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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese Water Deer’

Chinese Water Deer in the garden

The Chinese Water Deer in the garden

I’ve been laid up with the ‘flu for a few days so I’m taking it easy at the moment.  Fortunately the wildlife seems to be coming to me today.

We often sit in our living room and watch the birds on the feeders.  Today, the usual tits, goldfinches, blackbirds and robins have been joined by a new visitor.  A Chinese Water Deer has taken up residence on my lawn.  It’s been sitting there for the last hour or so at least, quietly chewing the cud.

Chinese Water Deer are fairly common around here.  They’re scarce outside Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, but they are slowly expanding their range.  They are yet another foreign species that escaped from the Woburn Estate.

Chinese Water Deer at the bird table

Feeding under the bird table

This one is a shaggy old beast.  I don’t know if CWD grow a winter coat, but this one certainly seems to be hairier than most.  It is difficult to tell males from females with CWD (i.e. I can’t do it) as they both have the same tusks.

I like this.  I can now watch the local wildlife from the comfort of my sofa, so the deer is welcome to stay if it wants somewhere peaceful to sit and digest.  On the other hand, perhaps this is just a reflection on how much of a wilderness my garden is at the moment.

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Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer

I’ve bought a new car.  All that remains is to siphon out the diesel from the old one, Mad Max-style, and it can go to the big scrapheap in the sky.

I made a quick trip to the wood on Sunday.  I decided to visit the main sett and see if there was any sign of more badgers.  I’m becoming certain that there are a lot fewer badgers in residence this year and not having been here for a while I wanted to make sure they were OK.  The dry spell has ended – it seems like we’ve had torrential rain and thunderstorms every other day this week – so at least the foraging should be easier for them.

I arrived at the sett just before 8.00pm, only to find my path blocked by a Chinese Water Deer browsing through the undergrowth.  I like watching deer and they’re great fun to try to stalk in a wood.  This one presented a challenge though.  It was very close to the sett, so if I frightened it, it would probably frighten any badgers that were above ground.  This is how it works with wild creatures: any disturbance to one tends to create a reaction in others, which is why it is so important to move stealthily even when you’re some distance from the animals you want to watch.

Predictably, despite my cautious approach the deer eventually caught sight of me and bounded off.  Interestingly, it had a big split in one of its ears, which should make it possible to identify in the future.  I can only assume that this was caused by a fight with another Chinese Water Deer.  The males have long teeth.  I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet they fight each other over territory or females, despite their cute appearance.

I don’t know if the deer frightened off any badgers, but there weren’t any in sight.  I sat in my tree and watched for half an hour as the light gradually faded.  At 8.37 a badger emerged from the western end of the sett, showing that they’re back in residence at this end.  It wandered to and fro, foraging in the damp wood.  For a while it sat under my tree, directly underneath me (too dark for pictures, unfortunately).  It seemed healthy and happy, not bothered by any traces of my scent in the area.

After a while it ambled off into the gloom of the wood.  I gave it five minutes head start and left for home.  It was good to see the badger, but it was only one badger on its own.  There’s nothing so far to suggest that my idea that the badgers are much reduced is incorrect.

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I’ve just got back from a fascinating little night-time walk around the fields behind my house.

Scarlett has been a bit unsettled and grizzly this evening, so in an attempt to calm her down and bring some peace to the house I put her in the baby carrier, grabbed a torch and went out into the dark for a stroll.  At the top of the field the torchlight picked up the eyeshine of a small group of animals.

Spotting wildlife after dark can be easier than during the day, provided you have a torch, as the eyeshine is visible at long distances and even in quite thick undergrowth.  Nocturnal animals have an extra reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum at the back of the eye to capture all available light.  This helps them to see better in the dark but it also makes them more visible.  The exact colour of the reflection varies with species, and experienced observers can identify animals solely from the colour of their eyeshine.  Non-nocturnal animal such as humans do not have this reflective layer, so in a strong light their eyes will tend to reflect the red of the blood vessels at the back of the eye, hence the familiar ‘red eye’ effect in flash photography.

I had no camera, binoculars or any of my usual wildlife watching kit with me, but for the sheer fun of it I decided to see how close I could get to these animals.  It seemed odd to be stealthily stalking animals at night while shining a light in their faces, but they were remarkably unbothered by it.  As I got closer I was surprised to see that the animals were five Chinese Water Deer.  I’ve always thought of these as a solitary species.  You sometimes see two in the same field, but they tend to maintain an air of indifference to each other.  Yet there they were, five of them clustered together and looking and acting for all the world like a small herd.  This was definitely new behaviour to me.

Despite the torchlight they were feeding happily – content but still wary.  They’d graze for a few seconds and then raise their head to check around them.  Either by chance or design there was always at least one deer in the group scanning for danger at all times.  Over a space of ten minutes or so I managed to get within 50 yards of them, which is closer than I could do in daylight, before a muntjac barked a few fields away and they all bolted.

It was an interesting little walk that opened up all sorts of possibilities.  I learnt that deer are much more approachable after dark.  I learnt that Chinese Water Deer seem to have a more complex social life than I’d suspected.  Most importantly I learnt that going out for a stroll is a good way to get a grizzly baby to settle down.  I suspect there’ll be a few more of these short nocturnal walks over the coming months.  Next time I’ll remember to take a camera.

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Chinese Water Deer in Bedfordshire

Chinese Water Deer in Bedfordshire

Just a picture of a Chinese Water Deer that was in the field behind my house this morning.  Now the wheat has been harvested they’re much more visible.

These little deer are a naturalised species here in Bedfordshire, having escaped from the nearby Woburn Deer Park.  This is a female – the males have impressive ‘tusks’, actually long canine teeth.

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I’ve been asked the question a few times when I’m wandering about the countryside.  It’s a reasonable conclusion for people to make.  The green jumper and binoculars must be a dead giveaway.  The truth is, I’m not really a birdwatcher.  I’ll watch anything, me – bird or beast.  It’s all part of getting to know my local area.

There are two chinese water deer in this picture. Can you spot them?

There are two chinese water deer in this picture. Can you spot them?

I went for my Sunday stroll this morning – not quite at dawn – I couldn’t get out of bed early enough.  Since the crops have grown up the Chinese Water Deer have taken to hiding in the middle of the fields, only their ears visible, like the periscope of a submarine.  CWD seem to prefer the middle of fields.  As a rule, if you see a small deer in a hedgerow it’s likely to be a muntjac; if it’s in the middle of the field it’s a CWD.

If the mammals were quiet today, then the birds were full of life.  It’s spring and they’re putting their heart and soul into defending territories and finding mates.  I spent an hour or so wandering around watching birds and listening to birdsong.  It seemed like every tree had it’s resident bird, sitting somewhere near the top and singing away for all they were worth.

Thrush

Thrush

Have you ever really listened to birdsong?  I’m mean really listened, not just been aware of it as background noise?  Here’s a challenge for everyone then.  Take a walk outside – in the countryside, in a wood or in a park – and listen to the different birds as you go.  Look at the trees and bushes they are calling from.  Find out how far they are away from each other.  Listen how they interact with each other.  I guarantee that if you pay attention then you’ll be amazed.

Chaffinch

Chaffinch

I’m trying to learn the songs of different birds at the moment, and it makes a real difference to get out and actually see the birds as they sing.  Today there were thrushes, robins, chaffinches, great tits, blue tits, a cuckoo (first one of the year for me) and – oddly – a peacock.  None of these are rare birds (the peacock was a bit unusual, I assume it was a pet in a garden), but being aware of them gave a whole new dimension to the walk.  I’d recommend it.

This morning was another first for me in birdwatching terms.  I saw a hawk being mobbed by crows.  I’ve heard of this happening but had never seen it before.  An aerial dogfight was played out before me, with the hawk and crows twisting and turning across the sky.  They were unfortunately too far away for me to identify the hawk, but impressive nonetheless.

So am I a birdwatcher?  Well, I can’t recognise many birds, and I don’t feel the urge to travel the country looking for rarities, but yes, I think I must be.

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Muntjac

Muntjac

Once again, things are busy at work, and I’ve been all over the country in the last couple of weeks, bringing business psychology to the masses and having little time for wildlife at home.

Today being Sunday though, I had time to get up early and go on my regular ‘dawn patrol’ walk around the fields and woods just as it is getting light.  It’s a great time to be out watching wildlife, and as long as you don’t mind getting out of bed it gives you a whole extra part of the day.

7.00am found me sitting with my back to a tree, looking over a ploughed field.  The usual gaggle of rabbits were out and about, a muntjac peered at me from the hedge, and a large flock of rooks was circling over the woods.  As the light grew though, the main object of interest was a trio of Chinese Water Deer meandering around the field.  Their tawny coats were surprisingly well camouflaged against the sandy soil.

Chinese Water Deer seem to be figuring in my thoughts a lot at the moment.  They seem to be more numerous in the local area than I imagined.  I think some of this has to do with my familiarity with them – a few years ago I would have classed all small deer as ‘muntjac’ and thought no more about it.  Now I can recognise the CWD for what they are and distinguish them easily, and I smile at my past foolishness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tracking, I’m still quite naive.  I still tend to class all small deer tracks as ‘muntjac’ and think no more about it.  In fact, I’m doing exactly what I used to do with visual sightings.

The problem is, the tracks of muntjac and CWD do look very similar. I could be looking at a field full of what I think are muntjac tracks, and they may actually be CWD.  Or vice versa.  For someone like me, who likes to be accurate, even on meaningless things, this is an important point.

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

The classic reference book of tracks, Animal Tracks and Signs, by Bang and Dahlstrom, doesn’t even mention CWD – I suppose they aren’t really common outside the Southeast of England (and China, of course).

The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails and Signs, my other preferred guidebook, says that CWD prints are very wide and splayed.  The problem with this is, it’s wrong.  The prints are actually quite small and neat.  I know.  I’ve spent the morning watching the deer and then walking up and looking at their tracks.

So, I’ve got a problem.  It is difficult to tell the deer apart from their tracks alone.

The answer, I think, is to look at the trail as a whole, not at individual tracks.  The trail of an animal is as characteristic as the shape of its feet.  This is the approach recommended by Paul Rezendes in his book Tracking & The Art of Seeing.

This is where my tracking stick starts to come into its own.  A tracking stick is a walking stick used in tracking.  The main use of a tracking stick is to establish the stride length of a given animal, and knowing this, predict where the next track should be.  The tracking stick helps you to narrow down the search area so you can find every single track. I tend to use my tracking stick as more of a simple measuring tool.  I have marked it in 10cm intervals and it has a 10x1cm scale attached.  This allows me to make rough and ready (but reasonably accurate) measurements in the field.

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Here’s the clever part.  Having come across a new set of tracks, I can measure the stride length.  I did this for one trail, and found the strides to be 32cm to 38cm long, with most around the 36cm mark.

Looking at the guidebooks, they give a typical stride length for muntjac as 25-30cm, and for CWD as 30-40cm.   This means that my deer, with a stride length of about 36cm, falls outside the range for muntjac, but well within the range for CWD.  Based on stride length alone, we can say with some confidence that the trail has been made by a CWD rather than by a muntjac.

This is exciting stuff.  Although I would struggle to differentiate between the two deer based only on the shape of their footprints, measuring and comparing stride length makes it quite easy to do.

As with anything, there are complications to using stride lengths and gait patterns to identify a species.  Is the deer running or walking?  Is it full size or half-grown?  And so on.  But I like it as a technique.

An awful lot of the information available about tracking today seems very ‘spiritual’ and mystical.  I have no problem with this, and I respect anyone who can use it in this way, but it is not for me.  I earn my bread and butter as a scientist, and although I like to get away from work as often as I can, I can never quite turn off my scientific reasoning.

This is why I like this measurement approach – it is scientific and can easily be applied and tested (unlike many ideas connected to tracking) and it appeals to my use of data and facts.  I’ll see if I can make more use of it over the coming months.

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