Hide & sika
Steve Rawsthorne heads to Dorset hoping to complete the challenge of shooting his sixth of the British deer species.
Although I am very fortunate and stalk four or more times a week, shooting 200plus deer a year, until a couple of days ago I had never shot a sika. I had heard all sorts of rumours about how secretive and tough they were, so when the editor suggested an article on sika stalking, I jumped at the chance to complete the challenge of shooting my sixth of the resident British species.
In 1895, the Emperor of Japan made an official state visit to Queen Victoria and donated a few sika to the British people. They were released onto Brownsea Island and the population of the area today can be traced back directly to those original animals. Over the years, the number gradually increased and around 20 years ago they appear to have achieved a critical mass and numbers took off. The Arne peninsula and MOD ranges now hold the largest sika herds anywhere in the UK.
Through a friend of a friend, I made contact with David, an extremely knowledgeable chap in Dorset, not a million miles from Corfe Castle. A quick phone call and confirmatory email and all was set – I was to arrive on Sunday afternoon and leave on Monday after breakfast.
On arrival at David's beautiful thatched cottage, filled with a lifetime's hunting trophies and mementoes, we discussed our plan of action. David explained how sika are mainly nocturnal, tending to come out in the last 15 minutes before dusk and disappearing at first light, so we would be lying in wait for them to appear at dusk or trying to catch them early doors. Any disturbance and they wouldn't appear at all. David is an expert at calling sika stags in – using a modified wapiti (elk) call – and over 30 years has gained an acute knowledge of the estate and the deer's elusive habits.
We headed off at 4:30pm to have a look around the estate and, surprisingly, saw several sika in the roadside hedges and woods. Sadly, my first sight of a real sika was spread on the road, having been hit by a car.
The Dorset countryside is fantastic for stalking, deep valleys and good hills, rolling pastures with maize and stubbles, gorse banks and woods – a real pleasure to be in. As we had plenty of time before we needed to be tucked up in our position, we stalked around a couple of small woods and some maize, but saw nothing except slots, plenty of slots. I was obviously in the right place.
At 6:30pm we settled under a large oak tree at the end of a hedge, with pasture behind us and maize behind the hedge to our right. Directly in front of us a field rose gently for a little over 200 yards to meet a wood, from which we hoped the sika would emerge. The sun was setting over the trees with pink wisps of alto-cirrus and a small skein of geese honked overhead. Shortly after, a sika hind and calf appeared from the wood edge, followed by another a minute or two later, and then a stag. Because I was only looking to shoot a pricket or cull stag, we needed to be sure of his form, but he stayed in the darkness of the tree line. Another stag, probably a three-year-old, joined him and for a couple of minutes we were treated to a sparring match, before they both disappeared back into the trees. By this time the eerie whistling call was echoing around us, joined also by David's calls on the wapiti. Although we heard several of the larger stags' three-whistle call, none put in an appearance. Flushes of bats came out of the trees around us and the fading light brought proceedings to a close.
The next morning I was up at 5am and after a quick coffee we set off. We headed to some woods and stalked carefully down a track dissecting them to where fields opened up. There were two sika, but a hind and calf, so back to the vehicle and off we went again. Half a mile or so further on we disembarked and crept along a hedge into the bottom of a long, narrow field with woodland running along the top border. It was now 6:30am and still pretty dark, but through the binoculars we could just make out eight or ten sika feeding steadily towards the cover. There were two stags, but like the night before, insufficient light for a shot. I lay down and set up the rifle and bipod, waiting for the light to improve. But once again, the larger stag chased the smaller one off into the cover and that was that.
I must admit that I was a little disappointed at this stage. We headed off to another wood and David called from a high seat, but after half an hour, nothing doing. We had one last try, scouring the fringes of some grass fields, but to no avail. I was convinced that I would be writing an article with nothing to show at the end of it, but as we headed home, David very kindly suggested that I stay a tad longer.
I readily agreed.
After lunch we received a call from a farmer to say that a neighbour had cut several fields of maize and he had seen sika in his woods. We made a bee-line and spotted a couple of stags feeding peacefully in a pasture surrounded by woods. Slipping quietly through the wood with the wind in our faces, I got into position on the ground and set up the bipod. The two stags were just over 300 yards away, according to my Leica Geovid binos, and right out in the middle of the field. With no chance of getting closer, one of them with a broken antler, a two-year-old, was our target. I was preparing to shoot him where he was – the drop on my 6.5x55 would be 12 inches at that range – when he started moving slowly towards us. He continued mooching and feeding until at 170 yards he turned absolutely square broadside and stopped for a few seconds. I squeezed gently on the trigger and he collapsed instantly to a neck shot. I had my sika stag and had completed my quest for all six wild British species.
I had a brilliant time in Dorset and cannot thank David enough for his time, hospitality and expertise. It was a great place to stalk, so much so that I am going back in January!