Members of the reindeer species (Rangifer tarandus) are well-known for their migrations. The spring and autumn migrations of the North American caribou can cover thousands of kilometres. In Finland, the wild forest reindeer of Kainuu migrate the farthest, covering just under 200 km from Sotkamo to the Russian side of the border and back.

Today, the migrational behaviour and habitat selections of wild forest reindeer and caribou are affected by man-made obstacles. In Finland, the movements of wild forest reindeer are controlled, inter alia, by fencing around the reindeer herding area, as well as by the old border fence between Finland and Russia.

Spring and summer

In the spring, females retreat to safe and tranquil areas for calving, often near familiar places.

During the first weeks, the mother and calf live quietly together and are very sensitive. They thrive in marshy areas where the mother can feed on fresh willow leaves, hare's-tail cotton grass, and other green plants between nursing periods. While eating, the mothers leave their calves hidden nearby. The mother and calf communicate with each other by grunting.

When the calves have grown a little, the females and their calves might gather into small summer herds in the marshes. Even then they behave carefully, and easily flee from the slightest disturbance. They are comfortable in open, downwind areas, where they can smell potential predators.

Autumn and winter

As the summer progresses, wild forest reindeer gather in larger herds. In the autumn, the males begin to fight with each other. The victorious males can then organise herds of females, with their new and year-old calves, for the rutting season. Fights between males are sometimes fierce; animals may be injured or even die.

After the rutting season, wild forest reindeer migrate toward their winter pastures. The time and duration of the migration, and the location of the winter pastures, vary according to snow conditions and wear on feeding grounds. They might gather in one or several winter feeding grounds. Sometimes, in a hard winter, there might be as many as a thousand animals in a relatively small area.

Wild forest reindeer can smell lichen through deep snow. When searching for food, they dig pits in the snow with their hooves. In North America, they are known as caribou, probably from a Native American word "xalipu", meaning digger.

The hoof of a wild forest reindeer is round in shape. It is well suited to scratching and to walking in deep snow. To save energy, animals walk in single file, leaving behind them a trampled path or "jotos".

Info Box

Wild forest reindeer

Scientific name: Rangifer tarandus fennicus

Range and numbers:

In Finland, 800 individuals in Kainuu, 2000 individuals in Suomenselkä and about 20 individuals in Seitseminen and Lauhanvuori National Parks (reintroduced populations).

In Russian Karelia up to 2,400. See range map.

Conservation status in Finland (2019): Near Threatened (NT)