Wildlife - Sika deer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 June 2017
Sika deer were first introduced to Britain in the 19th century. Paul Hobson travels to Japan to view them in their native environment
As a wildlife photographer I frequently travel abroad to photograph new types of wildlife and experience other nations’ foods and customs. I also like to observe how various cultures relate to their animals, plants and wild places. I suppose this interest stems from my time at university where I researched the ways in which different countries attempted to conserve their native wildlife, and tried to see if we in the UK could learn any lessons from their philosophy and practice.
Another aspect of travel that has always fascinated me is the ability to observe animals and plants that we have introduced into our own country in their native habitat. In Britain we now have six species of deer that share fields, woods and commons with us and our native wildlife. Of these six only two are true natives – red and roe deer. The other four, which include Japanese sika deer, were brought here as a visual adornment to our parks and private estates. Sika deer were introduced from Japan into the UK in 1860. They didn’t take long to effect their escape and now live as wild deer dotted across the UK. Their main strongholds are Scotland, the New Forest and northern England, though there are many isolated small colonies scattered over our island. To date no wild sika deer have been recorded in Derbyshire, although you can see two at the Chestnut Centre at Chapel-en-le-Frith. However, saying this, it must only be a matter of time before the northern English population slowly spreads south.
Anyway, back to my travels. I recently returned from Japan where I was able to photograph some amazing wildlife including snow monkeys, Japanese red-crowned cranes and Steller’s sea eagles. However, the single experience that made me really think about the Japanese culture and its relationship with their native fauna was a visit to a park in Nara. This 700-year-old park is world famous for two reasons. One is that it houses a stunning statue of Buddha in the largest wooden building in the world, the Todai-ji shrine, which is breathtaking. The second reason (and as a deer fanatic the one in which I was more interested) was the park’s herd of over a thousand sika deer.
The dominant ethnic religion in Japan is Shinto and the country is studded with thousands of Shinto shrines, some incredibly ornate and impressive, whilst others are smaller. Each shrine is dedicated to one of a multitude of deities, which include rocks, trees, rivers, places and even living animals. Up until the Second World War the sika deer of Nara were considered a Shinto deity and worshipped and protected. Since the devastation of the war, the deer have lost their religious status, however, they have been designated as a living national treasure which gives them a high level of protection.
The sika deer of Nara park are clearly loved by the Japanese. Their incredibly intimate and close relationship with them, forged over hundreds of years, has created a unique experience. Locals, tourists and deer mingle on roads, paths and open spaces. The Japanese and many international visitors are able to buy ‘deer biscuits’ to feed the incredibly trusting animals. I loved watching deer patiently waiting at each biscuit seller’s stall for someone to buy a stack of deer biscuits. The deer would then carefully nudge, and often subtly ‘bow’, as they were then hand fed. Perhaps the most attractive sight was a group of three young Japanese ladies, dressed in colourful, traditional costume, tenderly feeding a couple of sika.
During our stay in Nara it became obvious that the deer are a major tourist attraction and, whilst the shops may exploit the opportunity with a plethora of deer toys, the Japanese really do see the deer as a national living treasure and something to be proud of and loved.
Part of my trip to Japan was a visit to the northern island of Hokkaido, and on one afternoon I was able to watch and photograph wild sika, still national treasures but living a natural life in the snowy woods of this stunning island. I pondered how we might relate to our wildlife if we viewed it differently. I am not sure, but I would guess, that we might have a completely different view of our wild places and creatures if we started to designate them as national treasures. We have national monuments, so why not wild animals? If not nationally perhaps we could have county animals, and if so I wonder which animal Derbyshire would choose?
Sika deer in Japan fit snugly into their natural habitat and the Japanese culture. However, in Britain, as an introduced species, they can and will cause problems. They can breed with red deer and it is probably true that many reds in Britain now carry sika genes. The future for sika deer in Britain is not certain, but they are here to stay. At the moment it is unlikely that you or I will come across a wild sika deer in Derbyshire but it is not impossible and as the spread of this lovely deer continues from Lancashire and Yorkshire the chance of doing so grows greater every year.