The ‘vulnerable’ Chinese deer hunted for fun in the UK

Hilary Clarke

A species of small deer originating from the banks of the Yangtze River in China has become an unlikely focus of a campaign against trophy hunting in the UK.

The Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) are descendants of a small herd brought over from China in the 1890s by Herbrand Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford.

They are recognisable by their prominent tusks that look like vampire fangs.

They were introduced into Russell’s estate at Woburn Park in Bedfordshire, along with other deer species, including one his family helped save from extinction in China, known there as the Milu deer or Pere David’s deer in the West.

But some Chinese water deer escaped Russell’s countryside estate and found the flatlands of Bedfordshire and the fenlands around Cambridge a perfect habitat to breed.

Today they are listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s so-called “Red List”, meaning populations in their natural habitat were decreasing.

However, Chinese water deer have becoming a lucrative business for hunting tour companies that charge hundreds of pounds for the pleasure of killing the introduced species in the UK.

One company charges £300 (US$372) a day, with a £1,650 (US$2,050) fee to take the head away.

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“When you think of trophy hunting you think of people gloating over beautiful animals they have just shot in Africa,” said a spokesperson for the local campaign group Bedfordshire Against Trophy Hunting (BATH), who didn’t want to be named to protect members, some of whom work on the country estates.

“What is particularly abhorrent is that it is happening on our doorstep, here in England as well. It is becoming a serious industry and a serious amount of money exchanges hands.”

Experts say the deer do little damage to forests or farms because they prefer to hang round wetlands or in meadows where they are easily visible, but makes them easy prey for hunters.

Chinese water deer have tusks that look like vampire fangs. Photo: Shutterstock

“They don’t have big antlers, but they have these tusks from their upper jaws and that’s what a lot of these trophy hunters find so attractive, because it’s different,” said the BATH spokesperson.

“It’s about the novelty for their wall. Because they are becoming so prevalent, it’s quite a big trade in the UK – a lot of gamekeepers who run game bird shoots will also offer a day shooting of Chinese water deer.”

While deer sometimes do need to be culled if they become too numerous, the spokesperson said BATH was against the “fun and sport” element of trophy hunting.

“We have really good evidence that Danes, Germans, Norwegians and Swedes are coming to the UK in substantial numbers to shoot Chinese water deer. They are not professional hunters, but people with more money than sense. It’s all about the ego.”

Arnold Cooke, one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese water deer, who has recently published a book about them, said there was no evidence to suggest they were a pest that needed to be culled.

However, because they are seen as an invasive species, UK laws do not protect them.

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“If they were called the ‘graceful water deer’ the general public would think they sound nice. But the fact they are called Chinese water deer, they expect they will increase and they are still spreading,” he said.

Cooke said the deer were abundant all over China 150 years ago, but because they were hunted and habitats were lost, there are now less than 5,000 left in their original habitats.

Indeed, country estates in England have been instrumental in conservation efforts, by helping to reintroduce the species in China.

Another species, the Milu deer, disappeared from China, but were reintroduced from breeding stock at Herbrand Russell’s English estate. File photo: AP

“There has been a release programme in Shanghai on the coast where they have collected them from where they are breeding in relatively dense areas,” Cooke said.

“However from the 1990s their number has nearly halved and they are declining faster than the conservation effort. I took a lady researcher from China and we saw a group of about half a dozen and she said the most she has ever seen in a day is three.”

In England, the deer have stayed mainly in the counties of Bedfordshire, North Essex and Cambridgeshire, partly because of the wetlands that are similar to their natural habitats in China.

But they are “extremely dim when it comes to avoiding cars”, so they get killed on the roads, Cooke said.

Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns for the League Against Cruel Sports, said it was “shameful” that trophy hunting was alive and well in Britain.

“Killing animals for fun and posing with the corpse of their victim is a vile and sickening activity which has no place in a modern and compassionate society,” Luffingham said.

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