The county of Norfolk, Britain, is known for several distinctive characteristics: a lack of motorways, flat topography, local dialect, water reeds and best of all – one of the world’s most important populations of Chinese water deer. With their elongated canines, “vampire deer” love the lush riparian and swampy habitat provided by the dense reed beds of the Broads.
Having already hunted Britain’s five other deer species, this diminutive antlerless species was next on my bucket list. However, finding a representative male (with tusks measuring approximately 7.5cm) at the very end of the hunting season in late March, when the rut is well and truly over, was going to be extremely tricky. “It’ll be like looking for a needle in a proverbial haystack,” explained Chris Rogers, the deer manager on Euston estate, adding, “The bucks have served their purpose so are now chilling out ruminating in the reeds.” Oh goody, I like a challenge.
In its native East Asia, Chinese water deer numbers are declining and they are currently classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “vulnerable.” In England, they are thriving, however. The non-native species was originally introduced to Woburn Park in Bedfordshire at the end of the nineteenth century. Escapees and deliberate releases resulted in the current wild population, thought to be around 2,100, which is 10 percent of the entire global population. To that end, Euston Estate culls just five trophy bucks each season and a small handful of does in order to keep the population healthy and their impact to a minimum. Unlike Britain’s other native deer species, which eat crops or nibble tree saplings, Chinese water deer have little negative environmental impact. They tend to just graze grass and are rarely the subject of negative headlines.
After checking my rifle’s zero on a reactive steel target on the estate’s range, Chris and I headed off to the marshes in search of our quarry. Despite not hunting for a few months since the birth of my baby daughter, I left the range feeling confident. Like all good guides, Chris has an unhurried, calm approach to rifle shooting and hunting, which helps steady the nerves when one is feeling a tad rusty. The legal minimum caliber for hunting Chinese water deer is a .22 centerfire rifle, which means a soft or hollow-point bullet of no less than 50 grains and a muzzle energy of not less than 1,000 ft.-lbs. energy. I opted for my favorite failsafe combination of Sauer 404 Artemis rifle in .308 and Hornady Superformance SST 150-grain ammunition.
To hunt Chinese water deer, you’ll need pale-colored hunting attire to help you blend into the fawn-colored reeds, pale green bulrushes and watery meadows. The prehistoric-looking species has a reputation for being an “easy hunt” due to the flat topography of its habitat compared to other species of British deer. Of course, that is totally subjective, but I always like to feel challenged when hunting, so I asked Chris to take me for a lengthy stalk and to not stop hunting until we found the exact right beast that meets his cull plan.
When the waterways and canals were originally created, I bet the engineers never stopped to think what great backstops the sloping banks would make for hunters. Their 45-degree angle make ideal bullet catchers (in the unlikely event of a miss) plus they conveniently elevate the Chinese water deer above the reed-line making them far easier to spot.
The Broads were teaming with wildlife. Hunting at dusk around the spring equinox meant the deafening chorus of waders and songbirds made for a cheery backdrop. The red setting sun glistened on the lakes and canals as the waterfowl noisily chatted before bed.
Chris and I stealthily walked along abandoned footpaths, stopping to glass the reeds with my Leica Geovid 10x42 HD-B rangefinding binoculars. True to Chris’ word, we spotted numerous tuskless does, but zero bucks. “The only way to tell the sex of a Chinese water deer is to look for tusks through a high magnification Leica APO-Televid 82 spotting scope. Unlike antlered deer species, it is much trickier to tell the bucks apart from the does as they tend to have similar body weights and heights.”
To tell an old buck from a youngster, Chris says the key is to study its ears. “The biggest giveaway is torn ears from territorial fighting,” he revealed, adding, “Despite their teddy bear like appearance, they can be quite aggressive with one another.”
Soon, the hunting ground was teaming with grazing does on the open meadows. We slowly stalked the edges, carefully trying to sex each beast. “Tonight seems to be ladies night,” quipped Chris, “I did explain before we set out that the bucks might be layed up.”
As darkness fell, we gave up and headed back to Chris’ house for some supper and much needed sleep. The following morning we left the house in darkness at 4:00 am for another attempt. Within minutes of stepping out, Chris had spotted tusks. Too young, however. No matter, we continued our stalk. The does were obviously having a lie-in this morning as the bucks were out in full force. This time the beast in the spotting scope was the right age. His tusks hung down from its jaw like scimitars. The buck lifted its head to survey the field for danger. Luckily we were obscured by a gate post.
I rested the rifle forend on the fence and lay in the prone position. Without hesitating, I lined up the crosshair of my Leica Magnus 1.8-12x50 riflescope and immediately dispatched the buck with a clean heart shot. Dressed out, the buck provided 11kg of delicious venison. Back home, that buck will feed my family for a few months. The venison is exquisite. The animals develop a thick layer of fat, like lamb, when the grazing is good.
In recent months, the international media has been loudly debating whether hunting is actually an integral part of conservation. The example of Chinese water deer could not give a clearer picture of how the two really do go hand in hand. In their native East Asia, where numbers are seriously dwindling, it is not possible to recreationally hunt Chinese water deer. In fact, all sport hunting is banned. Therefore, the species has little economic value to Chinese and Korean locals — they are treated as an agricultural pest in some areas.
They also have to deal with poaching, habitat destruction, plus they are illegally hunted for the semi-digested milk found in the stomach of unweaned fawns, which is used in traditional medicine. No proper care is taken to manage the population; it is just a free for all. Eventually, they could become extinct in Asia.
Here in the UK where it is legal to hunt Chinese water deer, landowners have an incentive to keep populations healthy. Chinese water deer are thriving in England. I feel pleased and proud that conscientious British hunters are the caretakers of this unusual species and hope that they continue to flourish here. It may be a bitter pill for some to swallow, but hunting is a fantastic bedfellow to conservation.
For me, hunting is about harvesting organic, wild meat – medal-class trophies are never my sole goal. That said, if a gold medal walked into my crosshairs and was part of the estate’s management plan, then I would not hesitate to squeeze the trigger. But as a general rule, the sex and size of the beast is immaterial. Hunting plays a tangible role when it comes to safeguarding species around the world and the Chinese water deer story is one such example. I am proud to be a hunter and one day hope the rest of Britain’s meat-eaters will open their eyes to the benefits of deer management.-- Selena Barr
Photos courtesy Tweed Media