Muntjac – like them or loathe them – they are here to stay! Most of us can’t help but be impressed with this little deer, brought over to England as specimens for the few remaining grand deer parks. Several collectors kept different species of muntjac but Woburn Abbey Deer Park is the best known for keeping a collection, along with some 40 other deer species. The Reeves muntjac (Muntiacus reeves) or Chinese muntjac, were named after John Russell Reeves who worked for the British East India Company in Canton and organised their transport back to the UK. They have now been living wild in England for over 100 years, and in this time they have naturally, and otherwise, colonised much of the South, East and central regions, with populations and sightings spreading north into Yorkshire and south-west into Dorset and the West country.
Muntjac have provided much sport for many stalkers who would otherwise not have had any, due to the lack of roe around the home counties until recently. Professional stalkers and land owners have made money from them by selling stalking to UK and overseas clients. Muntjac stalking can be very rewarding: in low numbers they can be hard to spot in undergrowth; they are interesting to observe due to their non-stop feeding nature; and, they are easily extracted from the hunting area when compared to the larger deer species. The meat is of good quality, although their small size means feeding a family or four with a roast haunch is challenging, and the removal of the skin can be frustrating for those who want to save every last piece of edible tissue!
Those who don’t rely on muntjac for an income, or enjoy seeing or stalking them, often take a dim view of them. Pest or vermin (and worse) are words often used to describe them, by land owners, countryside workers and members of the public. “It’s only a muntjac,” is a phrase regularly used by people with a lack of respect for them.
Muntjac do indeed pose a significant issue when trying to control the flushing of gamebirds from coverts and in woodland drives. They will also eat a percentage of the game food put out, which does seem to aid the deer in their overall condition and antler growth. However, when shoots really drill down on feed loss, other animals might account for much higher losses, such as rabbits, hares, squirrels and other wild birds.
Muntjac are not alone in being a destructive mammal in our habitats. Every deer, and other large mammals, will impact on their environments through the necessity of having to feed. However, should we be less tolerant of the non native species or treat all deer equally? The general public are very good at wanting to protect wildlife until that animal has cost them money in car repairs after a collision or damage to their garden has occurred, and certainly muntjac must be one of the deer species most often involved in road traffic accidents in the South of England.
Deer stalkers without muntjac in their area often talk about hoping they arrive soon and those who eventually start to see a number of these deer often leave them to let numbers increase. While everyone can understand the wish to have a good number of deer in your stalking area, at what point do we draw the line and try to stop the march of them – a deer which after all is a non-native alien species? Is there an argument for curbing the enjoyment of recreational deer stalkers in favour of protecting the natural habitats that these and other deer are increasingly damaging?
As a deer manager living in a region of the country highly-populated by muntjac I find my personal view of them continuously changing. My heart loves them, for the reasons already outlined, but, over the years, my head has started to overrule it, as it is apparent that in an area of extreme muntjac population it is almost impossible to remove them from the ground. It is for this reason that I now question the responsibility of deer managers and stalkers who would let newly colonising muntjac numbers increase. And especially the few that still help these alien deer move around the country in the back of a van. If a stalker starts to see muntjac on the ground it is highly likely that there are several more close by and it would now be my advice to shoot them on sight. Forestry Commission studies have shown that an increase in muntjac numbers will have a detrimental effect on our native roe deer, both in terms of stress and population reduction. My new attitude towards muntjac control would never go as far as trying to get on top of the numbers using any illegal methods, or even the highly-frowned-upon practice of muntjac drives. However, I would say that, like trying to stop the march of the grey squirrel against the reds, we should try and confine muntjac to their established areas. Believe me, once you have muntjac in decent numbers you will never get rid of them and a further increase in the population only plays into the hands of those that would like to see huge reductions in deer numbers.
Finally, you may well be asking yourself, if I’m so against the alien muntjac spreading out across the rest of the UK then what about the other two main non-native species – CWD and Sika? Well CWD, although having spread out since their escapes or releases do not seem to move into new areas as quickly as the muntjac, and they are a species under threat globally. I believe that gives them a little more leeway to help to ensure the survival of a species, wherever the country. They also do much less damage to woodland due to their preference for living in more open areas, such as wetland and cropped farm land. This obviously puts them under less pressure from the various bodies concerned with woodland regeneration. Regarding Sika, I am less qualified to talk about this deer, as compared to the others I have done little with them specifically. However, I think my view would be much the same as with muntjac – manage them where they are, but let’s try to stop the spread.
As our deer populations in the UK evolve, maybe deer managers as a group must start looking at ways to keep a balance of deer for recreational purposes, whilst also keeping the government and NGO’s happy with deer impacts. If we can’t achieve this, we may be left with disastrous and overly-heavy culls implemented by government or their chosen instruments.
Feature image and ‘muntjac side look at dusk’ © s………, reproduced by kind permission.