by Norman Todd March 2004
For browsing animals the palatability of plant tissues is learnt and not instinctive. Once bitten twice shy is the way fawns learn. Young inexperienced deer are far more numerous now than they were when we first lived here. My guess is that we have about triple the number of savouring deer than we were punished with 27 years ago.
Charles Darwin made an interesting observation in his dairy ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’. He writes… “..Cervus campestrus… is exceedingly abundant, often in small herds, throughout the countries bordering the Plata and in Northern Patagonia. If a person crawling close along the ground, slowly advances towards a herd, the deer frequently, out of curiosity, approach to reconnoiter him. I have by this means, killed from one spot, three out of the same herd. Although so tame and inquisitive, yet when approached on horseback, they are exceedingly wary. In this country nobody goes on foot, and the deer knows man as its enemy only when he is mounted and armed with the bolas.” Darwin subsequently concludes that it takes only a few generations to adapt instinctively to potentially dangerous situations.
Twenty-seven years ago we were not really punished too badly by deer. We even had an unfenced vegetable garden and for a couple of years we managed to get a few feeds of peas and beans. The deer quickly learned there was good foraging where the vegetables were and soon started harvesting as soon as green shoots appeared. Nowadays, the young, poorly brought-up fawns browse on all growies including our rhododendrons until they get an ache in one of their four stomachs. Currently we hear and read a lot of commentary on how serious the problem of obesity is in western society. A consoling thought is to theorize on how much worse it would be if we had four stomachs.
It is pretty evident that deer do not like rhododendrons as they only browse along paths and driveways where they don’t need to get their feet dirty by wandering from the beaten path. Evergreen azaleas have always been deer caviar and occasionally the deciduous azaleas would be nibbled when pushing out new growth but the big thick leathery indumented varieties were never touched. I think that mother knew that they would need a shot of antacid if they ate andromedatoxin-laden rhododendron leaves and would pass them by and the young would follow. These days, with their population explosion, the competition for food is so great that mother’s preoccupation is to fill her own stomachs first and she pays less attention to her offspring.
My wife claims that our Blacktail Deer are first cousins of the kangaroo. We often see them bouncing around on their hind hooves to reach precious branches higher up. Last year I planted out in a new bed a magnolia ‘Galaxy’ that I had grown from a cutting and a sorbus hupehensis grown from a seed. Both were about two and a half meters high and were well protected by a circle of chicken wire. Both were snapped off at about half height by rear-bipeded deer bouncing around like kangaroos.
Talking of bouncing, anyone with a Scottish background will know the word ‘stot’. To ‘stot a ba’ is to bounce a ball and to be ‘stotting drunk’ is to be seriously over the 0.08. I had not realized until recently that this is the correct word to describe a deer’s bounding gait. In open country, deer just run but in rough plant-covered terrain they stot. They can change direction much more adroitly than their only real predators – cougars and wolves – and are thus often able to escape.
Readers may be thinking that the solution to deer being the predators of our plants, which have no ability to stot, is to build a fence. I have gone as far as costing out installing a fence. The US of A may be able to run a half trillion-dollar deficit. I, unfortunately, am not in a similar position.
Still, I cannot expect any sympathy. The deer were here first and clearly they like cohabiting with us very much. They are, however, taking an awfully large chunk out of my paycheque. They are as expensive to keep as our own adult offspring. I recall a conversation with an extremely irate lady resident of the Queenswood area of our Saanich municipality. Her exquisite garden had been largely digested by deer. She told me she was petitioning our municipal leaders to have the deer trapped and moved out to the north end of the municipality. She probably did not know that we live right on the boundary.
The lady did have a point. Reports are that the deer population at the northern end of Vancouver Island has diminished significantly, much to the chagrin of local hunters. I would think that with good organization the northern hunters could arrange to trap our Saanich deer and move them to Port Hardy. Let’s encourage them.