Not half so dear

Foreign, cute, and eating up our woodlands: muntjac are a big problem.

Muntjac, those innocent-looking tiny deer that were introduced to this country as pretty curiosities, have become a serious problem. "They're the biggest single threat to British flora - with woodland plants such as bluebells and orchids particularly at risk," says Simon Lyster, director general of the Wildlife Trust. The trouble stems from two factors: they graze at a particularly low level, and their population is expanding rapidly. The dog-sized deer threaten some of our most precious scraps of ancient woodland, and combating them poses awkward ethical dilemmas.

The problems began when the Duke of Bedford released about a dozen Reeves muntjac, Muntiacus reevesi, on his Woburn estate in 1901. The small deer (about the size and shape of a stocky whippet) originate in subtropical south-east China, but had no problems adapting to the British climate and vegetation.

This is largely thanks to a truly awe-inspiring breeding cycle. Once the does become sexually mature at seven months, they are virtually permanently pregnant and average 1.6 young each year. Although foxes probably take a few fawns, generally the muntjac has no natural enemies, and being so small they are capable of hiding in cover no more substantial than a nettle patch.

As a result they have made themselves at home even in the most crowded parts of the South-east, and numbers in some areas are reaching plague proportions. In the early Nineties, the Joint Nature Conservancy Council estimated that there were more than 50,000 muntjac, concentrated mainly in the Home Counties and the Midlands, but with sightings reported from virtually every English and Welsh county. Today there are certainly far more.

Muntjac are primarily browsers, shunning grass for the leaves and buds of shrubs, trees and flowers. Like all deer they can cause serious damage in young commercial plantations by nipping off the shoots and soft bark of young trees.

Ironically, the worst problems so far are in nature reserves. "They can heavily over-graze the ground cover and are altering the floral structure of some of our best ancient woodlands," says John Hall, of the Essex Wildlife Trust. "In some places we've had no bluebells flowering for almost a decade."

Although Britain's native small deer, the roe (which is considerably bigger than the muntjac), also damages young trees, this is at a higher level and generally causes fewer problems: "At least roe deer have been part of the ecosystem since the last Ice Age," points out Mr Lyster. "Our native plants seem more or less adapted to cope with them, but muntjac are devastating many delicate habitats."

The ancient woodland of the Warburg Reserve, near Henley in the Chilterns, is a good example of this. Managed by BBONT, the Wildlife Trust for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, this mainly comprises mature beech woods and coppices. It is particularly rich in plants, with more than 450 species recorded on the site, including 15 orchids. Unfortunately, the wide variety of flowering and fruiting plants, coupled with the thick undergrowth, also makes it ideal muntjac habitat.

When BBONT bought the 270-acre reserve in 1968 there were only a handful of fallow deer and no muntjac in the area, so damage from deer browsing was not a problem. That is far from the case now: "Fallow numbers have trebled and it's anyone's guess how many muntjac there are," says Nigel Phillips, BBONT's senior reserves officer. "They've occupied a vacant niche, and the flora's suffered dramatically because they nibble at grass level - bluebells, Solomon's seal and herb-Paris all seem shell-shocked."

So what can be done about this menace? "We're seriously thinking about fencing off entire woodland reserves," says Iain Corbyn, BBONT's senior conservation officer. "But this has problems - most obviously because it also excludes other, desirable species and makes it difficult for the public to gain access; and then there's the cost." At pounds 5-pounds l0 per metre, depending on the terrain, this presents a serious drain on valuable resources. Besides, as he points out, the deer are sufficiently small to be regular Houdinis; constructing a genuinely muntjac-proof fence is next to impossible.

Culling is the only sensible answer, according to Hugh Rose, Scottish secretary of the Deer Society and a Suffolk-based farmer, but he says the deer's phenomenal reproductive capabilities make this difficult to do humanely: "Muntjac can be shot all year because they don't have a specific breeding season, but shooting does can be tricky; you don't want to orphan an unweaned fawn," he points out.

As a result, marksmen are advised to follow a strict protocol when culling does - shooting only big, healthy specimens (probably pregnant, without milk-dependent young) and sparing rangy females and those accompanied by males (these have probably just given birth).

Putting this into practice can be awkward. "Our reserves are open to the public so we have to be extremely careful when culling with high-powered rifles," says Mr Corbyn. "In fact we only cull on one reserve [Warburg]."

A bigger potential problem comes from the howls of protest from animal rights activists and wildlife lovers. There is a silver lining to every cloud, however. And certainly Nigel Phillips has a sense of poetic justice. "These deer are an excellent source of meat," he says. "Why worry about BSE when muntjac are available?"

A booklet, `Muntjac', price pounds 3, is available from The British Deer Society. Send an A5 sae to Burgate Manor, Fordingbridge, Hampshire SP6 I EF.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world