Village Voices Nature Note: Strange Combinations

03 Jan 2022
Have you been doing quizzes over the Christmas break? I was stumped by one of those Codeword puzzles the other day. I was looking for a seven-letter word with ‘tj’ in the middle, which is a rare combination in English. I could only come up with ‘straightjacket’, ‘bootjack’ and ‘nightjar’ – all of them too long. Well, the answer turned out to be ‘muntjac’, which I should have thought of since I’d just seen one in Shingle St, ducking hurriedly into a shrubbery.

Muntjacs are not a native species and they still look rather strange in an English landscape. The unusual name is a clue to their origins. It’s derived from a Dutch word, which in turn comes from the Sundanese, a language from Java in the Dutch East Indies. Muntjacs are animals of Asian rainforests and were first introduced into Britain in 1925 by the 11th Duke of Bedford for his wildlife park at Woburn. Inevitably, some escaped and they have now spread rapidly northwards, reaching as far as Scotland and even Northern Ireland (assisted passage, presumably).

This explains some of their unusual physical features, too. They are our smallest deer – about the size of a large dog – and have a most unusual profile, with the hindquarters higher than the front end, so that they always seem to be walking downhill. That’s an adaptation to enable them to move easily through the dense vegetation of the monsoon forests which are their natural home. It also explains their shyness – they are safe from predators in that dark tangle and communicate with each other more by sound than sight, hence their other common name of ‘barking deer’.

Sex again, I’m afraid.They breed all the year round and the females can conceive immediately after giving birth, so there’s always plenty to bark about. If you hear eerie barks and screams round here at night, it’s more likely to be muntjac than your neighbours.

Their other spooky adaptation is a set of long recurved fangs, very prominent in the males and quite disconcerting if you encounter one close up. Most deer have large antlers for mating displays, but those would just get caught up in undergrowth in the jungle. Moreover, the muntjac’s tusks are hinged and can be folded away when not needed for combat – so more like flick-knives than daggers. Neat!

It’s always a risk introducing a new species into an established habitat and muntjac do quite a bit of damage here browsing bushes and cropping such much-loved woodland flowers as bluebells and primroses.

But I gather from a game-keeper I know that their venison makes very good eating, so maybe that points to a solution?
Jeremy Mynott