A return to the wild for forest reindeer in Finland

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Image: Tiina Mäkelä WildForestReindeerLIFE. Licensed to the European Union under conditions

The Finnish forest reindeer, a rare sub-species of reindeer, is returning to the wild in western Finland thanks to the WildForestReindeerLIFE project.

Once commonplace in Fennoscandia and northwest Russia, the total population is now estimated at just 4 500, of which around 2 200 are in Finland. WildForestReindeerLIFE is working to establish growing populations of wild reindeer, near Seitseminen and Lauhanvuori national parks, where it has two captive breeding enclosures.

The first Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) were released into the wild in September. The second round is underway now. LIFE caught up with project manager Sakari Mykrä-Pohja to find out more.

How are the latest releases going?

We started off in Seitseminen National Park where we’ve released seven animals – two adult females with their calves and three young males. Apart from the calves, the reindeer are all fitted with GPS. This will help us monitor how they use the habitat available and settle in at the release area, whether the animals survive and if they reproduce in the wild in the coming years.

For their first week in the wild, they’ve been hanging around the enclosure where supplementary feeding is provided. One female and her calf made a four-day journey exploring the surroundings within 5 km of the enclosure. They’ve been back for some days now.
In Lauhanvuori National Park, we’ve already released a male, a female and a calf but the animals started to become suspicious of our presence, so work continues there this week. We’re planning to release eight reindeer in total.

Hopefully, the adult females are gravid from this year’s mating season. If so, and they survive through the winter, they will give birth to the first reindeer calves born in the wild in this part of the country for almost two centuries.

How are first reindeer released in September faring?

Three of the four young males released in Lauhanvuori National Park in September seem to be settling in well and can be seen near the release site almost daily. Unfortunately, after the release one stag became entangled in the wire of an electric fence to repel large carnivores outside the enclosure.

It managed to free itself but still carried a bundle of wire which our field worker and local hunters helped to remove. The animal then escaped from the scene and has not been seen since. It probably became too stressed and died soon afterwards. Part of the electric fence wire has been temporarily removed to avoid this happening again.

Has the presence of wolves affected your reintroduction work?

When we first planned the project there were no signs of established wolf territories within around 70 km of the release sites, although wandering wolves were observed every year. Now, there are perhaps six established territories of packs or pairs within this distance of Lauhanvuori. The easternmost of those is also closest to Seitseminen (approximately 40 km). Otherwise, the Seitseminen area seems to be free of established wolf presence.

Because of this, we considered whether to carry on in Lauhanvuori as planned, postpone the releases or transport the wild reindeer to be released elsewhere. After careful consideration we decided to carry on as planned. Prey such as moose, white-tail and roe deer is abundant in the area and possibly increasing. We hope this will act as a buffer between the wolves and the wild reindeer.

What are your plans for future releases?

We’re aiming to release 19 animals in total this year – 13 are out in the wild already and one is missing, so we still have five more to go.

Next year, we should be able to release 12-17 reindeer, including eight or nine young animals born this year in the enclosures and in zoos, as well as two to four adult females with their 2020-born calves. Those releases will take place late next year.

Image: Tiina Mäkelä / WildForestReindeerLIFE. Licensed to the European Union under conditions

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