Introduced from mainland China to the Bedfordshire countryside during the early twentieth century, these “vampire deer”—so named for the long canine teeth (sometimes referred to as “tusks” or, incorrectly, “fangs”) that males use during combat in the rut—are now relatively widespread in East Anglia, particularly through the fen country and the Home Counties where they thrive in arable farmland. It remains to be seen whether these deer will become invasive as the muntjac and sika deer have, but currently they appear to spread rather slowly, live at low density, and generally have little impact on crops or forestry.
Water deer are arguably our least understood cervid and much of what we know today has been pieced together during studies of captive populations at Whipsnade Zoo and Branféré Zoological Park in France, and through the meticulous studies of Arnold Cooke and Lynne Farrell in the Cambridgeshire fenland. Indeed, I am indebted to Dr Cooke for his assistance in the researching of this article; freely sharing his ideas, observations and trailcam footage, while also providing me with several key papers. My thanks extend to Raymond Chaplin, who kindly donated some photos and shared with me home cinefilm of his captive water deer, some of which accompanies this article. I am also extremely grateful to Emma Mills at the ZSL Library for helping me with references and to Paul Childerley for being so generous with his knowledge and experience. Several incredibly talented artists have been kind enough to spend their time trying to put the images in my head to paper based on my (at times, rather vague) descriptions, so I am hugely appreciative of Rachel Dubber, David Ziggy Greene and Willem van der Merwe. Thanks are extended to Korean naturalist and wildlife artist Junha Kim for providing some valuable insight into the water deer situation, and etymology, in Korea. Finally, special thanks go to Sharon and Graham Scott for letting me camera trap on their farm, sharing observations of the wildlife that lives there, and for always being so hospitable.
What follows is a relatively detailed overview of Chinese water deer natural history - select a subject on the righthand side to learn more. This is very much a piecemeal operation and the profile will be added to over the coming weeks and months as I complete new sections and they clear my proof-readers (thanks, again, Ali and Steph). Certain aspects of the water deer's natural history that warrant more detailed discussion have been split from the main overview and placed into their own Q/A. A much more thorough treatment of water deer, in particular their management, population dynamics and impact, which this article deliberately makes only a light touch upon, can be found in Arnold Cooke's authoritative and accessible book Muntjac and Water Deer, published by Pelagic Monographs in April 2019.
A summary of the more general aspects of the biology, ecology and behaviour of Britain’s deer species can be found in the Deer Overview.
The Chinese water deer at a glance
Two poorly defined sub-species proposed in this monospecific genus: Chinese water deer (H. i. inermis) and Korean water deer (H. i. argyropus). Classified within the Capreolinae (New World, or telemetacarpal, deer) and seem most closely related to Roe (Capreolus sp.) and Moose (Alces alces).
Size: Adults stand ca. 50 cm (~ 2ft) at shoulder and weigh 11-19 kgs (24-42 lbs), although most ave. 15 kgs (33 lbs). Females tend to weigh more than males.
Appearance: Vaguely similar appearance to Roe, although often described as “teddy bear deer”, owing to thick winter coat. Muscular deer with hind legs longer than forelegs, black shiny eyes and nose and large highly mobile ears. Variable coat colour; thick pale brown or grey-brown common in winter, while short red-brown coat common in summer. Males have long canine teeth (“tusks”) protruding from upper jaw that begin growth during first year. Neither sex has antlers.
Distribution: Native to China and Korea. Apparently fairly widespread in Korea and originally relatively widespread in China, but now appears largely restricted to eastern Yangtze Basin in central eastern China. First imported to UK in 1873 by London Zoo; later introduced to Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire during April 1896 from where first known escapes occurred during 1940s. Well established in wilds of Bedfordshire by 1960s and 20 culled on surrounding Woburn land in 1972. Currently distributed discontinuously in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, with unconfirmed reports from Devon, Somerset and Essex. Naturalised with increasing range. Most recent survey (2004) estimated 1,500 free-living in Britain, although this figure is probably closer to 10,000 today (2017).
Longevity/Mortality: Ave. 6 yrs in wild, although 10-12 yrs recorded. 13 yrs, 11 months recorded in captivity (Whipsnade). Mortality high among fawns, up to 40% die by 4 wks old. Predation generally not significant mortality source (most stillborn or die from exposure/hypothermia), but foxes probably most significant predator. Various injuries sustained during fights and tend to fare badly in prolonged cold/wet/snowy weather.
Sexing: Males possess extended mobile curved upper canines (tusks) typically measuring 4.5-5.6 cm, up to 7.2 cm (1.7-2.2 in., up to 2.8 in.); females also have canines, but these are much smaller (less than 1 cm / 0.5 in.). Tusks protrude below bottom jaw and are erected for use in combat; erupt at ~6 months old, clearly visible by ca. 1 yr, and fully grown by ~2yrs. Males are “bucks”, females “does” and young “fawns”.
Activity: Crepuscular (peaks early morning and late evening), often most active immediately after sunset; spend ca. half daytime activity period feeding in bouts of ca. 20 min (followed by rest/rumination). Much activity associated with rut during December/January.
Habitat: Typically fenland, river shores and coastal areas with reed beds/tall grasses. May also inhabit arable fields (winter wheat, oilseed rape, etc.) and woodland with peripheral open areas in which to feed.
Territory: Males may (ca. 30%) maintain territory year round (marked with scent and faeces), but arrangement flexible with environmental conditions and many fail to maintain one. Females sometimes territorial peri-partum. Range size varies with season and sex: 2-44 ha recorded, often 5-15 ha during rut. Bucks may follow does to best feeding grounds and establish smaller territories (0.5 ha).
Diet: Concentrate selector, feeding on locally abundant vegetation including sedges, herbs, grasses, bramble and woody plants. May take agricultural crops, including carrots, potatoes, winter wheat and peanuts. Reports of deer eating chickweed in fields rather than crops and captive populations have refused hay, even when starving.
Reproduction: Rut usually late Nov-Jan, with bulk of activity during Dec, although 'close following' of does by bucks may begin in Oct. Bucks emit a 'clicking' while chasing rivals and follow does emitting 'squeaking' call; may circle them to try and keep does on territory. Most prolific deer species - up to 7 fawns (typically twins or triplets) born after 6-7 month gestation during May/June. Open fields often picked for giving birth. Fawns ca. 600g-1kg (1.3-2.2 lbs.) at birth; can stand within one hour; start eating solid vegetation after few days; are fully weaned by 3 months and stay with mother until autumn. Sexually mature at first rut (~7 months old), although 1st winter males less adept at holding territory and many won't breed.
Behaviour and Sociality: Typically solitary outside of breeding season, although may aggregate to feed during winter when food scarce. Females sometimes form loose associations outside fawning season, but scatter if disturbed. Communicate with scent (esp. from pre-orbital glands) and sound: alarm barks (click below to listen), ; clicking/chittering (chase associated); squeak (breeding); gentle whistle (communication with fawn); contact bark (click below to listen); and distress call (click below to listen). During rut males parallel walk and 'dance' around each other striking with canines; does sometimes fight by rising on hind legs and 'scissor kicking' with front feet. Swims well from young age.
When alarmed, Chinese water deer vocalise with a fox-like bark that's often aimed at the source of the disturbance. - Credit: Marc Baldwin
A pair of Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) calling at one another across a track on a Buckinghamshire farm. Contact barks are most often heard during the summer. - Credit: Marc Baldwin
When distressed a Chinese water deer will sometimes make a "whelp-like" call that sounds like a variation on the contact bark. This individual was caught in a drainage channel on a farm before being rescued by the landowner. - Credit: Sharon Scott
Threats: Conservation conundrum as declining in native range from habitat destruction, poaching and 'traditional medicine'; but appears to be thriving in England (out-dated but widely-cited estimate that 10% of global population now in England) where it's considered an alien (but non-invasive) species. Mild pest to agriculture (specifically cereal crops), but doesn't fray trees and typically found at low densities in fairly robust habitats.
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