Does stalking muntjac top pacing a Highland glen for a majestic red? It just might, says Graham Downing.
Stalking muntjac is more exciting than you think. Although their stature is less than impressive these little beasts give good sport. And who knows, your stalk could might even bag you a trophy head. They are delicious to eat too. And over the summer there is nothing simpler than a roast butterflied haunch of munjac thrown on to the barbecue. Or adapt one of the best venison recipes ever for muntjac.
MUNTJAC GET A BAD PRESS
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. Stalking muntjac is a passion.
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.
HOW AND WHERE TO STALK MUNTJAC
Officially, then, the status of muntjac hovers between that of significant nuisance and outright pest. And yet some people absolutely love stalking muntjac, because they are such sporting quarry.
“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 muntjac 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.
STALKING MUNTJAC IS BECOMING ACCEPTABLE
Forty years ago, roe deer were widely regarded in Britain as vermin. But then along came the Germans, the Belgians and the Danes and suddenly roestalking became first respectable, then sought after and highly prized. Is the same thing now happening with the muntjac?
“More and more overseas sportsmen are now learning that we’ve got them here in England, and they are beginning to value them in their own right, not just as an amusing sideline to shoot after they’ve secured that big fallow or roe trophy,” says Smith-Jones. “This is the only country in Europe where there is a significant wild population, and Continental stalkers are quite keen to add a muntjac head to their collection.”
But while medal-quality heads may occasionally be encountered, most of these tend to be shot by accident rather than by design. Unlike red or fallow deer, muntjac are not a herding species, so there is no prospect of creeping up to a fine group of muntjac bucks and selecting the longest set of antlers. Frankly, it’s a matter of luck as to which animal – if any – walks out in front of you. Having said that, however, it is not unreasonable for a guest stalker to expect to be able to secure a good representative muntjac head.
Agronomist and deerstalker Gerald Collini first started to look seriously at muntjac some 20 years ago and now he stalks little else, guiding guests from all over the world through the woods of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. “I love them to bits,” he says. “Even after having stalked them professionally for 15 years I learn something new every time I go out. You’re pitting your wits against a truly wild species in its own environment and I regard stalking them, and especially calling them in to a rifle, as a real challenge.”
But whether its undoubted value as a sporting quarry succeeds in elevating the status of muntjac above that of unwelcome intruder in the British countryside is another matter altogether. There are just too many of them. “My concern is that we have let the population get so out of hand that the temptation is to continue treating them as something less than a worthy sporting resource,” says Charles Smith-Jones.
Coursing with lurchers, snaring and illegal shotgun drives are already taking place, and many stalkers report finding pellets of birdshot in the animals they shoot. As a species, the muntjac probably receives more abuse than any other deer simply because it is so difficult to shoot legally with a rifle.
WHAT TO USE TO SHOOT MUNTJAC
To make management easier, the government extended the variety of firearms with which muntjac may be shot, and it is now legal to kill them with a .22 centrefire rifle, provided that it has a muzzle energy of 1,000ft/lb and fires a soft-nosed bullet of at least 50 grains. The adoption of smaller calibres does, however, raise its own problems, because these little deer are surprisingly tough, often refusing to recognise the fact that they are dead until they absolutely have to do so. Furthermore, most .22 centrefire bullets, being designed for shooting small vermin such as foxes, do not have the strong construction of a proper deerstalking round and can easily disintegrate on impact rather than pen-etrate the quarry’s vital organs. My advice would be to stick to the .243 as a minimum, especially since a rifle of this calibre can equally well be used on roe, fallow or other species, should they present themselves.
As with other woodland deer species, there is a range of tactics which the stalker may employ in order to shoot muntjac, the most obvious of which is to walk very slowly through the woods at dawn or dusk, eyes peeled and rifle at the ready. Most shots are taken at under 100yd and some a good deal closer than that, so it is helpful to have a stick or, better still, a pair of sticks to enable a supported shot to be taken from the standing position. Naturally, a good deal of practice is required before shooting while standing up, especially by those more used to shooting prone on the hill.
A simpler option is to position a high seat in the wood at a point where there is good visibility along a ride or through a block of coppice woodland and simply wait for something to turn up. In a well-populated wood, something often does, whereupon the high-seat shooter has the luxury of being able to adjust his position and take his carefully aimed shot from a secure rest. During the summer and autumn, when the leaves are on the trees, the undergrowth is dense and it is virtually impossible to spot muntjac while walking through the woods, the high seat is really the only effective way of getting on terms with them.
It is possible to call muntjac, using a call which emits a squeak not unlike the sound made by blowing across a blade of grass held between the thumbs. This art, developed largely by Gerald Collini, is particularly effective when the stalker is able to position himself, rifle at the ready and with his face to the wind, on the edge of a well-populated piece of woodland into which it is possible to see for 50yd or so. One may appear at the run within seconds of hearing the call, and stand barking at you just yards away. I have had equally dramatic results when using a call from a high seat.
In these circumstances, however, the stalker may be presented with an ethical judgment, for the call is designed to imitate the sound of a muntjac fawn in distress and, naturally, it will often be mother who comes to investigate. Shooting her on sight may well result in a dependent fawn being orphaned. It is for this reason that the British Deer Society recommends that only fat (ie heavily pregnant) does are shot, since these will no longer have any dependant offspring. However, if a thin (ie lactating) doe comes to investigate your call, then it is likely that a buck will not be far away, and given a moment or two he may show himself, too. So it is worth holding your fire and waiting.