Although they are beautiful with their big brown eyes and their sleek tan bodies that bound gracefully when they run, we, at Trufflebert Farm, consider the White-tail deer as pests. For farmers who are trying to grow trees, they are more destructive than bears and have caused us a lot more work.
When we planted the trees many years ago, our biggest worry was that the deer population would come out of the forest behind the farmhouse and nibble on the new plants until they had eaten them to the ground. So, we put each sapling into a plastic tube, but, as they grew, the leaves poked out of the protection and before we could replace it with a taller wrapping, the deer ate the new tender shoots on their twilight search for a snack.
We tried putting an electric fence around the property with three strings of wire. Not only was that expensive to construct, but it was in need of constant care. Each week we stopped at different places along the line and used a fresh piece of wet grass to test each strand. We placed it on the wire to see if it buzzed in our hands. That would mean that the battery was still keeping a charge. But sometimes it was us who received a jolt of electricity. That was shocking and made us doubt that the deer would want to bump into three strands and cause themselves any pain. So,we thought that we had solved the problem.
We never suspected that the deer would limbo under the bottom wire until we saw them do this. We always assumed that they would jump over the six foot fence as I’d seen a buck do in the garden of a neighbor when he was caught there eating her lettuce plants. He did not even need a running jump to vault a fence that was higher than my head.
We tried another trick. Someone told us that deer didn’t like the smell of Lifeboy soap, so we cut up bars and placed them in net packages and tied them to the non-electric part of the fence. Not only did that not work, but because it rains all of the time in Oregon, we had a lot of soap bubbles on the ground.
Out next experiment was with bags of bloodmeal, which is a kind of fertilizer. Someone read an article in a magazine that said that deer didn’t like the smell of that either. However, it seems that it was only us who found it stinky. It didn’t bother the deer in the least.
Over the years the trees grew tall enough so that the deer could not reach the leaves unless they climbed the trunk of the tree with their front paws and took the lowest branch into their mouth and zipped it through their teeth, stripping it of all of the tender leaves. We never guessed that they could do this either.
We had to give up policing the first ten rows of trees which were closest to the forest and decided that they were our gift to the deer, and even today, these trees are much smaller than the rest of the orchard because they had such a hard time getting started.
One would think that the deer would be finished when they could no longer reach the leaves, but, no, we found out that they also liked the hazelnuts when they fell to the ground. I don’t like them until they have been cracked open and the nutmeats extracted, but the deer chomp on them shells and all.
From my kitchen window, I watched them eating all of nuts that had dropped under the trees in a row near the house. Remembering that they do not bother houses where there is a dog, I stepped off the porch and walked toward them doing my best imitation of a barking dog. They stopped eating and raised their heads to listen. They were completely still. Then, they looked around and seeing a strange creature who only looked like a barking woman, they bent their heads and began to feast again.
Now that the trees are much older and very tall, we harvest the nuts when they fall to the ground. We have two machines that help us in this process. One is called the Florry, and it is used to sweep the nuts into rows so the Getzumall can vacuum them up into crates, which we call totes. These hold 500 pounds of nuts.
One evening when many of these totes were sitting on the grass waiting for the truck to take them to be dried, I saw a doe with twin fawns walk to the tote and begin eating out of the crate. These nuts took all day to collect, and I didn’t think that the mother deer should be taking advantage of our hard work. So, I stepped out of the house and waved my arms and told her to “Shoo.” The little ones ran away, but she stayed. As I walked towards her, I said as politely as I could, “Don’t be so lazy. There are plenty of nuts that we missed, and you can get those off the ground. We did not work all day collecting these so you could fill up on them.”
She cocked her head and looked at me with one eye and went on eating. She waited until I was almost close enough to touch her before she gave up. I think that she recognized me as the barking woman, so she knew that I was harmless, if not crazy, and she also knew that if we did not put a tarp over the totes to cover them at night that she would come back when I was in bed.
The deer sleep near the house. One even sleeps in the barn on the hay, eating the grain meant for the horses. I suppose that they know by now that we are not a threat. On my walks to the pond, I often see a flattened place in the bushes along the path, and I know that this is where a deer has slept recently.
One day when I was walking with my two grandsons, Ronan (5) and Griffin (3), to the pond, I stopped to take a close-up picture of the blackberries that were growing on the path. We were being very still, and I was holding my breath so as not to jiggle the camera while I was taking a close-up shot, when a deer rounded the corner running at full speed. He could not see us as he approached because of a bend in the road, and deer run so softly that we didn’t hear him coming. We were all surprised. He stopped, completely startled to find us on the path he had taken many times, and we were equally stunned and surprised by him. It lasted only a moment, but I hope that my grandchildren will never forget the day that they were almost run over by a deer.
In the summer when there are no nuts on the ground, the deer come near the house and eat my flowers. They especially like roses, despite the thorns, and they tread so softly that we don’t hear them at night even when they are eating the low hanging grapes in the arbor outside our bedroom window. I wake in the morning to find only the stems of the flowers and the twigs that held the grapes. That means that I have to put nets over my flowers, which takes me a long time to do. It is also not as pretty as letting the flowers grow naturally. I have tried using plants that are said to be “deer resistant,” which means that deer are not supposed to like to eat those flowers because of the taste. They certainly do not like lavender or any other herbs, but when I try flowers that they’re not supposed to be fond of, I find the next day that they have tried my petunias and spit them onto the ground. Why can’t they remember that they don’t like them before they bite into them?
These are all of the reasons that we think that the deer are pests. However, there is something wonderful about watching the mother deer and their fawns in the summer when we are eating dinner. They come every night at that time to see if any fruit has fallen from the apple and pear trees in front of the house. We are happy to let them eat these. We are only interested in the fruit that we pick from the trees. We also see them at night if we return home from town, and it is already dark. There are usually nine of them, and our headlights make their eyes shine, and, momentarily, they are frozen, looking up to see if they are in danger. Then, the approaching car usually makes them run away until they know that we are asleep and they can quietly return without being bothered.
There are several strange things about deer. One is that we almost never see a buck. The males hide out in the forest. Another is that like most animals around the farm, a person can approach them and get fairly close by taking one step at a time while their heads are down grazing if the person then stops and stands still. We must look like new trees that appeared suddenly, but they don’t sense danger unless we move or get inside their safety zone. Still another is that when there is plenty to eat, there are many sets of twins born, and we watch them grow from year to year. Also, deer rely on their ability to run away quickly. That is their gift. The newborn babies are the exception. Since they are unable to run away, their mothers lick them all over to remove any scent from them, and they hide them in the tall grass while they themselves go away to feed. Somehow they tell these babies not to move, no matter what, hoping that predators, such as coyotes and bobcats, will not know that they are waiting in the grass for their mothers to return. It is like a game of hide and seek. The danger for them at Trufflebert Farm is when Farmer Ted goes out to mow the tall grass. Even when they hear the tractor coming, they do not move, remembering what their mothers have told them, and they are in danger of being run over by the tractor.
The picture that I’ve included is one of a new-born fawn who was saved by Farmer Ted in June of last year. He found him very quietly hiding in the tall grass which is as high as the shoulders of a barking woman. He brought him to me so I could see his scared little face and his trembling body before he let him go home to his mother. That’s when I realized that something that cute should never be considered a pest.