One morning bright and early during the winter before last, I was heading towards the barn to release the chickens, and check for eggs. Overnight there had been a sharp frost, so I decided to take the gravel path along the edge of the vegetable garden, to avoid damaging the frozen lawn. The previous evening I’d covered the sprouts, winter cabbages and broccoli with fleece to help them survive the forecast frost, but as I approached them I could see instantly something was wrong: the fleece was torn and dragged to one side and the poor brassicas beneath, looked like they’d been hit by a tractor-mounted, heavy-duty flail cutter. Plants that had once stood three to four feet high, were now little stumps. Others had been broken and trodden into the ground. In the end I think a couple of purple sprouting broccoli plants survived the onslaught. But that was all. The rest – no less than six rows – had been trashed. Dropping and hoof-prints covered the ground and the shattered remnants of plants. I showed the scene of devastation to a farming friend, who just happened to drop by, and he reckoned there’d been at least half a dozen deer there. Muntjac deer. I’d heard them barking in the wood surrounding our garden, on several nights previously, and should have done something about it earlier. More fool me.
Mindful of the Muntjac, at the start of last winter we erected a temporary defence of cattle hurdles and stock-wire around the winter brassicas. It was effective, in that it kept the deer off, but was difficult to enter and looked, frankly, bloody awful. It also meant that I planted the brassicas far too close together, and as a result, the sprout crop was tiny and the winter cabbages grew no larger than apples. So the temporary defences were only a semi-success.
Last summer, while I was away filming with Time Team, we had two wrought-iron gates made-up and installed. These were more ‘garden-esque’ and looked quite pleasing when seen from the main garden. The other gate into the veg garden was off the yard, so it was plainer, and bought from a farming supply company. I installed it with a friend. All three sets of gates, however, would have been pointless without stout wire fencing between and around them. So that’s what I’ve been doing, during all daylight hours for the past four days. And this afternoon I finished – bloodied (wire always seems to draw blood if I’m around), but unbowed – and more than a little knackered. It was hard work: all the wire had to be pegged firmly to the ground, as Muntjac have short tusks and can lift fencing, and then wriggle their way under it. They can also jump up to five feet, so they’re redoubtable opponents. They’re also quite attractive as animals, but are very small as deer – no larger than Twink, my Border Collie. According to my Collins Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Europe, Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) are native to eastern China and were introduced to southern Britain in the 20th century, when they were imported to adorn the parks of country houses. Then they escaped, blast them – or rather the toffee-nosed, tweedy idiots, who shipped them over here for no good reason, other than vanity.
I’ve seen as many as three does together in our wood, but I gather they’re to be found everywhere in this Fen. The only consolation is that their meat is light and very well flavoured, and as they’re classed as vermin (which they are), a friend with a rifle and a hunter’s licence does his best to keep them under control for us. That means the freezer is usually well-stocked with venison – which we butcher ourselves. So does the free supply of meat make it all worthwhile? Most decidedly not, because Muntjac don’t just damage the vegetables, but the flower garden too, and coppiced hazel stools out in the wood never regrow properly, once the Muntjac have got their teeth into them.
I didn’t want the vegetable garden to look too much like a WW2 prisoner-of-war camp, so I’ve try to conceal stock-wire within hedges. This seems to work quite well and you don’t need to have such high wire, as they find it difficult to jump through a thick hedge. The hedges also conceal the vegetables from prowling deer. But there was no hiding the back gate from the yard, so that’s had the full Fort Knox treatment. Anyhow we’ll soon see whether all that work has been worth it. Now that that’s all out of the way, I plan to dig one of the four plots in the vegetable garden which I’ll cover in a post, hopefully in the near future, as part of my Grow Your Own series, aimed at those starting out on the vegetable gardening pilgrimage – which, rest assured, never, ever ends. It’s sad if a crop fails, or isn’t as good as you hoped, but it’s absolutely infuriating if it’s there one day, looking rich, tasty, and O-so-inviting – only to vanish overnight into the guts of animals who care so little that they poo all over their food. In fact that was the worst thing: washing the few miserable shrivelled sprouts that the deer couldn’t be bothered eat. Scavenging in my own garden. The sheer indignity of it! Grrrrrr!!!