We’d seen none of our quarry. Rabbits and lanky European hares darted across fallow fields spackled by an earlier storm. Pheasants — hardy, wily, lucky survivors of past driven shoots –strutted through sorghum and stubble. They rocketed, cackling, from hedgerows and thundered from arboreal roosts shared by wood pigeons. “Foxes nab those birds so foolish as to overnight in fields,” said Oliver. “We’ve lots of foxes.”
But the deer proved scarce. “Slots.” He pointed: one hoof print, pressed daintily into the mud. You could have covered each half with a .22 Magnum hull. We had seen few such tracks, most near the cylindrical pheasant-feeders. “Muntjac like corn as much as the birds do.”
“This animal is not yet extinct,” Oliver assured me. I’d been skunked enough in my four decades of hunting to find humor in failure, and said so. My host clasped the Zeiss to his brow and scanned a distant tree line. “I know they’re here.”
Earlier, checking zero on my Blaser R8 in a distant wood, we’d rousted three roe deer. Small by North American standards, they’re giants next to muntjac. Those tiny cervids with long visible canines hail from the Far East. “John Reeves, the 11th Duke of Bedford, was an assistant inspector of tea for the East Indian Tea Company during the 1880s,” Oliver said. “He maintained a deer and wildlife park at Woburn. He introduced a pheasant there that bears his name and, in 1893, the first muntjak.” Those were Indian deer, Muntiacus muntjak. Proper spelling for that animal is still muntjak. But the subspecies from China, principally Muntiacus reevesi, answer to muntjac.
“Muntjac are fiercely territorial,” he continued. “Males fight with their fangs and antlers. The bawling fawn in this diaphragm commonly brings a female, but often the male follows close behind.”
Legend has it the first muntjak in Bedford’s estate escaped and killed a prized hunting dog. The next deer the Duke imported, a year later, were the smaller Chinese muntjac. They’ve prospered. About 20 inches at the shoulder, adult males wear a black chevron on their chestnut face. Females are slighter in build, lighter in color. They have a diamond facial marking.
“Muntjac inhabited Europe long ago,” Oliver had explained on our drive from London to the Cotswolds. “Their ancestors have turned up in fossils dating to the Miocene, 15 million years ago. In fact, the earliest evidence of deciduous antlers came from muntjac.” The several muntjac subspecies now recognized include the giant muntjac discovered in 1994 in the VuQuang Nature Preserve in Vietnam. It weighs as much as 110 pounds.
“Muntjac eat mainly browse,” said Oliver. “But they’ll graze on new wheat and barley.” These animals rut mostly in February and March, though breeding can occur year-round. The young –always singlets — weigh just two pounds at birth. Females can cycle 36 days later, and the young are weaned soon thereafter.
“We have about 150,000 muntjac in England now,” Oliver told me. “They account for a substantial part of the 160,000 deer shot annually.”
I had booked with Oliver Power’s English Safari Company because Oliver shared my passion for still-hunting — or stalking, as the English say. I noticed primitive tree stands as we slipped quietly through the woods. “You can sit and wait for them,” my host conceded. “But that’s boring.” This week, it would also have been cold. The mercury passed zero Centigrade on its dive to a finger numbing zero Fahrenheit. England’s notorious humidity hung around to make certain that arctic chill entered our bones.
“The cold doesn’t bother muntjac unduly,” Oliver said. “They’re hardy little animals, and resilient. Decay of estates following the wars brought on brush and bramble — ideal cover. New plantings by the Forestry Commission since have also favored muntjac.” These tiny deer are shy but hyperactive, darting about like rabbits. They can jump well but prefer to slip under fences.
I found they could also vanish at will. For three days, morning and afternoon, Oliver and I prowled coverts where he’d seen muntjac and where in the past the English Safari Company had successfully delivered shots to visiting hunters. But the Blaser rifle, a 6.5×55 with Zeiss 2½-10×42 scope, remained silent. I got no glimpse even of a muntjac’s whitetail-like flag.
So, a change in plan. “Isn’t Kynamco close by?” I asked. “Indeed,” replied Oliver. “I’ll ring up David Little.” David was, ironically, in the States, extending his stay after the SCI convention. But we drove to Suffolk County and found the imposing block building with the small black “Kynoch” sign. Ross Marshall welcomed us, then in his office patiently traced the resurrection of Kynoch, England’s venerable source of big-bore cartridges (see sidebar). Again available in classic red-and-yellow Kynoch boxes, Kynamoco’s hunting cartridges feature Woodleigh softnose and solid bullets (a Swift A-Frame appears in new .500/.416 loads).
No visit to southern England is complete without a walk-about in London. Parking our duffel at Oliver’s father’s charming country home in Hartfordshire, we motored into the beehive of traffic swarming Parliament and the fashionable Bond Street district. Then it was shank’s mare. “We can stop at Beretta’s shop and still make the rounds,” said Oliver. “I know the fellows there. You’ll like that place.” I managed to dodge taxis despite looking the wrong way at every crosswalk.
The Beretta collection, almost all shotguns, was indeed impressive. “We’re selling a lot of the Jubilees.” The genial attendant admitted to shooting a great deal with smallbores himself, “because they’re wonderful in the hand, and quite a challenge.”
Again on the street, we doglegged a few blocks to London’s premier retail outlet for fine guns, Ray Ward. “We have more Purdeys than does Purdey,” clipped a salesman, who, with a dismissive glance at my camera, observed that I might also wish to speak with the store’s agent. His colleagues were more engaging. I stayed long enough to ogle Denys Finch-Hatton’s double rifle. You’ll recognize that name from “Out of Africa.” This was the real thing, under glass but scarred and burnished by a life in the bush, where the dashing PH and pilot frolicked with Karen Blixen until his Gypsy Moth stalled and planted itself in 1931.
We left Ray Ward’s rarified air for the gritty wash of winter wind spinning petrol exhaust through shadowed streets. Oliver waved down a black cab. “Vauxhall.” Off we motored to the Rigby shop. Actually, it was Paul Roberts’ shop. Expecting top-end shotguns and rifles (I’d seen Rigby’s prized wares at SCI’s Las Vegas event two weeks earlier), we were both surprised by the authenticity of the place. Young Marc Newton brought us down a factory-like hallway to a real gun room. No tweed jackets or glass-fronted cabinets here. Racks bulged with rifles, from a stunning new .577 double to used Mausers and, astonishingly, Winchester lever rifles. “Paul has a weakness for lever-actions,” explained Marc, handing me a .450/400 double and a proof target with overlapping holes. Still in the States, Paul had recently retrieved the Rigby name. “We’re committed to reviving Rigby’s reputation,” said Marc. “First with bolt-actions, then doubles. We make the rifles right here.” He emphasized that. “We use subcontractors for some operations, but sparingly.” Many best-quality guns by other London makers, he explained, are built off-site by company craftsmen and private artisans on contract.
Oliver dutifully steered me to Holland & Holland, Purdey, William & Sons and William Evans as well, a rapid-fire tour of impossibly expensive rifles and shotguns and their history. A long shelf at Purdey bore thick volumes of bound records dating to the company’s early days. A recent book at William Evans lay open to a page dated 1934, where pertinent details of guns and customers appeared in fine script. The fellow at Holland & Holland apologized for racks bereft of many fine firearms. “They’re in the States,” he grinned. I understood. Still, the smoothbores on display, and the used but carefully tended double rifles, had me consulting exchange rates.
Alas, a dollar is not yet worth 35 British pounds.
“Come back; I’ll show you a muntjac,” Oliver promised as he dropped me at Heathrow the next morning. I’ve no doubt he will. Or that I will.– Wayne van Zwoll