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Stalking Chinese water deer in Bedfordshire

I first met Jaimie Dick some years ago through his work at Queen?s University Belfast, when he started to investigate the reported presence of muntjac in Ireland. Since then we have corresponded regularly regarding this potentially invasive little deer.

Despite his official title of professor of invasion ecology, focusing on potentially harmful introduced species, Jaimie does not just take a purely academic approach to his job. He is a keen shooting man who has hunted around the world, and he likes to be as ?hands on? as possible. To prove the point, he recently became the first person to shoot muntjac in Northern Ireland ? a buck and a young doe. He has also established that these were not isolated animals that might have escaped from a collection, but instead has built good evidence, through a coordinated campaign of observation and camera traps, that there is a small, wild breeding population.

As a planned visit to England to look at the impact of muntjac and monitoring techniques approached, Jaimie mentioned that Chinese water deer were the one species in Britain that he has never stalked, let alone shot. Perhaps this was a chance to combine a bit of business with pleasure? By chance, the opening day of the Chinese water deer season coincided with his visit, so I promised to make a few telephone calls to see what might be organised. After a couple of false starts ? two of my contacts were still waiting for late harvests to be brought in, and as a result their deer were not yet readily visible ? I was able to report back that all was arranged.

I collected a thoroughly jet-lagged Jaimie from Southampton airport a couple of weeks later. The day before, he had returned from the second International Congress on Biological Invasions, which was held in Qingdao, China. Was a bit of a theme to his activities developing here, I wondered?

?It?s funny,? he laughed, ?I?ve just come five thousand miles from the native country of both the water deer and the muntjac, where shooting either is likely to land you in jail. Now we?re going to try and do just that in England!

As we needed to be in Bedfordshire for first light, there was no avoiding an early departure from Andover. It was still dark 100 miles later when we left the M1 and navigated our way through the winding lanes towards our destination. The car headlights picked up several water deer browsing the road verges as we passed ? a good omen, we hoped.

Tea and strategy

Our host was waiting for us. Dan De Baerdemaecker is head deer keeper at Woburn Abbey, but he was taking us on to some estate farmland a few miles from the deer park that he manages. As we enjoyed a welcome cup of tea and prepared for the stalk, Dan explained our objective for the morning: ?Sorry, no trophies today ? we?re looking for a cull animal or two, probably yearlings or does, but we?ll leave any of those who have followers with them.

The big bucks can wait until next month. This will be the first outing of the season so there should be plenty of animals out there to choose from.?

Dan was keen to dispel the notion that water deer are always easy to kill. ?Although they can be a soft deer ? they certainly seem to give up easily enough if seized by a stray dog and won?t fight back in the way that another species of deer might ? don?t think that you can get away with a misplaced shot,? he said. ?I?ve seen a mature buck run up to 150 yards even with a well-placed bullet in the chest.?

We set off up the farm track past open rape fields bounded by hedgerows and the occasional strip wood on either side. There were long views across the rolling fields in all directions. Almost immediately after turning through an open gate, we disturbed our first animal, which had been hidden in the long grass that edged the rape. It bounded away up the slight hill, kicking out with its hind legs as it went in that characteristic way water deer have when alarmed.

A few hundred yards ahead of us, a doe with three well-grown followers grazed unconcerned on the skyline. ?Two or three young is the normal litter size around here,? Dan told us. ?I?ve heard of much more, but the largest I?ve seen here has been five and that was unusual. The trouble is that the fawns are so small when they are born that they are very vulnerable to both the weather and predation, so a good number often don?t make it past their first few weeks.?

Skirting another field further on, Dan suddenly froze and dropped to one knee. We did the same. A hundred-or-so yards ahead an animal had stepped out from the edge. It stood staring towards us, alert but not quite ready to flee. After quickly studying it through his binoculars, Dan motioned Jaimie to get ready to shoot. The ground allowed a safe shot from the bipod so, after he had briefly settled himself, a sharp moderated crack announced that the bullet was on its way. A solid thump announced a good strike and the deer collapsed immediately.

A good start

We watched it for a few minutes before approaching cautiously, carefully looking out for any signs of life. There was no need. Jaimie?s aim had been perfect and the animal had expired instantly. It was a young buck with rudimentary canine teeth, just the sort of cull animal that Dan had wanted.

Jaimie was beaming with delight. After handshakes all round in recognition of a good shot and the achievement of a special ?first?, Dan decided that we ought to move on. ?That?s a good start,? he said. ?Let?s see what else we can turn up.?

By now the weak November sun was getting higher in the sky, but there were still plenty of deer in sight across the open countryside, which allowed for long-range views. We carried on across the fields, stopping to spy frequently as new vistas opened up across the rolling ground. Dan discounted a couple of big bucks then focused on a larger group of six animals spread loosely across a field of roots. After watching them carefully, he decided that there should be one within the party that fitted the cull plan.

We moved back behind a fold in the ground and circled around to a better position, conscious all the time of the steady westerly wind. As we got closer, I stayed back and watched while Dan and Jaimie edged carefully forward along a scrubby hedgeline, which ended in a deep ditch, allowing for a final approach on hands and knees.

Through my binoculars, I saw Jaimie set up his bipod and settle into the aim. The wait seemed interminable before the shot finally came. He explained afterwards it was to allow the selected animal, another yearling buck, to move away from a doe and her single fawn before an unobstructed shot was possible. Once again, Jaimie?s aim was good. The buck collapsed instantly, kicked briefly and lay still.

That evening a tired but contented party headed back to Hampshire, accompanied by two prime carcases to hang in the chiller. By unanimous vote we decided that we would pick up a takeaway on the way home ? Chinese, of course, washed down with some excellent Tsingtao beer.