The first time I saw a Japanese sika (deer, Cervus Nippon) was on tiny Lundy Island, which lies in the Bristol Channel between South Wales and the north coast of the beautiful English county of Devon. I was going on for 20, and had gone to the island to assist the warden.
I don’t know when those deer were introduced to Lundy, but they were brought to Britain from Japan about 150 years ago. On Lundy they seemed very timid and wild, probably because the owner (Lundy was private property then; now it’s a trust) used to invite his friends over to shoot them, and both I and the warden were usually carrying .22-caliber rifles to cull rabbits with.
The deer were lovely animals, rounder and stockier than the red deer I’d seen before in Scotland, and with bright, chestnut summer coats that often had white spots. However, though I often wondered what they tasted like, as I’d eaten caribou in the Arctic, I really wasn’t tempted to shoot one.
But these days, venison is a standard part of my diet. We eat more of it at home than we do beef. I find it very tasty, and it’s low in fat and high in nutrition. A roasted haunch of venison is standard Christmas fare at my house, and this year’s was the hind leg of a Hokkaido deer, which a friend there sends me each year.
Also, my next-door neighbor, Yoshio Kazama, is a hunter. In fact, for eight years when I had a license, I used to go with him to shoot pheasant and hares. He doesn’t bother with small stuff now though, because in several parts of Japan, including southern Nagano Prefecture where we live, both deer and wild boar have increased so much that the deer, at least, have become a problem. As there are no effective rangers to control the herds, hunters are encouraged to shoot them. Kazama took 22 deer this year, and shared two of them with me.
A sika stag can weigh up to 100 kg, but I prefer the meat from young, smaller animals or the smaller hinds. As often as not, Japanese hunters don’t want the sinewy meat of the forelimbs or the neck, so I get that, too. This makes excellent minced meat, which is great for hamburgers, meatballs, sauces and so on.
My favorite hamburgers are made from 60 percent venison and 40 percent fresh minced shiitake. When we get a bumper crop of shiitake, I take the really big or misshapen ones, mince them, bag them, and keep them in the freezer. When I need to cook, I thaw out the venison and shiitake bags and mix them up with chopped onions, herbs and an egg or two.
Sika hinds calve in May or June. The fawns then stay with their mothers until the mothers are ready to give birth again, at which time they drive away their older offspring.
The stags cast their antlers around March, which is when the adult stags round up the male fawns and drive them off to make all-male “stag parties.” The rutting call of a Japanese stag is a sort of whistle, repeated three or four times, which is more of a call to hinds than a challenge to other stags. Stags usually fight only when meeting on their mutual boundaries. Then, in September or October, the rut starts, with the stags claiming all the hinds in their own territory.
On the whole, the hunters that I personally know waste very little meat. However, there is lot of venison wastage in Japan, especially in Hokkaido. I knew one farmer there who shot about 120 deer during a season on a pest-extermination license because the deer were raiding his fields. He buried nearly all of them, he said, because he had no other way to dispose of them. This is really not good — not only because of the waste, but because bears come and dig up the rotting carcasses, which then attract foxes and crows.
I have always wondered why there are so few strong, high and effective deer fences in Japan, such as the ones you see in Scotland or New Zealand, to really keep the deer out (or in). It seems to me it would save the farmers a lot of loss and trouble, and young deer would not learn to eat crops. Once they learn that crops are good, they will come back every night until the supply is exhausted, and they will later on bring their own young to the fields. In fact, there seems hardly any sustainable or sensible approach in Japan to controlling wild animals and keeping their populations at levels where they won’t raid — or die in large numbers from starvation and disease when they become so numerous they seriously deplete their natural habitat.
Given enough food and an absence of predators, on average a deer herd will double in number in three years. If these population explosions are not controlled, either by natural predators or human culling, they will first consume all easily grazed or browsed fodder, and then start killing trees by stripping them of bark. After that, as easily taken fodder fails, the deer weaken and fall prey to parasites, sickness or simple starvation. This is a terrible waste. It also wreaks havoc with the balance of the forests, because the deer tend to strip and kill the younger deciduous trees, in particular.
I am not a vegetarian, but even though we keep a few pigs, I prefer as much as possible not to eat the meat of domesticated animals. When a good hunter kills, death is very swift. The deer is a free and natural animal until the moment the bullet hits. Hunters like Kazama know when a deer is sick and, although he might shoot such an animal, he would never bring it home for food. With the animals I get I can inspect the livers, and I butcher them myself.
This year we are experimenting with deer hams, salting down haunches for a month before smoking and hanging them. I reckon that thinly sliced and given a quick sizzle in a hot frying pan, they will make first-class sandwich material.
Just one deer I get from Mr. Kazama can serve at least 100 dinner portions, and I boil the bones for stock as well. Great for ramen! Waste not, want not. Yes indeed, deer are very dear to me.