The Strange Story Behind Finland’s White-tailed Deer

Jan Räihä of Finland with a whitetail buck he killed. His rifle is a Blaser model R93, a popular whitetail rifle in Finland, and it is fitted with a suppressor.

Being an avid hunter with an interest in both fowl and four-legged game, both large and small, I’ve enjoyed following the NDA through the years. Living and mainly hunting in Finland, it strikes me that I’ve never come across articles about whitetail populations outside North America. White-tailed deer have been exported to several locations through the years. Of these, Finland has the largest population estimated at over 110,000 deer.

One vague anecdotal reference to white-tailed deer being released on the Scottish Isle of Arran in 1832 marks the earliest known release of this species into the wild outside the Americas. Documents from as early as 1870 indicate a few white-tailed deer were shipped to Austria in central Europe. They never thrived, and the last ones probably disappeared during World War II. White-tailed deer were introduced in Czechoslovakia on at least four occasions in 1853, 1890, 1893 and 1906. A poorly reproducing population of about 700 deer remains. 

In England, the Duke of Bedford had some in his “Woburn Park” in the early 20th Century, but today no free-ranging whitetails exist in Great Britain. Some were introduced into former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Of these, a small population remains in Serbia and on an island off the Croatian coast. The offspring of six animals sold from Finland to Bulgaria in 1977 later died out, as did whitetails moved from Finland to areas near Moscow and Leningrad in 1980.

Whitetails have also been introduced outside Europe, namely in New Zealand and several islands in the West Indies. In both places the established populations tolerate harvest, but the individuals both in New Zealand and in the West Indies are small, about half the weight of their American counterparts.

The whitetail population in Finland is a success story – that almost went sour. Finnish immigrants in Minnesota wanted to pay respects to their motherland by sending over seven fawns (three bucks and four does) captured near the city of Virginia, Minnesota. This was right after the Great Depression, when funding the transfer was a problem, but in August 1934 these were finally shipped by train to the east coast and then by ship to Finland. The four does barely survived the almost four-week trip, and only one of the bucks, but they regained health as soon as they were released into a 3-hectare enclosure (about 8 acres) in Laukko in southwestern Finland. Reproduction was very slow, and some casualties were recorded. In the spring of 1938, some individuals escaped and the rest were let out – all together three does and three bucks. There was great concern about the narrow genetic pool formed by these few individuals, especially since only one of the original survivors was a buck. Another worry was poaching since meat was scarce in post-war Finland. Thus, six more Minnesota fawns (three does and three bucks) were flown to Finland in the fall of 1948 and put in the original enclosure in Laukko. Two bucks soon died, and the rest were let out the following spring.

Finally, the fall of 1960 became the first hunting season for our “Virginia deer,” as they were called in those days. Nine bucks were shot. By 1973 the population was estimated at 10,000 deer, and licenses for over a thousand individuals were issued. By 1980, 15,000 were bagged. Last season (2019-2020) over 60,000 deer were harvested in an attempt to prevent the population from increasing.

Typically, our whitetail “hinds” (does) will have one to two fawns, but three is not rare and four offspring at once is occasionally seen. White-tailed deer inhabit the southwestern third of Finland today but are slowly spreading further north. It has also been shown in several studies that they do fairly little harm to forestry and farming as long as the population is kept at around 20 individuals per 1,000 hectares (about 5 per square mile). Locally, however, 50 to 100 individuals per 1,000 hectares can be found (up to 25 per square mile). An increase in the population density naturally increases motor vehicle accidents, especially in more urban areas of Finland.

Hunting can be practiced 24/7. This makes it possible to sit in a high seat all through the night when there is snow on the ground and only the moon to shed light.

Hunting is based on licenses issued by The Finnish Wildlife Agency. License numbers are based on regional population densities and presumed harm caused to forestry, farming and traffic. In Finland, hunting rights are coupled to land ownership, and a minimum of 500 hectares (1,235 acres) is required for applying for licenses. Thus, usually several landowners get together to form a hunting club to meet the requirements. To hunt deer, a hunting license and a passed shooting test is also mandatory. Hunters must also wear blaze orange clothing. With a deer license, you can shoot one adult or two fawns (under 1 year of age). The overall goal is to shoot equal amounts of fawns and adults and, of the adults, equal amounts of bucks and does. Of the bucks, most hunters try to spare the middle-aged bucks (2½ to 4½ years) to grow mature.

The length of the hunting season has varied through the years but now starts on September 1. Until the 25th, hunting can be done only from high seats or stalking. From September 26 to the end of January, the popular driven hunts are also allowed. Dogs, friends and relatives are used as drivers, but dogs have to have a maximum withers height of 39 cm (about 16 inches). This is to prevent dogs from pushing the deer too fast and far. From February 1 to the end of the season on February 15, no dogs are allowed, except for tracking wounded animals. High seats are often placed on the edges of fields with game feed. Lower high seats are also used during driven hunts. Placed near game trails they increase visibility, minimize detection of the hunter and add security as shots are directed downwards. 

Hunting can be practiced 24 hours a day. This makes it possible to sit in a high seat all through the night when there is snow on the ground and only the moon to shed light. Rattling, calling or using scents is not practiced very much but is becoming more popular. All through the season archery can also be practiced but requires a passed shooting test.

The Finnish white-tailed deer seems very adaptable and gets along well with our European moose, roe deer and the small population of fallow deer that we have along the southwestern coast. Finland has a huge archipelago along most of the Baltic Sea and also thousands of lakes in the interior. Since the whitetail is an excellent swimmer, they inhabit all of the slightly larger islands on the lakes and in the Baltic. Hunting on the islands is challenging, since the deer will easily swim to the next island as soon as they are bothered by hunters or dogs. Hunters are thus often placed on nearby islands to meet the escaping deer. Later in the fall, hunting on islands can be fatal to dogs because they will follow their prey, often through thin ice, but lack the insulation as well as swimming and ice-breaking strength of deer. Natural predators to our white-tailed deer are lynx and wolves, and to some extent foxes take small fawns.

All together, the whitetail is a very welcome addition to the Finnish hunting fauna, and we are grateful to our ancestors in the United States for being so considerate almost 100 years ago.

Dr. Jan Eric Räihä is veterinary orthopedic and neurology surgeon from Finland. Though born and raised there, he attended Colby College in Maine and Cornell University in New York before returning to Finland for his Ph.D. He has hunted big and small game since childhood, including during his time in the United States.