There was a time, long ago and 500 miles away, when I saw marvelous things in the woods: countless small trees rushing up to meet their taller kinfolk, shrubs sheltering invisible twittering birds, blankets of bright wildflowers changing through the seasons.
Then I moved to New York and with great anticipation planned to hike each nature reserve within driving distance. After several years, I realized I had not seen many flowers, shrubs or saplings. Could a decade of Manhattan living have dulled my power of observation? Was I misremembering what I had seen in Ohio? Or was this just the habitat my new home had to offer?
Then I learned about white tailed deer. My first encounter with deer was enchanting. They weren’t frightened by me as I watched them nibble mouthfuls of green leaves. But when they strolled into my garden, devastated established rhododendrons, mowed down stands of daylily hybrids and crewcut the hosta, my initial delight soured.
I wondered. Seeing what deer had done to my garden, could they be shaping the woods? Could they have cleared the understory of flowers, shrubs and young trees and trimmed the lower branches of mature trees? It didn’t take long to find the answer: unfortunately, yes. With their natural predators wiped out, deer experienced a population explosion that has significant consequences for our woods and forests.
Consider that a 100 pound deer needs to eat five to eight pounds of food every day. Go through your garden and trim off five pounds of leaves and small twigs. Do it again tomorrow. How long can your garden sustain such a harvest?
To investigate whether the forests can regenerate once freed from the pressure of over-browsing, many nature preserves have installed deer exclosures. Angle Fly Preserve got its first deer exclosure as an Eagle Scout project. A tall fence supported by invasive Norway maple saplings harvested on site encloses a 100 square meter area. Once or twice every year volunteers from the Somers Land Trust survey the site and compare what is growing within the protected area to what is growing outside it. In its second year, already some differences are beginning to show. Most notably, within the exclosure, small tree seedlings of many different species have begun their long journey to renew the tree canopy. It remains to be seen over the next few years whether seeds dropped by birds or lying dormant in the soil are able to restore this small plot to a richer, more diverse and healthy habitat.