Water Deer In Captivity

The first record we have of Chinese water deer being held in a collection in the UK dates back nearly 150 years. On the 8th May 1873, Robert Swinhoe presented a buck that was, according to the Zoological Society of London's Secretary, “very shy, and hardly bears to be looked at” to the Society and, on 1st January the following year, a female was purchased “making a pair of this rare animal now in the Society's Gardens”. Subsequently, a deer of unrecorded sex was “deposited” in ZSL's menagerie on 13th July 1875, a buck was received by London Zoo on 6th November 1880 as part of an exchange, and a doe purchased 19th Nov 1883.

Herbrand Arthur Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, was a keen deer enthusiast and amassed what was probably the world's largest collection of deer in the early 1900s. His Woburn collection is also considered to be the source of England's wild water deer population. Bromide print taken in 1921 by Walter Stoneman and courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. - Credit: National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

With London Zoo's collection slowly growing, the Society's then-president took an interest in the species and set about importing animals into his deer park at Woburn Abbey. Herbrand Arthur Russell was an English politician and peer who inherited the title of 11th Duke of Bedford in 1893. He was an enthusiastic zoologist and collector and President of the Zoological Society of London from 1899 to 1936. Russell had a particular penchant for deer and, at its peak, the park at Woburn held 42 species, probably the largest collection of deer in the world.

Fires and the Woburn house having been used as a hospital during the First World War resulted in gaps in the estate's archives, but the first introduction of water deer appears to have been two animals liberated into the park towards the end of the nineteenth century. Andrew Mitchell, the Archives and Records Assistant at Bedford Estates who manage the house, told me that the remaining records show two does were imported separately. One was imported in March 1896 and a second in February 1898, but both died un-mated in 1900 - one by October and the second in November or December.

Despite the initial failure of the population to become established at Woburn, subsequent imports proved more successful, and we know that at least 19 animals were introduced to the park up until 1939. Records also show that the population inside the park had started to increase and, according to Sir Christopher Lever, was estimated at 126 in 1913, with 115 fawns having been born there by that time.

The Woburn population was sufficiently self-sustaining for the Duke to donate 18 to the Zoological Society's newly-established menagerie at Whipsnade in 1929, with a further 14 gifted the following year. The 32 deer received during 1929 and 1930 were let loose in the undeveloped pasture on the south-east side of the Whipsnade estate and they flourished, although the population fluctuated. Initially numbers increased dramatically and there were estimated to be some 200 on this pasture by the end of 1933, but the population crashed during the ensuing winter. While no official count was made, Adrian Middleton, the zoo's veterinary officer at the time, writing in 1938, noted that 140 deer were estimated to have died after what appeared to have been an outbreak of enteritis. The population had risen again to 115 by the close of 1936 and the keepers decided to begin undertaking population management; 29 were shot during March of 1937 to get the population down to about 80 animals. The venison was, rumour has it, used to feed the zoo's big cats.

A graph showing the fluctuation in the estimated number of Chinese water deer held in the Zoological Society of London's collection at Whipsnade between 1977 and 2022. The deer are free-range, which makes it impossible to count each individual, so surveys are undertaken in early January. Zoology students and keepers transect the grounds counting the deer and use this to estimate numbers. Unfortunately, ZSL stopped specifying the number of animal born and brought into the park in 1991, so it's unclear if the post-2000 recovery was an extraordinary couple of breeding seasons, or supplementary animals introduced from elsewhere. - Credit: Marc Baldwin / Zoological Society of London

Woburn do not release their census counts to the public, so I have no data on current numbers or the population's fluctuation, although Martin Harwood, one of the deer managers on the estate, told me in 2014 that they aim to maintain about 30 water deer in the park. Whipsnade, by contrast, publish their annual census figures and while numbers are only estimates given the free-range nature of the water deer in the zoo grounds, the method used to count over successive years has remained consistent, allowing reasonable grounds for comparison. There are, nonetheless, some discrepancies. The data show, for example, the population seeming to crash from 500 in 1999 to 217 in December of 2000, before increasing again to 570 by 2002. This seems unlikely without significant importation of stock. Numbers have been in decline since about 2007 and in recent years the population has hovered at 20 to 40 animals.

Hydropotes Houdini

Quite how the first Chinese water deer ended up among England's rolling hills is lost in the annals of time. Clearly the population has become established from deer that have escaped or been deliberately liberated from captivity, and genetic data (see below) along with testimony by the Russells suggest that the likely source was Woburn. Indeed, writing in the Spring 1953 issue of Zoo Life magazine, Hastings William Sackville Russell, Herbrand's son and the 12th Duke of Bedford, described the water deer's appearance in our countryside as “unpremeditated”, suggesting that it:

“... owes its introduction to our wild British fauna, not to the deliberate policy of my father or myself, but to the staff of the government department who requisitioned Woburn Abbey during the war, and were in the habit of returning from their midnight revels in a state of such elation that they rarely, if ever, remembered to shut the park gates.”

Woburn Abbey, part of the Woburn estate that was founded as a Cistercian abbey in 1145, resides within a 1,200 hectare (3,000 acre) deer park. It is from here Chinese water deer were imported and believed to have capitalised on gates being left open to escape into the Bedfordshire countryside. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

In terms of their establishment in the Home Counties, other than Woburn, there is a report of one escape from Whipsnade in 1945/46, the buck being successfully recovered from a neighbour's chicken run, and another in February 1954, although I can find no information about how many deer broke out in this event, or whether they were recovered. I also have no records of deliberate releases from the zoo. Authors who have referenced water deer being 'liberated from Whipsnade' in 1929 were, I think, probably misinterpreting Middleton's description of the newly-arrived deer being let loose into an area of the zoo during 1929/30. It should also be remembered that while it can be tempting to point fingers at poor biosecurity at zoos or private collections, and some species (e.g., Reeves' muntjac, Muntiacus reevesi) have clearly prospered from only a handful of released animals, there's more luck involved with random escapes establishing founder populations than there tends to be with deliberate releases, where individuals may be specifically chosen and numbers higher.

While drunk civil servants leaving the gates open after a night out probably accounted for some escapees that went on to colonise Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, there are also rumours of water deer translocated from Woburn by the Duke. Indeed, it is considered probable that such releases at Woodwalton Fen in the 1950s were probably the nucleus for the population formally recorded 1962. In his 2019 book, Arnold Cooke writes that they were released near Woodwalton sometime between 1947 and 1952. I'm not aware of any reports of deliberate releases in Norfolk, although we know some collections held them in the 1960s, and two bucks escaped from one park in 1968. The first confirmed sighting was in 1968 in the west of the county, about 160 km (100 miles) west of Woodwalton - quite a distance for the population to have expanded in only about 20 years, given their generally slow rate of colonisation, and perhaps implying some human intervention.

A Chinese water deer next to stock fencing at Woburn Abbey. Several authors have commented on how easily water deer seem able to breach fence lines. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Abscondence from captivity is not entirely unexpected because Chinese water deer are notorious escapologists. In his The Deer of Great Britain & Ireland, Kenneth Whitehead recounts a letter sent to him in 1948 by the Earl of Portsmouth who described having difficulty maintaining numbers of these deer in the grounds of his Farleigh House estate near Basingstoke, from where several escaped in the mid-1940s, “not because of their high jumping capacity, but their determination to penetrate almost any kind of wire or gap”. Writing in 1977, Raymond Chaplin notes a similar propensity for escape:

When catching them, I have seen a Chinese water deer approach a suspended long net of 9-10 cm (3 ½ -4 in.) mesh at full speed and without check, detect and dive through an 18 cm (7 in.) hole, barely twitching the net.”

Deer from where?

ZSL and Woburn's archives don't tell us the origin of the first deer brought into the country, but recent DNA analysis of water deer populations in the UK has hinted at where the Duke may have sourced them.

Model representation of Cytochrome b, a protein found in mitochondria membranes that is frequently employed in phylogenetic analyses owing to it's stability over generations. - Credit: Andrei Lomize via WikiMedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For his Ph.D. thesis, Imperial College London student Richard Fautley studied the genetic structure of Chinese water deer from both their native and introduced ranges. Recently, Rory Putman and colleagues reanalysed the data and presented the findings in a paper to the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Fautley's data looked at mtDNA, specifically the non-coding control region and cytochrome b gene, of 130 animals from ten locations, including 110 samples from Britain and France. Most genetic variation was found to occur within the populations, rather than between them, and unsurprisingly Chinese populations were more diverse than English ones. Such overall low levels of genetic diversity in England implies population expansion from bottlenecks - i.e. a handful of small-scale introductions.

The major cytb haplotype identified during the study is distributed across China, Britain and France and is the most common haplotype at Whipsnade. In his thesis, Fautley notes that Whipsnade's deer were genetically similar to those from east Norfolk and the Yare Marshes (Norfolk), but significantly differentiated from those at Bure Marshes (Norfolk) and Woodwalton Fen. The free-range population in the meadows and mixed woodland at Branféré Zoological Park was also closely paired with the Whipsnade population.

All this suggests that a single source was imported from mainland China (rather than the Zhoushan Islands, Dafeng or Yancheng populations) and expanded out in England, supporting the idea that modern populations are the descendants of those that escaped from Woburn and were translocated to Woodwalton Fen. The situation in Norfolk remains unclear. Fautley's data might imply that there had been a separate release/escape that was a source for (or contributed to) some populations in East Anglia. Equally, though, depending how many deer the Duke liberated at Woodwalton, it could simply be that there was more genetic diversity in the Woburn population than was reflected in the genetic sampling from Whipsnade, and the deer arrived on the east coast under their own steam.

Chinese water deer buck crossing a bank from farmland into Woodwalton Fen NNR. Genetic analysis of this species in England suggests Woodwalton's deer are more closely allied with those from Whipsnade than those in Norfolk. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

The overall lack of shared haplotypes between British and Chinese populations, and the intriguing finding that deer at Bure Marshes were significantly differentiated from all other British, French and Chinese populations, suggests that the ancestral population from which British water deer originate is now extinct in China. In their paper, Putman and his team propose that, given the historical context of the introduction, it's most likely that British populations derive from individuals sourced from around Shanghai.

Captive collections

Despite their small size and broadly solitary nature, Chinese water deer are not a species that typically adapts well to captivity, largely because of a requirement for space. Indeed, in his article to the International Zoo Yearbook in 1986, Los Angeles Zoo director Warren Thomas summed up the situation succinctly:

The difficulty of maintaining them in other types of collections lies in the fact that they tend to be highly nervous animals which need a great deal of room. Their automatic flight reaction can be disastrous if their quarters are small.”

Historically, the species was relatively popular. According to Kenneth Whitehead, a few were kept in a small enclosure at Golders Hill Park in north-west London in 1963 and at Clissold Park in north-east London during 1964, while, in 1988, Frederick Hingston listed holdings in 13 collections, two of which (Whipsnade and Woburn) remain to this day.

A Chinese water deer grazes in the African rhino paddock at Whipsnade Zoo. ZSL's 243 ha (600 acre) site situated on Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire, originally called Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, has maintained a free-range population of water deer since it opened to the public in 1931. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

At the time of writing (February 2022), I'm aware of four collections in the UK that hold Chinese water deer: Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, and Houghton Hall and Watatunga Wildlife Reserve in Norfolk. Of these, the Whipsnade and Woburn populations are likely the largest. I have no data for Houghton, but Watatunga tell me they have a single pair.

Outside of the UK, there remains a population in the grounds of Branféré Zoological Park in Brittany, and their website mentions there are about 80 animals free-range on the site. Additionally, I know of five other zoos in France, one in Germany and five in China that include, or have very recently included, water deer in their menagerie. In North America I believe only a single collection, Chahinkapa Zoo in North Dakota, holds this species, although Wildlife World Zoo in Arizona and Los Angeles Zoo in California have previously kept them.