Sam Carlisle goes in search of muntjac, those diminutive deer that, while once purely ornamental, provide a real sporting challenge
The diminutive muntjac deer arrived in Britain in 1900 as a plaything of the 11th Duke of Bedford who added it to his deer park at Woburn Abbey. Rumour has it that the Duke was so fond of this little species that he engineered a series of clandestine releases, driving around the country in the 1920s turning out pairs and trios into promising-looking woodlands.
While the exact details of those early Woburn “escapes” are uncertain, there have since been further releases and escapes up and down the country. Muntjac have adapted to life in Britain exceptionally well and it is likely that this miniature deer will shortly become the most numerous of our six resident species.
A humid evening with the threat of thunder looming over the Suffolk Brecks was all the excuse I needed to head out for a stalk. June isn’t the typical time to target muntjac. The cover is so high that even grass field margins obscure them and woodlands full of bracken and leaves block most available shots. Equally, the males cast their antlers in May so any thoughts about trophy quality and whether to leave a promising buck are impossible.
Muntjac rarely stand still
However, I was restless to be in the woods again and imagined the stalking to be more like the muntjac’s lush native jungles of China and India. I knew the opportunities would be along field edges and down tramlines, and that I would need to act quickly to take them before they disappeared back into the undergrowth. Unlike the other UK deer species, muntjac rarely stand still for any length of time, preferring to feed while they roam around their territory.
Speeding up in summer
Spotting a muntjac, setting up the sticks, centring the cross-hairs on its shoulder, whistling to stop it mid-trot and firing tend to happen more quickly than with other deer. In summer this process is sped up tenfold and can produce some adrenaline-fuelled encounters.
Emerging from a small wood overflowing with rhododendrons, I found myself on a path between a large natural meadow on my right and a tall barley field on the left. The path, perhaps 800 yards long, led towards another wood, which I knew had a more barren understorey and might present a chance. The meadow was too high to give away any lurking deer, but I imagined them there among the riot of clover and daisies, hidden and happily eating. A barn owl hunted over the meadow’s far edge and a couched roebuck rose and ran for cover as I passed.
As I neared the far wood I slowed my walk to an expectant creep, glassing every few steps, hoping to glimpse a flicking ear or a flash of a chestnut brown summer coat between the grasses. The margin between the wood and the barley, lit red with poppies, looked exactly the spot where a muntjac might browse.
A young buck
A black nose poked into view, stark against the green of the barley stalks. I froze on the spot, waiting. Cautiously, the muntjac’s slender front foot emerged, then its head, neck and shoulder. It looked up and down the field edge, assessing the new, more vulnerable area. At no more than 35 yards, I could see it lift its head and sniff the air. With the wind in my face, I kept stock-still. It didn’t spot me and slowly began to feed, taking a step and then one or two bites, followed by another step. It was a young buck, growing its first proper set of antlers, and exactly the right deer to add to the cull sheet.
The field edge and track provided a five-yard window before the deer would slip into the high grass of the meadow. I had to act quickly. These moments of motionless urgency and uncertainty are what make muntjac stalking so special. I set up the sticks with the best mixture of stealth and speed I could muster and placed my trusty Mauser on top.
No time to lose
The buck was now chewing the top off a flower in the meadow and I didn’t have a moment to lose. I had him in the cross-hairs, and just as he looked like he was taking a step into cover, I gave a short whistle. He stopped and looked my way, standing broadside. He dropped on the spot, dead before he even heard the report of the rifle.
One of the most intriguing things about muntjac is how divisive they are. No deer species generates as much ire as the muntjac, especially from woodland managers and wildflower enthusiasts. I have often heard how they breed rapidly and fill an ecosystem to bursting point, eating the entire flora while they are at it.
While they undoubtedly cause significant damage to woodlands, they breed less rapaciously than roe deer, which the same people often consider enchanting. I think the fact that they breed all year round, without a defined rut, is the part that confuses people. Muntjac have one kid every seven months, whereas roe mostly have twins each year and, as a larger species, consume more forage as well.
Those who despise muntjac are countered by those who view them as one of Britain’s finest sporting challenges. Additionally, they provide the chance to stalk all year round, not having a close season. In lowland England, the muntjac is one of the most exciting and difficult species to stalk. Unlike roe, their routines are not so neatly defined. They do have a territory, but wander in and out of it, and don’t follow the same paths at the same times each day.
In addition, their small size means they blend into cover like a magician, only to reappear moments later where you aren’t expecting them. Generally they graze while meandering, requiring quick and steady shooting at a comparatively small target. What arrived as a fanciful ornament a century ago is now one of our finest sporting challenges.
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What’s the best time of day to stalk muntjac?
Q: I have recently started stalking for muntjac in woods close to my home. What do you think is the most successful time of day to stalk, morning or evening?
A: My preference is for a morning stalk. There is less disturbance in the countryside from walkers, farmworkers and so on, and an early start enables me to make the best use of the day. Plus it is a delight to be out in the countryside as dawn breaks.
Scientic research tells the opposite story, however. When muntjac activity was monitored with camera traps at Monks Wood and Woodwalton Fen national nature reserves, it was found that there were peaks of activity for three hours before dusk and two hours afterwards, while at dawn the activity levels were much lower. Regular stalking tended to decrease activity at dusk and increase activity at night.