The silent killer

Britain's woodlands are being destroyed by a tiny breed of deer. And despite the muntjac being the country's fastest-spreading wild animal, you've probably never seen one. Michael McCarthy reports on the threat to our songbirds

A A A

The main reason is a small deer, shaped like a pig, with antlers like salad tools. This is the muntjac. Often known as the barking deer because of the loud, cough-like roars it makes at any time of the year, day or night, the muntjac is Britain's fastest-spreading wild animal. Descended from a few animals that escaped from the park at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire a hundred years ago, the muntjac is now the second commonest deer over much of southern England. A recent census by the Mammal Society estimated that Britain is now home to at least 100,000 muntjac, three times as many as 10 years ago.

This has been a quiet explosion. Muntjac are secretive animals that are hard to spot. But their effect on our natural broad-leafed woodlands is all too obvious. Arnie Cooke has studied them at Monks Wood National Nature Reserve, in Cambridgeshire, where they first became a problem in the mid-1980s. Before the muntjac, he remembers, the wood was full of primroses and natural regeneration was booming. Today, however, it has become a bleaker place with few flowers and no regrowth. Monks Wood is now dominated by plants that muntjac reject, such as grasses, sedges and aspen. And in place of the former shrub layer, there is a muntjac-high browse-line from one end of the wood to the other.

"The muntjac is different to other British deer in that it has a very simple gut," says Cooke. "It's a selective feeder that nips off easily digestible items, such as flowers and fresh leaves. Some of them have even developed a taste for bluebell leaves." To the rage of flower-lovers it enjoys nibbling the buds of orchids. And among its other favourites are primroses and that East Anglian speciality, the oxlip, arguably Britain's most beautiful woodland wild flower.

But it is the muntjac's taste for the juicy young shoots of coppiced trees that is spelling doom for the nightingale. At Monks Wood, which used to be home to some 20 pairs, it has virtually gone. At Bradfield Wood, in Suffolk, the songbirds now nest only inside areas fenced off to keep the deer out. Rob Fuller, who is studying the effects of deer on breeding birds there, is in no doubt why Bradfield Wood's nightingale chorus has all but ceased. Boom time for the muntjac in the early 1990s produced a sudden nightingale slump.

"Nightingales like to nest in thickets close to the ground," Fuller says. "When deer numbers increase, this shrub layer, where many birds nest and feed, disappears. The nightingale is the one we are most worried about, but deer-browsing is affecting other birds too, including blackcap, garden warbler, willow warbler and even dunnock." Heavy browsing by deer is not only hoovering up the wood's carpet of flowers, it is also reducing the best singers in the woodland chorus.

Unfortunately, deer-fencing is not the perfect answer. To begin with, the muntjac is small enough to creep through holes in all but the best-maintained fences (and once inside they may not be able to get out). And some deer-browsing can be positively beneficial, reducing the dominance of brambles and creating patches of bare ground where nightingales like to feed. The ideal is not a fenced wood but a wood with a small population of deer - the sort of woods that we had in southern England up until the 1980s.

According to English Nature, deer-browsing has reduced the wildlife value of a full quarter of woodland sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) in England. Some 8,000 hectares of our very best woods have been "severely impacted" by deer. As the most rapidly expanding deer species in numbers terms, the muntjac is heavily implicated in this loss. But they first escaped into the wild more than a century ago, so why has it suddenly become such a problem?

Cooke points out that the modern lowland landscape of small woods surrounded by fields of cereals and oil-seed rape is a highly muntjac-friendly environment. "The deer have food and cover in the woods and can sneak out at dusk to feed on farmland." And as the woods fill up with deer, more and more of them are wandering into gardens to help themselves to flowers and vegetables, such as Cooke's courgettes. In many small towns it has become a common, if rather startling, sight to watch a deer the shape of a pig, with swept-back antlers and nasty-looking tusks, slip across the road and disappear behind a garage.

Climate change also favours the muntjac. Unlike other deer, muntjac do not have a breeding season. Does can come into season at any time of the year. They can also conceive again within days of giving birth. Moreover, the youngsters become sexually mature at eight months and can live for up to 20 years. Population dynamics is on their side. The main thing that held the muntjac in check was its sensitivity to the cold. Now that winters are growing milder, life is getting better and better for the barking deer.

Is the rise and rise of the muntjac unstoppable? Cooke thinks not. Although eradicating the animal would be impossible, as well as probably unpopular, it would be possible to manage the problem. At the moment, the main way of controlling it is by shooting, organised by local deer-management groups. But however many are killed, others soon move in to replace them. "We need intelligent control on a landscape scale," says Cooke. "It will need better co-ordination effort and better incentives, but it is possible."

One such incentive would be a bigger public appetite for muntjac meat. "There's no money in muntjac at the moment," says Cooke. One way of learning to live with the muntjac might be to promote delicious meaty recipes devised by the likes of Nigella Lawson. We can all do our bit to help the nightingale. Muntjac pie, anyone?

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin