It was one of those damp, dull wintry afternoons when the countryside seemed devoid of all colour. Only the green tops of the Sitka spruce stood out against the graphite-grey monotone landscape. A low-slung mist hung about the ground, loitering, adding to the eerie atmosphere. I had my lurcher on his slip, listening and watching, both senses searching for a sign that meant deer or, more precisely, sika. And yet when the herd came thundering through I was taken by complete surprise, one moment there was nothing but silent forest, the next my dog was pulling like a 1000 pound shark, the tree’s were moving with deer and suddenly I couldn’t think straight. He was away.
Back in those days I hadn’t even heard of tracking collars, never mind actually owing one, and so after trying to follow the course by sight I eventually stood and did the only thing I could; listen. The sika deer’s voice is quite remarkable, they emit a shrilling whistle, more avian than cervine, and it’s the sort of noise that sends one hell of a shiver coursing down your spine, the hairs on your neck quiver like a corn field on a windy day. I found my dog and the deerly departed in the bottom of a ravine, up against a fence, like the bigger deer often were. With darkness never far away I was glad to have found him, I didn’t fancy walking through those vast forests at night with just a cheap head torch to try and find my dog. Though I would have done had I needed to. It wouldn’t have been the first time and it certainly wasn’t the last.
This all took place many years ago, a time when a young man could be hunting all quarry with his faithful furry friend. There’s three species of sika deer at large in the UK, but it is only the Japanese that has an extensive range. The males, called stags not bucks, can grow to a formidable size, they must be on par with a good fallow, though I reckon a fallow buck is ten times harder than a sika stag for a single dog to take, all things being equal. I never thought that sika were very fast at all, and they also didn’t appear to take that rapidly approaching lurcher very seriously at first. The dog would get closer and closer and often the sika would still stand nonchalantly looking at the dog. Then, when it was far too late to make a safe retreat, the deer would turn tail and try and haul his butt out of there. Often without success. There’s no way a sika is going to be able to get up to full speed before the dog reaches it. But, some dogs were put off by the sheer size of some of those deer, the stags in particular and, I have to say, they did look rather daunting when they stood and stared. Their thick, black mane and their six-point ivory-tipped antlers that looked sharp enough to go straight through the dogs ribcage. And that’s exactly what some sika bucks actually tried to do. There was never too many quarry species in the UK that were actually dangerous enough, powerful enough and big enough to kill a dog, but the sika is one of them. Cornered, and with no humans around, they are not likely to roll over and give up the ghost, they are, however, most likely to try and see if their antlers will fit clean through your dogs ribs and out the other side.
These Japanese immigrants inhabit all manner of terrains, from green woods to low fields to high moorlands. I’ve hunted them in several habitats and my favourite was always right out on the moor. Spotting a group of eight or ten deer half a mile away in the middle of a landscape where there’s no cover is the easy part. The hard part is getting close enough to have a slip. We tried a few different dodges to catch these deer and the best one I found was to use a sort of pincer movement on them. I’d creep along, bent double, trying to hug any crease in the moorland to gain that extra yard or two before the sika’s nerve broke and they headed for quieter pastures. We had some great times on those moors, thankfully I was alive at a time when these pursuits were all fully legal.
In winter time the sika can be found in big herds, I’ve seen some groups number over fifty individuals I would guess. We slipped into a group one day on a flat grass paddock, being herd animals, by the time the front of the herd had started to move the rear ones were jostling for position and they weren’t difficult for a dog.
That was the thing with sika, they weren’t difficult really, unless you got a true whopper, then things were a bit different. If we had a good dog then it was rare to miss a sika, and that’s running them on some ground that you wouldn’t have had a cat in hells chance of catching a roe, or pretty much anything else for that matter! Big gorse covered bankings, little wired-up paddocks adjacent to huge forestry; we caught sika everywhere. At first I was reluctant to slip, but the more the dog caught the more you’d slip and before you knew it you’d become very trigger happy indeed with the slip lead!
Yes, no doubt about it, I had some amazing times chasing the whistling sika deer, and there was a few heart pounding moments too, particularly when the dog went missing right on a big white arse into a huge dark patch of forestry. Sometimes we’d lose the dog for an hour or more, but in the end, I’m glad to say, there was always a happy ending. Sika can hybridise with the red deer, creating a proper big lump of an animal. I’ve seen a few of these sika/red hybrids and they were quite breathtaking, though I can’t recall ever running one. However, I’ve ran a lot of reds over the years, but that’s another story for another time….