Technology helps keep Bambi at bay

June 28, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Is Bambi bothering your begonias?

If Maryland's growing deer herd is invading your property, devouring your day lilies or tearing up your tulips, Jack Olive may have some electronic solutions that are nonlethal and relatively cheap. And they seem to work.

For starters, how about a low-power, baited electric fence you can set up yourself for just a few hundred dollars? The deer come up to sniff the peanut butter bait, and ZAP! They beat a retreat and head into your neighbor's sweet corn instead.

If that sounds too nasty, how about an ultrasonic noisemaker?

Wired to infrared detectors like the ones that turn on household security lights, they sense the deer's body heat at night, then startle them with a 114-decibel racket that's beyond the range of human hearing. What animal that depends on its hearing would stay for dinner?

If you're of a more traditional mind, Mr. Olive, owner of the Elec

tric Fence Co. in Yellow Springs, near Frederick, also has his "Dog-in-a-Box." When its detector senses the deer, it sets loose a very loud, barking, snarling German shepherd -- recorded on a computer chip and very convincing. The deer don't wait for a real dog to show up.

Unless you've lived with the problem, it's hard to appreciate how desperate some farmers and rural and suburban dwellers have become for a way to fend off increasingly bold and hungry animals.

Hunting isn't always possible in settled areas. Calls for increased hunting elsewhere are muted by fear of a backlash from animal protection groups.

"I raise day lilies," said Kenneth Sell of Germantown, in Montgomery County. "The plants are very valuable, and the deer . . . have just been mowing everything down. Last fall they ate all the fruit in the orchard and raided everybody's garden."

Fellow members of the National Capital Day Lily Club had already experimented with human hair, soap and deer repellents, without success, he said. "I felt if I don't get an electric fence up, I will be wiped out of the business."

In April, he turned to Mr. Olive, whose main business -- since leaving a 29-year engineering career with the Naval Ship Research and Development Center eight years ago -- has been high-tension electric cattle fences.

"We kept getting telephone calls from people on this deer problem," Mr. Olive said. "But to be very honest with you, we couldn't make any money with it. So we kept putting off the deer fencing, hoping they'd go away."

They didn't. Reluctantly, Mr. Olive began installing deer fencing, or urging customers to do it themselves, often in combination with the noisemakers.

A traditional electric fence used for deer control is 5 feet high with seven strands of wire. It's permanent, and it's not pretty. Enclosing a 3-acre field would cost perhaps $2,000, said Jonathan Kays, of the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service.

Mr. Olive sells baited polywire. It is a high-visibility plastic twine or tape interwoven with six strands of stainless steel wire supported on plastic posts. A controller regulates the current.

Similar fence systems have been used to control grazing sheep, and to keep small animals out of gardens. The components are available at stores such as Southern States and Agway.

For deer, one or two strands of polywire are strung up and powered by household current, a battery or solar cells. A homeowner can surround a 3-acre field for less than $300, said Mr. Kays, who studied the system and found it effective for small acreages.

Not dangerous

The fence poses no real physical barrier to the agile deer. It just trains them to go elsewhere.

Strips of aluminum foil clipped to the polywire are smeared with peanut butter. When the deer approach and sniff the peanut butter, they get a sharp electric shock to the nose.

The low-amperage current generated by Mr. Olive's fences is not dangerous -- just one pulse per second, each lasting only 3/10,000ths of a second. That prevents injury and gives any animal touching it an opportunity to let go or jump away before the next shock.

To a person, the shock feels like a strong "carpet shock" or a blow to the "funny bone."

One resident of Baltimore County's Greenspring Valley, who for 10 years had been losing more and more of his vegetables, spruce buds and flowers to deer, was afraid a buck might charge his glass porch during the fall rut.

Deer keep away

He went to Mr. Olive last year and paid $290 to have his home and gardens encircled with polywire fences. The deer have not been back. The man, who fears harassment by animal protection groups, spoke on condition that his name be withheld.

Electric fences are not legal everywhere. Anne Arundel County restricts them to certain agricultural zones. Baltimore County's building code allows them "only on farms for the retention of livestock" and only if they aren't a danger to people. Codes in Howard and Harford counties don't address the issue.

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