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I have only just come out of the hills yet sitting here writing this article is enough to make me restless and long to go back. I have been hunting Sika for 10 years, so only a newbie compared to some reading this however this has been more than enough time become enthralled by the species. I love the fact that you can learn so much about Sika and have so much knowledge in your back pocket yet no two hunts are the same, Sika always seem to keep you guessing. This uncertainty has stemmed my motivation behind this informative series which aims to summarise and put into context the behavioral patterns of Sika, while also helping to provide information on general biology, habits and food sources as well as a range of methods that may help you next time you are in the hills. This article focuses on Sika hunting during the spring and will be followed by three more articles focusing on hunting Sika in Summer, Autumn and Winter, all information included has been learned over the last decade from both time in the hills and other hunters.

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Sika, Cervus nippon originated in Asia and were introduced to the Eastern Kaimanawas of the central North Island early in the 20th century, from here they spread primarily in a South Westerly direction and are now the dominant ungulate species in both the Kaimanawa and Kaweka forest parks, while also inhabiting other areas around the central North Island in much lower densities. Sika deer in New Zealand show distinguishing characteristics of both Japanese and Chinese subspecies, this can be seen in both coloration and antler characteristics. They also exhibit a t-shaped skull structure and an oval shaped metatarsal gland on the outside of their hind legs. The rump patch is typically white in coloration while antlers generally only reach up to 8 points with the odd exception.

September is regarded as spring time in New Zealand however Sika country lags behind due to the climatic conditions of the central North Island. Generally spring growth is not seen until mid to late October when the days begin to increase in temperature and length. I regard Labour weekend as a good guide to the start of spring in Sika country and generally plan a trip into the eastern Kaimanawas around this time. Topography and altitude play an influencing role in the occurrence of growth with sheltered warm north facing slopes the first to see spring growth while cool exposed south facing slopes have very little growth until late summer.  These factors should be considered when planning a hunt as it will increase the odds of seeing a deer drastically. Deer do not like the cold and spring growth doesn’t occur in cold conditions, so any warm sheltered faces and guts are likely to hold deer, particularly in early spring when they seek out the fresh growth after winter. Another key factor that will help differentiate between any old warm north facing slopes and those of optimal habitat is the availability of palatable plant species, for example a sheltered gulley containing broadleaf is more likely to hold deer then a sheltered gulley containing no broadleaf. Changing environmental conditions such as wind and rain also dictate where the animals will be located from one day to the next, if a main feeding area is exposed to harsh weather patterns then the deer will generally be off in a sheltered gulley or face avoiding these conditions, as soon as the weather clears they will appear back in these optimal areas again feeding up. Browse sign, fresh pellets and knowledge on palatable plant species will help you to identify these areas. In saying this expect to see deer in all sorts of places as they have the ability to pop up when you least expect it.

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A few staple plant species to look out for while bush stalking include Griselinia littoralis (Broad leaf), Coprosma robusta (Karamu) and Nothofagus menziesii (Silver beech), however when looking at open river flats deer generally feed on a range of grasses including Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire fog) and Poa cita (Silver tussock) which is the one of the main tussock grasses found in Sika habitat. Most palatable plant species are favored as saplings or new shoots and often Sika use their hoofs to scrape leaf litter aside allowing them to find small saplings coming through. It is interesting to note that deer in New Zealand are limited in what they can eat as many shrubs and plants contain toxins developed to stop predation,  Sika are better at utilizing those plants then red deer hence the reason they have pushed red deer out from some areas.

The increased abundance in food and milder climatic conditions causes changes in behavior, Sika prefer to feed on grass however are quite adaptable and can utilise a range of plant species. Come spring Sika move from their wintering grounds to feed in areas with large quantities of food, generally low altitude river flats, creek beds and scrubby Manuka stands such as those present in the Oamaru and Mangapapa rivers where spring growth occurs earliest and is most prevalent. Due to the milder conditions in spring and high human traffic in certain areas Sika become highly active at night. This is because they can use the cover of darkness to feed in areas with vast amounts of food that would be too risky to feed in during daylight. This change in behavior is also driven by the fact that they can feed in areas exposed to the elements without losing too much body heat. Sika are a small statured animal and the overall surface area:volume ratio is high which means heat loss can occur rapidly therefore it is highly unlikely to see Sika in cold areas. When in this nocturnal state Sika will generally only appear in the open during the first and last half hour of light, this is because they do not need to move around during the day as they can feed safely at night on their preferred source of food. This predictable movement can be beneficial for hunters who know there hunting grounds as they can position themselves accordingly at first and last light and wait for deer to show themselves. This in not to say that Sika wont feed in the open at other times of year including winter however the weather patterns generally need to be favorable to see this.

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During the months of spring the visual identifying characteristics of Sika begin to change. Their coats go through a transition from motley grey winter coats to appealing spotty orange summer coats, this is usually complete by mid December however the timing of this change will vary greatly and is seen significantly later in areas with harsh climatic conditions. When hunting an area during spring its worth taking into consideration how far through this transition the deer are as it can be a telling factor in where they will be feeding. If all the deer in an area are still in winter coats then chances are the winter was long and harsh and in turn spring growth is going to be less prolific, meaning the best food source available is likely to be in the cover of the forest, hence bush stalking is likely to be the best approach. If Sika are in summer coat this suggests that spring growth is well underway and conditions relatively mild, in turn focusing your hunting efforts on glassing fringe country and river flats would be my recommendation as they will visit these areas to feed on grasses. When glassing focus your efforts around the edges and just inside the bush edge rather than the middle as Sika don’t often walk into the middle of clearings in heavily hunted areas. The knowledge gained when observing characteristics such as changes in coats may not be beneficial instantly but if you keep a record then when returning to the area in the future it may help you decide how you will hunt.

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Sika stags also drop their antlers over this period and begin velvet growth. Mature stags can drop their antlers anytime from September onwards however it is common for them to still be intact through until late October, while younger stags can be found in hard antler in December. This is considerably later then red deer, which gives trophy hunters a good chance to shoot an 8 point + trophy feeding up after winter. Once a Sika stag has cast his antlers they begin to grow again virtually straight away, it is believed that food availability has an impact in the rate and quality of antlers grown, however I believe genetics plays a part in the overall potential and the availability of food is likely to influence whether a stag reaches this potential or not. During velvet growth we can see the difference in coloration between Japanese and Chinese strains of NZ Sika deer, the Japanese strain exhibit dark grey velvet while the Chinese exhibit orange coloured velvet, in saying this it is highly unlikely that any of New Zealand’s Sika are of one strain or the other instead likely to be a mix of both.

Sika hinds drop their fawns during late spring and seem to disappear at this time. They are still around however often sit tight in thick cover such as Manuka which provides warmth and shelter for the fawns. Sika have a gestation period of around 7 months and fawns can be found from November onwards, although more common from December to January. The fawn in the photo’s was found on 3 December up Clements Mill road , because of this I’m not a big fan of shooting hinds after the start of December instead prefer to pick off last year’s yearlings if there is the option, as by shooting a hind there is a high likelihood it will leave an orphaned fawn, however each to their own.

That’s it for the first article, hopefully it has been of some value. Remember to keep an eye out for the this site for the Summer, ROAR and Winter articles. 

Summary:

Spring growth does not reach Sika country until mid to late October.

Glass clearings and river beds as spring progresses, Sika prefer to graze on grass when available so will utilize these areas at certain times of the day (First and last light).

Learn key palatable plant species (Several are listed in this article).

The prospect of shooting a trophy Sika stag in October is a reality as some stags hold their antlers though until mid December.

Browse sign pellets and knowledge on palatable plant species will help you identify areas of optimal habitat.

Hunt sheltered areas where possible.

Use maps to identify likely areas to hunt based on topography and altitude. Lower altitude in early spring, higher altitudes in late spring/summer.