Fruit growers feel ‘helpless’ against marauding deer

Fruit growers feel ‘helpless’ against marauding deer

Oliver fruit grower Joe Machial ponders the deer damage done to his fruit and trees in his orchard on Fairview Road. He says it’s time something is done about it, either with perimeter fencing or deer culling. (Photo by Lyonel Doherty)

Tree fruit growers are wondering how much longer they have to accept deer damage as the cost of doing business in Oliver.

Orchardists like Joe Machial believe it’s time the government did something about the problem.

Walking through his orchard on Fairview Road is almost like walking through an all inclusive deer convention. At any one time, several deer help themselves to ripening fruit, taking a bite out of a peach and moving on to the next one.

But the real damage comes when they eat the leaves off young trees, stunting their growth.

“It’s a major concern that is overlooked . . . I feel helpless,” Machial said, pointing to yet another deer eating the leaves of an apple tree. “You can’t plant trees (anymore),” he said, noting the deer pillage them to the point the trees stop growing. (And there goes your money.)

Machial said it’s not practical for growers to erect fencing around their entire property. The solution he sees is to erect perimeter fencing (at the base of surrounding hills) to keep deer out of the community.

Machial questions why towns allow hunters to kill geese in annual culls but they won’t allow deer culls.

Fellow grower David Machial said the problem is getting worse, noting he is seeing more deer in his orchards. “Two days ago in the orchard a doe was chewing on cherry trees. It’s bad everywhere. My neighbour’s cherry trees are done; they look terrible.”

David said he planted 150 cherry trees this year, noting a lot of them had their bottom leaves chewed off. He stated that a herd of deer can wipe out a $25,000 acre of apple trees.

The grower said he did everything he could to prevent damage, including filling socks with moth balls. He even bought the “stinkiest cologne you can buy,” but that didn’t work either. Joe sometimes throws apples at them, but that’s like throwing honey at a bear.

David said fencing individual orchards would make them look like “concentration camps” and would ruin the aesthetics of the neighbourhood.

The other and “best solution” he sees is perimeter fencing around the community. But if government is not willing to do that, the only thing left is deer culling, he said. “Every year we ask for a deer cull or funding for fencing.”

What concerns David is that deer are becoming urbanized in Oliver. “The deer pretty much live in the orchard. They spend more time in the orchard than the hills.”

And the president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association couldn’t agree more. Fred Steele said his grandchildren have started naming the deer in his orchard. He calls them rodents with big ears.

“I think we’re beyond the fencing, and it’s not our favourite choice. I hate to say it, but I think it has come down to a cull.”

Steele worries that the increase in the urban deer population will attract more predators (like cougars) to communities, resulting in dangerous encounters with humans. Will it take a child to get hurt before something is done? he asks.

Steele says the deer population in BC has been out of control for a long time.

“After the forest fires, their food source will be gone and we’ll be inundated with deer. We’ll have enough deer for a convention,” he said without laughing.

Steel said the association brings this issue up to the provincial government every time, but there is always push-back. “It’s the cost, and the word ‘cull’ sends a cold chill up the spine. But nature has its own cull, and it’s more nasty than what we do.”

Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes said fencing does keep the deer out of some properties, but it channels deer into others.

“It is my understanding that it is up to individual property owners to protect their property.”

Hovanes said the Town of Oliver has a very small footprint and sadly the deer have been losing ground for decades.

According to the mayor, the town doesn’t have a huge number of deer. He said council brought in a biologist years ago and only 12-15 were identified. Grank Forks, on the other hand, had more than 400 in the community, Hovanes said.

But Area C director Terry Schafer said the deer are becoming so over populated in the valley bottom that some measures should be taken.

“When I was a kid in Summerland we would dispatch a deer if it were taking our apples. No questions asked.”

With the well-fed deer that take advantage of fruit trees in the valley, it’s Schafer’s opinion that any farmer should have the right to do the same.

“That may not be popular with some of the locals but as I am observing and experiencing in my other job with Argo Road Maintenance, I am picking up so many more deer on the highways now that even the ICBC collision claims would justify some action to cull.”

Last year, the Ministry of Forests began issuing limited entry draws for rural, agricultural, antlerless mule deer in the Okanagan to help control deer populations.

The ministry is monitoring the uptake of licences and will adjust future intakes accordingly. The ministry recommends that orchardists proactively manage attractants through crop spraying and temporary or permanent fencing.