Although the days are now lengthening, we are still in the grip of winter. An old East Anglian saying goes ‘as the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger’ – at least that was what used to be quoted in the depths of my childhood Suffolk countryside. Thus, for wildlife it is a case of feeding when and where the opportunities arise to keep the cold at bay.
Some of the most conspicuous animals out on the riverside at this time of year are Muntjac deer. Although they are sometimes encountered on the Sudbury Common Lands, they are far more frequently seen across the river from Friars Meadow or Seven Arches Bridge on the Valley Trail. On the undisturbed meadows they will graze quietly, individually or in small family groups. However, they are equally at home in our gardens and can be very secretive, concealing themselves in dense shrubby cover.
Our Muntjac were introduced from Southern China, where they evolved in a tropical environment and the females give birth all year round. This adaptation continues in chilly England where very young fawns can be seen even in the middle of winter. They look rather similar in colour and size to hares. When fully grown, Muntjac, or to be strictly accurate, Reeves’ Muntjac are the size of large dogs. In addition, when in season, to attract a mate the females bark very much like dogs, and they put me in mind of Tony Blackburn’s ‘Arnold’ whose somewhat metallic barks woofed from our transistor radios from 1967 and through the 1970s. This rather odd barking can be heard anywhere on the riverside.
There are fourteen species of Muntjac deer and although they are all native to the Far East, two species were introduced to England. However, Reeves’ Muntjac is the one that successfully adapted to our climate and countryside. The species is named after John Russell Reeves who was a keen botanist and naturalist. He worked for the East India Company at Kowloon, China, and in 1839 he obtained a pair of Muntjac for the recently established London Zoo. Of course, he was not responsible for the wild populations in our towns and countryside. For that, the responsibility can be laid fairly and squarely on the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey estate who acquired animals in 1894. Descendants were released from the estate into the surrounding countryside in 1901. Further releases and translocations took place, including on the Norfolk/Suffolk border and in recent years the population has increased enormously. As numbers have risen the animals have lost some of their shyness so that they can are seen during the day. They, along with other species of deer, can cause a considerable amount of damage to our woodlands through constant browsing of flowers and foliage. During the winter an ivy clad tree will very often have all the ivy leaves browsed off as far up the trunk as the Muntjac can reach.
Venison provides a very good source of protein and Muntjac meat is no exception. It is extremely likely that in the late thirteenth century Marco Polo ate Muntjac venison while in the employ of Kublai Khan, the great Mongol Emperor of China. In 1295 he returned to Venice with the head and feet of a Muntjac among his many ‘souvenirs’ and ‘treasures’.