Muntjac are among the most challenging quarry the woodland stalker is likely to encounter.
By Graham Downing of The Field
Monday, 25 February 2008
It has undoubted value as a sporting quarry and tastes delicious, but is this enough to raise the muntjacs status above that of unwelcome intruder in the British countryside?
When I tell my friends of my enthusiasm for stalking deer, they frequently express surprise that the majority of my outings with the rifle are not taken in the lofty grandeur of some Highland glen. They become even more confused when I patiently explain that the principal object of my sporting endeavours
is not a huge, scary beast with branching antlers but something about the height of a springer spaniel that sneaks about in the woodlands of East Anglia.
Muntjac tend to get a bad press. Their diet of tender shoots and woodland flora such as the bluebell, oxlip, common spotted orchid and wood anemone means that they are seriously unloved by the conservation organisations. Rose gardeners hate them, and they are regarded by farmers and timber growers as little short of vermin. Most people see a live muntjac only when they swerve to avoid one as it wanders out from the edge of the road at dawn or dusk, and the species is implicated in a large proportion of the 60,000 collisions between deer and motor vehicles which occur each year on England’s roads, costing some £17 million in insurance claims. Dead ones may be observed at daybreak, spread like pâté along most major routes in southern England that pass through woodland.
Since it was introduced into Woburn Park by the 1lth Duke of Bedford in 1894, the Reeves muntjac has spread steadily throughout the English Midlands as far as the Welsh borders, the South of England and East Anglia. A creature of dense woodland, it is extremely adaptable and inhabits not just large commercial forests but small woodlands, copses, spinneys and thick hedgerows, along with shrubberies and suburban gardens. It even takes up residence on bushy roundabouts at motorway interchanges.
The species is highly prolific. Being a native of the tropics, its reproductive cycle has not yet adapted to a temperate climate with a cold winter and so it breeds all the year round, with females producing fawns almost continuously. Indeed, a muntjac doe will mate within days of giving birth. So there are lots of them: some 128,500 according to a 2004 Mammal Society survey, though several experienced deer watchers would now nearly double that figure.
Officially, then, the status of muntjac hovers between that of significant nuisance and outright pest. And yet some people absolutely love them, because they are such sporting quarry to stalk.
“I have a huge regard for them,” says Charles Smith-Jones, lecturer in deer management at Sparsholt College, Hampshire. “I believe that if you can stalk muntjac efficiently and consistently, then you can stalk anything. They’re cracking little animals.”
Certainly, muntjac are among the most challenging quarry the woodland stalker is likely to encounter. Because they are so small, it is very hard to see them before they see you and depart with that irritating bark. So just spotting one is by no means easy. Furthermore, they are always on the move, which means that even when the chance of a shot presents itself, there are usually only a few seconds in which to assess the animal, confirm that it is a safe target and then squeeze off the trigger. There is none of the lengthy preparation which so often takes place on the Scottish hill. Making oneself comfy in the heather and waiting patiently while the beast adjusts the trim of his forequarters is not an option because there simply isn’t the time. “Windows of opportunity in muntjac stalking are not long. If you don’t act decisively, then the chance of a shot will have gone,” says Smith-Jones.
Stalking muntjac is not only challenging, it’s accessible too. There is no need for a 10-hour drive to the Highlands or a flight to Inverness airport followed by a trip in a hire car, for muntjac stalking is widely available throughout the Midlands and the South East of England, with some estates having prodigious numbers of the feisty little critters. Those dainty slot marks along a woodland ride or footpath are a sure sign of their presence, and here in Suffolk muntjac can be found in almost every thicket and hedgerow, making it perfectly easy to enjoy a morning’s stalking before spending a day in the office. And because there is no close season, it is possible to shoot all the year round.
Weighing up to around 33lb, they are also a delight to deal with once on the deck. Every experienced stalker will confirm that taking the shot is not the difficult part about shooting deer; it’s what comes afterwards that constitutes the hard work. But muntjac, unlike fallow or red deer, take only a few moments to gralloch and can be carried with ease back to the vehicle: there is no back-breaking drag or lifting of huge carcasses to worry about; a boon for aging or arthritic stalkers.
Pint-sized they may be, but their venison makes superb eating. Unlike the flesh of the larger deer species, it is fine in texture and, of course, the cuts are just the right size for the domestic kitchen. A haunch will comfortably serve a dinner party of eight, but for my money a boned muntjac loin fillet, rolled in crushed salt and black peppercorns, lightly drizzled with olive oil and popped into the top oven of the Aga for 12 minutes, then cut into noisettes and served with fresh home-grown vegetables, is the ultimate in venison dishes. And such delights are reserved almost exclusively for the sporting deerstalker and his family and friends; since most game dealers do not wish to be bothered with these little deer, muntjac venison is rarely available on the commercial market.
Tim Lander, Hereford Deer Management Services (Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire), call 07885 944469 or visit the website.
Gerald Collini (Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire), call 07836 506402 or visit the website.
Owen Beardsmore, Cervus-UK (Chilterns, south Oxfordshire), call 07968 829540 or visit the website.
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