Opinion: Deer exclosures reveal woodland peril

With over-abundant deer ravaging local woodlands and gardens, scientists and park managers are building fenced, deer exclosures throughout deer-dense Fairfield and New Haven Counties for study and public recognition of the plague to our ecosystem.

Such fenced-off areas the size of tennis courts and larger, protect plants and trees inside, while keeping hungry deer out. Within 2 to 5 years, the plantings inside are flourishing, while similar plantings just outside are foraged by deer to the bare woodland floor. The difference is visually striking and very educational.

David Streit, chairman of Fairfield County's municipally sponsored deer management alliance, explains that simply fencing gardens in does not address the over-abundance of deer. The construction and placement of a deer exclosure in a public location is for demonstration and educational purposes and is not intended as a solution to the deer problem, with its attendant breeding of ticks and collisions on the road.

Deer biologists and tick experts throughout the country insist that by far the most effective way to return deer to balanced numbers in residential communities is by implementing a proactive, goal oriented management program that incorporates increased recreational hunting where appropriate, controlled hunts and sharpshooting. They find that deer can consume 5 to 10 pounds of foliage a day, even eliminating native plant species and changing the structure of plant communities and the smaller animals that depend on them. Studies of the reproductive rate of captive deer herds in protected areas reveal that without predators, deer herds will double and redouble every two years. Even with predators and automobiles deer still increase their herds by about 35 percent a year.

State scientists, Drs. Scott C. Williams and Jeffrey S. Ward, note that our state has constructed 27 known deer exclosures. Most are in Fairfield and New Haven Counties, where deer damage is most extensive (go to ct.gov/caes). The Devil's Den Nature Conservancy in Weston and Redding built a large exclosure in 2005. Since instituting controlled deer hunts, they note reappearance of lost woodland flowers, such as trillium each spring.

Highstead Arboretum in Redding, probably the deer exclosure leader in the county, conducts studies on the damage caused by deer in different forest habitats under ecologists, Edward Faison, and Harvard Forest's David Foster.

The average cost of a demonstration exclosure is between one and three thousand dollars depending on how much labor is donated. The good news is that there are some well established exclosures locally in Fairfield County that are accessible to the public or by appointment.

Anyone wishing to learn more about constructing deer exclosures or where to visit existing exclosures nearby, may contact researcher David Shugarts at david.shugarts@azimuthcomm.com. He has compiled a comprehensive review, available on request and represents Newtown in the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance. For more on deer management in the region go to www.deeralliance.com.

Shugarts found additional deer exclosures in lower Fairfield County. In Darien Chris Filmer, volunteer park manager, built an exclosure with town funding deep in it's Selleck's Woods park. He placed similar plantings inside and outside the fencing. Wilton's Quarry Head exclosure was built on the state's 33 acres with David Lynch donating much of the labor. Russ Kinne's proposal for New Canaan has not gained funding.

Kent Haydock is the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance education chairman.