Originally escapees from zoos and private estates in the UK, Chinese water deer are prolific breeders and must be culled, but it's not easy, even without a cloak of fog
- Britain now has more than 15% of the world’s Chinese water deer population, but it is an exotic species native to China, eastern Asia, North Korea and South Korea. It was first introduced to the UK in 1873, when the deer were kept within zoos.
- They were released into parks from 1896 onwards and were first recorded in the wild in Buckinghamshire in 1944. It is said that the population can be traced back to escaped deer from Woburn Abbey, but there is some debate over the truth of that.
- Since the mid-20th century, the species has reproduced with great success and adapted well to the cultivated farmland around the Home Counties.
- Chinese water deer like to position themselves in open fields, fully exposed, so the only way to get close enough for a shot is by crawling over the earth.
Finding the Chinese water deer
As stalking guide James Buckley and his client, Daniel Smith, head out for the morning, the world is grey and cold. James finds the first animals in his binoculars, but to determine whether buck or doe is difficult at range and in such tricky conditions. The stalkers start to edge closer and minutes later the two are on a rise where it’s possible to take a good look at the beasts.
James unpacks the spotting scope, which reveals that to the left is a young buck — no more than a year and a half — lying on his own, while a female to the right is in the company of a much finer buck. At first glance he seems to be a big, gold-medal specimen and they set out slowly across the claggy plough. When, inch by inch, they’ve moved 20 yards, the buck turns his head and they realise that all is not as it should be. The animal is missing its second tusk. It is not the animal Daniel came for and James decides to leave it to be culled later in the year.
Presenting the perfect shot
After breakfast in the kitchen of a traditional English farmhouse surrounded by china cups decorated with gamebirds and with spaniels hovering under the table, we set out again, just as the fog is starting to lift. We haven’t gone far before another opportunity presents itself.
Daniel follows James over the field. Metre by metre they drag themselves over the green wheat. A few minutes later, they stick their heads over a brow, where the field falls into a soft hollow. Three Chinese water deer are resting on the ground about 170m below. One of the animals is a buck and it presents the perfect shot.
Chinese water deer are very productive — James culls more than 200 every year and it is not uncommon for a doe to have six fawns annually. Additionally, the species manages to adapt to intensive farming and large ‘boring’ fields. Their teeth or tusks grow rapidly, reaching what’s known as medal class in just two years.
Some say stalking Chinese water deer is too easy, and it’s true that they aren’t as ‘sharp’ as roe or muntjac, but the population is growing, posing a real threat to woodland. Based on the deer we see in Buckinghamshire, I wonder if the talk of them being easy is not so accurate. To get to the spot in front of me where Daniel and James are lying flat, they’ve walked more than 7km over open fields, along fences and through small English forests.
The deer have no clue the hunters are nearby. Daniel measures the distance twice with his rangefinder to be sure that the reading of 185m checks out. Now it is just about waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.
Minutes later, Daniel puts his cheek against the rifle’s stock, concentrates for a few seconds then lets the .243 round do its thing.
The hunting season for Chinese water deer runs from 1 November until the end of March. Unhelpfully, it is not possible to distinguish the sexes from one another at quick glance in a fast cull situation — so both sexes have the same season.
In autumn, the population on the 2,500 acres that James has the stalking over is estimated to be as high as 800 animals, of which approximately one-third are culled. About 50 medals will be shot in the area every season and the best time to find a strong buck is the end of December or the beginning of January.
But despite it being mid-February and the darkest days of winter, we still see a good amount of activity. Even though he is a little late for the peak period, it feels somehow appropriate, as it is Chinese New Year, and what better way to bring it in than with a well-placed shot.
Covered in mud from head to foot, Daniel follows the stalker down the hill to take a closer look at this interesting species. He has been hunting on British ground for decades, initially cutting his teeth back in Dorset on his farm on roe deer before moving on to sika. He has also travelled extensively in pursuit of Nordic reds, but this is his first outing after a Chinese water deer.
While crossing the field, Daniel cleans his muddy hands, finger by finger, on the seat of his trousers. He kneels beside the beast in order to clean the tusks of the soil that is covering them. While handling them, he notices the sharp edges on the back of the long teeth. In the rut, these ‘weapons’ are employed during scraps between males, and anyone who has ever seen them in action will confirm that despite looking cute — like little soft bears, according to some — Chinese water deer can be truly fearsome. During the rut, the bucks gouge holes out of each other, and they have been known to attack dogs.
Despite some people suggesting that Chinese water deer make for easy stalking, our outing suggested otherwise. Some days later, I catch up with Chris Dalton of South Ayrshire Stalking, who tells me that just recently they have possibly become the most popular species to stalk in the UK.
Part of it is due to the lack of availability. While, as mentioned, the UK has 15% of the world’s total population, they are concentrated in a small area, largely around Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, which means access to stalk them can be tricky.
For those interested in trophies, there is also a lot of appeal. The ‘trophy’, Chris explains, is the tusks and they are highly prized by people the world over. Interestingly, Chris also praises the meat. It is notable for its higher fat content, which means it can be cooked in ways that might not work so well with leaner venison, such as red. Chris tries to get hold of Chinese water deer whenever he can and says that his clients are always very positive about the sausages he makes with them. It’s a funny situation when Americans and Europeans flock to England to stalk Chinese deer, but I guess that’s the way of the globalised world.