FROM THE GROUND UP: Deer: Love them, hate them

White-tailed deer can be destructive to home gardens
White-tailed deer can be destructive to home gardens PHOTO BY PAMELA BAXTER

On October 2, 1959, the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was adopted as the state animal of Pennsylvania. No wonder: it is a beautiful, graceful animal and has played an important role in our forests for as long as there have been people living in them. Over half a century ago, who could foresee that this creature would become such a pest!

According to a 2001 report on white-tailed deer from the Pennsylvania State University, it’s estimated that when European settlers first arrived here, there were 8 to 10 deer per square mile, their numbers held in check by large predators: mountain lions, wolves, people. With increased food needs from a growing population and with no regulations, the deer were quickly over-hunted. It’s hard to imagine today, but by the end of the 1800s “very few deer remained in Pennsylvania.”

This prompted the formation of the PA Game Commission in 1895. The Commission established game lands to restore wildlife populations, enacted a law to protect does, and actually brought in deer from other states. The Penn State report also recounts how forests rebounded after being heavily logged; prime deer habitat was restored.

What has all this meant for deep populations? According to the report, “In 2001, Pennsylvania had an estimated 1.5 million deer — about 30 deer per square mile ... more than three times what the state had before European settlement.” Add continued pressure on habitat created by suburban sprawl, and we find that for many people deer are now more annoying than charming: squeezed by habitat loss, deer have turned out to be connoisseurs of the plants found in the average suburban yard.

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Deer also love what’s growing in our vegetable gardens. For years, I never had to worry about this. However, with the continued encroachment of housing developments on habitat, deer started showing up in my garden. They’d leave their “calling cards” — that distinctive hoof print, along with their droppings. They also left with plenty of my hard-earned produce.

Fortunately, protecting crops from deer is fairly easy. You can put hoop frames over your planting beds and cover them with chicken wire, or even go to the trouble of putting up an 8-foot mesh fence around the perimeter. But if pressed for time, you can simply drape floating row covers over the plants and tack them down with “staples.” (For crops that need to be pollinated, you’ll want to pull back the covers during the day until the fruits start forming.)

Protecting landscape plants is more challenging. I know some people who have put up fencing around their entire yard, but this is expensive and not always sightly. It does mean that you don’t have to worry about protecting individual plants.

In the absence of physical barriers, keeping hungry deer away from your plants requires diligence; much more effort than I’m willing to exert. Motion-activated sprinklers and lights must be continually relocated so that the deer don’t get de-sensitized to them. Products containing predator urine or other nasty-smelling substances must be reapplied at regular intervals and especially after rainstorms.

One remedy that I have not seen promoted is working with our legislators to get some of the deer laws changed; for instance, the one that protects does. As the Penn State report notes, absent the predators of yesteryear, “Hunting is the single most important way to keep the deer herd in balance.”

Deer hunting is also big business. The October/November 2012 issue of Organic Gardening reported that “Americans spend $7 billion annually—on equipment, travel, taxes, and licenses—to hunt and photograph the country’s most common large mammal.”

“In the mid-1990s, one scientist credited the ruminant herbivores with $367 million in damages annually through their destruction of emerging seedlings in Pennsylvania forests. For home gardeners ... the costs can’t be calculated.”

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pamelacbaxter@gmail.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.