Water Deer Distribution - A British Introduction

The approximate (broad scale) distribution of Chinese water deer in Britain. This map is generated based on data from The Mammal Society, British Deer Society (BDS), NBN Gateway and iRecord records. There are two important points to note here. Firstly, the map implies the species has a continuous distribution, but it does not. Secondly, while several sources, including the BDS, suggest some presence in Sussex/Surrey and Kent, I know of no confirmed records and no evidence of population establishment here and have not included them in this map. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

First introduced to Britain in the late 1800s (see: Introduction to Britain and maintenance in captivity), Chinese water deer became established in the English countryside following a number of escapes and deliberate releases during the 1940s. According to the Non-native Species Secretariat, the UK governmental body responsible for documenting and tracking non-native species, the first confirmed record of the species in the wild was in Buckinghamshire in 1944, followed by Bedfordshire in 1954, Norfolk in 1968, Cambridgeshire in 1971 (although this is actually the first verified ID at Woodwalton Fen, and the deer are believed to have been present on the reserve for as long as nine years before this - see Home Counties and Cambridgeshire) and Suffolk in 1987. The Secretariat consider the spread to have been as much down to unintentional escapes from private collections as deliberate releases and translocations, although they note that translocations are likely an important factor in their dispersal because natural rates of spread appear very slow.

Interestingly, despite the dates given by the Secretariat, some sources suggest earlier colonisation. In his 2009 The Naturalized Animals of Britain and Ireland, for example, Sir Christopher Lever gives the earliest date for water deer in the wild as 1940 in Buckinghamshire (although the first edition of his book gives 1945), while concurring that the earliest record in farmland around Woburn in Bedfordshire was 1954. Richard Fitter contradicts this in his 1959 The Ark in Our Midst, writing of how they were apparently known to be free-range outside Woburn by 1947, although “the Duke of Bedford did not know how far they roamed”. Fitter goes on to say they had been reported in the adjoining county of Buckinghamshire by 1945 and, five years later, from Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. Writing in his excellent Mammal Watching in 1981, Michael Clark probably summed the situation up accurately when he simply noted that water deer became established in the wild between 1939 and 1945. We must also accept that tracing the early history of this species in the wild in England is complicated by its confusion with the Reeves' muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi).

Before looking at the establishment of the water deer in its current range (see submenu sections), it's worth mentioning that a few transient populations became established elsewhere during the 1940s and 50s.

In 1944 a few were sent from Woburn to two estates in Hampshire, Leckford Abbas and Farleigh Wallop, and appear to have escaped from both as, in November of the following year, Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald shot one near Farnham in Surrey, and a few years later there were rumours of them near Silchester on the Hampshire-Buckinghamshire border. Fitter considered that two reports of muntjac in Hampshire during 1948 were probably actually water deer and, in 1949, more escaped from Farleigh Wallop and were said to be breeding in the surrounding countryside, although the majority appear to have been shot.

A water deer doe running along a fence line in Buckinghamshire. Some sources suggest the first record of this species in the wild was from Bucks, although I have yet to track down the report. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

A further ten water deer were sent from Woburn to Studley Royal Park near Ripon in Yorkshire between 1950 and 1952, many of which appear to have escaped into the surrounding countryside by 1954. Indeed, Lever lists Ripon alongside Montgomeryshire in Scotland and Hope Court in Shropshire as locations where Woburn-derived water deer escaped to form temporary feral populations. Finally, a little more recently, during the early 1980s, zoologist Rob Smith and Department of Agriculture forester Martin Wagner kept water deer in a 1.25ha (3 acre) experimental enclosure at Reading University's farm at Shinfield, Berkshire, as part of an experiment to see whether they could be used to control weeds in a plantation without damaging the coppice. While the deer did well and bred, increasing from the initial half a dozen animals to about 20, many escaped through a large hole cut in the mesh by a suspected poacher. This brought the experiment to an end and resulted in a temporary population in the Loddon Valley, although none remain as far as Berkshire Biological Records Centre are aware.

Today, the bulk of the UK population is concentrated around the fens/wetlands of East Anglia, particularly Cambridgeshire (i.e., Fens) and Norfolk (i.e., Broads), extending into Suffolk and the east Midlands (i.e., Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire). Arguably, the primary range of this species is a broadly rectangular strip covering about 18,000 sq-km (7,000 sq-mi) from Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft on the east coast to Oxford in the west, skirting to the north of London and about as far north as Peterborough. This range seems to be expanding slowly south and west. Select a section on the right for a summary of the species in the respective counties.

Note: The subsections which follow (right-hand menu) include several reports of a single deer outside, sometimes a considerable distance outside, the species' core range. While such records may be genuine, they may equally represent escapees or misidentifications given that water deer can be mistaken for roe or pale muntjac in the field, particularly by those unfamiliar with the species, and all should be treated with caution. On 6th April 2010, under variation 609, the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) added Chinese water deer to Schedule 9 (Part 1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This addition brought them under the remit of Section 14 of the Act, making it illegal to deliberately release them in England.