With deer population out of control, beware ticks

Published 5:34 pm Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Winter activities for young farm boys in the 1950s included long hours spent in the woods. We particularly liked a grove of pine trees some distance from the house. It was a favored area to play and, with abundant pine straw on the ground, a great place to build a lean to for camping.

Chop down a small sweet gum tree (they were considered expendable), tie the sapling pole between two pine trees, prop other saplings against it at an angle and cover the whole thing with a thick layer of pine straw. With a southern exposure, it was warm in the daytime and not bad at night, and even a light rain or snow wouldn’t penetrate the straw. We would build a campfire in front of the shed, haul some old quilts from the house and spend the night if the weather wasn’t severely cold.

I was thinking about that pastime recently while raking up pine straw in the front yard. These days, one would be foolish to play in pine straw because of the danger posed by ticks which, in turn, constitute one of the greatest threats posed by the overpopulation of white-tailed deer.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Today’s deer population is an unnatural condition that’s gotten out of control and remains so.

The Isle of Wight deer population in the early 1950s was a fraction of what it is today, but a combination of hunting regulation, changing farm management practices and ability of deer to adapt have caused an explosion in the herd.

In Southeast Virginia, farm management had a lot to do with the surge. Deer love soybeans, and during the past 60 years or so, the acres of soybeans has increased sharply. The same with winter wheat and cover crops, which are considered downright luscious by grazing deer.

The herd’s growth was welcome at first, but today the overpopulation of deer has become an economic drain on Southeast Virginia. These ravenous ruminants, owned and managed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, feed on most everything they can reach, even standing on their hind legs at times to browse when they’ve eaten everything down low.

The cost to Virginia’s farmers is astronomical, given the deer’s love of the crops now widely favored. Add to that the annual cost to homeowners of azaleas and other flowering plants and you have an animal whose population has long since gotten out of control and whose cost to the community continues to rise.

Worse than the cost of grazing, though, is the potential for tick-borne diseases, including Lyme Disease, named for the county in Connecticut where the disease was first identified in 1975.

Ticks actually receive the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease while feeding on small animals, such as mice. This occurs while the ticks are in their infant stage. As adults, they attach to large animal hosts, particularly deer, and from there the disease is spread, again by ticks, to humans. In the spring, the cycle repeats itself, with female ticks laying as many as 2,000 eggs.

A number of studies have shown that if the deer population is reduced, the tick population is also reduced.

Reducing the size of Virginia’s deer herd is hard sell, however, for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, formerly the Virginia Game Commission. The agency’s employees can give you all kinds of reasons not to significantly reduce the herd, but there are few places in which the phrase “follow the dollar” can be more aptly applied.

Virginia’s wildlife management system depends in large part on hunting and fishing licenses. Take away a significant portion of the herd and a bunch of hunters are apt to lose interest. The number of hunting licenses has declined despite the growth in Virginia’s population. Hanging onto the remaining hunting population is important to the system, and that means keeping the deer breeding and feeding.

Reducing the deer population is also a hard sell for many urban and suburban residents. Watching deer feed in the evening on a subdivision street is appealing to many people, and hunting deer in residential areas can be dangerous, as well as illegal under most circumstances.

So don’t look for our hungry deer population to shrink anytime soon, but in the meantime, you might want to keep the kids from playing in pine straw.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.