What About Hunting?



Like many gardeners in this land-rich country, I often wake up on a weekend morning to see a graceful herd of deer grazing beside my vegetable garden, browsing my young fruit trees to a nub.

I am increasingly troubled by one thought: Why aren't we shooting and eating some of them? 

Obviously, I'm not a vegetarian.  But I'm not stupid, either.  I think our relationship with the animals that we use for meat is extremely morally fraught and complex.  Science increasingly shows how intelligent animals are and that distinctions are between our brains and emotions and theirs are muddy at best.

However, I'm not sentimental about what makes for a healthy landscape, and I think well-managed meat animals are part of it. We've driven away most of the natural predators of the deer.  Now it's up to the hunters to make sure their populations don't get out of control.

I'm convinced that we humans have a role to play in the ecosystems around us as carnivores. I used to buy my beef, for example, from an amazing woman farmer around my age who did not eat meat. But she finally concluded that she really, really needed the manure to fuel her vegetable crops, and so began offering beef to her customers.

And check out this excellent counter-intuitive piece by Judy Schwartz that argues that the best way to save overgrazed grasslands is…with cattle.  Well-managed cattle encourage a species-rich environment. 

I only buy grass-fed meat from my friends, who raise their animals in the most natural way possible.  I look at the deer and think…grass-fed.  What's the difference?

The difference, of course, is that somebody has to shoot and gut the deer on my property.

It could be my husband, who is an amazing shot, but it won't be. He grew up in a deer hunting culture, and some of his fondest memories are of whiling away the dawn hours in a stand in the woods with his grandfather, a former cowboy turned landscape architect, waiting for the deer to come by.  But today, as an adult, he wants nothing to do with hunting any more.  I'm not sure why.  Repulsed?  Too busy?  I'll have to ask at some point.

A cautionary note was also sounded by my German aunt. She had hunted and fished with tremendous enjoyment her whole life.  But at her 80th birthday party, she astonished me by saying, "It's a difficult thing, to kill a deer.  Those eyes."  She was struggling against the cancer that would kill her, and it clearly made the death of a deer a weightier thing to her.

After 20 years in the vegetable garden, I am coming around to a different conclusion.  I think a certain number of those deer should be harvested.

That's because my feeling about growing food has deepened over the years.  It feels less like something I do and more like something that happens in collaboration with my piece of earth.  In gardening, I am simply collecting the amazing riches of my landscape and doing it in a respectful way that doesn't run the place down at the same time.  It's not so different, cutting broccoli out of the garden, and hunting for boletes in the woods, or sauteeing the purslane that shows up as an uninvited weed in my planting beds.  It doesn't seem as if picking off the occasional deer is much different either.

Of course, I don't know how to shoot a gun!  Just musing.  But I'm curious if any of the vegetable gardeners among our readers hunt.


  1. It’s funny, I just had a conversation with a friend (her husband hunts) about this. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20+ years and find myself way less offended by her husband hunting deer so they can stockpile meat for the winter than by what goes on in factory farms in this country.

  2. I’m all for hunting deer. Intentionally shooting them for meat is better than unintentionally hitting them with cars and driving by their dead carcus for weeks.

  3. Here in southeastern Michigan which is thickly developed and 90% privately owned over 400,000 deer do the most serious ecological damage to our communities, and that is completely eliminating the understory of all the woods and forests in southern Michigan. We have about 70 years to find a solution which is the timing for forest succession around here.My prediction is we will have no woods or forests at all in southern Michigan in 50 years. Hard to imagine we are letting such a catastrophe happen.

  4. You are so, so right!!
    I garden, my husband hunts. It’s a great balance.
    Live in over-deer populated Fairfield County. The deer
    are ruining our eco-system and are overfed on a diet rich
    with expensive perennials purchased at area nurseries.
    And, what most people totally fail to acknowledge, is that the
    average hunter is a conservationist. They, by in large , are lovers
    of the natural world and care to sustain and protect the outdoors…we need more people to understand this! Cheers for your rant and happy hunting, and, my hub only shoots bow and arrow. Let us know if you need a visit!

  5. I am surrounded by hunters and until they come on the property and start shooting near the house I am cool with that. The offenders are the hunters with the hound dogs. Dogs don’t recognize boundaries and when what ever is stuck up a tree is good enough, neither do hunters.

    This predatory pressure has a marked influence on the behavior of the critters up here. The deer do not eat any of the hundreds of hosta and even being seen in the vegetable garden by myself and neighbors there has never been nary a nibble. The ample natural food supply helps, but the deer just don’t come close to humans or their habitats without extreme caution and do not recognize our shrubberies as food.

    There are regular sightings of bear in Asheville, recently in downtown on Patton Avenue. I have never seen any hint of a bear up here and I know they are here.

    But we also have plenty of other larger predators left. There are coyotes that do come close, but stay hidden, fox and bobcats.

    All this hunting of deer combines to make them not the least bit of a nuisance.

  6. I live in a rural area where hunting is a popular sport, and I am very glad of it. If one is going to eat meat, and I do, I don’t see the difference between killing a cow and a deer, except the deer is not a sure thing. I agree that factory farms are a bigger moral problem than deer hunting. I also know that deer hunters are usually conservationists and I know that I need hunters to make some attempt at keeping the large deer herds under control. Hooray for hunters.

  7. I am also a vegetarian of 30 years, and I am a strong supporter of hunting. However, our land is now posted after someone stopped a truck right in front of our house, jumped out and fired a RIFLE right towards our neighbors house! Every year around here someone gets shot while sitting in their living room watching football.
    While most hunters are responsible, there are too many who don’t respect how far their firearms reach, and pay no attention to what is around them other than the animal they see.

  8. Timing of this posting is amazing. I just finished a book by Dan O’Brian, “Buffalo for the Broken Heart” about the relative effects of cattle and buffalo on plains ecosystems. I’d be more enthusiastic about deer meat were it not for the BSE issue. Wild buffalo meat (not produced via the feedlot model) is an interesting alternative.

  9. Well, you don’t need to learn to use a gun, Michele: I have given permission to bow hunters a couple of times now to use our property. Bow (whether the regular bow/arrow thing or a crossbow) is both silent and has its own season in our state. It seems a much saner method, frankly, than baiting a path and then shooting the poor buggers from a tree. But whatever. Control does seem to be key. Michigan is the #3 state for deer:car accidents and frankly that is one lousy way to control the things!

  10. We have a decent hunting program in our state but miscalculations have been made.
    Bucks were hunted for years with a limited doe season. What did this do? Why it created more deer. A buck can service quite a lot of does. This year our wildlife program is limiting the buck season and extending the doe season. Hopefully this will help the situation. I am more comfortable with a deer hunted and used as meat than hunter for trophy antlers.

  11. I think Bonnie means the Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) issue, not the BSE issue. CWD is a transmissibel spongiform encephalopathy of cervids (deer and elk) but it is not the same disease as BSE. Hunters are actually an important part of CWD surveillance.

    So far, there’s no link between CWD and human health, though basic precautions are recommended. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has a useful web page on CWD and hunting: http://wildlife.state.co.us/hunting/biggame/cwd/

    I think we absolutely should be hunting, for all the reasons Michele gave and for one more: The current problem with whitetail deer overpopulation in the eastern US is the result of human interference in the environment. We removed the wolves and other predators that kept the deer in check. Hunting is the simplest way to start restoring that balance.

  12. You don’t need to be the hunter, just the venison eater. Deer hunters usually have plenty of extra meat at the end of the season (often donated to charity). Befriend a hunter and your freezer will be full. I offer to help with the butchering since actually pulling the trigger is just to hard unless the deer was attacking me and I needed to defend myself.

    Somewhere on the internet is a website from a woman hunter who likes to do things the old fashion way – handmade weapons & tools, tans the hides, etc. On her website I found the best venison recipe ever: cube the meat into one inch pieces, roll in flour and finely chopped onions, brown in a skillet with your choice of oil then place in slow cooker and cover with water, sprinkle with salt and pepper and let cook all afternoon. Tastes like the best beef stew ever.

  13. I am also a vegetable gardener, a vegetarian, and a advocate of deer hunting. Maybe I shouldn’t say “advocate”, but I would much rather have people eat venison than factory farmed and processed meat. I think the way we breed, farm, butcher and process hogs, chickens, cows, etc, beyond disgusting and inhumane. At least the white tails have a decent life, running around and eating day lilies.

    The deer population is out of control. As others have said, I would rather people hunt with guns as opposed to hitting them with cars. I don’t like bow hunting because I think there is a higher chance of injuring, but not killing, the deer. Chasing deer with dogs is horrible. I don’t like the idea of baiting them either. I want their deaths to be as fast as possible.

    I guess one of the reasons I prefer hunting deer to eating farmed beef is that, generally, there is that connection between the hunter and the prey. The man looks at the deer, he sees its grace and beauty. He sees its brown eyes. He makes a calculated decision to take its life.

    When you buy meat at Wal-Mart, there’s no connection. There’s no feeling. I think that’s one of the reasons why Americans eat so much meat and don’t care about animals.

  14. YYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS!! Oh, sorry for shouting. Deer are a problem in my urban neighborhood for all the reasons cited above. Houses built on top of the ancient summer range, houses and roads blocking the deer’s former winter migration route and range. No predators. Result: bambi in our gardens. And don’t get me started on the idiot neighbors who FEED the deer.

    Years ago, I tried to convince my next-door neighbor, an avid bow hunter, to come out after dark and shoot some of the marauders. I told him he could keep anything he shot from my yard & I would even help him butcher it. He just laughed. Apparently he thought I was kidding.

    Related story. For years, our favorite downtown riverside park has been made nearly unuseable by the excrement of nonmigrating migratory waterfowl, primarily Canada Geese. These geese come and stay because people feed them!!!!!! ack! despite numerous signs posted around the park, and because they are protected by federal law. The parks department and city have tried every politically correct option to get rid of them — birth control, hazing with dogs, capture & removal (the buggers fly right back), oiling of eggs in nests …… all to no avail. For years I have said, to no one in particular, hey, they ought to shoot them and use them to feed people at the homeless shelter.

    Anyway, in utter desperation, after spending countless tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on completely ineffective methods of control, permission was finally given this year for the parks department to collect a whole lot of geese (by netting), ‘euthanize’ them, and then — yes yes yes — they donated the carcasses to the local food kitchen! Am I brilliant or what.

    Of course there was an outcry. A large group of people immediately gathered in the park and had a MEMORIAL SERVICE for the dead geese. Oh please.

    I suspect that experiment in natural resource management will not be repeated, and for the same reason, we won’t see city-certified hunters out in our streets, patrolling for the dread bambi.

    Therefore I will continue to bang pots when I see the darlings munching my flowers, and grow my edibles in the fenced-in back garden.

  15. I think GRant has raised this subject — killing deer — in the past and I probably said this at the time: See that McDonald’s up the street? See all those deer wandering about? It would be SO sustainable to eat deerburgers instead of “ham”burgers.

    One comment about bow-hunting. The problem with bow hunting is that one arrow is unlikely to kill a deer. Even two arrows. It’s more often going to wound a deer, and he or she will take off with arrow intact to die (possibly) a slow death while trudging through the woods. Unfortunately, guns are the best bet for humanely killing a deer.

    I’m not a hunter, have never shot a gun. Always assumed I couldn’t kill an animal with any weapon. But then I had kids. And I learned quickly that, oh yes, I could kill anything that tried to harm my kids. Bare hands, gun, pitchfork, whatever it took. So I no longer speak ill of hunters because I don’t know their motivation.

  16. I heartily agree as well. Most hunters are responsible, however if you don’t know the person it is a little disconcerting to be baking muffins in your kitchen, watching the fox run across YOUR field, and BAM, a shot rings out. I did object to that, again, getting rid of the predators that I needed to keep the damn bunnies in check. Hunt the deer, and the bunnies, but do it responsibly. We have a huge problem with the deer eating all the understory in the forests.

    My girls and I were discussing something similar last night. We saw a production of 101 Dalmations, so we were talking about killing animals for their fur, my oldest daughter said “well that’s wrong and illegal”. I said “you kill animals for meat”, okay, I am not a fur wearing person, but let’s face it all those leather sofas come from somewhere too.

  17. I’m not a hunter, but have no issue with those who are. However, the overpopulation of deer in urban and suburban areas is far too extreme to be solved by hunting. Whenever I see the numbers of deer that are killed by bow hunting clubs brought in to control deer in a neighborhood or park the results are laughable, a handful out of hundreds per square mile. The obvious conclusion is that hunting is not a reasonable solution to the deer overpopulation in areas densely populated by people, though apparently many people seem to think that it is.

    Discussion about hunting deer distracts from reaching a real solution. Hunting is a sport, and perhaps for a few a source of food, but there is no possibility that hunting will be an effective control in populated areas. Discussion and influence should be exerted on behalf of real solutions.

  18. I was so happy to read this article, and so encouraged by the comments! Usually an article like this gets a lot of folks upset. Maybe they still are but just haven’t posted, yet.

    It’s a great conversation to have – and to continue to have. If any of us consider ourselves to be environmentalists, we have some work to do to embrace hunters. I get so frustrated when I’m around hunters who talk about environmentalists being against what they do, etc. I don’t know if it’s Fox News or PETA or what spreading that tired cliche around, but I think more environmentalists are coming around to the “hunting’s OK” attitude. We just need to be more vocal about it.

    A professor at UW-Madison, Don Waller, has done work to measure the effect of deer browsing on native flora, if anyone wants to see some basic research on the matter.

  19. Thank you, Michelle for a thought-provoking post. I’ll be quoting you on this: “(Growing food) feels less like something I do and more like something that happens in collaboration with my piece of earth.”

  20. I so agree, and not just for our gardens. The deer overpopulation has resulted in habitat degradation in the forest preserves of the Chicago area. Too many deer on not enough land to support them causes the deer to eat everything, result in the loss of wildflower species and plants that prevent erosion. Unfortunately, hunting is not practical in an urban area. Something must be done, however.

  21. Ohio’s deer population went from almost extinct in 1913 or there abouts to more than we can support. One of the reasons is because our strip mining reclamation laws create the perfect deer cafeteria.

  22. I garden, I scavenge, I hunt. Isn’t it amazing how much food is out there, or how much potential the smallest bit of land has to start making food?
    And Laura, THANK YOU for that link! How did I not know about site until now?

  23. Now that we have an answer to control the deer population – I have another natural predator that needs some controlling… the squirrels. You talk about out of control these little buggers should be taken care of before we even begin to think about the deer problem. I live in a city (Denver) and all of these creatures are foreign to the environment. Some folks find them cute and actually feed them. Why – they are just furry tree rats and should be controlled just as we control the rodent populations. No poisons please – any other solution should be on the table.
    Just my humble opinion…

  24. I know a lot of local environmentalists\ gardeners\ native landscape restorers\ bird watchers\etc…

    There are a very few “Bambi people”; folks that one might say have the “big brown eyes” syndrome…

    However…the majority are quite aware that ANY “out-of-balance” species is destructive. Some may not LIKE hunting, but realize that one can NOT have a landscape overrun by any species, native or introduced.

    Some of the most ardent local environmentalists are hunters. A friend of mine is a bow hunter (that’s REAL hunting in my book:) This same man leads major efforts to restore prairie and woodland landscapes in this area.

    Forest structure is destroyed by over grazing; wildflowers are obliterated by over grazing… Trillium and other native plants are greatly reduced in some areas.

    I have a photo I wish I could post; a picture from NE Illinois showing a fenced-off section of woods.

    Within the fence: a white landscape FILLED with Large-Flowered Trillium!

    Outside the fence: bare ground…

    Can’t get a more definite an example than that.

    I would prefer we allow native predators to be restored where practical (and, of course, some “restore themselves”), but in many areas that won’t happen. Deer simply can’t be allowed to over-populate; they will destroy the land itself…

    The solution is: venison!

  25. When we lived in the country, we had trouble with hunters not only trespassing but building stands on our property without even asking. Friends who confronted trespassers were threatened with hand guns and even assaulted. A neighbor who allowed hunting regretted the trash that was left behind. In this state, there is “canned” hunting, which to my way of thinking is not hunting at all. So I am not against hunting per se, but the so-called hunters are sometimes hard to take. Are there no alternatives to controlling wildlife populations?

  26. Sport hunting disgusts me, but hunting for food is a whole nother story. Better the herds should serve their function as prey than form starvation and disease from over crowding.

  27. Guns are best, but a good bow hunter can kill a deer with one arrow, so it depends on local regs, tolerance for gunfire by neighbors (which can be very disturbing in the morning). Killing deer is essential to maintaining any large ornamental garden that isn’t enclosed. In Ardmore and Lower Merion outside Philly, deer have become so pervasive that they suspended the rules for a year and hired pros with night vision goggles and silencers. Interestingly, this is the most humane, since they use large bullets and are sharpshooters, etc; the deer basically die instantly. I sure wish we could get this situation going here in upper Bucks. However, I’m told it’s expensive. I am a gardener, but a dreadful shot. I practice, but don’t improve much. Definitely an inherited aptitude involved. But if I could, I’d shoot every single one, and I have two bucks and about 40 does, etc. They can ruin a 10 year garden in a couple of days, and they have tried to do so many times. Unconsciously, of course. Though I wish that I could talk to them, I can’t. Don’t think it’s in the evolutionary cards either, regardless how similar we may think we are. They are not domesticated, so there isn’t even a chance at “contact” of any kind, in my view.
    Thanks for a very interesting post.

  28. Can I just say that this kind of post is exactly what I love about GardenRant? Where else in the garden media universe are you going to get people thoughtfully engaged in a conversation about hunting deer as it relates to vegetable gardening?

    Bravo, Michele. I don’t know why the New York Times hasn’t stolen you away from us.

  29. dear o dear, I’m gonna go out on a limb that just may come crashing down and say that my problem comes from the sterotype of a giddy trigger happy hunter. I would say 3/4 are more interested in the killing and excuse to shoot a gun than the conservation issue. This year I witnessed a “group-hunt” across the street where 8 blaze orange hunters were around a swamp in a feild, and one shot at something. In that short time it took to sight and shoot, how was he also able to correctly ascertain the whereabouts of the other 7 hunters? Here is my other issue, this past week I’ve had 3 separate conversations with rather manly hunters that have told me anytime they see a coyote, they shoot it, I guess due to the fact they eat deer too. Some men just don’t like competition from man or beast. I love to hear coyote at night, and right now their increase in population is directly due to the increase in the deer population. Hunters like the excuse that shooting them is keeping us “safer” Huh? I know when I step outside I fear nothing more than the wrath of coyote…
    Seriously, I eat deer, its the only meat I eat. It’s delicious. A good conservationist-minded friend of mine hunts, fills extra nusiance permits and gives me the excess, we just need more hunters that fit his sterotype.

  30. I split my time between NYC and NE PA, where the first day of buck season is a school holiday. In other words, we have A LOT of deer. I have no problem with hunting for meat. Hunting for sport…not so much. I’m an expert forager and an excellent shot, yet I can’t bring myself to kill an animal. I realize this is totally irrational, since I am a devoted carnivore. But I just can’t do it.

  31. Oh, thank you, both for your piece and the comments following it. We have a nutria problem here in Louisiana, large, orange toothed, herb-munching rodents with beautiful fur, which are destroying the wetlands. A group started collecting the hides left when hunters kill the beasts for the $5 a tail bounty, and making garments from them. (The meat is supposed to be good too, but I don’t eat meat, and most people are upset by the “rodent” word.) There was a fashion show here, one in New York, and coverage by the N.Y. Times and BBC and other news outlets. You would have thought babies were being murdered. Garden Rant – an oasis of sanity.

  32. I live in Central Wisconsin and Deer Hunting is a National Holiday around here. I heard that 218,000 were taken this past gun season. This does not include numbers from bow-hunters. Our season is from September 15th to the 1st week of January so there is plenty of time for hunting.

    I garden extensively and raise Chickens. My DH hunts and fishes year round, he takes 3-4 deer every year. Am currently brining some venison for a corned beef dish. My father raises beef cattle. As an extended family unit, we provide for each other. Hunting, fishing and providing for ourselves is a way of life for us!

  33. I definitely agree…except that I’m not a hunter either, and even if I could shoot the deer (which, after they nom some of my “deer-resistant” natives down to twigs, I might be able to) the whole bit where you clean it and skin and it and so forth would completely defeat me. I am not terribly squeamish–Dad had cows, and I watched them being butchered on the spot–but I have an enormous respect for how HUGE a task that can be, and being utterly unskilled…well, y’know.

    Since we need to reduce deer numbers and people tend to freak out when there are cougars and wolves eating their precious outdoor cats (coyotes are starting to slink into the area, and down here in the Southeast, most people have NO idea what a coyote is like and have all kinds of absurd notions.) hunting’s really the only option I can think of, unless they figure out a way to dart them with Norplant or something.

  34. I have no problem with hunting deer. My step father was quite the hunter, and I love venison. Have also had squirrel and cotton tail rabbit and both were tasty.

  35. I’m not about to be a hunter, but I’d never refuse the venison a hunter generously gives me. And on that note, I don’t think we should decide since there are too many deer we should shoot them. We don’t need an excuse like that! That sounds like something bad is happening and it’s their own fault. It’s a good thing we don’t feel that way about humans or China and India better watch out. We can shoot deer, or harvest them if that is more palatable, because we are carnivors and we enjoy meat. We don’t need an excuse to eat meat. If some have a strong committment to abstain from eating meat, that is simply their choice. What we do need is healthy food, free of contaminants and whatever other messing around is done to ruin our food and make it a danger for comsumption.

  36. I grew up in rural Maine and many families would typically get their winter meat supply from hunting – I understand that it is a kindness to the deer to limit their population so there is food for the survivors. And while we’re on the subject of limiting population…one of the reasons these animals are so prevalent in more urban areas, is that we humans are increasingly encroaching on wilderness, leaving animals less habitat. MY Rant here is why aren’t we humans looking at our population numbers and realizing that population growth for us isn’t sustainable either?

  37. Knowing YOUR herd, whether it is a healthy balance (age and sex ratios) is the key to a healthy balance. Ask your hunting club and town to support “Earn a Buck” so that the population can be in check: taking a doe before they can get a buck.

    If there is not enough food to support the herd, food and cover for songbirds, small mammals, and native vegetation will disappear. As a certified Deer Steward and vegetable gardener, I love Whitetail deer, and totally support licensed hunting of does.

  38. I’ve never hunted nor do I see myself ever doing it. I’ve only shot a gun one time in college, for target practice. I’m very pro-animal rights. But, I do understand the issue we have with the over-population of deer throuhout the country. So I don’t have a problem with huntiing deer to help control their population for many of the resaons stated above. Especially when the animal is used for food. And I agree with the point about using deer as an alternative to commercially raised, non-free range beef.

    But I do have an issue with killing deer (or any animal) for the sake of killing simply for sport. I’m not saying anyone here has eluded to that here because I haven’t seen that. But if an animal must be hunted, then do so with the most human and fastest way possilbe and use the animal for food. Does bow hunting really fall into this catagory?

  39. You should ask Ted Nugent to come to your property and give you a demonstration, which you can heavily blog about, about shooting and butchering your own meat. I’m sure if you blog about the satisfaction that you eating so locally, you know what the deer have been eating, it may inspire others to rethink about how to handle that darn deer problem.

    Instead of that product called, “Not Tonight, Deer,” you can say “It’s deer tonight!”

  40. I think hunting is great as long as if your killing legally and not just for fun of killing something. Your just eliminating the middle man, and doing what the butcher does yourself. It’s not any different than going to the grocery store and paying them to do it for you.

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