If you are a person who delights in the wild places, who loves hiking through dense woodland or open moorland,
then you are likely the type of person to come face to face with the most prolific resident of these areas, the deer.
Deer are naturally shy creatures that have to be constantly aware of their surroundings to survive. They are prey to many creatures, even to us humans.
This is partly due to their meat being quite high quality and their enormous distribution across the globe, as well as being a keystone species that thousands of other animals rely upon to survive in this harsh world.
Thankfully, they themselves do not need to survive on meat, instead being herbivores that chew on plant and tree matter.
In the spring and summer, this is perfect as there is an abundance of food to eat and find. However, in the winter months, the trees become bare and the plants wither and die.
The landscape itself becomes barren and exposed to the harsh elements. In these conditions, those that can migrate to richer pastures,
others hibernate and conserve their energy, but deer do neither, instead weathering the storms that blow across the now desolate land.
But, if there is no food, what do deer eat in winter? How do they survive? Today, we will take a look at a deer’s winter diet in detail and give you a look at what’s on the menu.
Why Is Feeding A Problem For Deer In Winter?
The difficulty for deer in winter is that their food sources run out, nothing new grows, and no new seeds, nuts, or berries fall.
Being the coldest time of the year, winter is when creatures use the most energy in their bodies to survive, especially warm-blooded creatures.
Mammals need their bodies to maintain a certain temperature in order for our muscles, organs, and joints to work, for humans this is 37 degrees Celsius.
In order to keep that temperature stable, we must burn energy in our bodies normally in the form of food or fat reserves, similar to a fire needing wood or coal to keep going.
When it is cold outside, it puts more pressure on our body to keep this temperature stable, and you need to eat more calories to achieve this.
If you are a herbivore that doesn’t hibernate or migrate in winter, this leaves you with a huge problem: where do you get the calories? If you are a squirrel, you store food in different places near your home.
However, deer do not have winter homes, only big territories, and are too big to waste energy storing food. So, deer must rely on food they can find, but the food they eat is also struggling to survive.
Many trees lose their leaves and don’t regrow them to save energy, with plants getting rid of everything bar their bulb deep in the soil.
Seeds, nuts, and berries are for reproduction and there is no point trying to reproduce when there is snow and ice blocking the soil, it’ll just kill the plant’s potential offspring.
Even the insects have gone underground. Only the most hardy or foolhardy remain, with deer inhabiting the former category, because despite all these problems the deer is a creature of adaptation, and it has some tricks to get through the long winter.
So, What Do They Eat?
The answer is: not much, at least not as much as they ate in summer. Deer have different priorities at different times of the year, and in autumn the two big priorities are: rutting (mating) and fattening themselves up to survive the winter.
It is estimated that 40% of a deer’s diet in winter consists of fat reserves in its body, which is a huge amount.
Alone this wouldn’t help the deer much, but they also spend all autumn growing a thicker, heavier coat that also has an undercoat to protect them from the weather throughout the winter.
Deer also alter their behavior, becoming much less active and slowing down their metabolism to cope with the weather.
There are some reports of deer not moving for days during particularly harsh weather, only to get up and go graze as if nothing had happened.
Nonetheless, even with all these changes, deer still need to eat during winter and up to 60% of their diet is made of hard woody browse.
Woody browse is something not many people know about, but it is crucial to a deer’s diet in winter, as there is nothing else growing.
This deer browse is defined as the leaves, twigs, buds, and, sometimes, bark of a woody plant.
At the start of winter, deer will eat the fresh buds of these trees, then move on to the twigs, and finally the hard to digest leaves of certain evergreens when food is truly scarce.
Their tree of choice for this browsing diet is normally cedar, particularly white cedar, in fact in most places where cedar and deer cross paths, the deer will have stripped the cedar clean in the winter months before finding other food.
Pine trees are also popular, especially young pine bark, with maple and birch being eaten as necessary as well.
Luckily, these trees are very hardy and able to survive for many years, giving the deer ample food throughout cold winters.
If a deer is very lucky, it may stumble across sumac, dogwood flowers, or even residual acorns that were uneaten during the autumn.
These are very rare finds but are particularly delicious to a deer and a rare treat for the animals.
Do’s And Don’ts Of Feeding Deer In Winter
Do not treat deer like cattle. They are not farm animals and have very different requirements to them. For starters, hay or corn or any of that kind of feed is not suitable for deer.
They are ruminants like cattle and can eat many things, but they spend their time in a completely different environment with different food that they have adapted to eat.
Their stomachs are not designed to break down high starch food like hay and, while they can eat it in small doses, it will prove damaging to give to them continuously, so keep it in reserve for emergency deer feed only.
The best way to feed deer in winter is the natural way, go out and find some nice woody browse. If you can cut off buds or twigs from a good tree, like a cedar, then that should feed the deer well.
It should be easier for you than the deer, as you can reach parts of the tree they can’t.
Many people would give the deer treats like late season apples or berries, and while this is definitely good, temper how much you feed them.
Maybe give them this treat once a week or fortnightly, as that is all they need to keep them healthy.
Thinking about what deer eat in winter is a strange and interesting topic. It is not something that we ever think about for deer, we always ask what bears do or what birds do, because they do something different from the norm.
With deer, it’s a lot simpler and a lot harder, they simply survive as hard as that might be. Yet, in just surviving through the long cold months,
they have developed extraordinary techniques and changed their diet so dramatically that they deserve recognition for it and earned their place as a keystone species.