Introduced from the Orient 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 “fangs”) that males use during combat in the rut, are now relatively widespread in East Anglia, particularly through the fen country, and midlands, 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 slowly and have little impact on crop yields.
That which follows is a summary of Chinese water deer natural history. The detailed article for this species is in preparation. Certain aspects of the natural history common to all deer (e.g. antler growth and formation, collisions with vehicles, chronic wasting disease) have been split from the individual overviews and placed into their own Q/A – this is partly to avoid repetition but also to allow more detailed coverage of the topics. 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 sub-species 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 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; clicking/chittering (chase associated); squeak (breeding); gentle whistle (communication with fawn). 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.
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.
Deer - by Norma Chapman
Whittet Books -- 1991 -- ISBN: 978-1873580356
Deer - by Raymond Chaplin
Blandford Press -- 1977 -- ISBN: 978-0713707960
Deer - by John Fletcher
Reakton Books -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1780230887
Deer of Britain and Ireland: Their origins and distribution - by Peter Carne
Swan-Hill Press -- 2000 -- ISBN: 978-1840370911
Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology - by Valerius Geist
Stackpole Books -- 1998 -- ISBN: 978-0811704960
Deer Watch: A Field Guide (Revised Edition) - by Richard Prior
Swan-Hill Press -- 2007 -- ISBN: 978-1846890130
Deer: Law & Liabilities (2nd Edition) - by Charlie Parkes; John Thornley
Quiller -- 2008 -- ISBN: 978-1846890475
Living with Deer - by Richard Prior
Andre Deusch -- 1965 -- ISBN: 978-0727401175
Nick Baker’s British Wildlife: A month by month guide - by Nick Baker
New Holland Publishers -- 2003 -- ISBN: 978-1845171131
The British Mammal Guide - by Steve Evans & Paul Wetton
Isabelline Films -- 2015 -- ISBN: N/A
The Deer of Great Britain & Ireland: An account of their history, status and distribution - by Peter Carne
G. Kenneth Whitehead -- 1964 -- ISBN: None
The Encyclopaedia of Mammals - by David MacDonald (ed.)
Brown Reference Group -- 2006 -- ISBN: 978-0199206087
The Natural History of Deer - by Rory Putman
Christopher Helm -- 1988 -- ISBN: 978-0801422836
UK Mammals: Species Status & Population Trends - by The Tracking Mammals Partnership
JNCC/TMP -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-1861075680
Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271