Cute it is, Bambi it isn't: Malcolm Smith wonders if muntjac deer, which have become a threat to Britain's woodlands, should be shot

EVER SINCE little Bambi appeared on the big screen, deer have fuelled strong passions. But if Bambi's cuteness was just a little stylised, consider the appearance of a dinky deer introduced to Britain from south China. It is now one of our most common species. Chinese, or Reeves', muntjac stands a mere 19 inches at the shoulder, is a rich red brown in summer with black head markings, has little antlers and a conspicuous white underside to its tiny tail.

Muntjacs look all too lovable. But there is little love lost for them by many conservationists and foresters. For these petite deer may pose a threat to the future survival of some of our broadleaved woods and conifer plantations, as well as to some of our most attractive flowering plants such as bluebells and orchids.

On Saturday, a one-day conference - Muntjac Deer: The Biology, Impact and Management of Muntjac in Britain - will be held in Cambridge. The first meeting devoted to the species, it is organised jointly by the Forestry Commission and the British Deer Society. It will consider aspects of their ecology, population spread, habitat preferences, and their impact on woodlands and nature reserves. The British muntjac story begins around the turn of the century when the 11th Duke of Bedford brought some from south China and released them at Woburn. Escape was a foregone conclusion. In their first 60 years, helped by other releases from park populations elsewhere, muntjacs extended to a radius of 72 kilometres around Woburn. They are now well distributed throughout much of south, central and eastern England and are spreading into Wales, south-west and south-east England as well as north through the Midlands.

According to Stephen Harris, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Bristol University and a mammal expert, there are around 100,000 muntjacs in Britain. That puts them in third place, behind roe and red, which are the most numerous, but ahead of fallow.

'More than 50 per cent of muntjac records are still from five counties - Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Warwickshire,' says Proessor Harris, adding: 'Deliberate releases may be spreading them more rapidly than they can spread naturally.'

A few of these releases are in the most peculiar places. In October last year, for instance, one turned up on Skomer Island off the Pembroke coast, a sea area known for notorious tidal currents that would deter far stronger swimmers than deer. Norma Chapman, a biologist who has specialised in studying deer, and Professor Harris believe that wildlife hospitals and individual rehabilitators are releasing them far from their present range without realising the consequences of their irresponsible actions.

'In gardens,' says Ms Chapman, 'they eat roses first, then clematis, honeysuckle and vegetables, in that order.' They can't eat large carrots or parsnips, simply because their jaws are too small, she adds. Muntjac are particular fans of gardens in Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Agile, they can get through or under fences. Some are killed by dogs or run over on roads.

Because they like cover, muntjac rarely feed in open fields, unlike most other species of deer. So they do not pose a significant threat to agricultural and horticultural crops.

Their garden eating behaviour, not surprisingly, reflects their menu in the wild. Muntjac are not grazers. That means (unfortunately) that they will not systematically munch away at the grass on your lawn. Instead, they are browsers, picking leaves and buds off young trees and bushes, eating bramble, ivy and flowers.

Arnold Cooke has studied their eating habits at Monks Wood National Nature Reserve, 150 hectares of oak and ash woodland near Huntingdon, Hertfordshire. Since the mid-Eighties, muntjac have become numerous there. They have a particular predilection for young growth of hazel and ash. Parts of the wood are managed traditionally for coppice - the practice of cutting trees to leave a stump, which then sends up a shower of new shoots.

''Muntjac sometimes take all the new growth so the stumps die off,' says Dr Cooke. 'But they tend not to take birch and aspen, so these sometimes take over from hazel and ash.'

Probably as a result of the lack of shade because the new coppice is not able to grow, bramble increases noticeably, altering the ecological balance even more. English Nature, which manages Monks Wood, now has to install expensive electric fencing to keep muntjac out of newly coppiced parts of the wood.

The damage doesn't stop there. Dr Cooke has shown that the muntjac are taking up to 98 per cent of the wood's bluebells, seriously reducing one of its most spectacular features enjoyed by so many visitors. They are also responsible for a 50 per cent loss of primrose flowers.

Their immediate impact on some of the most visual components of the woodland flora is clearly substantial. No one knows what the long-term impact is on these plant populations of year upon year destruction by these little deers. Dr Cooke fears that muntjac could change the grass composition of the ground flora in Monks Wood and could do the same in numerous other woods.

There are particular worries for the orchid-rich woods on the Kent weald and in other parts of the county. Several of the richest ones are managed as coppice. Among the orchids at risk are the red spotted, white flowering Lady Orchid and the equally uncommon White Helleborine.

But muntjac, it seems, are here to stay. Eliminating them is impossible and local control, particularly at young forest plantations or in flower-rich woodlands, may be the only practical, but expensive, option.

Any widescale shooting would prove controversial. Few are shot now, a combination of difficulty because they are so small, no incentive (there is not much meat on them), and reluctance by gamekeepers because muntjac breed all year round. Ironically, the most humane time to shoot a doe is when she is heavily pregnant. That is the only time to be sure that she is not suckling a fawn which would then starve to death.

Walt Disney devotees will know that Bambi never caused such a problem.

(Photograph omitted)