Deer Debacle: In The Garden And Beyond

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White-tailed deer are the smallest members of the North American deer family. They can grow to nearly 8 feet long and can weigh up to 300 pounds.They roam from southern Canada to South America, leisurely grazing on most available plant foods, primarily at dawn and dusk. Their stomachs allow them to digest a varied herbaceous diet, including leaves, twigs, fruits and nuts, corn, alfalfa, and even lichens and other fungi.

They can sprint up to 30 miles per hour, leap as high as 10 feet and as far as 30 feet in a single bound, which is particularly useful in the wild when they’re outrunning bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes.

Or humans—their only natural predator on the East End that have, simultaneously and accidentally, transformed the Hamptons into an environment that deer love. As a result, the herd is now overabundant, according to Mike Scheibel of The Nature Conservancy, who manages the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. The number of deer present here has sparked a fierce debate on population control by way of a cull and a polarizing divide among concerned ecologists, animal activists and disgruntled residents.

“Even though we didn’t do it on purpose, ultimately it’s what we humans have done: we’ve unwittingly managed the land to favor an adaptable species. And this is not just Suffolk County or the East End,” Mr. Scheibel said last week during a telephone interview. “Deer have proven themselves to be extremely adaptable creatures that can and do survive in those areas that have been so modified for people. They’re just seizing the opportunity.”

Deer are an “edge species,” he explained, and do not like deep, dark, thick forest. They prefer openings: woods that abut a field, or roads that create pathways through solid blocks of land. And that is precisely what East Enders are giving them.

To Fence Or Not To Fence

Landscape architect Elizabeth Lear moved into her East Hampton home in 1985 and quickly settled into a routine. She would have her deliveries dropped off in her yard and leave the plantings there until her clients needed them.

She could never do that today—or since the 1990s, when she noticed a significant uptick in the deer population.

“It’s a battle,” Ms. Lear, a partner of Lear & Mahoney Landscape Associates in Southampton, said last week during a telephone interview. “In the landscape business, we’ve depended on hydrangeas. And they eat them. They didn’t eat boxwood, but now boxwood has a blight. I think we’re better off just trying to plant non-desirables. But I really don’t know what the solution is. The deer have nowhere to go, except our backyards.”

Some homeowners have found the answer in deer fencing—a hotly contested practice and yet another wrinkle in the decades-long saga. Characterized by their 8-foot height, the fences prevent deer from ravaging residential and agricultural properties—when installed correctly—but tend to redirect the woodland mammals onto neighboring lots or, worse yet, onto the roads.

They also impact the “rural character” of the East End, explained Marguerite Wolffson, the East Hampton Town planning director and member of the Deer Management Working Group, which wrote the recently adopted Deer Management Plan.

“Deer don’t recognize property lines,” Ms. Wolffson said last week during a telephone interview. “If we get the deer population under control and, most importantly, at a level that is appropriate to maintain the town’s biodiversity, then people won’t have to put so many deer fences all over the place.”

Deer fence rules vary from town to town, and from village to village. In East Hampton Town, a permit for a deer fence is required by the Architectural Review Board, which developed a set of guidelines for homeowners to consider before even submitting a proposal. On any given lot, fencing will be allowed along only two property lines and must be a minimum of 20 feet off any adjacent property line. And the enclosure of the fence, all sides, must be 50 percent or less than the total lot coverage, due to concern over the escalating impact of these types of fences on the natural movement, feeding and migration of deer.

“It doesn’t make any sense and there’s no rhyme or reason,” landscape designer Hal Goldberg, owner of Hal Goldberg Gardens and Landscapes in Southampton, said of the East Hampton Town deer fence policy last week during a telephone interview. “They make their decision at their discretion. They’re not bound by code or zoning. It’s up to them to decide on an individual basis and permission is very hard to get. People do it without permission, but then a neighbor reports you and there are repercussions. My number one concern is how I protect my client’s property. And it’s very challenging.”

And expensive, Mr. Goldberg said. Landscaping alone can cost a homeowner hundreds of thousands of dollars, he reported. And deer fencing is rarely less than $10,000, he added. A more realistic figure is $50,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the parcel.

In a notoriously deer-saturated corner of North Haven, Ms. Lear installed a fence that actually works, she said. It consists of three 4-foot-high fences spaced 8 feet apart, topped with zig-zagging, 6-gauge wire every 4 feet, she said, and finished off with an electric gate at the front of the long driveway.

It is not the fence’s height that deters the deer, she said. It is the width, which plays on their inability to understand depth perception and frustrates them.

“There have been no deer—no adults, no babies, nothing. But it’s expensive,” she said, unable to give an exact quote. “I don’t think most people would spend the money. We’ve only done it at this property.”

With the exception of villages with established deer fence policies, which supersede town law, in Southampton Town not one residential property utilizes deer fencing—at least not legally. Its installation would pose a number of issues, according to Southampton Town Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea, including an impact on public safety, wildlife, deer welfare, disturbance of natural vegetation, aesthetics, property values and community character.

“With respect to deer health and welfare, deer will sometimes attempt to jump even 8-foot fence lines, occasionally resulting in entanglement, entrapment or separation of fawns from adults, with consequences of starvation,” he wrote last week in an email. “They also present barriers to other wildlife, including, among others, turkey, fox, box turtles, etc., and therefore can have large-scale impacts in terms of habitat alteration and loss for all wildlife, as a consequence of exclusion from otherwise viable habitat areas.”

Only agricultural properties are permitted to have deer fencing, pending Planning Department approval, said Jennifer Garvey, a spokeswoman for Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. Deer fences can affect traditional movement patterns, Mr. Shea said, forcing them out onto open roads—increasing the risk of vehicle-deer collisions—and into gardens, searching for food.

And when supply is low during the cold winter months, they’ll eat just about anything, Mr. Goldberg reported.

A Scrumptious Feast With Consequences

Typically, the average East End backyard is an overflowing smörgåsbord for hungry fawns, bucks and does—hostas, azaleas and roses galore, Ms. Lear said. The key is to plan carefully before planting, she admonished. She suggested focusing on non-desirables such as ornamental grasses, peonies, lavender, nepeta, hellebores, pachysandra and one particular arborvitae—the “Green Giant.”

It is much easier said than done, Mr. Goldberg said, as the list of deer-resistant plants tends to change annually.

“The truth of the matter is, nothing is deer-proof,” he said. “There’s only a small handful of plants that you don’t see, at least, getting occasionally browsed. There’s no way of knowing, especially when the deer get desperate. I had a client in East Hampton looking for deer-resistant plants. I planted a couple of them off the Cornell list and they all got eaten.”

Outside of residential properties, East Enders may notice roadsides stripped of saplings and certain wildflowers. That is because deer overbrowsing can take a toll on biodiversity by creating a park-like forest without the understory—or the first 6 to 8 feet of vegetation up from the ground, often decimated by the deer—that certain plants, insects and animals need to survive, Mr. Scheibel said.

“If you look carefully through the forest, you see little tiny seedlings and the next thing is a 180- or 200-year-old mature oak tree. There’s just very, very little in between,” he reported. “That’s not a good situation because there’s just no teenagers coming up to replace the adults. After a while, you’re not going to have any oak trees. It’s possible they’ll be replaced by another tree that’s resistant to it, but we’re seeing this with maples, too. So it’s pretty severe from an ecological standpoint.”

Beginning in 2000, Mashomack built enclosures to study forest regeneration by removing the deer entirely, while continuing to thin the herd outside them with hunting. In January, 83 deer were removed.

“It was probably the overabundance of deer in Suffolk County that led to the establishment of the first hunting season, which was in 1969,” Mr. Scheibel said. “I can only assume; I was just a young fella then. They were on the right track, but the season back then was very limited. Individual hunters were allowed to shoot one deer a year, either sex, so a lot of people just shot bucks, which effectively has no impact on the population. Over the years, the seasons and limits were liberalized, but in my opinion, it was just too little, too late. We’re still in a pickle.”

While there is no solution in sight—“I’ve been around it so long, I’m getting cynical now,” he laughed—there is hope. Inside the enclosures on Shelter Island, wildflowers, such as woodland asters, which had not been seen for some time, are beginning to return. Seedlings are growing into saplings and a tree called hophornbeam, which had not previously been seen at all, has sprung up.

Preventative care in the past would have helped managed the situation today, as a correction—though East Enders continue to debate about the means to a solution—today will benefit the future, Mr. Scheibel said. Limiting the herd is a necessity but eradicating the species would upset the balance of nature.

“Perhaps one of the most unfortunate issues concerning an overabundant deer herd, a lot of us have come to hate deer,” Mr. Scheibel said. “They’re no longer being seen as valuable natural resources, and that’s what they are. It’s unfortunate that they’ve gotten to the point where they’re seen as a problem and not as a benefit. Maybe we’ll get back to that someday.”

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