FEEDING THE DEER
When we first moved to Venosta, Dad soon discovered that the cottage was in the middle of a winter deer yard. He brought me into the woods and taught me to recognize deer sign and animal tracks. Everywhere we walked in the woods, there were deer runways beaten black by hoofmarks . In the winter, these runways were beaten down into the snow, sometimes two feet wide, with deposits of deer poop everywhere. In the winter, with the branches and undergrowth bare, it was a favourite sport for Dad and me to scout the woods, walking the runways. It was strange to see so many deer, and none with antlers—these fall off early in the winter.
There were also many wolf tracks and deer kills along the runways. Once we happened upon a deer kill so fresh that the blood was dripping from branches—it hadn’t yet frozen. But we had not heard a thing. The more we watched the deer in this habitat, the more we understood them, and the more my Dad wanted to help them make it through the winter.
In checking the runways, we found that in the dead of winter, the ones that ran between swamps were closed by snow—the deer couldn’t use them to get to new feed and cover. So we started to open them up, traveling on foot and on snowshoes. More than once, as we broke the trail open, we would look back from the top of a hill and see the deer already following us out of the swamp. We did this every winter, and lots of deer probably survived, because we did it.
We did an even better job after the invention of the ski-doo. We ran our machines through the woods, and soon observed by their many tracks that the deer used these trails as runways when the snow was too deep for their traditional trails to be useful. The way the machines packed the snow made it much easier for the deer to outrun predators, and to move from swamp to swamp, searching for feed. After we discovered this, we would deliberately take the machines into the swamps, then break new trail. Just as when we were on snowshoes, we would look back and see deer following us, unafraid of the machines’ noise. There had been logging in these woods for more than 100 years, so it is logical that the deer had become accustomed to the sounds of trucks, skidders, and chain saws. In fact, those sounds must have become associated with feed, as a woodcut provides a bounty of branches, buds and tips that are within the deer’s reach when the tree is cut and trimmed for loading.
The next idea that came to mind was to carry with us into the swamps a six-foot ladder and a hand saw. Everywhere we saw cedars trimmed up high by the deer, we climbed the ladder and cut fresh branches that were out of the deer’s reach. We left these under the trees, so that they might feed and survive. We also trimmed hardwood branches that looked to us like deer food.
Eventually, we would hang out to watch the deer feed. That’s when we discovered that our cutting feed worked really well, but only lasted a few hours. As soon as we backed off a few yards, the deer would come in, and the branches would be finished in no time. Dad talked to a couple of neighbours, who always needed a number of cedar posts to repair fencing in the spring. They gave us permission to go onto their land and cut cedar, stack the posts, and do whatever we wanted with the limbs. What we wanted was to feed the deer.
We experimented a lot, and found that fresh cedar limbs dragged from the swamp would bring deer into our backyard. We began a feeding program, cutting cedar and dragging it from the swamp every day that we were at the cottage. We learned a lot about deer behaviour by watching them from the windows. Even without their antlers, we could distinguish the bucks by their size and by the way they stayed back under cover of the spruce and balsam until after dark, when they would finally come in to feed. From nightfall (which came early) until we went to bed, Dad had spotlights in the backyard, so we could watch them. The lure of the cedar was strong, and they got used to the lights.
Whether we were watching the does and fawns by day, or the bucks by night, we saw that the strongest always ate first, and we witnessed every form of intimidation from laid-back ears to body positioning to minor kicks, to hooves flailing with intent to injure. We saw deer up on their hind legs, punching at each other like boxers in a ring. We heard what we called “deer talk:” grunts, snorts, and whooshes as loud as a horse.
In the late sixties, when game wardens were joined by wildlife biologists studying the deer yards, there were new regulations to prevent people going into deer yards in the winter. The practice of opening up the deer runways using ski-doos became illegal, because running ski-doos in the deer yards was defined as harassing the deer. Even going in on foot was frowned upon, as it was hard for the law to distinguish between trying to help the deer and harassing them. The goal was to leave the deer as undisturbed as possible, to conserve their energy and not make survival more difficult for them.
We continued to feed deer at the cottage. Commercially prepared deer ration was sold at every general store in every village. There were several varieties, but the most popular was called Deer Chow. We continued to cut and drag cedar branches, and Dad bought Deer Chow by the truckload.