His Patients Are All Dead Now, but the Veterinarian Saved a Rare Breed

Mies katsoo suoraan. taustalla kirjahylly
Image: Marjatta Sihvonen

Veterinarian Ossi Kemppainen holds an old cowbell in his hands. Once, the bell belonged to a cow named Punakorva, a well-known ancestor of the revived Northern Finncattle. Several lineages of the currently living animals of the breed lead to her.

Ossi Kemppainen shows how beautifully the bell rings while we sit at his home in Lappeenranta, East Finland. Even with a very gentle sway, it rings and the sound can be heard from afar. It is traditional handicraft, made with care, just like so many other things were at Punakorva’s home, the Rantamaa farm, in the Tornio region, Lapland. There Punakorva grazed the meadows near the border river Tornionjoki.

Mies pitää lehmäkelloa kädessään
Image: Marjatta Sihvonen

When Ossi Kemppainen came to the Tornio River Valley in 1974 as a young veterinarian, Kerttu and Leino Lehto lived and farmed in Rantamaa. Kemppainen describes them as very culture-conscious people, uncompromising preservers of the old way of life. Chicken ran free in their yard and all the hard work was done with a horse.

Two of their cows had some Northern Finncattle blood, but the Lehtos were interested in buying a purebred individual of the old, local breed. Carefully, they hinted about their wishes to the vet, who would visit many farms along the vast river valley.

A suitable candidate was found in Erkki Lampela’s herd.
– Lampela had white, red-eared animals, and one of the heifers, Punakorva, was bought to Rantamaa farm. I acted as a messenger and was there to help, Ossi Kemppainen recalls.

We Agreed It Was Hush-Hush

At the time, Northern Finncattle was not valued at all. According to Kemppainen, the experts who worked at the cattle breeding council simply hated the old breed. This attitude surprised Kemppainen. As a veterinarian, he could easily see many good qualities of the breed.

When the time came to inseminate Punakorva for the first time, the Lehtos again relied on Kemppainen’s help. The problem was, that in the 1970s, there were only a handful of Northern Finncattle animals left. At the lowest, the population shrank to about twenty individuals.

It was quite impossible for the Lehtos to find a purebred bull for their heifer – until Ossi Kemppainen brought a solution from across the river. Sperm from the Swedish white mountain breed was available on Sweden’s side of the border.
– Veterinarians in Tornio and Sweden have had good relations for a long time. I told Göran Gyllemalm, the district veterinarian of Kalix, that there is a farm on the Finnish side, which is eager to preserve the old breed. He had a valid artificial insemination permit, and he told me he could inseminate Punakorva. As long as everything was kept very hush-hush.

Punakorva together with Leino Lehto and Ossi Kemppainen. Image: Ossi Kemppainen’s archive

Long History of Interbreeding

The two veterinarians decided that the Northern Finncattle heifer could be inseminated with semen from the Swedish mountain bull because interbreeding had already taken place between the breeds. Marriages had also been made across the river for more than a century. Often the bride, who was married to Sweden from the Finnish side, brought a cow or a heifer to her new home. Ossi Kemppainen recalls that back in the 1920s, animals whose mother was a Finncattle cow and the father a Swedish mountain bull were accepted into the pedigree of the Northern Finncattle.

The reason for the secret insemination was the prevailing, very negative attitude of livestock breeders towards the Northern Finncattle. Another reason was the bureaucracy involved in the importation of animal material, which was considered best avoided by the two independent and professional veterinarians. After all, the work was done for a good cause: to save the Northern Finncattle.
– We agreed that if there are any questions, we will just say that a bull was found “in the neighbourhood”, Ossi Kemppainen laughs.

Mountain cattle semen for artificial insemination

Punakorva gave birth to twins, named Kasuna and Ketku. These calves did not become the first generation of the recovering Northern Finncattle population, but the Lehtos were encouraged to pursue their aims with the breed.
First, they were allowed to bring a bull to the district’s artificial insemination centre in Oulu, at their own expense. Later, semen was stored for wider use there.
– I do not have more detailed information about these bulls, but I did see Leino Lehto’s interview in the newspaper Lapin Kansa in 1979. He told that the twins of Punakorva were born and that the farm had made an agreement with the artificial insemination centre to use semen of the Swedish mountain bulls also in the future.

Man and woman i barn with newborn calves
Leino and Kerttu Lehto together with the twins Kasuna and Ketku. Image: Ossi Kemppainen’s archive

Ossi Kemppainen shows the Lapin Kansa article from his extensive archive, which contains a lot of information about the long history of the Northern Finncattle. He also played a key role in presenting a Northern Finncattle cow at the Tornio agricultural fair, for the first time in decades. In 1979, the mother of Punakorva was introduced to the fair audience.

Leino Lehto at a fair in 1986. Image: Ossi Kemppainen’s archive

The Biggest Joy

Late one evening, Ossi Kemppainen fell asleep by his daughter’s bedside while saying the evening prayer. To his little daughter’s surprise, he had murmured: “This is the automatic answering machine of veterinarian Ossi Kemppainen. In case of emergency, please call…” It was clearly a high time to conclude, that there was too much work for one man in the vast river valley.
From then on, Ossi Kemppainen’s career continued in Lappeenranta, but his friendship and contact with the Lehtos remained. Their Northern Finncattle herd grew and gained fame.

Now, when Ossi Kemppainen looks back at his entire career, he says that the most important thing he ever did was to save the Northern Finncattle.
“All my patients are dead, but the cow breed was saved. That is the biggest joy you can get from your work, he concludes.