When Stephanie Davis looked out of her bedroom window in Remsenburg and saw the familiar sharp-shinned hawk that had become a regular visitor to her yard tangled in the deer netting, that was the last straw.
She had purchased the practically invisible fine mesh netting in order to protect her garden from the ravages of deer. Yet, Ms. Davis did not know that while she was ensuring the safety of her garden from the whitetails, she was putting other wildlife—birds in particular—in danger.
The first warning sign came when Ms. Davis’s pet chicken got caught up in the netting. “We rescued her and thought nothing of it,” Ms. Davis said. After a Carolina wren died trapped in the netting, Ms. Davis began to consider the risks. Her decision to take down the netting came too late though for the hawk that had frequented Ms. Davis’s yard for more than two years. The mesh material was tightly wrapped around its wings and legs. Ms. Davis carefully cut the netting away and took the bird to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge. It was later moved to the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons in Hampton Bays where it died.
“I was heartbroken,” Ms. Davis said.
With an estimated 20,000 deer on Long Island, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and some 6,000 on the East End alone, it is not uncommon for area residents to find deer either in their gardens or in their paths while driving.
Deer netting, like the kind used by Ms. Davis, is just one of many options available to prevent whitetails from devastating plants or destroying crops. But for those concerned about inadvertently harming or killing other wildlife, Dan Leszczynski of Unindeering, Inc. in Southampton offers an organic, though smelly, alternative.
Mr. Leszczynski uses an all natural liquid deterrent that he says is highly effective in keeping deer at bay. The repellent is a concoction of rotten eggs, garlic and other substances that unleash an unpleasant aroma but, according to Mr. Leszczynski, dissipates within a few hours.
“We try to spray when people aren’t home,” Mr. Leszczynski said. “But it’s better than fencing and it works.” And, unlike the mesh used by Ms. Davis, it does not harm plants or wildlife and is safe for children and pets.
There are some 20 liquid sprays available on the market, which Mr. Leszczynski says are adequate for those with a small amount of plants.
“My spray is a stronger, more commercial grade and it sticks better to the leaves,” Mr. Leszczynski said. “I think the product we use is more suitable for larger gardens and farms.”
Virginia Frati, executive director of the Wildlife Rescue Center, said expecting deer not to munch on garden vegetation is like expecting children not to partake of ice cream and cake. But deer do not like all plants. Mr. Leszczynski, through his observations of servicing more than 1,000 gardens a year, says deer will not eat any type of plant with either a wax coat—such as begonias—or a fuzzy surface—such as sage.
“There’s something about the texture that they don’t like,” Mr. Leszczynski said. “But then, they’ll eat through a rose bush full of thorns.”
Through his experiences protecting gardens from deer, he has also noticed that for some odd reason any plant of a purple hue—such as lavender—seems to repel deer. “I don’t know what it is, but that’s something I’ve noticed.”
Suzanne Ruggles of the Barefoot Gardener, a garden design and maintenance company in Southampton, who sits on the Wildlife Center’s board of directors, takes a more naturalistic approach. She suggests planting indigenous species of flora that deer have co-evolved with and that can withstand the deer’s diet. Ms. Ruggles said that cedar is a great example of a tree that can thrive within an abundant deer population.
“The deer eat the bottom of the tree, but the tree survives it,” Ms. Ruggles said. “And the tree provides habitat for birds in the area as well.”
The winterberry and the American holly are among Ms. Ruggles’s favorite native plants. “The winterberry has beautiful red berries that grow all winter long and look amazing in the snow,” Ms. Ruggles said. “There are native plants that would look beautiful in any yard or garden and they help sustain all of our wildlife.”
Another option for keeping the deer out of gardens is fencing, which Mr. Frati said is not as easy a solution as it would seem. The wildlife center has attended to many whitetails injured when attempting to jump over chain link and wrought iron fences.
“They get trapped in them very easily and they can be quite harmful,” Mr. Frati said. And large fences that deer can see and are unable to scale—despite their incredible jumping ability—are not such an easy solution either. According to Ms. Frati, these fences serve as blockades and prevent deer from moving about freely, therefore sending more out onto the roads.
“If everyone put up these fences, then where would the deer go?” Ms. Frati said.
Of course, there is another option to limit deer intrusion and it is certainly the most controversial. Hunting is promoted by the state conservation department as a method for keeping the deer herd healthy and controlled.
When deer populations become “too healthy” they not only pose dangers to shrubs and crops and potential hazards on the roadways, but can also become dangerous to themselves. Wasting Disease, which is similar to “mad-cow” disease, often develop in whitetails when their numbers become too high, according to Larry Penny, Environmental Protection Director for the Town of East Hampton’s Natural Resources Department. Mr. Penny, who holds a master’s degree in wildlife conservation from Cornell University, said the deer population on Long Island is more than healthy. “It’s overly-healthy,” he said.
Mr. Penny, as well as Bill Fonda, a spokesman for the conservation department, said hunting is one method for controlling and enhancing the deer population.
In Mr. Leszczynski’s opinion, normal hunting limits really do not address the issue of deer overpopulation. “If you’ve got 1,000 deer and kill only 100 or so, then that’s not enough,” he said. “You have to go in and cull a large portion of the herd.”
But, not everyone shares that opinion.
Charles DeVito, a partner at the Barefoot Gardener and an experienced hunter himself, says hunting to alleviate deer nuisances is nothing more than a slaughter that could be prevented by taking the proper preventive measures.
“Just find a way to deer-proof your garden,” he said.
Mr. DeVito, who grew up in Minnesota where healthy deer populations created similar issues, says the deer targeted in such hunts have a different personality than deer in the wild as they have adapted to humans and have lost much of their caution, thus resulting, in Mr. DeVito’s opinion, as nothing more than shooting fish in a barrel.
But Mr. Leszczynski said that hunting can be merciful. “Many times hunters are putting deer out of their misery,” he said. When deer herds become too plentiful, some die off during harsh winters. With a string of mild winters on Long Island, fewer have perished, thus adding to the dilemma.
“There’s really no easy solution,” Ms. Frati said of the deer problem.
Regardless, Ms. Ruggles believes that placing all the blame on the deer is unfair and that much of the problem is simply lack of tolerance on our part. “After all, the deer were here first,” she said.
After the incident with the hawk, Ms. Davis decided to take down her netting.
“If the deer want to eat the plants, then so be it,” she said.
The hawk died from a lack of circulation caused from the tightness of the mesh, Ms. Frati said, and birds getting trapped in such netting is a common occurrence. “We receive around 25 to 30 calls a year,” she said. “And those are just the ones that are found alive.”
Some species of non-venomous snakes, such as black racers and garters, have also been harmed by the deer netting and she has also seen deer with the netting stuck on their antlers.