First reported from the wild in Britain in 1945, the Chinese water deer is one of those introduced species that has stayed below the radar of those calling for the control and removal of such exotic imports. The reason for this is that we have not yet seen the development of any conservation problems associated with the species. Chinese water deer to not occur at the high densities that the introduced muntjac populations sometimes reach and there has only been occasional damage to agriculture, and none to forestry. Most of the established populations are still centred on the areas into which they initially escaped from captive collections and there has been only a very modest amount of expansion into new sites.
In Norfolk this small deer is most commonly encountered in the Broads, favouring reedbeds and the surrounding grazing marshes and farmland that provide feeding opportunities. Woodland habitats are also used and there is a preference for denser vegetation, which provides cover. Over recent years we have seen a gradual extension to the Chinese water deer’s range, with increasing numbers of records coming from the grazing marshes of the North Norfolk coast. Records from Titchwell and Sculthorpe Moor in the west of the county underline the distance travelled. There are very occasional inland records from the Brecks, perhaps the result of individuals escaping from a former wildlife collection.
At this time of the year, these small deer are readily seen around the Broads and south into the river marshes of the Yare Valley. In their thick winter coats they appear stocky but at other times of the year I think they seem rather scrawny and very different from the solid muntjac that are more commonly encountered. The adult males have a long and curving upper canine that protrudes as a ‘tusk’. Readily visible in the field it proves a useful feature for identification. These teeth are smaller in the females and do not protrude.
There are probably fewer than 5,000 of these Asian deer in England but it has been a while since the last attempt to survey their numbers. Indications of their presence mostly come from birdwatchers and from those individuals reported dead on the county’s roads, following collision with traffic.