Secret life of Lapland: How reindeer play a vital part of a threatened existence

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Rudolph may be the stuff of Christmas legend, but for the reindeer herders of Europe's northernmost reaches these extraordinary animals are a vital part of a threatened existence

The corral gates open and 50 reindeer rush in, their frantic snorting fogging the air, as dozens of herders circle round. Identifying their calves and grabbing the antlers, they coax their beasts into pens. The Hirvas Salmi herdsmen are one of the largest Sami groups in Finland, and they live eight hours' drive inside the Arctic Circle. After a three-week round-up in which 2,000 reindeer are brought down from the mountains, they corral the animals, then slaughter them. The sales of meat, hides, and knife handles carved from antlers provide the Sami with a limited income.

Western Europe's only indigenous group, the Sami (who object to being called Lapps) live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They speak 10 languages, have their own flag and national anthem, and are bound together by their shared culture and traditions. There are about 100,000 Sami throughout the region, whose early history can be traced to around 3,000BC, before the arrival of the Scandinavians. They were hunters and gatherers who – as prehistoric works of art, primarily rock carvings, attest – had a deep understanding of nature.

Gazing through the morning mist, Veggai Jampponen, a Sami elder, scans the herds of galloping reindeer. Recognising his reindeer from 40 metres away just by its unique earmark, he hurls an underhand lasso, catching a calf by the back leg. In his younger years he was a champion lasso thrower throughout Scandinavia, and learnt to throw the lasso as soon as he could walk.

"It's so difficult to survive just with the reindeer, because life is so expensive. All these machines, the petrol and everything," Veggai states, bonding over beer with friends after a strenuous 14-hour day. They eat bowls of reindeer and potato stew, once shared fireside but now under the fluorescent lighting in cabins. "In ancient times, before four-wheel drives and snowmobiles, you got much more money in your pocket and didn't have to buy these expensive wheels. But they're a very big help: before we had to walk in the forest to care for and catch the reindeer."

Large-scale reindeer herding has been the livelihood of the Sami for at least 800 years. However, in the modern world it's increasingly hard to preserve age-old traditions, as technology enables them to forego their semi-nomadic life and enjoy amenities from home. But to be a reindeer herder today is still an arduous existence, a four-season task with thousands of reindeer to care for: long days in the forest often in frigid sub-zero temperatures, and today's inflated production costs all make subsisting as a herder alone increasingly difficult.

Many herdsmen supplement their incomes with tourism businesses: Christmas-themed holidays in the winter and salmon-fishing expeditions in warmer months. December is the busiest month with tourists visiting Father Christmas, taking rides on reindeer sledges, sleeping in old-fashioned Sami tents, ice fishing and marvelling at the Northern Lights. Veggai himself has, since 1989, offered boat trips, gold panning and fishing expeditions with cabins that sleep 30.

Even to those herdsmen involved in the tourism industry, visitors are both a boon and a bane. Uule Sara, 35, a towering figure and the most gregarious herder of the group, is a fluent English speaker largely because he communicates with legions of English tourists in the lead-up to Christmas. "The biggest attractions are Santa, reindeer, Northern Lights, and Sami people. With all these tourists, there's money to be made, and so there are more fake Sami than real Sami. That is a big problem. They know nothing about Sami culture, about Sami living. And then all those visiting don't know what is true."

His friend Leo Magga, a herdsman for 70 years, paints a bleaker picture. "The reindeer herding culture is dying and there's nothing we can do. Now there are few chances to earn a living. Many young people go to the big cities, but we instill the old traditions and hope they stay. We are proud to be Sami and we are strong amid change."

Yet despite the adversity an indelible fortitude remains, an uncompromising adherence to tradition and a persevering spirit through hardship. "We were raised to live according to the beliefs of our forebears," says Veggai. "I take every day as it is. We live in nature; reindeer are nature. You have to learn how to change with the weather and with the reindeer. Adapting and resiliency, it's the only way."

And the future is not all bleak. The reindeer herding lifestyle – passed from father to son to grandson for as long as they can remember – has found a new contemporary twist within the Hirvas Salmi reindeer herding group.

Sixteen-year-old Annirauna Triumf, flecks of mud and reindeer blood across her cheeks, embraces the herding lifestyle with zeal. Though not a "full-time" reindeer herder – she lives in Norway with her mother – Annirauna comes to Finland for "reindeer school" five times a year. "It means very much to be Sami. I'm proud to use the Sami language and continue our traditions. I can maintain my Sami roots and live a modern life. That is how I can both adapt and stay the same," she says.

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