The Deer Dilemma

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Christmas is over for another year, and with it all signs of Dasher, Dancer and the rest of the team. There haven’t been any wild reindeer in Britain for around 800 years, but a herd was successfully introduced in the Cairngorms. You might see one roaming in the National Park, but it’s unlikely they will ever become numerous enough to be a nuisance.

In the south-east we may not have reindeer, but we certainly have plenty of deer, and in some places, far too many of them. Not only do they cause thousands of road accidents every year, but they are voracious eaters who don’t confine themselves to the countryside. In 2014 the city of Salisbury faced the dilemma of deer taking up residence in the cemetery beside a busy road on the edge of town. The image of fawns curled up between the gravestones may be endearing, but not for grieving relatives when funeral flowers have been devoured. The authorities were forced to remove all the rose bushes from the Garden of Remembrance as these were decimated by the deer. Debate continued about how to get rid of these stubborn, if photogenic, pests. A deer fence? Impractical at nearly two metres high. A cull? Unpopular. As an official commented: “I don’t want to be on the council that shot Bambi!” Driving past this spot last year, I noticed two deer, unperturbed by the traffic, grazing in the cemetery as if they owned the place.

Less likely to be seen in town is the muntjac, which prefers woodland, farmland and scrub. But it will happily forage in gardens, trample on crops and has even been seen grazing on a traffic island. It’s about the size of a large dog, and is known as ‘the barking deer’ due to the canine sounds it produces. I had forgotten how peculiar they look, until one stepped out in front of my car recently (fortunately it was on a quiet, straight road so I could avoid hitting it). These are stocky creatures, with longer legs at the back than the front, giving them a hunched appearance, and they have short, rather devilish horns, rather than elegant antlers. Unlike other deer, the muntjac prefers to fight like a boar, having canine front teeth which protrude from its mouth as tusks. Looking at those, I can see why muntjacs are blamed for widespread damage to tree trunks.

This one sauntered from thick woodland and stopped in the middle of the road to stare at me. Apart from the ginger face, its coat is brown in winter with white undersides and tail, which it flicks when agitated. Although plentiful in Britain, and increasing steadily, the muntjac is not a native species, having been introduced from China in the early twentieth century. A number escaped or were deliberately released from private estates and feral populations have thrived ever since. One factor in their success may be that, unlike other deer, they have no fixed breeding season and can produce young at any time of year.

The muntjac is certainly a survivor. Fossils date the species to the Miocene period, meaning it was walking the planet as much as 23 million years ago. It’s incredible to consider that this diminutive deer has changed little since the days of the sabre-toothed tiger and the woolly mammoth. It has survived predators and climate change, including an ice age or two. No matter what this winter throws at us, there’s little doubt that the muntjac will take it all in its stride.

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