Deer? A difficult issue

Deer outside our kitchen window  ©Janet AllenDeer outside our kitchen window

On the one hand, deer are a native animal and a beautiful creature. On the other hand, the deer population is way out of balance for a healthy ecosystem—in other words, beyond what is called the "carrying capacity" of the land.

I was surprised to learn that many decades ago the deer population was so low that spotting a deer was a news item!

I'm glad that the population rebounded, so we haven't had to add yet another creature to the list of extinctions.

Deer running across the street  ©Janet Allen
A deer running across our street—an accident waiting to happen

But policies that encouraged the deer population were too successful, which isn't good for the health of our natural areas, for our communities, or even for the deer.

Woodlands are particularly hard hit, with deer eating anything they can find just to survive—and this includes tree seedlings that would otherwise be the basis for continuing healthy forests.

And car-deer collisions are a hazard not just to deer, but to people.

Spigelia eaten by deer  ©Janet Allen
Spigelia eaten by deer just as it was about to bloom

And no one needs to tell homeowners what a burgeoning deer population means for their landscaping. Sadly, people who would otherwise want to plant lots of native plants are discouraged from doing so. Why buy plants only to have them eaten to the ground?

For example, we had been nurturing turk's cap lilies (Lilium superbum) that we had started as bulbils, and each year the deer chomped them before they had a chance to bloom.

Other plants are also nibbled, often right before blooming. It's very discouraging, and people might give up, which would a tragedy.

Fawn  ©Janet AllenWho can resist this fawn waiting for its mom in our neighborhood?

Clearly, we have a problem that requires a community conversation. So far, it appears to me, this conversation has been sabotaged by groups at the extremes: hunters who simply want a large deer population for hunting, but also by people who are unwilling to consider many effective ways to reduce the population. (Some of the initially more-appealing options, such as birth control, do not appear to be viable solutions.)

Clearly, we appreciate and value wildlife, but we most value healthy ecosystems and believe that healthy ecosystems are ultimately the best for both animals and people.

Mother and fawn  ©Janet Allen
A mother and fawn across the street

And clearly, we want any solutions to be humane. Sadly, we've come to the conclusion that this will probably have to include killing a certain proportion of the current population—but humanely, not just letting anyone with a gun go shooting wildly in the woods. And the resulting harvest should be used for food, food pantries being a likely destination. (And anyone who is not vegan is already participating in inhumane treatment of food animals anyway…)

Whatever route is chosen, a solution must be found as soon as possible.

Solutions in our own yard

Deer fence(Enlarge) ©Janet Allen
Deer fence highlighted by snow; it's otherwise invisible

As homeowners, we can't solve society's problem with deer, but we have come up with some solutions at least in our backyard, where we grow our vegetables.

One year, they took a heavy toll on our vegetable garden.

Our solution was to add deer fencing on top of our regular fencing. Actually, after figuring out where they were coming in and leaving, we didn't even have to add fencing everywhere, just in a few spots.

Having much of the backyard bordered by our tall hedgerow helps since this provides a natural barrier.

Fencing protecting elderberry  ©Janet Allen
Fencing protecting elderberry from further munching

This extra deer fencing did the trick. And it's pretty much invisible except for the thin pieces of wood extending up from our fence.

In the rest of the yard, at least when they're getting established, we've fenced some individual plants, both shrubs and herbaceous plants, that they seem to munch.

But, again, this helps only our yard, not the greater ecological issue of a too-large deer population harming the world beyond our yard.