COLUMN: Deer and other critters in the sugar bush | Columnists

I have a little sugar bush behind the house. I look out at it from the living room all year. It’s a mixed wood with understory plants that provides cover for wildlife.

Sometimes I’ll let a few goats wander around in there to thin things out.

If I leave them out for too long, they’ll strip all of the dogwoods and mountain maples of their bark as far as they can reach.

They seem to prefer to browse on the leaves of the beech that hang on through the winter rather than on the tree’s bark, though they’re happy to chow down beech seedlings.

The goats don’t really spend much time in the sugar bush unless I’m out with and amongst them.

I think that’s because they are not quite sure what to think of the mystical beings that spend a lot of time back there, the white-tailed deer.

The deer can be seen walking around in the sugar bush during the day, especially hunting season.

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Looking out from my window this time of year, usually the only sign that the deer are out there is a strange fluttering of the beech leaves.

The deer are so well camouflaged that they are hard to see, even after the maple leaves have fallen. A closer scan reveals a set of deer legs moving quietly through the woods, then another set, and another.

Suddenly you realize there are five or six of them walking along.

When they come near the goat yard, you can tell they are nearby through the behavior of the goats. The goats all face the same direction, and stare at the visitors with a goat look of awe.

I imagine, to the goats, deer are angels of the utmost mystery and beauty. The goats do not mingle with them. The goats know they are domesticated and that the deer are wild and have no human masters.

They are shy of them and huddle together when these forest people are near. All except for Hazel Goat, Gilly Goat and Bunny Goat, who are very wise and experienced in the ways of the world.

They look for a few seconds, “yeah, yeah, the deer people,” and then get back to whatever it is they are up to. Usually that is eating something, or chewing cuds.

In the summer, a white-tailed deer doe and her fawns would emerge from the sugar bush and browse right outside of the goat yard fence for a short part of every day. She is more familiar to the goats. They calm very quickly when she makes her appearance.

Still, they regard her with reverence.

Once sugar season comes in March, I am unlikely to see the white tails as I trudge along wearing my snowshoes, emptying buckets of sap, or boiling the sap down a bit on an outdoor stove that I stoke with white pine wood.

I still see their tracks and signs, but I don’t see them.

I’ll also see Hazel Goat’s tracks, because she enjoys following me around as I pour the buckets into bigger buckets.

In some ways, sugar season is my favorite time of year. I have always had some of my critters that really enjoyed being out there with me.

Both of us, man and domesticated critter, know that soon the sugar bush will again become the domain of the deer, who will spend the whole summer feasting on its new growth and fresh leaves.

Forrest Hartley lives in Hadley, N.Y. Leave a message at

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