I have seven new furry deer friends in my yard. The arrived shortly before the holidays and have remained for my family to watch, and wonder at, out our kitchen windows.
Every day they come and munch on the branches of our apple tree and nibble at the cedar hedges.
As the snow gets deeper, and deeper AND deeper, I have become more worried about my new friends.
Do they have enough to eat? Should I put out some apples? Some grain? Some hay?
When I posed this question to a family member who has a lot of forestry experience, the answer surprised me. He said that in winter, deer have ‘switched’ their stomachs to accommodate to winter grazing. In winter deer mostly eat twigs and shoots off of branches. Giving them apples or grain would make me feel better but could give them a stomach ache or even kill them!
The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources has this to say about feeding deer in winter:
· First we must ask ourselves, “If we are successful in feeding deer properly, and as a result more deer survive the winter in good shape and give birth to healthy and strong fawns, what will the situation be next winter?” Eventually deer numbers will exceed the carrying capacity of the natural habitat and more deer will be dependent on our handouts. Can we keep the feeding program going at greater capacity each year?
· Even though fed, deer will continue to browse on nearby natural foods. Eventually most natural browse in the area will be eliminated. The same site will have very little natural food to offer the following year.
· Concentrating deer around feeders near our homes may cause a number of problems. Property damage in the area may increase by their browsing on ornamental shrubs and trees. They may become a hazard to local traffic as they move to and from the feeding site. Domestic dogs will begin chasing and even killing deer.
· Deer are more vulnerable to coyotes during deep snow periods. If deer concentrate at a supplementary feeding site that is not associated with adequate cover and opportunities to escape predators, they may be more easily taken by coyotes.
· Deer that are concentrated, regardless of snow depth, are more susceptible to disease.
· Improper diets are often fed. These lead to digestive upset and potentially death.
· If not enough food is provided or if it is not distributed properly, aggression and fighting will occur at the feeding site. Most often it will be the deer that need the feed most that will get the least.
For these reasons, feeding deer in winter is generally not accepted as a good management practice. The Department of Natural Resources generally discourages feeding deer except in special circumstances, and then it must be done properly if our efforts are to actually be of overall benefit to the deer.
For more information on feeding deer in winter or woodlot management for the benefit of deer and other wildlife, contact the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist for your area. You can also visit www.novascotia.ca/natr/wildlife/conserva/Feed-deer.asp to find out more.