How did Finland’s 5 white-tailed deer become 100,000 in only 80 years?

A white-tailed deer in Zelienople, in the American state of Pennsylvania, in 2003. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)
Eighty years ago there were no white-tailed deer in Finland, but today the species is the country’s second-most populous game animal. The story of how the mammals made the trip across the ocean from the US to Finland began almost 100 years ago.

A group of patriotic Finns living in Minnesota came up with the idea to introduce the beautiful deer to Finland’s forests, but there were substantial risks involved. Times were hard in Finland, and larger game animals were dying out. Native species like the roe deer, the Finnish forest reindeer and even the Eurasian elk, also known as a moose, were close to extinction.

The project went ahead in 1934, however, when a member of Finland’s hunting association and influential Tampere businessman, Rafael Haarla, offered to host the deer transplants on his land at Laukko Manor, in the municipality of Vesilahti in the southern region of Pirkanmaa.

Just five deer survived the trip

Finnish expats in Minnesota held funding drives to pay for the transportation. When the time came, eight deer were captured near the Minnesota city of Virginia, but one animal died before the cargo ship that was to transport them set sail. A storm in the Baltic Sea led to the death of two of the bucks on board, meaning that only one male survived the journey.

A 3.5-hectare enclosure with green grass, forest, swamps, and lakeside access awaited the deer at Laukko Manor, and the animals soon thrived. In 1938, the animals escaped their enclosure, and shortly afterwards the Finnish agriculture minister gave special permission for the herd to stay in the wild.

The fact that the herd was expanding under just one buck was concerning to many wildlife experts, however, and so a new shipment of deer from Minnesota was planned in 1948. This time the deer arrived in Finland by air, and media representatives on both sides of the ocean followed the mission carefully. In 1949, two of the males in the new shipment of deer died, leaving just three females and one male, which were then released into the wild.

Preparation for the 1948 shipment of deer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Walter H. Wettschreck/Suomen metsästysmuseo)
Is one male the father of them all?

Some sources say the deer that were gifted in 1948 died already the following winter. If this is true, this would mean that the entire population of white-tailed deer that roams Finnish forests today has descended from those first five individuals that were brought to the country in 1934.

“It is entirely possible, but it can’t be ruled out that some of the genes would have come from the second transplanted group,” says Jon Brommer, associate professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Turku.

A study of the population’s genes in 2012 found that the diversity in Finland’s white-tailed deer population was surprisingly normal. The researchers said that the fact that the herd multiplied so quickly in fact saved the population from any negative effects of in-breeding.

Rapid proliferation in last 10 years

Within the last decade, the white-tailed deer population in Finland has doubled, spreading to almost every corner of the southern part of the country.

In 2017, there were close to 5,200 traffic accidents involving white-tailed deer. Each year, the animals also cause significant damage to farmers’ crops and forest preservation efforts. For example, officials in the area of Ruissalo in Turku stepped up hunting of white-tailed deer and forest reindeer last year after the animals became a threat to the area’s protected oak forests.

The Finnish Natural Resources Agency has determined that fifty percent more hunting permits for white-tailed deer should be granted in Finland next year than were distributed in 2018, if the rapid increase in the deer population is to be stopped. Last year 36,191 permits to kill white-tailed deer in Finland were granted.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: From the Arctic to Atlantic, a photographer documents seal hunting in Canada, Eye on the Arctic

China: Arctic Indigenous food culture takes the day at international cookbook awards, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Squirrel and deer live streams released for nature-loving Finns, Yle News

Norway: Norway and Sweden in quarrel over cross-border reindeer grazing, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia plans fenced parks to confine reindeer herding in Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Poachers suspected behind dwindling wolf numbers in Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Trump admin pushes for looser rules on predator hunting in Alaska, Alaska Public Media

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