Tips on How to Handle Wildlife Damage

Do you ever get that sinking feeling that deer and raccoons harvest more of your crops than you do? You are not alone.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation noted that Empire State farmers estimate their deer-related crop damages at $59 million and about one-quarter of farmers indicated deer damage was a significant factor affecting the profits of their farms.

It is not just crop farmers who have problems with deer. Any farmer who drives a pickup knows about deer-vehicle collisions. State Farm Insurance estimates that there are over 70,000 deer-vehicle collisions annually in New York State alone. Nationally, the average property damage cost per deer-vehicle collision is $3,305. That’s over $230 million in damages just in New York.

Lyme disease is another concern throughout the Northeast, a human health issue that is deer-borne.

It is little wonder that huge deer populations are considered a problem. In Massachusetts, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs estimates that deer densities range from a low of 10 to 15 deer per square mile in northwestern Massachusetts to more than 80 deer per square mile in areas of eastern Massachusetts closed to hunting.

Ironically, in the 1800s, rampant deforestation and uncontrolled hunting wiped out over 95 percent of the country’s deer and a lot of other large-animal populations. People forget that, in 1872 when Yellowstone was made a national park, it was nearly devoid of bear and bison. In the early 1900s, game managers aimed to rebuild the deer herd and were remarkably successful. By the second half of the 1900s, in the Northeast deer numbers increased to the point that folks were calling them “four-legged wood rats.”

As early as the 1930s, states recognized the damage being done to farm crops by a variety of wildlife and began programs to give farm owners some relief. Those who are part of the Pennsylvania Farm-Game Program, which traces its origins to 1936, still can trap nuisance fur-bearing animals and can retain control over those animals.

However, it is typically deer and not foxes that do the bulk of the damage to field crops. One way to turn the tables on deer is to turn the deer that are ravaging your field and garden crops into dinner. It is totally legal – with a few footnotes to check. Most of a farm owner’s rights are spelled out in Section 2706(a) of the code.

In Pennsylvania, a landowner entitled to kill animals for crop or livestock protection may keep one deer, bear or elk if their land is open to public hunting and if they keep the animal for food. The head and hide of the animal must be salted and turned over to a Wildlife Conservation officer, according to State Code, Section 2124.

Act 26 of 2007 is the most recent update of the Pennsylvania Code. It allows the use of spotlighting and flashlights to take fur-bearing animals like raccoons, skunks or foxes. The lights must be handheld or mounted on the hunter’s head or firearm.

While Act 26 allows Pennsylvania landowners to take game around the clock, game taken under this provision may not be kept for personal consumption. It must be turned over to a food bank or similar organization and the farmer must report the incident to the game commission within 24 hours.

Another alternative is for a farmer to enroll in the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) commonly called the Red Tag Program. In short, the Red Tag or agricultural deer control permit system allows owners of any commercial agricultural property – whether planted to field crops, vegetables, orchard, grass or used for another ag endeavor – to reduce the number of deer on the property if they are experiencing deer damage.

New York’s Deer Damage Permit (DDP) system is similar. It allows permits to be issued where hunting does not reduce deer populations sufficiently to alleviate negative impacts on ag, horticultural or silvicultural crops.

Just as livestock can overgraze a range and reduce it to a barren wasteland, deer can over-browse a forest or woodlot. In New York, permits are generally issued by the Department of Environmental Conservation for use before or after open deer hunting seasons and usually for antlerless deer only.

Deer in orchards

Both field crops and orchard crops are targeted by deer. Historically, there are three major predators of deer: mountain lions, wolves and humans. Today, only humans act in sufficient numbers to have an impact on deer populations.

In 2015, MassWildlife reports 10,102 deer were taken in Massachusetts. Despite what you may think, it is not true that all of the Commonwealth’s remaining deer are bedded down in your back 40.

New Hampshire researchers say deer damage to young nonbearing and mature-bearing apple trees is a problem on the increase in the region.

Part of the blame rests on the current state-of-the-art techniques used in the orchard business. The use of spur-type trees and dwarf rootstocks makes available a greater proportion of each tree for browsing by deer.

Many orchard operators no longer use or maintain fences around their orchards and this affords the deer greater access to trees, apples or other fruit. Later in the year, the trees make good browse for the deer.

Fencing deer out

“Good fences make good neighbors,” poet Robert Frost noted. Good deer fences at least will make deer tolerable neighbors since they will be forced to stay on their side of the divide.

According to William Lord, fruit specialist for the University of New Hampshire Extension, woven wire fencing is an excellent option where deer densities are high and the likelihood for damage is great. An 8-foot-high, vertical fence is usually constructed from two 4-foot sections of 6- x 12-inch wire mesh, joined with hog rings.

Put two or more strands of barbed wire, spaced 10 inches apart, on top of this structure to extend the overall height to 10 feet or more.

This fence provides an effective barrier to deer, especially when routinely maintained and kept free of vegetation. However, Lord concedes that such a fence is expensive. Including labor, a 10-foot woven wire fence can cost as much as $4 per linear foot.

Another solution is high-tensile electric fencing. Lord said this system has emerged as the preferred method to exclude deer from orchards in New England over the past several years.

For many involved in fencing, the need for a compressor-free, portable device has become a sort of holy grail for workers. There is a unit that soon should be available to Northeastern operators. See the article on page 28.

Electric fence is growing in popularity. “High-tensile electric fences are easy to erect, repair and maintain,” Lord said. In addition, the high-voltage, low-impedance chargers used can charge long fence lines (up to 5,000 feet or more) and are relatively resistant to grounding by vegetation.

For all high-tensile electric fence applications, Lord recommends using bi-polar fence chargers, which provide shocking power even under poor grounding conditions. These chargers are designed to work as both earth and ground wire return systems, thus eliminating the problem of poor earth conductivity in drought, frozen ground or snowy conditions.

There are several configurations of high-tensile electric fencing currently in use in New England orchards. These fence systems do not provide absolute deer control. However, if properly erected and maintained, they will reduce the amount of damage below the economic threshold, Lord said. They work best when erected in the open, around the perimeter of an orchard block. Problems of deer penetration have been encountered where high-tensile fencing has been placed in wooded areas adjacent to orchards to reduce overall fence length.

Problems can arise with low voltage in these fences. Typically it is caused by poor electrical connections at the fence or charger, excessive loading by contact with vegetation, poor grounding, tree limbs or other debris on the fence or deep snow or excessive drought.

Other deterrents

Deer repellants are handy on farmsteads with a few trees or plantings to protect. However, if repellents are the only form of control used around an orchard, they are unlikely to be cost effective in orchards bigger than 3 acres.

Repellents typically operate using the principle of odor, taste or combination of the two. Bars of soap, with their wrappers intact and hung from scaffold branches, have provided adequate protection in small orchards where deer browsing damage is limited. Based on results of recent research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, soap bars have an effective range of 3 feet in diameter. That makes them fine for home use but not for an orchard. Penn State University also has looked at small-scale use of soap in experiment plots and has had success deterring deer.

Some commercial orchards look to repellants but most report limited success. Although the initial cost to obtain these materials is relatively low, it is the need for frequent reapplication that becomes the budget killer. As deer density increases, the effectiveness of repellents often drops.

Commonly used taste repellents include the fungicide thiram (Gustafson 42-S, ChewNot and Chaperone) and the hot pepper compound capsaicin, sold as Miller Hot Sauce and under other brand names. Odor repellents include ammonium soaps of higher fatty acids (like Hinder), bone tar oil and bars of deodorant soap.

Another way to handle the deer situation is to get someone else to do the deer control work for you. Admittedly, culling deer is a time-consuming and not overly exciting job. Still, there are plenty of hunters who would jump at the opportunity to bag a deer. There is a big market for deer hunting. Note that in Pennsylvania alone, the state game commission issues about 2.7 million hunting licenses. That is the most issued by any fish and game authority in the country.

Pennsylvania Act 26 lets landowners take game around the clock, but game taken under this provision may not be kept for personal consumption.

Under the DMAP program, a farmer – either the landowner or the person leasing and farming the land – gets one DMAP coupon per 5 acres of farmland. Those coupons can be given to licensed hunters who can redeem those coupons for antlerless deer permits.

One coupon per 50 acres of woodland is also available to landowners. Any licensed hunter can take up to two coupons from any landowner.

It is required that the landowner provide a map of the property with sufficient detail showing the property lines that the hunter can stay on the issuing farmer’s land.

If only there were a map that kept deer on the state game lands and out of farmers’ fields!