The word for ‘deer’ in Japanese is ‘shika’ – a species of deer introduced and now quite common in Britain, and which I am told has been crossbreeding with British red deer. I knew this species well even before I came to Japan for the first time in 1962. I knew ‘sika deer’ from spending some months on Lundy Island in 1961, helping the warden to band birds and so on. I had a .22 rifle then, fitted with a telescopic sight. Myxamatosis had not been introduced to Lundy at that time so there were many, many rabbits. As the crack of a .22 was less disturbing than the bang of a twelve bore shotgun, I was encouraged to shoot all the rabbits I could. Not only did we eat them regularly, but I was also able to send them over to a butcher in Biddeford were they were sold as ‘Lundy rabbits.’ When I was walking around with my rifle I often saw sika deer. They were quite shy but I was able to take a good look at them using the telescopic sight. No, I never squeezed the trigger!
Here in native Japan deer are on the increase all over the country. We have no natural predators, such as wolves (which were made extinct in Japan over a hundred years ago) and the number of hunters has drastically decreased over the last few decades. With older folk dying off and younger folk generally preferring to live and work in the city, many fields, paddies, orchards and even gardens are left untended.
It is a shocking and almost unbelievable truth that here in Japan in the last few years over half a million deer have been killed each year with about 95% of the venison being buried, burned or even just dumped. I know this well because I was in the local Hunting Association and have made two television documentaries on deer and mankind. Last week I did a talk show, with some documentary footage on the subject for NHK.
Deer do damage to the tune of billions of yen to agriculture and forestry; they wipe out rare plants, and because they eat everything that is edible to them, noxious plants that they won’t eat are on the increase. They absolutely have to be culled. Culled, but not wasted!
I have published a book about this and written many articles. The use of venison is on the increase in Japan, and the government is funding the building of hygienic processing plants in the country, turning deer and wild boar into human food. However, the annual waste is still enormous and shameful for a country that still insists it must go down to the Antarctic to catch whales.
In the last week I have had three parties of Japanese guests, with the biggest group numbering twenty. Each time I served venison for the main course of either lunch or dinner and everybody loved it, with most people opting for second helpings. Properly handled and prepared Japanese venison is superb. At home almost all our red meat is venison.
Until about ten years ago we never saw deer in our Afan woods, but with a waning of the snow cover, we now see them and catch them on our automatic cameras. Now it is mostly young stags. I expect the does will venture in soon. The range of deer is definitely expanding in Nagano Prefecture, and the government offers people money to kill them, mostly with snares that cause the animals horrible pain and fear. Live traps are also used.
I despise snares that catch the animals by their paws. When I was a Game Warden in Ethiopia we arrested anybody caught using snares. This problem is another windmill that I am always tilting at!
We have a lot of fodder for deer in our woods and when they increase we will no doubt have a problem. Wildlife is strictly protected in our woodland trust, as it should be, but if the deer increase and start destroying rare plants or stripping the bark off trees, then we will absolutely have to do something to dissuade them. I would suggest scaring them off with lines of shouting humans, then ambushing them with hunters when they run into areas where shooting is permitted. If that ever happens we will of course be consulting with local and federal agencies, and you can bet that both the venison and the deerskins will be used.
In the meantime, I enjoy spotting the young stags; they are beautiful, graceful creatures, especially in the dappled light of the forest.
May 22. 2018.