These days, deer in Japan cause tremendous damage to fields, paddies, pastures, orchards, woodland and even wasabi water gardens. They are also wiping out many rare wild plants. Since the last known Japanese wolf was killed in Nara Prefecture in 1905, deer on these islands have had no natural predators. So, with the number of hunters long in steady decline, their populations have continued increasing at a phenomenal rate.
Predicting about 30 years ago that this was going to happen, I made three television documentaries on deer and became friends with professor Seiki Takatsuki of Azabu University, a center of veterinary studies in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, who remains of like mind with regards to conservation and the wise use of natural resources.
It was obvious back then that deer needed to be controlled by skilled, trained hunters. Moreover, the venison should not be wasted — and preferably not the hide either. As it is, however, more than 95 percent of the deer killed in Japan are buried or burned, or are just left out in the open. This is a senseless waste of excellent food that horrifies most people who are aware of it.
Although the government pays a bounty to hunters holding a pest extermination permit who hand in a deer tail and dispose of the carcass, this usually means they simply bury it.
For some time now I have been talking about this problem with friends who work for Aeon Co. Ltd., the largest retailer in Asia. Many people in present-day Japan, where there is almost no custom of eating wild game, have a prejudice about doing so and will often say venison is “smelly” — even when they have never smelled or tasted it. To me, fresh venison doesn’t smell at all and, when cooked, it tastes delicious. In fact, I far prefer it to all that unhealthy, soft and fat-marbled beef that’s so prized here.
While visiting my brother in England last year, I came across venison sausages in a Tesco supermarket. When I took a pack home and grilled it, I found the sausages were pretty good (although my homemade ones are better), so I suggested to my Aeon friends that this might be the way to go in Japan.
Sausages are easy things to take home and cook, and if venison sausages led to people developing a taste for deer meat in general, I suggested they could help to grow the market and prevent many thousands of tons of prime protein being wasted every year.
In addition, I knew that Shuichi Abe, the governor of my home prefecture of Nagano, was well aware of the problem and had instigated a program to encourage people to enjoy wild game, including building facilities to handle deer carcasses in a safe and hygienic way. So in a conversation with him early this year, I suggested his staff should talk to Aeon.
The upshot was that Abe, senior Aeon employees and myself held a news conference on May 26 in Nagano City, announcing that Aeon supermarkets in the prefecture would start selling venison.
Then on June 9, only two weeks later, Aeon sent a very cheerful email to both myself and the governor saying that some of their stores had already sold out all their stocks of venison, and that deer-meat products were selling very briskly in all their other stores — accompanied by a booklet containing some of my venison recipes.
So there you are: A market awaits if you go for it and encourage ever more people to regard deer (and, similarly, wild boar) as food sources along with cows, pigs, chicken and fish.
At a meeting sponsored by the prefecture and the hunting association in Azumino town last year, I gave a lecture on deer management and wise use, showing a film I’d been involved in making of Ainu hunters in Hokkaido, national park rangers culling deer in Wales and traditional deer-stalking in Scotland — where it was my finger on the trigger.
In addition, I showed footage of deer being culled in New Zealand by shooting them from a helicopter, which then takes them to a nearby town to be butchered and the meat sold off.
Separately, I also went out after deer with a New Zealand guide, shooting them — as is the case almost everywhere in the word — with a high-powered rifle that should ensure death is instantaneous.
In Japan — where there is a pressing need for many more well-trained young hunters, male and female — you have to hold a shotgun license for 10 consecutive years before you can own and use a rifle. Consequently, most deer shot here are killed with a rifled slug from a shotgun, which is nowhere near as accurate but is effective enough at close range.
In practice, however, around 70 percent of deer and wild boar taken in Japan are captured with snares.
When asked about this at the meeting, I said quite bluntly that I considered snares to be poachers’ tools, and that they were the bane of my life as a game warden trying to protect wildlife in Ethiopia in the late 1960s. Also, animals caught by a snare, or even worse, a steel gin-trap, experienced such terror and pain that some gnawed off their trapped paw, hoof or foot.
Nonetheless, I did confess that as a boy I hunted rabbits with snares — though I explained how they were almost always caught by the neck and throttled to death quickly as they struggled.
Somebody once asked if I would agree with neck snares for deer and wild boar. Absolutely not! That could be dangerous for other creatures running in the woods, including children and dogs.
So although myself and people such as professor Takatsuki encourage the control of deer, we always stress that they must be killed quickly and humanely so they experience a minimum of fear and pain.
Indeed, when a skilled hunter stalks a deer, the animal is often totally unaware of it. Then, when he or she squeezes the trigger, it doesn’t even hear the bang because bullets travel faster than the speed of sound.
The other thing about a good hunter is that he or she carefully selects the animal to be targeted. When after deer with guides in Scotland and New Zealand, I was not allowed to shoot a doe, nor a very young buck — and certainly not one of the splendid dominant stags. Instead, both times the guide, or stalker, told me to take a full-grown male that was not the leader of a harem of does. Moreover, when we were filming in Scotland, my guide would not even let me carry the rifle until we crawled up through the wet heather in range of a stag he deemed suitable. However, I got one hell of a bollocking after I shot the animal because I aimed — and hit — just behind the ear. I didn’t go for a heart shot as I’d been told to do.
I tried to explain that I knew the camera was behind me, and that a deer shot through the heart will often kick a few times when it goes down, while a head shot just drops it without a twitch.
He wouldn’t have any of it, though, insisting that if I had missed hitting the heart, but got the shot into the chest cavity with a high-powered bullet, the deer would probably die straight away, or would go down and give time for a second shot. On the other hand, if my head shot had missed the brain and hit the poor deer in the jaw, it could cause unnecessary shock and pain.
The guide was right, of course, TV viewers’ sensibilities or not — and I’d been too cocky about my marksmanship.
Meanwhile, an alternative method of harvesting deer is now in use in Hokkaido, where in some places beaters drive them into an enclosure from where they are released into a fenced pasture to calm down for days or weeks before being humanely killed. I have bought venison from those people and it is excellent.
When I was just 17, and on my first expedition in the Canadian Arctic, an old Inuit hunter pointed out that the animals they took to survive were always perfectly free until the moment of death. As I continue to promote the use of venison and wild boar meat as human food in Japan, I’ve never forgotten that’s exactly the way wild animals should be harvested, for the pot or any other reason.