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ASHORO, Hokkaido — While travelers in Hokkaido often enjoy spotting herds of deer, the recent explosion in the animal’s population poses a serious threat to local farmers.

Residents of Ashoro, whose crops have been damaged by the animal, recently came up with a promising solution to their headache: Before the deer eat their crops, the locals should eat the deer.

Deer (“ezo shika,” or cervus nippon yesoensis) meat has gained a reputation among local residents and hunters. Low in fat and high in protein, venison is much healthier than beef, chicken or pork, according to experts. But not many people have been able to enjoy the taste, because commercial distribution of deer meat was not allowed until recently.

When more deer had to be culled to reduce crop damage, authorities changed the policy to allow local governments to distribute meat from the culled deer.

The Ashoro Municipal Government is the first local body to establish a system to process and sell deer meat. The town culls about a 1,000 deer a year to minimize agricultural damage and in 1995 created a facility to process the meat.

Ashoro, adjacent to forests in Akan National Park, where deer abound, is one of the areas suffering most from crop damage caused by deer. Last year, the deer caused about 200 million yen in damage, and various countermeasures — including nets and electrified fences — failed to keep the animals from eating wheat, beets and beans or from ruining their grasslands, according to the town.

“Deer soon get used to the shocks of electrified fences and easily gnaw nets away. Many farmers complain that they are losing sleep because they are trying to keep an eye on their farms all night,” said Ashoro town officer Hiromasa Otsuka. Otsuka also said the town is now putting 740 km of wire fencing around farmland in the town, at a cost of 2.5 billion yen. “If we can make a profit selling the meat, we would like to use the money to recoup the cost of keeping deer away from our farmlands,” Otsuka said.

The Hokkaido Prefectural Government says agricultural damage caused by deer in Hokkaido skyrocketed to 5 billion yen in 1996, compared with 490 million yen in 1985.

The prefectural government has relaxed its deer protection policy and increased the number of deer that can be culled by local governments, but population growth is expected to outpace culling and hunting.

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