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Lost in tranquil thought, hands deep in my pockets to keep them warm with my head boughed in the classic Warden-chewing-the-cud pose, I skulked along Boundary Path…

chinese water deer close up by will fitch

Chinese water deer or teddy bear?

The day was gloomy, the birds were quiet, and I pondered on how to move 12 tonnes of new boardwalk materials from the car park to the Broad. And then a teddy bear stepped out in front of me, not 10 metres away. At first it did not see me, as I abruptly halted. It nibbled away at the grass for a few more seconds before it, too, sharply froze. Its head slowly turned towards me. Two large, dark eyes were hypnotic, locking me into a staring contest. I broke the deadlock, admiring its large fluffy ears sitting atop an equally furry face that gave it a slightly daft expression. Two long, curved fangs jutted out beneath a moist, black snout. You would think the presence of such formidable fangs would give it an air of ferociousness, but alas not so. And then it bolted in its usual haphazard manner. Instead of turning for the shelter and security of the reedbed from where it had come, it threw itself into the adjacent dyke, panic-swimming across to disappear into the woodland on the far bank.

The Chinese water deer, named for their love of the wetlands, are a strange and peculiar mammal. During the winter months they regularly seem to drop down dead with no obvious cause for their demise. Despite the name, I can only assume that the cold and wet gets to them in the end, especially after weeks of flooding with no dry sanctuary to get some respite. Unfortunately, we do on occasions stumble across the grisly remains of these deer, though the flesh and bones are swiftly recycled back into the food chain. I was once told the skulls of these animals fetch a good price on eBay, due to the fact that they look almost prehistoric with their big fangs. Tattoo parlours apparently like them on display, but I have yet to dabble in this business. One time, whilst gawping around at the sky, navigating through tall reed, I had the misfortunate experience of putting my boot into the rotting carcass of a water deer. With the sound of cracking ribs from beneath my foot came a waft of decay that filled my nostrils, causing me to gag. Still, life is all about such experiences.

chinese water deer 2 by annie kerridge

Chinese water deer in a clearing by Annie Kerridge

The non-indigenous Chinese water deer is far from its native range of East Asia. Having escaped from Whipsnade Zoo sometime in the first half of the 20th century, they have slowly spread across East Anglia. \Many non-native species cause various problems to native species, either directly through predation or competition, or through the habitat changes their behaviours cause.

I feel the water deer do little harm, and in some respects, I am somewhat grateful for them. They create narrow, well-worn paths that meander through the thick reed. Along these path edges it is plainly noticeable how fen flowers thrive. The creation of the paths leads to the suppression of dominant reed stems, allowing fen plants to prosper; small diverse corridors of rarities from marsh pea to milk parsley. A bit of wild grazing is no bad thing. Having said that, it has also been noted that as the water deer navigate their paths, they like to have a nibble on this and that as they go, a leaf here, a milk parsley frond there. Alas, the odd swallowtail egg and caterpillar are bound to have been lost this way.

Tufted vetch and large skipper

Large skipper butterfly on a Tufted vetch flower by Annie Kerridge

On the whole, at Wheatfen the water deer’s grazing (their main food source being fresh plant growth) goes unnoticed. The deer are territorial, and so this trait does not allow for intensive grazing of any one area, or of any one particular plant species. It is also worth noting that it is said that the population of Chinese water deer in the UK is now 10% of the global population. In their native range the species is rapidly declining and is classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Therefore, considering the deer arguably appear to be doing little damage to native species in the UK, do we perhaps have a duty to grant them British citizenship?

For me, the Chinese water deer are as much a part of Wheatfen as the otter of the waterways, the marsh harrier of the skies, or the bearded tits of the reedbed. I hope you get to enjoy the pleasure of seeing one to make your own mind up.

Will Fitch

Author Will Fitch

I have been the Warden at Wheatfen for a number of years now, helping to look after and manage the reserve with the help of our trusty volunteers. You can often find me either out and about at the reserve, or in the Warden's hut in the car park.

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