Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Deer Sign

It wasn’t long ago that signs of Whitetail Deer activity would arouse a sense of awe and wonder. Deer in low numbers can blend almost invisibly into the landscape and lead their lives with little evidence of their presence. It would be nice if they would maintain that level of existence, so that each rare encounter produced a special memory and we could congratulate ourselves on our expert abilities to detect the subtle signs of their presence.

The reality is that deer are like any other creature and they will expand their population to the extreme limits of their habitat. The deer population in the vicinity of Blue Jay Barrens has been steadily increasing for several decades. I have concerns about how some deer activities will affect my management efforts. Some of the more visible signs, like the thrashing given this Autumn Olive shrub, don’t really concern me. It’s some of the more subtle influences that are generating potential long term problems.

Some people feel that I’m becoming too critical when I show concern over a deer’s hoofprint. This is a very common sight. Deer have created a trail down the hillside. A strip of ground has been compacted by the actions of the traveling deer, creating a long depression with a lot of bare ground. Flowing water follows these trails and deepens them through the process of erosion until a large gully is created. The trail shown here is relatively new. A sliding deer hoof has plowed soil and debris into a low dam that can divert the water from the trail onto a steep hillside to the right. The result could be a gully running down the hillside to the creek.

As part of their territorial marking activities, male deer paw and dig the soil to produce bare spots. Disturbed soil is a prime location for the germination of seed from invasive plant species. Canada Thistle, Johnson Grass, Teasel, Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose and Autumn Olive are a few of the common invaders that would thrive in this situation. Scattered throughout this disturbed soil are several Red Cedar fruits. Even though they are unlikely to sprout unless passed through a bird’s gut, they illustrate how seeds can fall into areas like this and easily become incorporated into the loose soil. I’ve eliminated more than one invasive plant infestation that began in sites just like this.

Some native plant species thrive in areas of soil disturbance and a few of those are here at Blue Jay Barrens. In general though, the deer scrapes that I encounter lead to invasive plant infestations, physical destruction of plants, soil erosion and soil compaction. The effect of an ever growing deer population on the management of rare plants at Blue Jay Barrens is an evolving story. I hope there’s a happy ending somewhere in the future.


  1. As I read this, I wondered if you were talking about humans, rather than deer.

  2. Hi Katie. The difference is that I don't blame the deer for what they do.