The Muntjac Muntiacus reevesi is the smallest species of deer in Britain, standing 45-50cm at the shoulder. They are also distinctive for their black facial markings and the prominent frontal glands under the eyes. The buck’s antlers are only single, hooked tines on the end of a prominent pedicle. To the observer the feature most likely to be noted is their relatively long tail which is held erect when the animal is alarmed.
Muntjac are largely solitary with sightings of multiple animals usually being of a buck following a doe or a doe and young, though they can occur at quite high densities of around 30 per km2 in suitable habitat (Chapman and Harris 1996). They are secretive in nature and favour broad-leaved woodland with a dense under storey, seldom venturing far from cover. However their small size has enabled them to exploit a range of habitats in parts of Britain, including suburbs. Muntjac are native to southern China and were first released into the wild in Britain in the woods surrounding Woburn Park, Bedfordshire in 1901 (Chapman in Harris and Yalden, 2008).
It would appear that Muntjac have only become established in the North East relatively recently. Lever (1977) shows Muntjac distribution as being southeast of a line that ran roughly from Bristol to just north of the Wash. A later review by Chapman et al. (1994) found that Durham, Cleveland and Tyne and Wear were three of only five counties in England without any Muntjac records. However the same study found records for seven 10 km squares in northeast Northumberland, mainly along the coastal strip between Druridge Bay and Bamburgh, plus an isolated record west of Morpeth. The study considered that all records north of the Humber must be the result of animals that had escaped locally rather than a spreading population from the south. There was also a confirmed record of a Muntjac that had been found beside the A1, 12 miles north of Alnwick, which was examined by Jack Charlton of the North East branch of the British Deer Society.
In 2009 the author summarised the situation with regards to Muntjac distribution in the North East as it appeared at that time (Bond, 2009). Subsequent records have confirmed that position, with some minor expansions on those areas listed in the article; however some additional areas of distribution have also come to light.
From a first sighting of the species at the then Teesside Airport in 1999 by a member of the British Deer Society, Muntjac have now been reported along the River Tees corridor between Sockburn and Yarm and down to Kirklevington. They have been established for some time along the eastern rural fringe of Darlington (Ian Smales, pers. comm., 2009) and the author has twice found their tracks there in the past year, at Barmpton and at Catkill Woods. They have been present to the south of Middlesbrough in the Nunthorpe/Guisborough area since at least 2008 (Kenny Crooks, pers. comm., 2009) and the author had a fleeting glimpse of the tail of what he felt sure was a Muntjac in Wiley Cat Wood, just east of Guisborough in 2011. A report has also recently been received of a Muntjac in Errington Woods at New Marske in May 2008, though as yet there are no corroborating reports of Muntjac from any of the woods that fringe the northern edge of the North York Moors. The British Deer Society’s 2002-2007 deer survey (Ward et al, 2008) shows an isolated record for the 10 km square immediately east of Middlesbrough.
In the author’s 2009 article the area where Muntjac had been most often reported was between the north of Stockton and Trimdon, in particular woods around the route of the Castle Eden Walkway, with two reports of road casualties in the same area in one month in 2008. This continues to be the case as they are now regularly reported in that area with the author finding a Muntjac track in Newton Hanzard plantation in August 2012.
A new area of distribution that has subsequently come to light is around Kirk Merrington and Spennymoor, where Steve Cooper has had several sightings since 2009. This is only around 15 km west of the established population along the Castle Eden Walkway and it will be interesting to see if subsequent reports show them to be in the intervening areas of Sedgefield and Chilton, although given the respective intervening habitats it is more likely that they would have spread from the Tow Law area. This is a similar distance to the northwest where there have been occasional Muntjac sightings for several years, possibly as the result of an introduction of six animals that occurred around the end of the 20th century at Love’s Wood near Lanchester.
Further north, Muntjac are now well established throughout the Derwent Valley from Gibside to Shotley Bridge, based on reports from several correspondents. It is not known at what point they became established. A male Muntjac was seen by Steve Westerberg in Chopwell Woods in 1996 though Ian Smales, who was very familiar with deer populations in Gibside, notes that there was no sign of Muntjac there at that time. In Tynedale they have been reported from Wylam in the east as far as Hexham, where three have now been shot. (Ian Smales, pers. comm., 2012). The sighting of a Muntjac on the A1(M) road verge near the Washington Service Station in 2007 remains the most easterly report in the north of County Durham that the author has received, though there is an unconfirmed report of one being shot on the Lambton estate. Given the spread of the above reports, it seems likely that Muntjac are now established throughout the area bordered by the A1(M) in the east, the A68 in the west, the A69 in the north and the A688 in the south.
Curiously, despite the cluster of reports in adjacent 10 km squares in northeast Northumberland referred to above, there do not appear to have been any subsequent reports to suggest that the species may have become established there. Therefore outside of the Hexham area, Plessey Woods is still the only other place where Muntjac appear to be currently established though there are some other sightings that might indicate that they are more widespread. One was seen at Wallington around the year 2000 and subsequent to that a Muntjac was reported to have been killed in the area by a gamekeeper (Jim Cokill, pers. comm., 2011). Also around that time there was an unconfirmed report of regular sightings on the old railway line near Shilbottle by a resident, and unconfirmed reports around the Alnwick area (John Steele, pers. comm., 2012) though as there are no subsequent reports to the author’s knowledge these may have been escaped populations that have not persisted. Similarly, the report next to the northern end of the Tyne Tunnel can surely only be a release or escapee. Interestingly, the British Deer Society’s 2002-2007 deer survey (Ward et al, 2008) shows a Muntjac record from approximately the southern end of the Tyne Tunnel, though again this is not promising deer territory and there are not even any Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus records within several kilometres of either site. Finally, as this is being written in September 2012, there is an unconfirmed sighting of a Muntjac from just south of the Scottish/English border at Kershope Forest near Newcastleton. If accurate it may mean that Northumberland is being colonised from both the southwest and the Scottish borders, as was the case with Grey Squirrels Sciurus carolensis.
The inconspicuous nature of Muntjac means that it is difficult to know what the true situation with their distribution is. As has been noted above, Muntjac do occasionally crop up in some odd places though that may just be a reflection of how much they are moved around and released. However Norma Chapman, who is a national expert on the species, points out that their inconspicuousness can lead to them being established in an area before people are aware of their presence (Chapman, 1991). Currently, it would appear that there are still large areas of the North East where they are absent and as of August 2012 there were still no records from any of the Forestry Commission’s land holdings in the North East (Tom Dearnley, pers. comm., 2012). The British Deer Society repeated their 2002-2007 deer survey in 2011 and while no information is available at the time of going to press, it will be interesting to see if their survey fills in any of the current gaps.
As can be seen from the distribution map, Muntjac are widely, though patchily distributed across the North East at least as far as south Northumberland. The distribution of the records, particularly if confined to the more certain records, would fit with the hypothesis that the species distribution is based on expansion around a few centres of introduction, rather than a natural spread from the south as there appear to be no recent records from the southern limit of its distribution that were any nearer than Ripon or Ryedale (Ward, 2005; Oxford et al, 2007). However it would be hasty to conclude that they are not more widely distributed, particularly in the former counties of Durham and Cleveland. What can be assumed with a lot more confidence is that the species will continue its spread across the North East, either independently or aided by further introductions, and it would probably not be too rash to suggest that its presence will be fairly commonplace, at least as far north as the Tyne, within a decade or so.
Written by Ian Bond (last updated Nov 12)