Muntjac deer – friend or foe?

Muntjac deer have become a common sight in Suffolk. Their numbers are so high that these adaptable grazers are now having an impact on our native wildlife and our dinner plates.

A crackle of branch and bramble. A bounding glimpse of russet. Powerful hind legs and a flash of white at the tail. It’s the size of a springer spaniel but clearly a deer.

I crane to look over the thicket where the creature was hiding and see it running into the field beyond. It stops for a moment and looks back – the tell-tale black lines running down its forehead confirm it’s a muntjac deer I have disturbed.

These days seeing a muntjac is nothing out of the ordinary but the one notable factor about this encounter is how close we are to the town centre. I had startled the muntjac on the Valley Trail footpath in Sudbury, a stone’s throw from a large residential estate and the Quay Theatre.

Unlike other deer in Suffolk, that is fallow, red and roe, it seems the muntjac is able to exist in close vicinity to human populations. While it is also now a common sight in the Suffolk countryside, I’ve seen them in gardens and once saw a muntjac walking along the top of a wall near Lavenham.

Muntjac snapped in Sudbury Photo: Ron Smith

A fellow wildlife enthusiast told me that early one morning he even spied a muntjac on the pavement in the middle of Sudbury, looking into the shop window of department store Winch & Blatch. (It probably thought the prices were a bit deer).

Without doubt, muntjac are the largest mammal I see wild on a regular basis, and with each sighting I get that frisson of excitement that comes with such an encounter. For me, the muntjac has brought a bit of spice to our county’s wildlife landscape. However, I’m also aware that many people regard these herbivores, an introduced species that has boomed in numbers over the past 50 years, as an invasive pest that is responsible for much damage to our native flora.

Deer of suburbia

“Muntjac are the deer of suburbia,” says Charles Smith-Jones, a technical advisor to the Deer Society who has written widely on muntjac management and also tracks reports of sightings across the country.

“There’s a lot in Suffolk,” he tells me, but says it’s impossible to give an exact figure due to the muntjac’s elusive nature.

“Muntjac turn up in the oddest places – they are incredibly adaptable, and being small and secretive they can tuck themselves away in small patches of cover near to human populations. A red deer, on the other hand, will struggle to hide in a rhododendron bush.”

Muntjac also enjoy thick cover in China where they originate from. Their full name is the Reeves muntjac, named after tea inspector John Russell Reeves who first imported the species to Britain in 1839.  A larger shipment arrived at the turn of the twentieth century to form part of an exotic deer collection being assembled by 11th Duke of Bedford at Woburn. Some escaped and bred, while other releases of the deer have also helped swell numbers, not just in East Anglia but across the UK. Today, the muntjac is the most widely distributed deer in Suffolk after the native roe deer.

Smith-Jones says there has been a noticeable increase in muntjac since the 1970s and although they are solitary animals and territorial, muntjacs are also reasonably tolerant of each other, so can exist in high densities. But their size belies a fiery nature, stag muntjac are aggressive when cornered and the fangs that protrude downwards from their mouth are razor sharp.

Muntjac can live in close vicinity to humans Photo: Ron Smith

Another key factor, which separates muntjac from all other species of deer found in the UK – and is a reason for their success –  is that muntjac do not have a specific breeding season and mate all year round. The female can mate soon after giving birth, so she spends most of her life pregnant. Even considering that muntjacs have a single offspring after each seven-month gestation, it doesn’t take a mathematician to realise that this is an adaption for exponential growth.


But it’s not just muntjac numbers that are on the up. Without any natural predators, all deer species are increasing and causing devastation by eating large amounts of agricultural crops and damaging woodland biodiversity. A recent study found that woodlands with dense deer populations suffer a 68% reduction in understorey foliage, resulting in a loss of plants like bluebells and habitat for nesting birds, butterflies and other insects. Even the most ardent conservationists agree some deer, including muntjac, need to be culled to manage numbers.

One man who is actively involved in keeping deer numbers under control is Greg Strolenberg who, together with his wife Jen, founded and manages Lavenham Butchers. Both Greg and Jen plus two other employees are qualified deer stalkers, who work with landowners across west Suffolk.

Greg Strolenberg Photo: Lavenham Butchers

Greg says he kills deer humanely with one clean shot using a high velocity rifle. All the deer he and his team take ends up in the Lavenham shop as venison. Some of the muntjac venison goes to restaurants across Suffolk and is served in curries, pan-fried and braised (see box).

Greg has seen woodland brought back to life after muntjac numbers were brought under control and extols venison as “the most ethical meat you can get”. Incredibly, Jen used to be a vegetarian but started eating venison after she learnt more about the need to control deer numbers and how they are managed.

“The deer aren’t farmed or injected with hormones; they run free and are shot in the wild, not taken to an abattoir,” adds Greg.

“I know people who won’t eat any other meat but will eat venison, and deer shot wild in Suffolk is field to fork at its finest.”

Muntjac on the menu

At Pea Porridge, a bistro in Bury St Edmunds, head chef and proprietor, Justin Sharp, has been championing cooking with muntjac for more than a decade.

He says he buys in a whole deer and uses all the cuts, from the loins and legs, to shoulder and offal – liver, kidney and heart.

“The loin of a muntjac is one of the tenderest pieces of meat,” says Mr Sharp.

“If it’s handled right and not hung for too long, it cuts like butter and has a lovely, delicate flavour. For diners who are not used to eating game, this would be a good starting point.”

Mr Sharp says he likes to butterfly a leg of muntjac by removing the bone, before marinating it in garlic, lemon and thyme or a harissa sauce. Shoulder cuts are best served braised and slow-cooked in a Moroccan –style stew.

The heart of a muntjac is described as “a joy”.

“Once it is trimmed and cooked quickly – for me it is far superior to a filet of beef,” he adds.

Justin Sharp prepares tables at the Pea Porridge bistro Photo: Pea Porridge

Keeping muntjacs out of your garden

Not everyone welcomes muntjacs into their garden, where they can cause substantial damage, but what is the best way of keeping these prodigious browsers at bay?

According to Charles Smith-Jones at the Deer Society, the most reliable approach is to install deer-proof fencing.

“The fencing has to be high enough so they can’t jump over it, so for muntjac it must be at least 5ft high,” he says. 

“Preferably it should be dug into the ground – you only have to leave a narrow gap at the bottom and deer can flatten themselves out and squeeze underneath.”

Mr Smith-Jones says there are various sonic devices and flashing lights on the market but he has also heard of people taking a less technical approach to warding off muntjac. 

“One lady I knew would send her husband out every evening to pee in the vegetable patch – she swore that kept deer away.  Another technique I’ve heard about involves wrapping up a cheap transistor radio in a plastic bag and leaving it playing Radio 4 at low volume in the vegetable patch overnight. Playing music won’t work but the background sound of voices going up and down will deter deer apparently.”

This article appeared in the October issue of the Suffolk Magazine.

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