“Look, reindeer!” a traveller yells, when they see a horned creature somewhere in Kainuu. But was it a reindeer? In Kainuu you can see both the reindeers and their wild cousins – the wild forest reindeer!

Reindeers at Korpiporo reindeer farm

What is a wild forest reindeer?

The scientific name of the forest reindeer is Rangifer tarandus fennicus, also known as the Finnish forest reindeer or petra. It is found only in Finland and Northwestern Russia and is classified as a protected species.

Forest reindeer thrive in marshes and forests rich in lichen and moss. Protected areas are crucial for their survival, especially in commercial forests where food sources are scarce. During winter, you might even spot them on frozen lakes, finding refuge from predators in the middle of the open area.

Two forest reindeers Photo: Metsähallitus

The forest reindeer was once Finland’s most important game animal until the late 1800s when it was hunted to extinction. However, keen-eyed hikers may still come across remnants of the past, such as hunting pits, also known as “Lapland pits.” For example, a few pits can be found on Harakkasaari Island in Kuhmo.

Fortunately, a small population of forest reindeer survived in Russia, and in the 1940s, it was observed that they were migrating back into Finland, particularly in Elimyssalo, Kuhmo. Efforts were made to support their reintroduction, leading to the creation of the Friendship Park, consisting of five protected areas in Finland, supplemented by the Kostomuksha Nature Reserve on the Russian side.

You can hike in Friendship park! Try for example Korpitaival hike. During orpitaival you see two areas that are part of Friendship park; Elimyssalo and Iso-Palonen

Nowadays the wild forest reindeers are spotted around southern Kainuu area. They have also been relocated to the Suomenselkä region, and you can search for them in the Salamajärvi National Park.

Northern parts of Kainuu are reindeer herding areas

Distinguishing between reindeer and forest reindeer at a glance can be challenging for anyone. However, based on the observation site alone, one can make a fairly accurate assumption about the species.

Three municipalities in Kainuu – Hyrynsalmi, Suomussalmi, and northern Puolanka – are part of the reindeer herding area. Forest reindeer, on the other hand, are encountered in southern Kainuu, especially in Kuhmo and Sotkamo.

Since these two species are closely related, they can also interbreed. To prevent this, there is a 90-kilometer-long fence at the northern border of Kuhmo, aimed at keeping the species separate.

In addition to the reindeer fence, grids have been installed on the roads, making it difficult for animals to cross. This image is from the border between Kuhmo and Suomussalmi. .

Where can I spot a forest reindeer?

Forest reindeer often inhabit the same areas year after year. They are frequently seen along Highway 76 between Kuhmo and Sotkamo, especially in spring and autumn when they migrate to their summer/winter pastures. Personally, I live in Lammasperä, Kuhmo, and forest reindeer visit the nearby forests every summer.

The best way to see a forest reindeer is to go kayaking on Lake Lentua. I’ve kayaked on Lentua four times and have always spotted reindeer lounging on one of Lentua’s sandy beaches, which are plentiful on the lake’s islands. Forest reindeer are also often seen on the road between Sotkamo and Ristijärvi.

Remember to keep a safe distance from the reindeer. Startled pregnant does, especially in early spring, can lead to fatal stumbles for their calves.

Can I tell the difference between a reindeer and a forest reindeer by appearance?

Yes, you can, but you need to be careful. The most visible difference between the species is their size; forest reindeer have longer legs than reindeer. After seeing many forest reindeer, reindeer may start to look a bit like dachshunds.

Reindeer are more likely to roam in open areas, such as fells. For this reason, the antlers of the two species are slightly different. Forest reindeer antlers are narrower since broader antlers would get easily stuck to the trees in the forest. Additionally, the snout of the forest reindeer is slightly longer than that of the reindeer.

On windy and treeless fells the conditions are different from the forest.

Collisions with reindeer and forest reindeer are common on Kainuu’s roads

Like moose, these animals are unaware of cars, and collisions occur regularly on Kainuu’s roads. Therefore, remember to keep your driving speed moderate, even if the road appears completely empty. If you spot a reindeer or forest reindeer at the roadside, remember to warn other drivers by flashing your lights.

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