Muntjacs are now frequently seen in and around the Common Lands but their population growth brings its challenges writes Ross Bentley.
I’m not sure who was most startled.
Walking along Sudbury’s Valley Trail footpath recently, I was stopped in my tracks as a sizeable animal made a break for it from a nearby thicket. I looked in the direction it had fled to see a deer moving across the neighbouring field, a white flash of tail and two black lines running down its face indicating it was a muntjac that I had unsettled.
Over the past few decades, encounters with muntjac have become commonplace. They are territorial as well as solitary, so as their numbers have boomed, they have been forced to find space beyond the countryside and move into suburbia. In recent times, I have seen muntjac strolling along Cornard riverside and casually shuffling through gardens in Ballingdon. A friend told me that early one morning as he was driving through town, he even saw a muntjac on Market Hill, peering into the shop window of Winch & Blatch department store.
For me, an encounter with any sizeable wild animal is exciting, so on a personal level an abundance of muntjac has brought a bit of pizzazz to our wildlife landscape. However, I am also aware that these herbivores are an introduced species, regarded by many as an invasive pest that is responsible for widespread damage to our native flora.
Muntjac originate from China and were first imported to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, escapees and deliberate releases have helped numbers grow to the point where today the muntjac is the most widely distributed deer in Suffolk after the native roe deer.
Part of the reason for the muntjac’s success and its ability to exist near humans is its small size. Being diminutive in comparison to say fallow or red deer, means muntjac can find cover in brambles or behind privet hedges.
But this close vicinity to us has its drawbacks. One time, while walking the common lands, I heard this blood-curdling scream. It was high-pitched and persistent, and came from a muntjac that had been cornered by a dog and forced into the river. A few us rescued the frightened beast from the water and covered it with a coat before it walked a few yards into the hedgerow and lay down. I returned the next day to find the deer lying lifeless in the same position. I had heard about deer dying of shock but this was the first time I’d seen it happen.
One interesting thing about muntjac, which separates them from all other species of deer found in the UK, is that they do not have a specific breeding season. The female can mate all year round, so she spends most of her life pregnant. It is a recipe for rampant growth.
In fact, without any natural predators, all deer populations are growing out of control, a trend that is causing devastation as acres of agricultural crops are devoured and woodland biodiversity destroyed.
Woodlands with dense deer populations suffer huge damage to their understorey foliage, resulting in a loss of plants like bluebells and habitat for nesting birds, butterflies and other insects. Areas of woods that have been coppiced now have to be securely fenced off to stop deer eating any new growth. Conservationists are in general agreement that some deer, including muntjac, need to be culled to manage numbers.
This has led to a rise in the sale of venison, which can be seen as the most ethical meat available. The deer run free, need to be culled and are shot in the wild. I recommend a pan-fried muntjac escalope, served with a thick jus and creamy mash.
But while you might want muntjac on your dinner plate, they are less desirable in the garden where they can take small shoots and flower heads. The best deterrent is fencing while there are also various sonic devices and flashing lights on the market.
I have also been told of people taking a less technical approach to warding off muntjac.
One technique I have heard about involves wrapping up a cheap transistor radio in a plastic bag and leaving it playing Radio 4 at low volume in the vegetable patch overnight. Playing music will not work but the background sound of mumbling voices will keep Bambi at bay apparently.