The Reeves' muntjac is also known as Chinese muntjac or, thanks to its dog-like alarm vocalisation, the “barking deer”. Since its first introduction to Bedfordshire woodland by the Duke of Bedford in 1901 the muntjac has thrived in the British Isles to the point where it is widely viewed as an invasive “pest” species, prompting its inclusion on the EU's invasive species legislation. Nonetheless, this small deer rapidly adapts to urban environments and offers many people an opportunity to watch deer in their gardens that might otherwise be denied.
Recent genetic work has found that there's no significant geographical structuring in British population (all British muntjac are very closely related), suggesting the current population stems from only 4-5 animals in a single introduction. The study also found that some of the haplotypes only occurred to the east of Woburn, while others only to the west, further implying that animals were deliberately translocated from the founding colony.
That which follows is a brief summary of muntjac deer natural history. The detailed article for this species will follow in due course. 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 QA - 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 Reeves' muntjac deer at a glance
Named after the East India Tea Company's John Russell Reeves, who first imported the species to Britain in 1839; the single pair residing at London Zoo. A highly invasive species capable of colonising rapidly and remaining undetected until the population has become established. A pest species in woodland, where it can cause considerable damage to the understory and ground flora, muntjac are targeted by hunters throughout the year and covered by the recent EU directive on invasive species. The word “muntjac” appears of Dutch origin, derived by Indonesian settlers from the Sundanese mēncēk, meaning 'small deer'.
Size: Smallest deer species found wild in UK. Adults 90 cm to 1.15 m (3.8 ft) long; weigh 9 to 18 kg (20 - 40 lbs). Adults stand ca. 40 to 50 cm (1.5 ft) at shoulder. Males stockier than females.
Colour: Uniform chestnut-to-sandy brown above, buff/paler underside and darker markings on face - tail gingery in colour. Prominent white patch on rump only apparent when tail raised (animal alarmed).
Distribution: Native to forests of south-east China and Taiwan but widely introduced/escaped. Introduced to the UK from China - date of introduction uncertain, although believed to be sometime during the early 20th Century (Woburn Abbey archives show release of 11 animals in 1901). Now common throughout much of England; sporadic records from south-west, far south-east and northern England. Patchily distributed (declining?) in Wales and appears to be colonising Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 2008 population estimated conservatively at ~52,000, increasing ~8.2% per year. In 2018, population estimated at ~128,000.
Longevity: Captive deer have survived for more than 20 years (female). Accurate records from the wild reach 13 years (female), although some suggestion that some may live longer.
Sexing: Males are bucks, females does and young are fawns. Males have simple (single spike), backward-pointing antlers, which grow from prominent pedicles on the skull (striking when looking at animal's skull) and reach 6 to 8 cm (3 in.) long. Defined annual antler cycle mediated by testosterone, despite breeding year round - average growth period for antlers 106 days. Buck has tusks (enlarged upper canines) that grow to 6cm (~ 2-3 cm / 1 in. visible below gum) and that protrude from the upper lip. Does have tiny canines (~1.7cm) only visible on inspection of the mouth. Tusk erupts ~3 months old and is complete by ~2.5 yrs in bucks; female canines don't erupt until doe is ~1 yr old.
Antler Cycle: Antler cycle not coupled with breeding; antlers cast and re-grown on schedule regardless of buck’s fertility. Antlers cast late April to mid-July (peak May/June); velvet shed August-October.
Activity: Predominantly active at dawn and dusk, but in areas where disturbance from culling is low they may be active throughout day and night.
Habitat: Areas of mixed or deciduous woodland with shrubby undergrowth for shelter and feeding. Increasingly common in urban areas, where they inhabit parks and gardens.
Territory: Maintain territory throughout the year, although ranges may overlap - animals live solitarily or in small family groups (buck, doe and most recent fawn). Size of range varies according to habitat; may be up to 30 ha (74 acres) in coniferous woodland - bucks typically range further than does.
Diet: Primarily leaves and shrubs such as bramble, ivy and hawthorn - grasses dominate diet during spring and early summer. May strip bark and fruits taken according to season; will take garden plants. Sporadic reports of captive animals catching and eating small vertebrates (e.g. small birds), but extent of this behaviour is unknown.
Reproduction: Breed all year round (although testes less active during summer), with single fawn born after 7 month gestation (two litters per year); fawn loses spotted coat by 8 wks and is weaned by 12 wks old, although intermittent suckling may continue for sometime afterwards. Pedicles notable in male fawns by ~5 months old and both sexes mature at ~10 months old. Bucks don't produce a specific rutting call, although some barking may be bucks advertising to females and rivals. Does in season may produce a “scream bark”, which is presumably intended to attract the attention of nearby bucks (click below to listen).
When in season does may call with a "scream bark" to advertise their status. - Credit: Kelly Kilfeather
Behaviour and Sociality: Live solitarily or in small family groups. Emit loud bark similar to a large dog when alarmed (click below to listen) and may make a clicking noise by grinding their teeth when alarmed or suspicious. May fray bark and saplings when marking territory and cleaning velvet off antlers - frays appear similar to those of Roe, but closer to ground.
When alarmed, Reeves' muntjac will bark at the source of the disturbance and this can continue for a considerable period. - Credit: Marc Baldwin
Threats: Most populations appear stable or increasing, although populations in mainland China appear to have declined significantly and this species is protected in Hong Kong. Species is common and increasingly widespread in Britain where it's increasingly hunted for sport, despite small, simple antlers. Shot on site in many managed woodlands as considered a pest. Many killed on roads, although full extent is unknown. Sometimes come into conflict with private land owners because of the damage they can do to crops, flowers and ancient woodland (esp. understorey). Foxes take fawns; in some areas they may account for as many as 50% of fawn deaths and appear to suppress populations.
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