Opposite views on the importance of grass

Shari Faulkenham, the Ecologist with the Dundas Valley Conservation Authority, recently took part in the discussion concerning the outdoor ice rink in the Sanctuary Park. In her email, she wrote:

“It is difficult to say exactly why deer are not frequenting the manicured areas at Sanctuary Park this winter as often as they have in previous years – reasons may include the snow depth, the cold temperatures, and possibly even the unsanctioned deer hunting that was reported in the Dundas Valley this past fall and early winter.

The presence of the rink also likely deters deer from visiting that particular area of the park. It is my opinion, however, that the presence of the temporary ice rink at Sanctuary Park is a compatible use in this recreational area, and do not believe that it has a negative impact on deer in the Dundas Valley.  During the winter, deer rely on forested habitats where snow depths are generally shallower, making movement and the conservation of vital energy resources much easier. The critical, limiting food sources for deer in the winter are the twigs and buds of trees and shrubs within and along the periphery of the forest.  The food and shelter habitat for deer during the winter, therefore, make up what is critical to their survival over this few month period.  Manicured areas, such as yards and parks, are not part of this “critical” equation – nonetheless, deer will commonly frequent these areas as snow and temperature conditions permit, and inevitably they will attempt to dig through the snow to eat the grass below, simply because they can and it is readily available to them.  These habitats, however, are not limiting factors for the health and over-wintering survival for deer, and grass does not provide them with the nutritional requirements that twigs and buds provide to them for their survival during this time.”

Referring to the lighting at the Sanctuary Park, Shari wrote:

“For the City staff included on this email, the use of non-directional, unshielded lighting for the rink does not implement best management practices for the prevention of light pollution into a significant natural area, which has been well-documented to have an impact on wildlife behaviour.  It is my recommendation to the City to correct this lighting issue so that light is not unnecessarily spilling into the adjacent forest areas and impacting wildlife resources in the conservation lands surrounding Sanctuary Park.”

The light is indeed spilling into the adjacent forest areas. However, this is only a part of the problem. The real issue here is the fact that a bright light is flooding the open areas of the Sanctuary Park, deterring deer from entering the park’s grounds.

In addition to the lights and winter feeding, there is an unanswered question concerning the impact a prolonged ice cover will have on the turf and the grass in early spring. In previous years, deer in large numbers were feeding in the lower soccer field, in March and early April. Due to a longer growing season (sunlight penetration) in the open fields than in the wooded and shaded areas of the surrounding valleys, there was more grass available to them in the park than around it.

This spot is exactly where the ice surface is now. I am afraid that the ice is pressing down and damaging the turf as well as limiting the gas exchange and causing increased fermentation in the soil underneath. As a result, there will be no “last year’s” grass left there in the spring, and it will take longer time for the new grass in this place to regenerate.

The suggestion that “grass is not a critical factor for the health and wintering survival for the deer” may be generally true, but there are exceptions from every rule. Deer have been regularly feeding in Sanctuary Park in winter and in early spring, for years. Why? Why would they do it, if they had a better source of food available somewhere else?

Perhaps, there is too much pressure on the existing resources available to them in the forest. Perhaps, there is a shortage of twigs and buds. Why else would deer regularly feed in the Sanctuary Park and other open spaces? Why would they risk coming out and feeding in the front yards along the streets? If there were enough of the better food for all, they would be feeding all winter in the forest.

There is another reason to believe that there actually is a shortage of food available to deer in Dundas Valley. If there were no shortage, we would not be saying that we have an overpopulation of deer in the area. And we do say it. So, something just does not add up here. You don’t limit resources when you have an overpopulation. You expand them.

Maybe both sides in this argument are right. We respect Ms. Faulkenham’s professional knowledge and opinion but we also stand behind the results of our study. It is possible that Ms. Faulkenham focuses more on the deer day-time feeding patterns, while our observations concentrate mainly on the night-time feeding activities of the deer. It’s true that deer feed under the cover of trees and bushes during the day. However, they come out to open fields and to residential areas at night. This is when we do our observations.

These observations clearly indicate that the deer stopped coming to the Sanctuary Park immediately after the implementation of the evening and overnight lighting. This was before the deep snow and before the low temperatures started. Our records support this observation and we believe that the reason why deer are not frequenting Sanctuary Park this winter is known. Deer used to feed there at this time of the year. Now, they don’t. This is a major change in their behaviour. This is why we are concerned.

There is no excuse for taking away a place where deer were regularly feeding in the past. There is no excuse for further restriction of the already limited resources that are available to them. They are “locked in” within the Dundas Valley Conservation Area. The forest ends at its borders. They cannot just leave and go looking for a new habitat somewhere else.

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