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Column: Deer runt or coyote?

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By Jeneen Wiche

It’s 3 a.m. and Finca the Great Pyrenees is barking in earnest outside our bedroom window. When you have livestock guardian dogs you learn quickly when a bark really means something. In my sleepy stupor, I am thinking it is deer, but I got up to investigate to be certain it wasn’t anything more menacing to our ewes and lambs. I neglected to grab my glasses off of the nightstand so ultimately the raucous remains a mystery.
When I turned the spotlight on I saw Finca — who looks like a small polar bear — chasing at a lumbering gate something that looked like a dwarf buck with a miniature rack. Remember I do not have my glasses on. The thing that struck me the most was that it seemed as though the intruder was playing a trick on Finca by running circles around a perennial bed. Finca is a guardian not an attack dog and the other creature seemed to know it. I say the “other creature” because I am not sure if it was a little runt of deer, which seems unlikely the more I think about it, or a coyote. The creature would run around the berm, stop and look back at Finca, taunting him in that playful way; and the chase would begin again. It was weird. It only ended in a chase off the property when we let Buck, our old red heeler mutt out of the house. He and Finca partnered in a hot pursuit to rid us of the threat.
I do believe that our dogs have reduced our deer pressure especially during the rutting season as bucks chase does around as they enter into estrus (commonly referred to as being “in heat”). While this may be fun and games for the does and bucks, it can sometimes mean doom for our young trees.
As the young bucks are engaged in the chase they are also practicing using their antlers on the trunks of our young trees. We have young trees all over the farm, so in the past we have been party central for rutting.
We have several different protection methods in use: we rig protection using heavy tomato cages, chicken wire and tobacco stakes, large nursery pots and anything else we can find in the barn that would create a barrier between antler and trunk. Our favorite protection method to date, however, comes from our friend Richard Wolford. He calls it “Buck Off.” He uses old tobacco stakes or other similar stakes and props them against the tree like the frame of a teepee; or sticks three groups of two that are stuck in the ground and crossed at the top.
We have learned that if we change the trunk profile of young trees the bucks don’t notice them as desirable rubs. Basically a perfect rutting tree has a branchless trunk about chest high with a caliper (trunk circumference) of a few inches. As such, if we camouflage the clean trunk with other branch debris stuck into the soil around the base of the tree, we have adequately changed the profile. It looks a little funny but it works. Any pruning that you do this fall can be used as a free fence around the base of susceptible trees.
We have also used plastic trunk wraps that loosely fit around the trunk, but they do not seem to provide enough of a physical barrier to deter rutting. Not as much damage to the trunk occurred, but it was clear the buck did not notice or care about the wrap.
And, since the addition of livestock guardian dogs on the farm, I really do see less deer traffic and rutting pressure so maybe our days of peppering our landscape with lawn chairs, tomato cages and tobacco stakes around trees is over. Let’s just hope that the blurry “creature” we saw tells all his friends that there are dogs on the job at Swallow Rail Farm.