Sika deer (Cervus nippon)

Also known as: Shansi sika, sika
GenusCervus (1)
SizeMale length: c. 135.7 cm (2)
Female length: c. 125.4 cm (2)
Male shoulder height: 70 - 95 cm (3)
Female shoulder height: 50 - 90 cm (3)
Male weight: 40 - 140 kg (2) (3)
Female weight: 30 - 60 kg (2) (3)
Newborn weight: 4.5 - 7 kg (2)
Top facts

The sika deer is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The sika deer (Cervus nippon) is a relatively small deer (4), although there is considerable variation in size between its numerous subspecies (5). In the summer months, its coat is mainly reddish- to yellowish-brown (2) (3) (4) (6), with a dark line running down the centre of its back from head to rump (2) (3) (4) (6) and numerous white spots patterning its body (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). In the winter months, the coat of the sika deer generally becomes greyer (4), with males turning dark grey to black (3) (5) and females turning light brown to grey (5), and the white spots become far less conspicuous (2) (3).

The underparts of the sika deer are whitish or grey (2), and there is a large, white, heart-shaped patch across the rump and tail (2) (4) (5) (6) which is edged with black. A thin, dark line also runs down the white tail (6).

Male sika deer, known as stags, are much larger than the females (4), and can be distinguished by the presence of antlers which are narrow (2) and branched (3), usually with between two and five points or ‘tines’ (2). These antlers typically reach between 30 and 66 centimetres in height (2). A pronounced V-shaped mark can be seen on the brow of the male sika deer (5), and distinct white glands are visible on the lower hind legs (3) (5).

The sika deer produces a wide range of vocalisations (2) (3), which are typically most noticeable during the mating season (2). During this time, known as the ‘rut’, males make long, drawn-out whistling cries which are said to sound like a siren and can become more scream-like as the rut progresses (5). Stags are also known to produce groans and raspberry-blowing sounds (3), while female sika deer use a goat-like bleat to contact their young (2). When alarmed, sika deer produce a short, high-pitched bark (3).

There are several recognised subspecies of sika deer (1), although there is some disagreement about how many (2).

The sika deer is native to Japan, China, Taiwan (1) (2) (4) (5) (6) and other adjacent regions of the eastern Asian mainland (5), including south-eastern Siberia (6). Although once found in both the Republic of Korea and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (1) (2), the sika deer is known to be regionally extinct in the former, and potentially extinct in the latter. There are several subspecies of sika deer, which all have different distributions (1).

The sika deer has also been widely introduced to countries outside of its natural range (1) (2), including Austria, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand (1) (6), the United Kingdom (1) (5) (6) and the United States (1) (2) (4) (6). This species was first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1860 when it was released into deer parks (5) (6), and has since become established in the wild following escapes or deliberate release (5) (6).

The sika deer increased its distribution on the British mainland by 5.3 percent per year between 1972 and 2002 (6), and continues to expand its range in Scotland (3) (6), as well as in many other countries to which it was introduced (6).

Showing a preference for habitats with acidic soil (3) (5) (7), the sika deer can be found in a variety of habitats including heath (3) (5), coniferous forests and plantations (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). This species tends to be found in forests with a dense understorey, but is known to forage in grassy areas (1) and in dense woody thickets along the borders of freshwater (2) or brackish marshes (4).

In its introduced range within the United Kingdom, the sika deer occupies a range of habitats, including mature broadleaf woodland, bogs, saltmarshes and offshore islands (6).

Primarily nocturnal (2) or crepuscular (1), the sika deer can also sometimes be seen foraging during the day, grazing singly or in small herds (1) (2). The sika deer is not a particularly gregarious species, and adult males tend to be solitary for most of the year (2) (3), only gathering together once their antlers have been shed (2). Male and female sika deer occupy different areas for most of the year, and only come together during the mating season (3). Sika deer do not migrate large distances between summer and winter (6), but this species is known to migrate to lower valleys in the winter (1). Interestingly, the sika deer is a good swimmer, and is also capable of jumping over objects up to 1.7 metres in height (2).

The sika deer is a herbivorous species (6), feeding on many different plants (2) including grasses, browse and even fruit (1). In the summer, this species’ diet tends to consist primarily of grasses and herbs, whereas in winter months more woody plants are consumed (2). The shoots and bark of coniferous trees may sometimes be taken (3), and the sika deer has been reported to feed on crops in the spring and early summer (2).

As in other deer, male sika deer rub their antlers against trees both to remove velvet and as a territory marker (5). The antlers are cast in May (2) (5), and grow throughout the summer (5). The breeding season of the sika deer, known as the rut, typically occurs in the autumn (1) (4), from about September to November (3) (6) or December (2). Males establish and defend territories (3) (4), using their forefeet and antlers to dig holes up to 1.6 metres wide and 0.3 metres deep in which they frequently urinate to signal territory boundaries (2). Fierce fighting often occurs between rival males (2) (4), who all try to drive available females into their territories where mating takes place (2). Successful male sika deer may mate with as many as 12 females, and may be so intent on finding females that they do not feed until later on in the rutting season (2).

The gestation period of the sika deer is around 30 weeks (1) (2) (3) (4) (6), after which time the female gives birth to a single calf (2) (3) (4) (6), rarely two (3) (6). The timing of birth varies slightly with geographic location, but young are typically born between April and July (1), mostly in May and June (2) (3) (6). Young sika deer grow rapidly, and are weaned by late summer (4), approaching the weight of the mother by eight months of age (2). Female sika deer may be sexually mature at six months of age, and tend to first breed as yearlings (2) (6).

The sika deer has been reported to live for up to 12 years in the wild (2), but individuals in captivity have been known to reach 25 years old (1) (2).

Globally, the sika deer is not considered to be at risk of extinction, and there is a large and growing population in Japan, as well as a stable population in Russia. However, in the rest of its native range, the sika deer appears to be at risk from several factors, with fewer than 1,000 individuals of this species thought to remain in China. Key threats to this species include habitat loss, water pollution and hunting for meat and antler velvet, which is used in traditional medicines. In addition, a loss of genetic diversity through the fragmentation of the sika deer’s habitat is a cause for concern, and competition with feral animals such as goats may pose a further risk to this species (1).

Collisions with vehicles are also considered to be a threat to the sika deer (2), but these also pose a risk to humans (5), and the species is responsible for a number of road traffic accidents each year (6).

In many parts of its introduced range, the sika deer is having negative impacts on the local environment, as well as on the economy, particularly in areas where it is found in high numbers (5). The sika deer causes serious damage to timber crops and to woody vegetation in forests (5), by browsing on tree shoots or by stripping bark during antler rubbing (3) (6).

The sika deer is also reported to cause significant changes to the species composition and vegetation structure in wetlands and areas of open heathland (6). In addition, hybridisation with the native red deer (Cervus elpahus) in areas such as the United Kingdom is posing a conservation risk to both species by threatening their genetic integrity (1) (3) (5) (6). In Eastern Europe, the sika deer is also known to be a vector of diseases including bovine and avian tuberculosis, as well as a carrier of intestinal parasites which can affect native wildlife (6).

In optimal habitat in the United Kingdom, the sika deer has been found to be capable of expanding its range by three to five kilometres per year (6).

The sika deer is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List as it is abundant in Japan and increasing in number, and there is also a stable population in Russia. However, conservation action is required elsewhere in its range where the species is not faring so well. Past management activities for Cervus nippon keramae have included the construction of drinking water facilities for the deer and the filling of mine shafts which have been known to pose a threat to the species. Conducting new assessments of the mainland subspecies has been identified as a conservation priority, and other proposed conservation measures include combating poaching, securing areas of protected habitat, the removal of feral species such as goats, and the development of a conservation education programme (1).

The sika deer does occur in a number of protected areas, including China’s Tiebu Nature Reserve and Russia’s Lazovsky Nature Reserve, as well as in Taiwan’s Kenting National Park as a result of a special deer restoration project established in 1984 (1).

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2013)
  2. Whitaker, J.O. and Hamilton, W.J. (1998) Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
  3. British Deer Society: Sika deer fact sheet (November, 2013)
  4. Brown, L.N. (1997) A Guide to the Mammals of the Southeastern United States. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee.
  5. GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Identification Sheet - Sika deer (November, 2013)
  6. GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Factsheet - Sika deer (November, 2013)
  7. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust - Sika deer (November, 2013)