area residing permanently in a reindeer husbandry area may own reindeer.

Picture on right: Finnish wild forest reindeer  —  photographed at the Helsinki Zoo.

The total amount of reindeer is strictly regulated by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, because there is only a limited amount of grazing areas especially reserved for reindeer herding.

In Finland, the reindeer gain most of their feed in the wild, and may therefore be regarded as semi-domesticated animals. Although the herds move freely, they are still guarded from a distance with the help of reindeer dogs, GPS collars and snowmobiles, and protected against predators like the wolverine, bear, wolf, lynx and golden eagle.

The year of reindeer

Reindeer herding and the various tasks performed by the herders are bound to the annual cycle of seasons. The reindeer herding year starts on June 1st and ends on May 31st. Most of the reindeer calves are born in early spring and summer. During the summer, the reindeer are rounded up and the calves are earmarked.

Lichen On summer pastures, the reindeer consume grasses, herbs and other fresh wild plants, gaining strength and building up fat reserves against winter.

Picture on left: lichen.

In the autumn, after the rutting season, the animals are gathered together, counted and separated into those to be slaughtered and those left for breeding. Most of the slaughtered animals are calves. The animals are marked and separated into different herds. The herds migrate to winter pastures, where their main feed is lichen, either ground lichen or arboreal lichen.

Reindeer in Lapland During the winter, the reindeer use up their fat reserves and lose weight. If the winter is exceptionally hard, the reindeer are given extra feed, either lichen collected in other parts of the country, or regular cattle feed. Extra feed is needed also because the lichen grows back very slowly, at the rate of about three millimetres per year.

Picture on right: reindeer herd crossing a road  —  a common sight for drivers in Finnish Lapland.

However, if fed cattle feed for a prolonged time, the reindeer will develop various intestinal disorders. Natural lichen is the best feed for the animals, providing them with just the right amount of energy, moisture, carbohydrates, proteins and various substances needed to protect their digestive tract from harmful bacteria.

Reindeer consumption

Dried reindeer meat The reindeer have traditionally had a great significance for the population of northern Finland. The animals provided food, milk, fur, hides and tools and they were used for transport and to carry loads. Every part of the reindeer, from antlers to hooves, has been used for food or for making clothes, hides, handicrafts and tools. Even today, new uses and designs are constantly developed.

Picture on left: dried reindeer meat.

There are a multitude of dishes prepared using various parts of reindeer, from simple broths and soups to stews, roasts, steaks, brawns, blood puddings, sausages and cold cuts. Besides the succulent meat, the flavourful internal organs and offal from tongue, brains, bone marrow and blood to heart, liver and kidneys, even testicles and the rectum, are used to make many traditional dishes.

Cold-smoked reindeer roast slices Reindeer meat is extremely tender and lean. It has a pleasant, not too strong taste, reminiscent of game. Besides eaten prepared fresh, reindeer meat is frequently dried, salted and hot- or cold-smoked. One of the most popular Finnish dishes prepared with reindeer is the reindeer stew.

Picture on right above: soft and succulent cold-smoked reindeer roast.

Cold-smoked reindeer roast slices Picture on right below: hot-smoked reindeer liver.

Reindeer milk, although scarce, has been drunk fresh or used to prepare cheese by the Sámi people. A traditional product is dried reindeer milk, which is eaten by softening it in coffee. Nowadays, reindeer milk has also been used to prepare ice cream and various other new, experimental speciality products, although available only occasionally.

Reindeer antler powder is a somewhat jocular product claimed to be a "powerful male aphrodisiac", sold mainly as a souvenir to tourists.

Average nutritional values/100 g of selected Finnish low-fat meat cuts
Nutrient factor: Type of meat:
breast fillet,
Venison (elk),
Energy, kJ (kcal) 533 (127) 513 (123) 524 (125) 767 (183) 448 (107) 470 (112)
Protein, g 21,6 21,1 21 19 23,1 21,1
Fat, g 4,5 4,1 4,5 12 1,5 3
Fatty acids,
saturated, g
2,3 1,9 1,6 4,2 0,2 0,7
Fatty acids,
1,5 1,4 1,8 3,4 0,3 0,6
Fatty acids,
0,4 0,2 0,6 0,4 0,3 0,3
Cholesterol, mg 51,7 51,7 50 51,7 56,2 51,7
Sodium, mg 95 41 63,5 58 77 56
Potassium, mg 440 390 280 240 380 390
Magnesium, mg 33 27 20 19 26 27
Calcium, mg 13 5,5 7,4 12 6 6
Phosphorus, mg 310 220 160 150 160 220
Iron, mg 6,7 2,6 0,6 1,9 0,7 3,5
Zinc, mg 4,8 3,9 1,6 2,3 1,2 4,6
Selenium, µg 30 15,8 20 13,5 13 4
Vitamin A, µg 6 5,2 3 12,6 11 7,5
Vitamin D, µg 0,2 0,2 0,3 0,2 0,1 0,2
Vitamin E, mg 0,8 0,3 0,3 0,6 0,2 0,8
Folate, µg 6 1,2 2,1 6 15,6 6
Riboflavin (B2), mg 0,2 0,17 0,23 0,25 0,18 0,3
Thiamin (B1), mg 0,1 0,11 0,93 0,2 0,14 0,3
Vitamin B12, µg 6,3 2,3 0,6 1,2 1 6,3

Abbreviations and symbols used in the above table:
g - gram
mg - milligram
µg - microgram
kJ - kilojoule
kcal - kilocalorie
MUFA - monounsaturated fatty acid
PUFA - polyunsaturated fatty acid

Table data source: Food Composition Database of the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare


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