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The endangered Lapland cow was saved by a surprising group of people – the inmates taking care of them at Pelso Prison.

In last May, the supervisors of Pelso Prison’s barn received a postcard from a released inmate.

”He wrote that out of his prison experiences, working on Pelso’s farm has been the nicest. But not nice enough for him to come back!”, says the farm manager, Reijo Virkkunen.

Like many of Pelso’s inmates, during his term the card’s writer took care of Northern Finncattle, that is, Lapland cows, Finnsheep and grey Finnsheep. Taking care of animals in prisons is part of the Finnish domestic animal breeds’ genetic resources programme.

In the early 1980s, there were less than thirty Lapland cows in Finland. Now, there are over three hundred cows and three hundred heifers in milk and meat production.

Protecting cultural heritage and animal health

Native breeds like the Lapland cow are an important part of Finnish national heritage. Photo: Jari Lindeman

The national animal genetic resources programme coordinated by Luke helps protect the hereditary variation of Finnish domestic animal breeds. Domestic breeds are protected because they have economic, cultural and scientific value.

“Native breeds are part of the Finnish cultural heritage. For example, the native cow breeds, the Finnhorse and the Finnish Spitz are national symbols,” says Juha Kantanen, the research professor responsible for the project.

Science also benefits from having different types of animals to study. A diverse selection of breeds and animal species makes studies more interesting and more scientifically valid. Native breeds help in genetic research, for example. In the Arctic Ark project, Luke and the University of Lapland are studying how domestic animal species and their Northern breeds adapted to Lapland, one of the northernmost agricultural areas in the world.

For the native breeds to survive in the future, the genome has to be diverse.

“Climate change will alter the environment of livestock production, and new animal diseases will likely come to the North. Therefore, the immune systems and health characteristics of indigenous animals have to be refined through selective breeding”, Kantanen says.

Hereditary variation is protected by, for example, maintaining a frozen gene bank. Another way is to keep livestock reserves where native breeds of animals are bred. One such livestock reserve is located in Pelso Prison.

Animals make the inmates’ work rewarding

Pelso’s animals belong to the world’s only genetic reserve livestock inhabiting a prison. Animal husbandry in prisons is rare, as in addition to Pelso there are domestic animals in Finnish prisons only in Huittinen and Kerava.

Lapland cow’s are curious by nature and, thus, well suited for animal therapy. Photo: Jari Lindeman.

Pelso has decades of tradition in agricultural work. After the wars, about 1,500 hectares of land in Pelso was cleared for fields using prison labour. Up until the 1970s, cows and sheep were kept in the prison and their milk and meat were used in the prison kitchen.

The genetic resources work got to a start in the 1980s, when the first Lapland cows moved to the prison. Today, the prison produces organic milk and meat for sale. The aim is that the inmates do the cowshed and sheep barn’s routine work under a guidance of the supervisors.

”Routine work includes feeding, milking, cleaning, giving milk to the calves, and daily monitoring of the animals’ condition and health”, Reijo Virkkunen says.

The majority of inmates do not have any experience in animal husbandry; each of them is trained for the task. The lessons and experience gained from the work will benefit the inmates after release.

“The work provides inmates with an opportunity to change their direction in life and distance themselves from former friend groups, if they so wish”, Virkkunen says.

“I always tell the inmates that professional skills are important, but they should also get their life management in shape.”

Working with animals is soothing and lifts the inmates’ moods. The cows always greet you when you’re walking on the pastures, says Virkkunen.

“Native breeds are curious by nature and they are well suited for animal therapy”, Kantanen adds.

If necessary, the inmates will take a weak lamb under their care under a heat lamp. A small lamb grows attached to the person holding a feeding bottle and imprints onto them.

“From morning until evening they follow the inmates as if following their mother. When the lamb grows into a healthy sheep, the inmate feels like they have done something meaningful”, Virkkunen says.

The future is uncertain

In the spring of 2017, the Ministry of Justice issued a commission to re-evaluate the organisation of the penal system in Northern Ostrobothnia and Northern Finland. The options are to either renovate the Pelso Prison or combine it with the Oulu Prison. It is possible that the Pelso Prison will be closed down, which could also mark the end of its animal husbandry.

Until now, Pelso Prison’s genetic resources work has been successful because various government and civil society organisations have worked together. Cooperation between the Ministry of Justice, the Criminal Sanctions Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has meant that it has not been necessary to build a separate farm for the preservation of native breeds.

According to Kantanen, the cooperation between researchers and prison staff has also been excellent.

“For the work on genetic resources, the prison has been like winning the lottery. Pelso Prison has saved the Lapland cow.”

Text: Iina Ala-Kurikka / Kaskas Media

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