Deer Population in Great Falls: A Historical Perspective

By Kathleen Murphy, Market Manager

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

There was a time in Great Falls when residents provided most of their own food from start to finish: They grew vegetables in their gardens, fruits in their orchards, grains in their field, and livestock in their pastures. They hunted deer and fowl in forests, fished in ponds, streams, and the Potomac, and gathered shellfish from the Bay.

To find out how Great Falls residents fed themselves before 1900, The Great Falls Historical Society research on culinary styles (what people ate) and how food was prepared, is available in their book, How to Cure a Thousand Pounds of Ham and Other Recipes (GFHS, 1987), available for purchase at the GFHS tent at the farmers market. Local residents managed their food supply at a time when there was no gas or electricity for stoves, refrigeration, or lighting, and no mechanical means of transportation by depending on the bounty of the land. Ingredients in their recipes included wild game they hunted themselves - deer, rabbit, squirrel, duck, pheasant, wild turkey, and muskrat. The yield of their garden was also diverse, including onion, barley, carrot, corn, tomatoes, beans of several types, potatoes, herbs, and okra, to list a few.

While living off the land seems idyllic, we now understand that local wildlife was over-hunted and the land was over-farmed. The deer and their wild predators (wolves, mountain lions, bobcats) were hunted until there were no more left in Fairfax County by 1920.Local fields no longer yielded sufficient crops or supported sufficient livestock that farm families made livings from - in the absence of agricultural farming practices that refortified the soil. Hastened by the economic hardships of the Great Depression, many Great Falls land owners sold and moved. A number of fallow gardens and fields have grown to forest. Many local farmers who remained joined the Great Falls Grange, an organization dedicated to educating farmers in more advanced, sustainable agricultural practices.

While this drama was playing out, the deer populations made an astounding recovery. With their predators eliminated, hunting laws limiting game harvests put in place, deer imported from other states to restock the local population, and suburban development, a mosaic of vegetation emerged that supported many more deer than the original deer forests. By the 1970's, deer were reappearing around Great Falls. By 1999, deer were so numerous that Fairfax County started a deer management program. No one is talking about bringing back the deer's wild predators. Now, growing a vegetable garden in Great Falls requires construction of a sturdy 8-foot tall fence to keep the deer out. And the deer have significantly altered the ecology of our beautiful hardwood forests. The understory plants, except for invasive plants that deer won't touch (otherwise they wouldn't be invasive) are gone in most forests. Animals, small and large, that depended on this layer of forest now have inadequate habitat to survive.

While the hunting practices pre-1900s were not sustainable, having eradicated deer from our vicinity by the early 1990s, our current practice of allowing the deer population to grow exponentially without limit is also not sustainable. Our forests and those that depend on its understory for cover and fortification are forecast to disappear within the next 20 years, if we do nothing. The sustainability of our community's diverse wildlife depends on the decisions on the decisions and actions of our community to bring our wildlife and their habitats and food sources into the balanced alignment that can be sustained.

The Great Falls Farmers Market focusing on "Field to Table" over the next two weeks, refreshing our community's understanding of wild game as a food source, culminating in a presentation of t he health benefits of venison, with a cook off by local chefs and a free tasting of their recipes at the farmers market on Saturday, April 25 - the opening day of our 2015 summer farmers market.

Culling our local deer herd to a level that is sustainable can be a nourishing experience: refreshing our primordial understanding of action of hunting, providing a respectful connection with our wildlife and their habitat as experienced during a hunt, awakening us to the fact that all of the meat we eat - all pink and nicely wrapped in plastic - depends on the taking of a live animal, which is a serious and solemn reality that deserves our most solemn respect and deepest gratitude. Eliminating all the middleman in our food chain, restoring our connection to the earth. Re-establishing this connection, we hear a call to join together in bringing our community into right balance - it is ours to ensure that the generations who follow us will enjoy a thriving local habitat, abundant with wildlife - in sustainable balance.