We had just left our vehicle, a practical if primitive Lada Niva when we heard the cry of a sika stag. The sound came from a thick stand of pines, which we knew would be impossible to approach without alerting the stag’s harem of females. Instead, our guide Roy Hrelja — an Australian who’s put down roots in the Ukrainian forest area we were trekking throughput the sika call to his lips and answered the ghost hidden in the undergrowth.
The stag responded at once and was soon joined by a shrill chorus of other deer, which were foraging close by in thin deciduous woodland.
Keen to bring down one of Ukraine’s monster stags, hunter Frank Olsen led the way, but by the time we got there, or at least to where we thought it was, the beast had gone.
Eight hours later, in the cool of the evening, Frank and Roy spied several likely-looking stags in the distance. For a while they stalked them, but the sun had dropped below the horizon by the time they got close. The stags weren’t easy to spot in the dying sun’s rays, but one stood out. He was tucked under a golden-leaved oak, surrounded by does and calves. It was a beautiful set-up and the stag presented a viable target, but the light was leaching away too quickly and soon the chance was gone.
The hunting ground we visited is vast — around 25,000 hectares — and home to an estimated 400 sika. It features pines and poplars as thick as bridge piers, stumpy willows, birches, hawthorns, redwoods, and the occasional solitary spruce. On the whole, its sandy soil hosts a semiopen forest landscape dotted with meadows, reed-covered marshes, and small ponds fringed with rushes.
Unlike the Japanese sika species (Cervus nippon), which can be found in the UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Poland among other European countries, the Manchurian sika species (Cervus nippon mantchuricus) — or, as it is known in Ukraine, Dybowski’s sika (Cervus nippon dybowskii) — originated in south-east Asia. It was introduced to different areas of Ukraine around a century ago and has since established a strong population, which yields impressive specimens each year. It is now the dominant species in this tract of land.
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