It was a long, snowy winter for deer, too

March 29, 2008

Coyotes woke me again last night – those "Dogs of March" howl in nightly pursuit of winter-weakened deer. At daybreak, a distant chorus of raucous crows likely marks the location of a new-fallen deer. The crust on the deep snow won't support a deer, but it does aid their pursuers.

Above Sutton Mills village, a young doe made a last desperate dash along Chalk Pond Road trying to outrun her pursuers before she fell against a snow bank at the side of the road. Her carcass disappeared in just a few nights – bones, hide and all. By early April, deer are at their weakest even as the days grow warm. Emboldened by gnawing hunger and weakened by months of traveling in deep snow, deer return to our apple orchard behind the chicken coop morning and night to browse on apple bark. They're hammering a few of my heirloom semi-dwarfs, barking up the wrong trees. At the edge of the pasture, teeth marks and stripped bark clearly reveal their preference for witch hazel, basswood, red maple and ash. They pass up the stems of oak, beech, yellow birch and bitter cherry. Unpalatable pine and balsam fir are a heaping plate of lima beans. Low-growing apple and witch hazel bark and yew shrubs are the cheesecake.

Prints, droppings, beds and browse

In the deep shade of the hemlock-canopied deer yard, the snow pack is carpeted with deer dung. The hemlocks offer thermal shelter on cold nights and reduced snow depth but no sustenance. Well-worn paths lead into the surrounding hardwoods, invariably leading to south- and west-facing slopes where patches of bare ground and sun-bathing daybeds help deer conserve heat calories. Well-packed deer trails are marked with hoof prints and paved with poop. Exit ramps lead to beds – rounded depressions in the snow – and skeletal sapling hemlocks browsed clean of needles and bark. The edges of pastures, fields, roads and lawns are a promised land – the "miracle mile" of fast food joints and giant supermarkets for hungry deer. In summer, it may be months between rare glimpses of the deer we see every single evening.

Occasionally when following deer trails, I find tufts of deer hair – coarse gray and white hair that is hollow in cross-section. A more rare and treasured snow-melt souvenir are "sheds" – cast antlers. By late December, dominant bucks shed antlers that are soon buried by snow. I look for the antler sheds at the edge of an alder swamp, were deer lingered after hunting season and also near the apple orchard, where late-dropped fruit attracted deer before passing the lean months in the dark hemlock woods. In the snowy season, the deer followed my John Deere tracks up into our woodlot. They browse on the twigs and slash of hardwood trees I cut for firewood.

How many deer?

The 2007 autumn hunting kill of 13,559 deer was the highest in 40 years, when 14,204 deer were taken. New Hampshire's estimated pre-hunt deer population was 90,000 deer. Kent Gustafson, leader at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Deer Project said "It is noteworthy the 2007 harvest was the highest deer harvest in four decades." Gustafson attributes the high kill to recent mild winters that made it easier for deer to survive. The 2007 fall harvest represents 15 percent of the pre-hunt population in accord with the state's 10-year game management plan. Biologists are now considering hunting season adjustments which would reduce the total number of days of either sex hunting season in regions that experienced severe winter conditions. Fish and Game biologist Steve Webber reminds people tempted to feed the deer that severe winters are the natural way of strengthening the overall statewide deer herd, favoring the fittest individuals.

It's been a lean winter with no red oak acorns or beech nuts. The few white oak acorns were quickly consumed and now the snow's too deep to paw through. A dearth of acorns reduced the mouse and mole populations. Predators including bobcats, foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls are extra hungry. The snow-filled woods are leaner than they've been in years. One silver lining: the antler sheds I hope to find will be pristine with no mouse damage. Rodents commonly gnaw on shed deer and moose antlers under the snow for the minerals and concentrated calcium they contain, like oversized Flintstones vitamins.

A single fallen antler found lying on the snow symbolizes the life of our Lane River Valley – its natural wealth of wildlife, summer sunlight, weathered granite yielding minerals passed from soil to plants and concentrated into blood-nourished bone and bark-burnished antler for autumn rites of procreation. Once-formidable weapons of territorial defense fall with testosterone levels in winter, cast-off to lie beneath the snow. The antler emerges in strong spring sunlight. Where is that buck now?

Nothing in the woods is wasted or forgotten ... or taken for granted.