One of southern England’s commonest deer is the dog sized Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) but in North Norfolk and particularly around the Broads National Park the small deer that you see is just as likely to be a Chinese water deer (Hydropotes intermis).
The differences between the two species are easy to spot if you can get a good sighting of the animal. The water deer is slightly larger than the muntjac. Full grown water deer adults are between 50 and 55cm at the shoulder with a russet-brown coat in summer that turns paler and greyer in the winter.
Chinese water deer have no antlers but bucks have distinctive large protruding tusks. These tusks are used as weapons during the rut and for defence. Large and rounded ears sometimes suggest a teddy bear to more romantic or imaginative spotters.
Like most of these exotic invasive and unwelcome species, both plants and animals, these water deer were first bought to our shores by irresponsible aristocrats as exotic decorations for their large country estates.
The deer are spreading and today there are believed to be at many thousand Chinese water deer in East Anglia and smaller herds in places like the countryside around Woburn in Bedfordshire. Nationally there are now so many in fact that a serious cull seemed like a necessary project.
At least that was the thinking until recent research in the animal’s native home in China bought the tragic news of the catastrophic decline in the species population there.
In China the small deer is widely hunted, sometimes for venison, but more often for inner organs used in traditional Chinese medicine. More important, the enormous and well publicised Three Dams hydro power project on the Yangtze River is destroying or changing much of the water deer’s natural home environment.
The overall result is that the water deer population in China is plummeting and some experts say that the growing numbers in North Norfolk now represents between an eighth and a quarter of the entire world’s total.
The water deer is shot, or indeed run over, in Norfolk too and much of the local wild and delicious venison comes from this exotic oriental visitor. But the lack of any but a few human predators means the population is still growing really fast.
Invasive introduced species are not generally good for the natural biodiversity of any region and local Norfolk farmers and gardeners are quick to complain about the water deer’s destructive habits among their precious trees, plants and crops.
However with extinction a real possibility in its native homeland it seems we might need to offer this particular illegal immigrant a real welcome and a safe home in our own watery wonderland the Norfolk Broads. Just don’t mention it to the Daily Mail.
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012