mossbetweentoes – adventures in homesteading, with brief forays into politics, geekery, parenting, crafting, and design

Thoughts on Hunting

Losing leaves came early for this apple tree

This morning I woke up and looked out the window into our front lawn. We recently planted a Gala apple tree, still only 4 or 5 feet tall. I've been keeping an eye on it for the last few days, making sure it still appears healthy and is transitioning to our soil well. Well, this morning when I looked out at our tree, I saw that it was naked and damaged. Clearly, the work of deer.

I used to think deer were cute. Growing up, we'd see them once in a while along the side of a road, but never in the yard. We lived at the edge of a wildlife conservation area, so the deer probably didn't have a reason to roam into human-settled territory. But here in North Andover it's a different story. The winter that my youngest son was born, we had a significant amount of snowfall. The ground was covered with at least 2 or 3 feet for most of the winter. We saw deer in our yard everyday. One day there were a dozen of them, munching on everything in sight: juniper, rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas. Even now, in the summer, I see their droppings in the yard, their foot prints in the soil, and the tell-tale half-munched/half-ripped branches on our apple and peach trees. Obviously the deer are here to stay.

I feel quite foolish that I didn't protect our apple sapling with deer fencing or by spritzing it with a repellent spray, since I should have known better. But that's water over the dam now. Moving forward I will have to be more careful. Still, I have to say, I have this fantasy about taking down one of our pesky deer with a bow and arrow. Personal revenge and a cache of meat in the freezer... what could be sweeter than that? (Chris says that when I talk about this he pictures me running outside in the middle of the night in my nightie, bow and arrow in hand. My fantasy is much more badass, in where I sit in a tree, quiet in my cammo and night-vision goggles before launching a silent arrow into my foe. I have a wild imagination!)

Okay, so this is where I'm probably turning off some of you. Hunting you say? You would think about KILLING AN ANIMAL?

Yes, yes I would. Perhaps even more surprising is that not so long ago I used to be a vegetarian. But I never abstained from eating meat because I thought there was anything wrong with killing an animal for food. I just had the belief that it was better for our planet to not eat animals. Since then, I have revised my thinking considerably. Now, I feel that the best way to combat factory-farmed meat, CAFOs, and "pink slime" is not by opting for another protein source (which might have been shipped across the country to get to you, or be genetically engineered, etc.) but by seeking out and supporting locally pastured meat. Even better, if you have the stomach for it, would be to personally raise and slaughter your meat or hunt for it. Not only would you know exactly how your animals were treated, you might even gain more awareness and gratitude for the food on your table.

Today, as I was contemplating our deer problem and my curiosity about hunting (particularly with bow and arrow,) I realized an interesting irony: as housing becomes more and more dense, we are actually seeing more and more wildlife, and yet - because of restrictions on hunting near dwellings and roadways - we have limited means to control these populations. And at the same time, people are becoming more out of touch with our natural surroundings and how food is sourced. According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MDFW)'s Annual Reports, the number of resident hunters declined by 49% – from 124,849 to 63,667 – between 1958 and 2008. Could it be that lack of access to hunting has caused this decline?

Discharge setbacks in Massachusetts, copyright MDFW. Click to enlarge.

According to an article written by Tom O'Shea, the Assistant Director of Wildlife at MDFW, roughly 60% of land in Massachusetts cannot be hunted due to discharge setbacks. This discharge setback is defined by a state law (Chapter 131, Section 58) in order to provide a safety zone for the public. It states that a person cannot discharge a firearm or release any arrow across or within 150 feet of a hard-surfaced road, or “possess a loaded firearm or hunt by any means on the land of another within 500 feet of a dwelling in use, except as authorized by the owner or occupant thereof.” It stands to reason then, that the closer together our houses get, the likelihood that setbacks will actually overlap, totally closing off wooded areas to hunting (one house alone essentially closes off 18 acres of land due to setback buffers.) Without available lands to hunt, existing and potential hunters will likely stop participating in the sport. And at the same time, deer populations will flourish. As Tom O'Shea writes:

Communities with a large percentage of their land area closed by discharge setback or special town restrictions on hunting, coupled with 25% or more forest cover, frequently experience impacts from higher deer densities. Such communities frequently ask the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for assistance in finding ways to deal with their concerns, which typically include the incidence of Lyme disease, vehicle collisions with deer, and damage to landscaping and agricultural crops.

The community described above sounds just like North Andover! Although I have an entire herd of deer traipsing through my yard, I cannot just go hunting them. At least, not with a firearm. And even with a bow and arrow, I would need the permission of my abutters.

And then there is the fact that I've never shot a bow and arrow in my life (archery class at 4-H camp more than 20 years ago notwithstanding.) Taking an animal's life is not something that I think would be particularly enjoyable, but I do think it is an important experience that we have all become very removed from. So the notion of taking a beginners hunting course or archery course through Mass Wildlife does appeal to me.

Next month, I have signed up to volunteer with Pete and Jen's Backyard Birds on their mobile poultry processing unit. I'm sure after that experience I will have a better idea if I would be up for hunting, or if I would rather delegate the task to others.


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