Wildlife Gardening and Deer

Above is a photo of a black-tailed deer that was munching on fireweed a few feet away from my living room window in Redmond, WA, a few years back. I found that native plants did not attract deer to anything like the extent that my neighbors' exotic ornamentals did. When deer did eat my natives (like this fireweed), the plants grew back quickly and were not seriously damaged.

"Few events in the history of North American wildlife have been so remarkable, so unexpected, and so provocative of conflict as the rise of suburban deer," writes Richard Nelson in his wonderful book Heart and Blood: Living With Deer in America. Famously referred to as "rats with antlers" by writer John McPhee, suburban deer have sadly helped to turn many gardeners against wildlife and wildlife-friendly gardening.

Yet there's an irony here, because it is humans who have caused deer populations to explode in areas of human habitation. You see, deer like the same kind of environment we do: A few wooded areas but lots of open ones; an abundance of well-fertilized, well-watered plants (decorative to us, tasty to them); and a complete absence of predators. When we provide them with their ideal environment, quite naturally they breed. Some suburban areas in the United States are now trying to cope with deer populations that can be as high as 250 animals per square mile. Killing or removing the animals has no long-term effect, because they simply repopulate.

So naturally there are conflicts. Yet oddly enough, suburban gardeners seem to assume that nature is to blame for the deer problem, instead of looking a little closer to home.

Why wildlife corridors

I started thinking about this today after reading a post at the Garden Rant website, in which Susan Harris discussed a lecture by Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. According to Harris, Tallamy makes the case for native-plant and wildlife-friendly gardening in a way that many conventional gardeners have been able to accept and understand.

But in describing Tallamy's lecture, she happened to mention that he recommends what are called wildlife corridors. These are plantings of trees and shrubs, which can be anywhere from a few to many feet wide depending on how much room you have, that join one natural area to another.

Say, for example, that you've put a wetland garden near your house, to collect rainwater from your roof. Half an acre away, just outside your property line, is a greenbelt. A wildlife-friendly way to design your property would be to plant a corridor of shrubs, trees, and wildflowers, preferably native, stretching from the greenbelt to your mini-wetland. This allows the wildlife using the greenbelt, including frogs and salamanders, to reach your little wetland. You get to enjoy the new wildlife, and they have a small addition to their habitat area.

No, they don't attract deer

Wildlife corridors are recommended by just about everyone who writes on wildlife-friendly gardening. But in comments on Harris's post, several gardeners complained that wildlife corridors would only bring more deer into their gardens.

So this is my 2 cents on that: The deer are going to be in your garden anyway. As long as the suburbs remain an almost perfect environment for deer, there will be lots of deer around. And as long as you plant things that deer like to eat, the deer will come to the table for the meal you've put out. Being a lot larger than most other suburban wildlife, deer do not need special wildlife corridors in order to move around. And being practically without predators, they have nothing to fear from coming out into the open.

If gardeners refuse to put in wildlife corridors, however, it's the smaller creatures--especially birds and amphibians--that will suffer. These are the creatures that are finding it increasingly difficult to live in suburban landscapes. They are the ones that need protection from predators--especially the domestic cats that are a feature of most suburban landscapes. Amphibians in particular, being slow moving (thus more vulnerable to predators) and with porous skins that must be kept constantly moist, are dependent on corridors in order to move from place to place.

Refusing to plant wildlife corridors will have no effect on your deer problem, if you have one. And oh, by the way, if you're looking for someone to blame for the deer in your garden, find a mirror.

PS: Purely by coincidence, I am about to go down to a supper of venison, courtesy of a local hunter. Here's my recipe for slow-cooked venison roast.

The trackback URL for Susan Harris's post on the Tallamy lecture is http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/854423/23874574

1 comment:

Anne said...

Hey Flora, good one... it's not only the wildlife corridors in our gardens we need to install but the big ones all over the province, continent... Went to a climate change impacts conference a few years ago and that was one of the most interesting things raised... plants and animals need routes to shift with the habitats as the habitats are relocating because of climate change... so... round again to the cohousing thing... I like how that model reduces the amount of land chopped up into little and littler lots and increases the land left as arable or wild land....