COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
IT IS just what you want to hear when the radio wakes you on a transcendental spring morning: the massed countryside management agencies out on another witch-hunt. This time the hapless victim is the muntjac, a shy, solitary deer from China no bigger than a retriever. Fores-ters are accusing them of browsing the tips of saplings. An English Nature researcher has quantified the percentage of bluebells they chew up in his standard woodland plots. And - whatever next - they bark. From the tone of the interviews - "this animal is like nothing else you are familiar with in the English countryside" - culling is not far away. Or perhaps a discreetly introduced virus, like myxomatosis.

We can claim some knowledge of the muntjac in the Chilterns. It was here the first populations began to build up after they escaped from Woburn Park in the 1880s, and since then they've become, I suspect, our favourite visible large mammal. Not that they are obstrusive. They are rather retiringly suburban, glimpsed peeping through curtains of garden shrubs, or roaming along village pavements at night, red eyes picked out by the headlights. They have been in my wood for 15 years, and have made not the slightest impact on the spectacular lakes of bluebells in April, preferring a diet of ivy, hazel and bramble leaves. I have watched them at even closer quarters in the garden. One stayed for several days a couple of years ago, much to the amazement of the cats, who took it in turn to rub noses, and in the evening sat round it like admirers at a salon. It gave the roses a pruning, and demolished a few geraniums. But it avoided bulbous plants - though not without "sniffing" them first with its tongue.

Muntjacs do patchily graze bluebell flowers and leaves, though not as damagingly as badgers, which dig up the bulbs. They occasionally nibble young trees, but rarely kill them. In any case, perhaps these are the kind of tithes we should pay to have the privilege of wild creatures' company. The muntjac's most heinous crime, of course, is to be an "alien", and successful to boot, for which we should thankful, given how many of our native mammals haven't coped with the onslaughts of modern civilisation.

It will be sad if the Government's advisor, English Nature, joins in the hue and cry. In the 1947 White Paper which set out the principles of a national conservation policy, the drafters had a vision of constructing "for the people a lasting and pleasurable resort". Well, the people are not getting much pleasure these days. Although Nature is putting out a blizzard of publicity about its commitment to conservation in the community, it (not, I must stress, its dedicated field workers) rarely sides with ordinary people's interests when conflicts arise. If it lines up with other rural lobbies to persecute this unassuming, accessible vegetarian, its standing with the public will sink even further. 8

Richard Mabey, 10 Cedar Road, Berkhamsted, Herts HP4 2LA

Fax and tel: 0442-863660

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF SAFE RECEIPT WOULD BE APPRECIATED

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