Deerland

I’ve just finished reading Deerland by Al Cambronne, a fascinating and disturbing examination of the effect America’s deer population explosion is having on our ecosystems.  Some of the effects were already known to me–car crashes, the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses and, of course, the destruction of vegetable crops. But I didn’t previously realize that the elimination of forest understory (aka deer food) was causing the loss of songbird populations and preventing natural regeneration of forests. In much of the country now, nature is severely out of balance. Today there are 100 times more deer in America than there were a century ago. Not twice as many, not ten times as many. One hundred times more.

Here’s a taste of the chapter addressing farm losses (appropriately titled “We Get the Leftovers”):

Tonight and every night, hungry deer are trickling out into farm fields all across America. Collectively this nightly buffet costs farmers billions of dollars every year. For some individual farmers, it can be a serious threat to their livelihood.

In one New Jersey study, researchers used exclosures, comparative yield measurements and other techniques to measure deer damage on 1,410 acres of agricultural crops spread across 111 different farms. They calculated that the season’s average economic loss directly attributable to deer was $1,253.48 per acre. Similarly, after surveying 583 acres in vegetable production, they calculated deer-related losses at $2,443 per acre.

Another New Jersey study found that 25 percent of responding farmers had abandoned a parcel of tillable ground because of excessive deer damage, and that 36 percent had for the same reason ceased growing their preferred crop.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog very long knows that deer damage severely impacts the economic viability of our farm.

I’ve often laid the blame for this mess on our cultural abandonment of hunting game in favor of eating the meat of factory-raised farm animals. But in fact it’s more complicated than that. By the middle of the 20th Century there were few deer in America. Then an aggressive campaign to restock deer populations (for the benefit of hunters, primarily) occurred. Virginia was “stocked” with deer from 11 states and nature took it from there. This ecological imbalance is a man-made problem that began with creating a population of deer for hunters to shoot, then allowing the population to explode beyond the capacity of hunters to control it. Exacerbating the problem has been the rise of what Mr. Cambronne calls “the industrial deer complex,” a multi-billion dollar web of businesses serving deer hunters, who are effectively organized politically to lobby for and obtain laws and regulations designed not to protect the common good, but rather to increase hunters’ chances of seeing a deer to shoot when they go hunting. Interestingly, they are strange bedfellows with those who feed deer in their backyards and who oppose killing deer for any reason. On the subject of deer, being sensible isn’t very popular.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book and the problem it addresses, but I reckon that’s enough for today.

When I came in from evening chores last night, at dusk, there were 3 deer standing in one of our gardens eating our buckwheat cover crop, less than 50 yards from our backdoor. It’s the same story all over this farm, every single day.