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Now you see them...

PUBLISHED: 15:24 14 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:26 20 February 2013

Now you see them...

Now you see them...

...but most of the time you don't. Despite inhabiting our countryside and nature reserves in their thousands, the five species of deer who call Suffolk home are extremely elusive. John Grant goes in search of Suffolk's shyest stars.

Some are as big as horses and even the smallest ones are the size of German shepherd dogs so isnt it amazing that Suffolks five deer species are often so difficult to see?
Its as if these phantoms of the forest simply dissolve into our woodlands.
Its not even as if they are rare. Theres a herd of several hundred of the biggest species, the mighty red deer, that roam the heaths, woods and reedbeds around the RSPBs Minsmere reserve its said to be the species biggest herd outside Scotland, where it truly is Monarch of the Glen. And yet the vast majority of Minsmeres 100,000-or-so visitors who descend on the reserve each year remain completely oblivious to the presence sometimes the very close presence of Britains largest land mammal.
You can bet that the deer arent oblivious to the humans, though. As the crowds pour past on the woodland trails and peer out over the golden expanses of the reserves huge reedbeds from the hides, the majestic red deer probably knows we are there. After all this is his kingdom.
At the other end of the Suffolk deer scale there is the little muntjac. Thousands of them. It seems every woodland in Suffolk is home to at least a few. And yet how often are they seen?
A quick glimpse as one stands motionless in the darkness on the roadside verge, illuminated all-too-briefly by a passing vehicles headlights. Or a quick, fleeting flash of the prominent white under-tail as one bounds away during a woodland walk. Thats usually about all we see of this little character.
But when we do see a deer in Suffolk, be it red, muntjac, or any of our three other species fallow, roe or Chinese water deer well, what a thrill. Eye-to-eye contact with another mammal. One that shares our world, our county. The excitement is always as intense as it was the very first time every encounter is to be cherished.
So, we have five species in Suffolk a sixth, the sika, was recorded in 1988 but it was seen near a captive herd at Kessingland, near Lowestoft, from which it probably had gone walk-about. However, only red and roe are indigenous to Britain.
This fabulous five, and indeed Suffolks current red deer population, are descendants from animals that escaped from collections or were introduced to the county over the centuries for hunting and food.
It used to be the thrill of the chase, then. Now, for most of us at least, its the thrill of contact and observation that makes these animals, native or not, such an endearing and fascinating part of the Suffolk scene.
Contact with red deer is particularly exhilarating, especially if you are lucky enough to witness the autumn rut when stags become, shall we say, a little frisky with thoughts of mating and so stage show-off bellowing andantler-bashing contests.
Our native red deer were probably hunted to extinction by about the Middle Ages and todays Suffolk stock originate from the bygone hunting era. There appears to be two distinct population clusters, one in the Breckland forests of the north-west and one in the north-east, mainly between the rivers Alde and Blyth, with those in other locations probably being wandering individuals.
Smaller than red deer, but the second largest of our species, is the fallow deer the classic spotted species which was formerly the countys most numerous but which has now been overtaken in population by muntjac and roe, possibly due to fallow deer being a little more fussy in habitat requirement. It needs large woodlands with many glades and rides or clusters of copses separated by arable or pasture land and can now be found mainly in the area between Lowestoft and Southwold, the forests of Rendlesham and Tunstall and their peripheries, especially Sudbourne, the areas around Tattingstone, Bentley, Wherstead, Holbrook and the Shotley Peninsula in south Suffolk, and in much of west Suffolk, particularly in the Kings Forest and Thetford Forest.
Slightly smaller is the roe deer, a species whose native stock had died out in Suffolk, and most of the rest of Britain, by the 18th century. Reintroduced with German stock at Santon Downham about 120 years ago, it now shows the clearest west-east divide of all the countys deer species. They are common in the Breckland forests and are found over much of west Suffolk. However, they are only just starting to filter into east Suffolk a range expansion which appears to be part of a national increase.
That increase, however, is almost as nothing compared to that of the muntjac, or to give it its full name, Reeves muntjac. The closely related Indian muntjac is thought to have died out after releases in Bedfordshire in the early 20th century, but our muntjac has positively thrived since then.
This little forest-dweller from China has made much of Britain its adopted home and Suffolk is certainly no exception. The first to be found in the county was also East Anglias first it was unceremoniously shot at Parham Wood, near Framlingham, in 1940. Now the species is widely distributed and is sometimes even seen in urban settings.
Last on to the Suffolk scene was the somewhat enigmatic Chinese water deer, with the countys first being seen near Brandon in 1987. A native of China and Korea, the species was introduced to Britain at Woburn Park, Bedfordshire, in 1896. By 1945 the species was existing in the wild, utilising reedbed, grazing marsh and fen habitats. Rather rarely seen, this antler-less species is mainly encountered in north and east Suffolk, with a few records from the Waveney valley and further west.
What with range expansions and increasing populations, Suffolks deer species seem to be on to a good thing they clearly, and understandably, find the county much to their liking.
Thing is, although they are undoubtedly there often in impressive numbers they can indeed be forest phantoms. Difficult to see? Well, may be. But think about it this way. When you are lucky enough to experience a Suffolk deer encounter, it makes it all the more special.


Further information: The Mammals of Suffolk, Simone Bullion, published by Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Suffolk Naturalists Society, British Deer Society, www.bds.org.uk, The Deer Initiative, www.thedeerinitiative.co.uk

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