Returning from the reed bed hide, I suddenly saw an animal on the path straight ahead and looking directly at me. In a split second I realised this wasn't a fox or dog, but rather a Reeves Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi). I froze, then watched as the russet brown animal resumed pulling off and eating something low down at the side of the path. Wanting a closer look I crept forward using the grass at the edge of the loose stoned path to soften my footsteps. The deer kept on eating for a while, then raised its head and looked directly at me. Again I froze. But the deer merely resumed eating for a minute or two more before finally jumping off the path into nearby vegetation and out of sight. It must have remained close by however, because there was a sudden sharp, loud noise and a shake of the brambles – although no further sight of the animal - when I reached the spot where it had been feeding.
Muntjac are quite small, can have a slightly hunched look, are not that shy of people and prefer to feed by browsing. My Muntjac had been eating blackberries (particularly lush this year) and either had not seen me at first (think they have poor eyesight), or was not too bothered when it did see me. I realised later after some research that the loud noise I'd heard was the deer “barking” in alarm when it realised I was very close by. My Muntjac was in its summer coat (its winter one is greyish brown and thicker) and because of a lack of any antlers was a doe or female. Females also have a triangular black patch on their foreheads. Generally they are solitary animals and unlike red, roe, fallow and sika deer do not have a fixed breeding season.
The natural home of Reeves Muntjac deer are the wooded hills of south east China. The first 300 animals were introduced to British zoos in 1838. Later they were used by some British landed gentry as “ornamental” animals with which to adorn their country estates. From around 1894 a number of Muntjac deer were released into the wild from Woburn Park (Bedfordshire), and over the years there were other releases, accidental escapes and translocations.
Today they are well established in the wild – I saw mine at Fowlmere, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens. Although their original natural habitat is woodland, they'll happily also feed (mostly at dusk) in scrubland areas, and even on farmland, on flowers, fungi, berries and nuts. At present their stronghold is in eastern England, but they have spread north to Yorkshire, west to Dorset and Wales, but not yet to Kent. In 2004 (the latest year for which a figure is available) their population was estimated at 128,500. Given their lack of predators and varied diet, they're considered by some to represent a threat to certain British native species – especially those growing in the shrub and ground layers of woodland. Apparently they have a particular fondness for bluebells.
Despite it being a “non native” species, I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief encounter with a Muntjac – I've had brief glimpses of them at Fowlmere before, but this was my longest and clearest view to date.