Cottage Q&A: Feeding deer in the winter

Published: December 4, 2019

feeding deer winter By LaurieSH/Shutterstock

What is the expert view on feeding deer in winter at cottage and residential areas? Is there a difference between feeding them in the summer versus in the winter?—P. Phillips, via email

The expert view is to not feed deer anywhere, anytime, ever. This is because it can backfire in all kinds of ways. Never mind that “often the food that people provide is inappropriate,” says Vanessa Isnardy, a provincial coordinator with WildSafeBC. Food-conditioned deer are more likely to hang around residential areas and, therefore, are more likely to be hit by cars. Plus, chronic wasting disease and other illnesses spread more easily between deer when they feed from the same source. 

Attracting deer to your property also isn’t good for you: it potentially exposes you to more Lyme disease–carrying ticks and to more deer predators. And if you’re feeding deer in the hopes that they’ll stop eating your garden, it won’t work. They’ll just eat the food and your garden.

If you’re concerned about deer in the winter, don’t be, says Chris Whittier with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “No one should worry about them surviving even the most brutal of winters. They’ve survived and adapted over millions of years.” Deer store body fat in the fall in preparation for the upcoming cold; they grow a thicker, longer, water-repellent winter coat; and they move to deer “yards” (usually stands of conifer trees) for shelter and a healthy diet of mostly twigs and stems. Feeding them yourself could mess with this evolution-approved strategy. “There is always the risk of them becoming habituated to human-provided food,” admits Whittier. “I’m not sure it would ever rise to the level of them losing their natural behaviours, but it certainly wouldn’t help.”

Let deer do deer. “The best way to enjoy and care for wildlife is to not interfere,” says Isnardy. “Keep them wild.”

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