Deer and other wildlife tracks on snow-covered lake ice.

Welcome to the All-Night Deer Diner

Deer are beautiful creatures.

Except when they’re munching on our hemlocks and arborvitae. I understand their need—when snow blankets the ground, our area’s abundant acorns are buried. I don’t really welcome the two-a.m. snackers. But I do admire their winter-survival tenacity.

Deer often wander into our woods from a forested area nearby. In winter, they also come from a more difficult direction. This winter’s snow has been light and temporary so far, and deer haven’t yet visited our hemlocks. But last year, unmistakable snow trails showed me the challenging—and dangerous—lengths deer will go to find food.

Those trails began on an island in the lake beneath our home. Here are some deer browsing there:

The island’s winter vegetation must not be adequate to support its resident deer. On several nights last year, a group left the island to forage, crossing some nine hundred feet of ice. That trip can be mortally dangerous for the deer. I’ve seen tragic results when they misjudged the quality of the ice and fell in.

But many deer navigated the ice successfully last winter, only to face a very steep bluff at our water’s edge. The tramped-down snow told me they scaled that slope in single file, walking on the diagonal to reduce the angle of ascent. I didn’t photograph the deer trail last winter, but here’s a picture that gives some idea of the steepness of their climb.

A steep, snow-covered bluff.
A steep drop to the frozen lake below.

After reaching level ground, the deer traipsed through a few hundred feet of woods. Then they reached our driveway, where motion sensors would have flooded the area with light.

Here’s what an approaching deer would see (but with deeper snow. I took this photo just a few days ago, after a light snowfall).

A wide, snow-covered driveway bordered by trees.
Delicious deer browse is at the end of the driveway, by the street.

Our security lights would have illuminated the driveway to near-daylight brightness. But still, the deer continued. In a line, they marched straight to a cluster of hemlocks and arborvitae just a few yards from the street.

Here they are, browsing our trees. This area is lighted by a security lamp that’s dimmer than the lights closer to the house. From various trail cam footage, I know there were typically eight to twelve deer per group.

The horizontal lines are the tree protection we installed soon after the first night’s buffet. On the advice of garden-center staff, we ran three circles of monofilament fishing line, mounted on metal stakes, around the stand of tasty trees. The deer, they said, would bump into the invisible barrier and back off.

Nope. They easily broke through. In just days, the trees looked like their skirts had been lifted.

Trees after deer browsing-missing their lower foliage.
Damage from deer browsing.

The trees won’t re-grow the lost foliage any time soon, if ever. We replaced and added to our lines of defense, switching to a heavier-gage filament that you can see in these current photos. Even so, I have little hope it will deter further damage. That said, these trees may not be a likely deer target this year. Much of the reachable browse is already taken.

But shh… don’t tell the deer… we have another stand of hemlocks on the property, in a well-lighted area even closer to the house.

At a prior home, deer browsed our shrubs. We tried spraying the foliage with a deer-deterrent spray that must be applied regularly, an improbable enterprise in freezing weather. We also sprinkled the area with powdered coyote urine. Neither method worked.

Short of installing unsightly eight-foot deer fencing near my front door, does anyone have any tree-protection suggestions?

Like a deer facing a threat, I’m all ears.

Here’s an article about how deer survive in winter, written by biologists with the State of Maine. The part about how and why deer assemble in groups, called yarding, is especially interesting.

Kids’ Book
I like to recommend kids’ books related to my wildlife posts. Your youngest littles (up to about age three) can learn about deer with a delightful board book, Snow Still, written and illustrated by Holly Surplice. The book’s simple text follows a fawn who wakes up and discovers his first snowfall. Beautiful illustrations show what the fawn learns about snow as he explores the woods. Here’s a link to find the book.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

4 thoughts on “Welcome to the All-Night Deer Diner”

  1. When we first moved to northern Maine, we discovered that white tails were not the prized hunting animal they are in the Midwest because they were scarce. It was moose and bear that attracted hunters even though the season was short along with very few available moose tags. We heard immediately about deer “yarding up” in the winter and even drove several miles to see a deer yard for ourselves. It is a true phenomenon. Fall hunting season occurs before yarding up starts. Deer are off limits after that but you can tell when the deer start moving towards their “yard.” As far as protecting your precious plants and trees in winter, it is impossible to deter deer that are really hungry but when we lived in Michigan, we tried providing deer food near the edge of the woods and away from plants around the house. We mostly fed them deer corn or bags of apples people sell to feed the wildlife. Now, you may attract more deer but from the looks of your pictures, you already have that problem! If you figure this out, Carol, publish it! The world will be grateful. Happy winter!

    1. Oh, Carol–I’m so jealous! Bert and I would love to see such a ‘yard.’ (But not in ours…) I’ll have to think about that feeding strategy, and if I do figure out something that works, I’ll be sure to let you know. Hope all’s well your way!

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