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Chinese water deer

Chinese water deer


Chinese water deer is a small species. Both adult males (bucks) and females (does) sexes only reach a height of 50 – 55 cm at the shoulder and weigh 11 – 18 kg.

Bucks have large protruding tusks and no antlers, which are generally only visible in adults. The tusks are used as weapons during the rut and in defence against predators. The existence of tusks suggests that they are a very primitive form of deer as they developed before antlers evolved. Large rounded ears give them a ‘teddy bear’ like appearance. The coat is russet-brown in summer to pale grey-brown in the winter. Chinese water deer lack the white caudal patch of roe deer.

History, distribution & habitat

Chinese water deer were first kept at London Zoo in 1873 but escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in 1929. Numbers increased through introductions into deer parks and subsequent escapes and releases and the British population is now thought to account for 10% of the world's total. Distribution is mainly in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk with a few scattered sightings elsewhere. Preferred habitats include reed beds, river shores, woodlands and fields making the wet fenlands of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk ideal. They are selective feeders taking small morsels from nutritious plants, especially herbs, but may take woody browse, grasses and sedges if food is limited.

Due to low local densities and restricted national distribution, Chinese water deer are of little national economic significance. Locally they may browse the tops from root crops in winter when other food sources are in short supply, but they do not cause damage to trees. Their low density and restricted range also means that the stalking market for Chinese water deer is very small.

Breeding, behaviour & lifecycle

During the rut bucks and does form pairs and defend territories during November and December remaining together until April. As with some other deer species, bucks perform parallel walks with invading rivals and only fight if their dominance order is not established using this method. Unlike antlered species, fighting in Chinese water deer rarely results in fatalities but injuries are common.

Chinese water deer are solitary except when mating, but may form pairs or small groups at high density. Bucks are particularly aggressive and do not tolerate the presence of other bucks. Both sexes give a short bark when alarmed or as a warning. While chasing other deer, bucks make a rapid chattering sound called ‘whickering’. During courtship a buck emits whistles and squeaks. Both sexes scream when chased.

Does give birth from May to July after a six to seven-month gestation. They can produce up to six fawns but one to three is more usual. Up to 40% of fawns die within the first four weeks of life. Lifespan is estimated as up to six years.

Chinese water deer are active throughout the 24-hour period with the peak time of activity around dusk. After feeding, long periods are spent ‘lying up’ where the deer lie down to ruminate.

Download species leaflet.

Download distribution & identification poster.

Further Reading

Cooke, A. and Farrell, L. (1998) Chinese water deer. The Mammal Society, London and the British Deer Society, Fordingbridge.
Corbet, G. B and Harris, S. (eds) (1991) The handbook of British Mammals. Blackwell Scientific Publications, London.