Guest Column: Deer can impact farms, food safety

Is there a North Fork homeowner who doesn’t despair about the destruction of their plants, shrubs or trees caused by deer, which are now eating what they once rejected?

For us farmers, deer damage isn’t just a nuisance; it is having a serious impact on our livelihoods.

Deer cause considerable crop damage to our farms by: 1). browsing, 2). destroying plants, and 3). contamination. 

Farmers operating unfenced fields generally estimate average crop losses of 10 percent due to browsing. More serious damage comes from the complete loss of plants and trees — bucks sometimes break off every young tree in a row while rubbing the velvet from their antlers. These amounts total 100 percent losses in the affected areas, representing costly investments in plants and trees that will take many years to replace.

Contamination has become a third source of deer damage farmers will have to deal with by guaranteeing the safety of food harvested from fields contaminated by deer feces. Within the next five years, sweeping federal food safety regulations will be placed on all but the very smallest fruit and vegetable producers. Animal waste, primarily from deer, is the main source of this potential contamination.

Earlier articles in this series about the impact of deer on the North Fork have outlined the different approaches to reducing the deer population, concluding that hunting and shooting provide the most effective means. Though some deer have been taken by our local hunters, the population continues to increase. This article summarizes how deer hunting and shooting work, why they have not really changed the population dynamics to date, and how some changes to hunting on farmland could have a real impact.

Farmers have responded to the increased deer pressure by adding fencing and by shooting. Both can give some protection to a given field but neither has significantly slowed the continued growth of the deer population. At least eight-feet-tall, exclusion fences not only concentrate more deer on everyone else’s property, they have altered the aesthetic character of traditional open farmland on the North Fork.

Hunting and shooting deer are proven ways to protect crops; they also appear to be the only legal and practical ways to reduce the deer population. Sportsmen are permitted to use both guns and bows during the regular season, and with nuisance or damage shooting at certain other times. Farmland is the primary location for both.

Hunting is popular during the regular season and is currently permitted from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31 for bowhunting and Jan. 4 to 31 for firearms. Not allowing firearms in the fall, the period when deer are actively foraging, means that far fewer deer will be taken. Currently, State Department of Environmental Conservation regulations for Long Island do not currently permit crossbow hunting at all. More deer would be taken if the state Legislature and DEC adopted the earlier season for the North Fork and permitted crossbow use in suburban counties in the Hudson Valley.

Most hunters are not really interested in taking all the deer they see; they invariably want the trophy buck and, to avoid scaring away that buck, they will resist shooting anything else. A simple regulation would change that pattern. The DEC issues upstate buck and doe (antlerless) deer tags in a one-to-four ratio so that those hunters have to take four does before they qualify for another buck tag. These regulatory changes would be an incentive for our hunters to take far more deer.

In addition to hunting during the regular season, nuisance or damage permits offer another legal means of taking deer. At the request of farmers, the DEC may issue nuisance permits to farmers who can show crop damage. Farms with exclusion fencing have no deer damage, so only the unfenced farms are eligible. And the permits carry so many restrictions that the number of deer taken is only a fraction of the potential.

Three of these restrictions are:

• The season formerly ended on Dec. 31 but has been shortened to end Sept. 15. A great many more deer would be taken from mid-September to Dec. 31.

• Shooters must stand at least 500 feet from any neighboring house (although they may fire toward the house!), which means that all but the largest fields are off-limits. It would be safer and make much more sense to have a shorter buffer distance, such as the 150 feet adopted in Connecticut, and require all shooting to be directed away from houses and toward the field. Similar rules already exist here for duck hunting.

• DEC officials issue tags for the deer to be taken with the nuisance permits and on Long Island they issue four doe tags for every buck. However, it is frequently difficult to distinguish between deer with and without antlers, and does and bucks forage in equal numbers. As a result, shooters often have to pass up good opportunities to take the bucks, which actually cause far greater crop damage. Shooters permitted under the program should be issued ample tags for deer of either sex.

An enhanced nuisance program along these lines would harvest enough deer to start reducing the deer population, which in turn would control crop losses. Eligible farmers would welcome this enhancement. Southold Town provides a venue for taking the deer and distributing the venison. All the pieces of a safe and effective program to control deer numbers are in place. All we need are the regulatory bodies to give it priority.

As much of the land in Southold Town is privately owned, deer management by private landowners is extremely important in reducing the local deer population.

If you have a parcel that routinely hosts a number of deer and you are interested in having a hunter hunt your property, please call Southold Town at 631-765-1283 for assistance with contact information.

Dr. Thomas Wickham is a full-time farmer of fruit and vegetables in Cutchogue and a Cornell University graduate specializing in soil and water engineering. He is a former Southold Town supervisor and Town Board member who has always had a special interest in water and land use issues.