Take a walk down to Cemetery Junction in Reading and you may hear some peculiar noises. A rustle in the bushes, then a nimble scamper across the meadow, followed by a distinctive barking sound.
Sitting on a bench, quietly eating my lunch, I suddenly spotted three deer running across the graveyard. Due to their small size I initially thought they were fawns, but a quick read of the notice board at the entrance to the cemetery reveals that Reading is home to a rare bred of Muntjac, or ‘barking deer’.
The loud bark is given under a number of circumstances. An alarmed muntjac may scream, meanwhile maternal and young does often cry out. I am yet to hear a bark in real life, but it never takes long before the deer make an appearance. The peak times of activity are generally at dusk and dawn, but they are out and about at all times of day. I, for one, have spotted them every time I have been down to the cemetery.
Woodlands are their preferred habitat, but they are increasingly found in gardens and even walking down streets.
Muntjac were first introduced from China to Woburn Park in Bedfordshire in the early 20th century. Deliberate releases and escapes from Woburn, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire led to feral populations establishing, with a 2010 survey recording the breed in Wales, Ireland, and recently Scotland – a far cry from their native south-east China and Taiwan.
Even so, it seems the lush meadow at Cemetery Junction is a welcome abode for the small population. The cemetery, which was opened in 1843 and contains several war graves and memorials, is a Local Wildlife Site due to its “significant value for the conservation of wildlife, […] its local character and its distinctiveness”, say Reading Borough Council. Two areas of the site are even managed as meadows, meaning they are not cut between March and the end of August to allow the wildflowers to flower and set their seeds.
Unlike many other deer, muntjac deer do not have a fixed breeding season. Instead, they reproduce continually throughout the year, starting from as young as eight months old.
The population were even featured on a recent BBC documentary, where presenter Chris Packham set out to catch a glimpse of the UK’s smallest deer.
Reading Cemetery makes for a charming afternoon walk and a nice change of scene during these busy autumn months. It is one of England’s earliest grave cemeteries, with around 18,000 grave spaces – many of whom are historically noteworthy occupants of Reading. With two Grade 2 listed memorials, the cemetery is a befitting environment for a unique breed of deer.