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What Do Deer Eat?

We all have our favourite food, and deer are no different. You might be thinking, “What exactly do our four-legged friends eat, and where do they find it?” You might also be thinking, “Find their food and find them!”

I can’t guarantee you’ll find deer, but I can help you find their favourite food and increase the chances your paths will cross.

As there are several different species of deer in New Zealand, we might expect some variation in what they eat. However, fortunately for us, there’s been a lot of research on these differences. The conclusion, from the dedicated people who willingly sorted, sieved and identified belly contents from thousands of deer across the country, is that there’s a general similarity in their diets. Let’s look at some of their favourite foods.


The most munched plant in our native forest is kapuka, which is botanically known as Griselinia littoralis, or to many hunters, it’s simply called broadleaf. This is also one of the most popular native plants in suburban landscapes; broadleaf is not only popular with deer, but gardeners can’t get enough of it either. This quick-growing shrub, sporting a lime-green, semi-gloss paint job, can be seen as stretching, tidy hedges between houses.

In the bush, it’s not so sporty. The lower leaves are often missing, due to hungry mouths, and it takes on a gangly and twisted appearance as it reaches for light. The somewhat succulent stems become long and out of balance, top heavy and vulnerable.

Older leaves turn yellow, clinging to the plant for some time before eventually falling to the forest floor. It’s here on the ground where the deer wait, eager to gather and eat their windfall. Not only do they like fresh green leaves but, by careful examinations of stomach contents, we know those bellies also contain a large number of yellow leaves – leaves that have come from high and out-of-reach places.




G Nugent and C Challies investigated the diet of white-tailed deer on Stewart Island. They found up to three quarters of the broadleaf in stomach samples were from yellow or yellowing leaves, suggesting that the majority of meals were from leaves already on the ground.

Broadleaf is common and found the length of the country; it reaches a modest height of around 3m and is found in the lower level of bush, towered over by giants. It prefers a home from sea-level to around 250m. Broadleaf doesn’t like wet feet and can even be found growing on top of tree roots, so we won’t find it in the dampest places. Its leaves are simple, sometimes with a wavy edge, fleshy and have a succulent feel that indicates their moisture content is packed tightly. We can expect older yellowing leaves to constantly be piling up at the base of the plant, unless of course something has already eaten them.

Research suggests that we should expect broadleaf to make up the bulk of a deer’s diet, but coming in at a close second is supplejack.


In contrast to broadleaf, supplejack (Ripogonum scandens) loves to sit with its toes in the water. A tangled mess of thick, dark spaghetti, it climbs out of the damp, making its way to the highest places. Its soft, snake-like tips, full of moisture and sustenance, grow quickly, stretching and sensing a path up and away from the lower area and danger. Nature cooks the older bark hard and strong, setting in place a living jungle gym.

As the soft stems climb, their leaves are available for deer. Glossy and long, the leaves grow usually in pairs but sometimes in an alternating pattern. In an unusual manner, the main leaf vein is not single but has several veins running in parallel, similar to those of the poisonous tutu (Coriaria arborea), which would be a deadly meal mistake. Tutu has square stems whereas supplejack is round. The supplejack leaf has a visible stalk that attaches the leaf to the stem while tutu has none. No doubt, deer detect subtle differences beyond our senses and their menu mistakes are likely rare.

High in the canopy, supplejack sets its fruit, and it’s these fruit that provide a spring feast for deer. In some cases, supplejack may temporarily become the main plant food over broadleaf, most likely due to the abundance of fruit falling as the weather warms. It appears that deer adapt their diet to what’s available, and this seasonal variation should be noted. Find the fruit and we find the deer.

Like broadleaf, supplejack is common throughout the country, and anyone who has ventured off the beaten track will no doubt have discovered its pack-grabbing, tangled web. Sprinting through supplejack is impossible.

By now you may have realised that deer are feeding on plants that are quite common, and our next example is no different.

Five Finger and Seven Finger

Five finger (Pseudopanax arboreus), or whauwhaupaku, and seven finger (Schefflera digitata) ,or pate, are hard to tell apart. Both plants have large palmate leaves, which are shaped like, you guessed it, the palm of a hand with five and seven fingers respectively. Unfortunately, nature isn’t always simple, and five fingers can have seven fingers and seven fingers can have five. They both belong to the same family and deer don’t seem too fussed about how many fingers they have.

Both these trees grow in a multi-trunked fashion and reach about 8m in height. They’re both found throughout the country except in Otago, where five finger is mysteriously missing. Seven finger has less serration in the leaf edges than five finger, but for our purposes, the differences between the two plants are not important.

Five finger has many cousins and deer seem to like them all. One that looks quite different from the rest is still very popular – the shape change doesn’t trick hungry mouths. That delicious morsel is lancewood.


Pseudopanx ferox, which most of us will know as lancewood, is sculpturally unusual in the way it grows, so much so that the young plants are popular in architecturally designed landscapes. Their thin, heavily serrated, swordlike leaves hang down a sleek trunk creating a spiky showpiece. Deer probably don’t appreciate the way they look, but they do like the way they taste.

Lancewood is unusual in that it changes its leaves as it gets taller. When the tree is quite tall, it bushes out and changes to softer and wider leaves. Some say this strategy is an adaption from moa days. It’s hard to know whether this is true or not, but it’s a strategy that works well against deer.

The young leaves of lancewood are stiff and strong; the centre rib is reported to have been used to mend horse bridles and fashioned into shoelaces. Indeed, it is incredibly strong and likely not as delicious as the higher leaves. However, deer have adapted their own strategy to access the softer leaves and it’s the same one they use with broadleaf: simply wait until they fall to the ground. How do we know this? You guessed it – researchers looking at belly contents tell us that deer simply wouldn’t be able to reach the leaves on the tree and must have been grazing them from the ground.

These trees are common throughout New Zealand and easy to find when they’re small and spiky. As they get taller, they blend in more because their trunk becomes branchless and leafless down low. Often, it’s their bare and gently twisted trunk that gives them away. A keen eye will spot the softer leaf shapes silhouetting the sky.

Our next plant on the list, whiteywood, requires eyes to be trained much lower – trained to the ground.


Mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) or whiteywood has a very unusual leaf. They’re not so different from leaves on other trees when they’re on the plant, but when they fall to the ground, they decay leaving delicate lace skeletons at the tree’s base. Very few leaves do this, which makes whiteywood easy to identify, but only if your eyes are on the ground.

Farther up the tree, the trunk often has a colouring of white – no doubt where its name whiteywood comes from. This white can be quite striking on some trunks while others can be plain and dull. The white trunk feature is often amplified by a build-up of white lichen.

The tree is quite scruffy and often has many smaller sprouts at the base of the trunk. It’s a tree that won’t die if it’s cut down low but will return with a vengeance. The wood from this tree was used to make charcoal for gunpowder, but a camp fire is probably the only place it’s burning these days. There’s no doubt that deer enjoy whiteywood, and looking for the skeleton leaves and white trunks is the key to finding it.

Hen and Chicken Fern

Deer don’t just eat shrubs and trees – they like ferns too. In fact, they’ll adapt to almost any plant that’s available, but not necessarily without health consequences. In a study on red deer in Nelson by E Clarke, from the New Zealand Forest Research Institute, it was concluded that a disruption in their primary foods causes a major disruption to their health and condition.

Deer have a preference for several different types of fern, including some of the larger tree ferns. One fern in particular that they like is hen and chicken fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) or pikopiko. It’s a soft lacy fern that’s about waist height in ideal growing conditions – it prefers low light and moisture. This native is grown at plant nurseries and sold by the dozen to home gardeners.

Hen and chicken fern is one of the easiest to identify because, unlike most ferns which have spores under the leaves, it has small baby plants that grow and ride on the back of the mother leaves or, in other words, like chickens sitting on the hen’s back.

The takeaway message is that as far as deer go, their meal preferences are quite simple and consist of very widespread and, perhaps more importantly, very abundant plants. This is vital to keep them in peak health. Surprisingly, nearly all the food deer eat is coming from ground litter, so a hunter’s eyes need to pay attention down low. Also worth noting is that seasonal variation in eating habits seems linked to that sudden abundance of fruit on the ground rather than a shortage of what they were previously eating. The fact that these plants are common throughout the country and fairly easy to recognise is good news for anyone wanting to find what deer are eating and hopefully find them still eating it.

In the next issue, we look at plants from the forest which enhance the cooking of our catch.

Carolyn is a landscaper turned forager. She has a strong focus on medicinal herbs and plants that have traditional uses. Carolyn holds workshops on using medicinal herbs and foraging, and co-founded Prepper Kiwi, an incitive which provides information on foraging, plant identification and their traditional uses.  

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