Country Notes

The deer hunter

Patrick Galbraith tries to bag a muntjac

On tower bridge, the usually ever-present selfie stick-waving tourists were conspicuously absent. In fact, a lone man — of similar stature to the sad-eyed bulldog waddling at his feet — was the only person in sight. As I turned right on to The Highway, formerly Ratcliffe Highway, a crime-ridden thoroughfare in the nineteenth century, the latest coronavirus headlines hit the airwaves.

I wondered whether I was set to encounter a descendant of the 15-quid curiosity

When I was a child, before I broke my father’s record player, I used to listen to a recording of Ronnie Drew, the Irish folk musician, singing a cautionary ballad warning sailors not to go looking for “sport” in the Highway’s “whorehouses”. What Drew doesn’t mention is that for seafarers who had a bit of time to kill but were happy to keep their trousers on, there was Jamrach’s Exotic Animal Emporium at number 179.

As a teenager, I kept giant African land snails in a repurposed fish tank, but beyond that I’m largely unfamiliar with exotic creatures. I can foresee, however, that they present certain risks. One such risk is recorded as presenting itself, in escaped Bengal tiger form, to a young chimney sweep shuffling down the road in 1857. The eight-year-old assumed that, like smaller cats he’d known and loved, it would respond well to petting. Contemporary newspaper accounts record that the tiger carried the boy off down the road and only released him when Jamrach beat it over the head with a crowbar.

At the less exciting end of exoticism, Good Words, a monthly magazine aimed at the middle-class religious masses, reported in 1897 that Jamrach had an “Asiatic deer” for sale for £15.

Incidentally, I was on my way to Suffolk to try and shoot an Asiatic deer, a muntjac specifically. Driving past the spot on which the Emporium stood, I wondered whether I was set to encounter a descendant of the 15-quid curiosity. It is not entirely impossible. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was de rigueur for landowning dandies to have exotic creatures in the grounds of their homes that were purchased from the likes of Jamrach’s.

The Duke of Bedford was a notorious deer fancier and kept a number of different species in the park at Woburn Abbey. While the family resists the claim, it’s often proposed that the first muntjac to roam Britain was one that found a gap in the ducal fence.

Three hours later, about five miles inland of Thorpeness, Suffolk, I was perched on a “high seat” in the trees next to James Allen, a disarmingly gentle former marine and lifelong deerstalker. “The thing about muntjac,” he told me, as we looked out into a woodland clearing, “is that we’ll never get rid of them. It’s only ever going to be a case of staying on top of them.”

When James was young he remembers muntjac being a real novelty but there are now so many — and numbers are rising so quickly — that almost nobody is willing to offer up any hard population estimate, with fuzzy suggestions starting at hundreds of thousands and ranging, wildly, into the millions. As well as the huge numbers of road accidents they cause, the invasive species browse scrubby woodland understory, which is vital habitat for nightingales.

Over the past 40 years the population of the sonorous russet little birds has declined by 90 per cent. From our elevated position, James pointed to patches of hazel, bramble and blackthorn regrowth that have sprung up in the five years he has been managing deer in the area.

Light began to fade, the temperature started to drop, and all around us the grey sky came to life with birds drifting home to roost for the night. Just as I was watching a woodcock flit through the trees, a movement about 100 yards away caught my eye — a muntjac buck was browsing among a patch of daffodils. From his pocket James produced a call, which imitates the plaintive bleat of a fawn in distress and appeals to the adult’s protective instinct. As he squeezed it gently, the deer’s head came up and it turned, then trotted through the clearing towards us. “Just as soon as you’ve got a clear shot,” came the command. I settled my head onto the stock of the riffle and sized up the little deer through the cross-hairs. The buck stopped and I held my breath while taking up the tension of the cold trigger with my finger. Time seemed to stand still. I’d been so transfixed by James’ account of tackling Somali pirates that I hadn’t put a bullet into the chamber. The riffle went click and the buck disappeared through the trees.

That evening, on my way back to London, reflecting on how I’d let Britain’s nightingales down, I counted the muntjac grazing on the verges. There were 21 in total and four in the boot of my car, which James had shot the previous day. An Italian restaurant-owning friend in Kensington had decided to put his kitchen to good use, in the time of corona, by making venison ragout for local residents who couldn’t get out shopping.

After taking the carcasses down to the kitchen, I sat in the back of the restaurant with a glass of wine and wondered just how much muntjac ragout we’d need to eat to save Keats’s seemingly not-so-immortal bird.

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