Thursday, 28 February 2013

Introduced deer

It is at this time of the year that the local muntjac turn their attentions to the flowerbeds and shrubby borders of the garden at work. Over the years we have discovered which of the plants in our wildlife garden are on the menu for these introduced deer and which are not. In part, selection appears to be driven by the weather and feeding conditions elsewhere. When times are tough, less favoured plants and shrubs may find themselves back on the menu and over recent days the deer have been much in evidence.

The presence of muntjac can be seen in our woodlands as well. Crouch down and look across the woodland floor and you’ll soon spot a clear browse line, below which the deer have stripped back much of the vegetation. The impact that such browsing has goes beyond the damage it does to the plants themselves. The herb and shrub layers in woodland provide important habitat for insects, cover for small mammals and nesting opportunities for birds like blackcap, willow warbler and nightingale. Increasing deer numbers have been shown to reduce the local populations of some of these species (e.g. the nightingales in Bradfield Woods) but the effects are not always negative. Browsing can, for example, sometimes open up more of the woodland floor, providing habitat for butterflies whose foodplants, unpopular with the deer, get a chance to increase in numbers now freed from competition.

Originally from south-east China and Taiwan, the muntjac was introduced to Woburn Park in 1894, from where the species was then released into neighbouring woods. Further releases, escapes and translocations have followed and the species (more correctly called Reeves’ muntjac) is now well-established across much of England, with a population thought to be in excess of 50,000 individuals.

Unlike the roe, red and fallow deer that are also to be found in the Brecks, the muntjac can be surprisingly tolerant of our presence. Those individuals using the garden at work or the scrubby habitats that border the river will tolerate a reasonable approach, particularly if you keep quiet and still. Sometimes there may be three or four of these compact deer browsing on the edge of the lawn and seemingly uninterested in the staff that traipse to their cars parked nearby.

Keeping these compact deer out of a garden can prove difficult. Their small size and great strength allows them to force through or under fencing and they are even capable of jumping a four foot wall (as we discovered in our town centre garden several years ago). They do remain a conservation issue, albeit one that is unlikely to ever be resolved, so perhaps we should learn to live with them.

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