What Deer Browse Actually Looks Like

Considering I’ve been talking about what happens when deer eat too much in an area, I should probably show what this deer browse actually looks like! On an individual plant level, it looks like something has cut a stem clean off, almost as if by pruning shears or a weed eater. A deer will often eat a flower or young shoot whole. They’ll also rip off whole leaves; they don’t usually take one bite out of a leaf and then leave it. The picture below is of an Ampelopsis arborea individual (a native grape often called Peppervine) on campus that was definitely chomped by a deer. On trees and tall shrubs, you can often see a line where deer have reached as high as they can to browse on new shoots.

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Other Denizens of the College Woods

Part of what makes deer overpopulation such a problem is that the damage is not restricted to plant communities. The deer themselves suffer. The higher the population, the more likely diseases are to spread among the deer and the worse these diseases tend to be. The deer are also more likely to starve during the winter if they’ve eaten all of the perennial plants before the early spring growth starts up again. Even more important, by taking out the base of the food chain, over-browsing by deer removes habitat and food needed by other organisms. Once one animal species starts declining because of this, the other species that rely on the first animal for food start being affected as well. If this happens with enough species, it will begin to change the composition of the ecosystem as a whole.

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Forest Recovery after Release from White-tailed Deer Browsing

White-tailed deer populations in the United States are currently skyrocketing, especially on the East Coast. Human activity has eliminated the apex predators in most of these areas and, combined with the decrease in hunting in the last few decades, has released white-tailed deer populations from most constraints. Researchers have seen multiple issues arise along with this increase in population, including an increase in tick-borne diseases and deer-related car accidents (Russel et al. 2001; DeNicola and Williams 2008). In addition to these problems, a high deer population has been connected to a decrease in population densities of deer-favored plants, and certain floral populations have even been eaten to extinction. Williamsburg is one such location where deer populations have been increasing as plant populations decrease. The College Woods has seen a marked decrease in plant density over the past decade, and some of the rarer plants have disappeared entirely (Cyrus 2016).

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