Not being naturally inclined towards deer stalking, I tend to keep my head down when people start getting technical on the subject of ballistics, gralloching and high seats. I don’t have the patience to be a good stalker, and I approach the sport with an irritating acceptance of failure – I have certainly enjoyed stalking in the past, but if you were to offer me a choice between roe deer or woodcock, I’d always take the woodcock. Likewise, a choice between red deer and grouse comes out as a foregone conclusion.
Because I’m relatively out of the loop in terms of deer stalking, it was a pleasure to be manhandled back into position with a rifle on my back during my stay in Norfolk. I saw my first muntjac deer while shooting woodcock last week, and the encounter was certainly quite inspiring. It seemed to me that as the little figure scampered uncomfortably out into the stubble field that it looked like the malformed offspring of a hare and a pig. Higher at the back than at the front, there was certainly none of the graceful beauty of a roe deer. If anything, the awkward, sporadic lollop seemed to suggest that this was not an animal accustomed to life on four legs, let alone movement on them. I was also amazed by how small it seemed – I had heard that muntjac were not much bigger than hares and I had taken it with a pinch of salt, but here was living proof of the fact.
The following evening, we set out for a closer look at these strange little animals around the ruins of an abandoned friary. Inside the flint walls, scrubby trees had murkily extended themselves into an impenetrable cloud of twigs and bark – a miserable prospect for a beater, but a place of rare promise for anyone interested in woodcock. We quietly parked up the pickup and set off around the crumbling walls, crossing ditches and dykes on creaking wooden planks which had been casually dropped down to serve as bridges. Gadwall and shoveller lifted from some of the waterways, and a swarm of wigeon came squeaking in to feed on an area of flooded grass nearby; although I was itching to get in amongst them, this was no wildfowling trip. As the evening drew on, it was revealed that any muntjac in the wood would begin to emerge for a bite to eat. Provided we were in the right spot, we would stand a good chance of getting in range amongst the reed beds, and we worked round in a broad circle to where the ground rose slightly to give us a vantage point over the little marsh.
As we walked, a flurry of movement ahead first drew our attention to a roe buck and then a muntjac. Both were keen to get out of sight, but we followed up the muntjac and then stood well back under the cover of an ivy coated hedge to see if it would emerge again. This was already more promising than my usual experience of stalking – we had seen the species we were looking for. Knowing that there were also chinese water deer in the vicinity made the next twenty minutes all the more interesting. We scanned back and forth through the marsh with binoculars in the hope of spotting something, but to no avail. With the light starting to fail, we turned back for the pickup and cast one look back to where we had seen the muntjac vanish. There amongst the tussocks of fallen white grass was a black shape. It moved, and then was joined by another. Two muntjac, jostling shyly amongst the grass. I watched them through the binoculars; amazed by the comic figures.
The way they browsed the grass was so reminiscent of pigs that I felt like I wasn’t watching deer at all. They fussed and busied themselves around together, black backs breaking the surface of the grass like tiny porpoises. When they stood still to listen, they held up their stubby ginger heads and peered weakly around, rotating their pink, cup shaped ears in a dwarfish imitation of what you might normally describe as the behaviour of “real” deer. All the time they were in range but never offering a decent shot. When the moment came, the rifle cracked sharply and the buck fell stone dead at a range of around sixty yards. The interval between spotting them and pulling the trigger had only been five minutes, but that extended period had given me a great chance to watch them going about their business, giving me a great chance to see them move and interact with one another.
Seeing him close up was quite an experience. A deer with canine teeth presents such an unusual spectacle that I was hardly surprised to find that the wicked looking ivories were wobbly and not rooted into bone – it seems like nothing is too inexplicable for muntjac. I almost expected to find a pair of wings and a dorsal fin somewhere. I had just shot my first muntjac deer and felt more excited than I had by any stalking experience in many years. These little deer warrant a great deal more scrutiny, and certainly don’t deserve the title of vermin which increasingly seems to be attached to them. I understand that they aren’t native, but how much more charm and intrigue there is to a muntjac than any number of grey squirrels. The final test of whether or not muntjac are decent animals will come tonight, when the haunch is perfectly done and a slice falls neatly onto my plate.