Thursday, 19 October 2006

Barking deer

From close by, the short, sharp-sounding bark of a muntjac deer unnerves the dogs. The deer has not heard our approach and can only be 20 metres or so away within the dense vegetation that borders this forest ride. More distant barks are ignored but the proximity of this one is enough to halt the dogs in their tracks. The series of single barks, each separated by a few seconds of silence, suggests that we are close to a female in season, possibly with a male in attendance; it is time to steer a different route and to leave these stocky little deer well-alone.

The dogs are certainly familiar with the muntjac that seem to do so well in and around Thetford Forest. The small hunched form of a muntjac is frequently seen crossing a forest ride and more distant barking is commonplace throughout the year.  The muntjac is an introduced species, originating from southeastern China, and first released at Woburn Park early in the Twentieth Century. Two different species were originally introduced, the Indian muntjac and the Chinese muntjac, but it is the Chinese muntjac that has become established. Standing about 48cm tall at the shoulder, these are small deer, short-legged and stocky in nature. The males have simple antlers which, in mature males, curve backwards and terminate in a hooked point. When alarmed, the short tail is raised and held vertically, displaying the conspicuous white underside – a useful identification feature. The very small hoofprints, with those of the rear feet registering upon those made by the forefeet, are also characteristic.

Muntjac breed throughout the year and young can be born in any month. After birth the female comes into season and will be pursued by a male for some time prior to mating. Each male utilises a home range that encompasses those of several females. Ownership of an area is signalled through scent marking, a behaviour utilised by many other mammal species for social communication. The males, and in particular dominant males, use scent marking to a greater degree than the females. In front of each eye is a large scent gland, which is frequently opened and sometimes everted (resembling a black grape) during courtship. Frontal glands, positioned on the forehead, are used to mark the ground and glands between the digits of the hind foot leave scent wherever the animal wanders. Such communication helps to signal the social status of individual males and is often enough to deflect potential aggressive encounters. These do happen on occasion and may sometimes be directed towards other species seen as a threat, including foxes and dogs – another good reason for me to steer my dogs away from the courting couple.

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