Into the Forest: Watching a Wild Deer Feeding in the German Alps

Sitting on the wooden benches of a rustic shelter, our group waited patiently. We shivered quietly and watched for signs of life in the frosted forest before us. It was twilight, and we had come to watch a feeding of wild deer in the Graswang Valley in the German state of Bavaria. These feeding sessions, called Wildtierfütterung in German, are a popular local tradition, and just one example of Germany’s penchant for respecting the environment

During the harshest winter months, Bavarian authorities help care for the deer inhabiting these forested mountains by offering them food. They do so not only to help the deer survive the winter, but also to ensure the animals don’t devour too much of the forest’s foliage. Previously, the deer would have come into the valley to forage independently, but because some of their habitat has been developed by humans, the Wildtierfütterung is a necessary intervention.

As we huddled to stay warm, the professional hunter hosting the event peered through binoculars directed toward the evergreen forest. All was quiet.

“Oh dear,” we joked. “I don’t think any will come today.” I could feel my fingers and toes turning to popsicles. I was happy I’d taken my mother’s advice to wear long underwear and multiple layers of wool clothes.

Suddenly, my mom let out a squeal of delight. “I see one,” she exclaimed.

Moments passed, and soon more silhouettes of deer became visible in the distance. One-by-one, they slowly made their way down the snowy mountain slope to tiny wooden huts overflowing with mounds of hay. Calorie-packed beets had also been scattered over the frozen earth. The animals’ feeding stations looked similar to those at German Christmas markets. The only things missing were cheery people, hearty fest food, and steaming mugs of Glühwein.

About 50 deer eventually emerged from the forest to eat. Males with colossal antlers came the closest to the viewing stand, while more skittish females and younger deer devoured feed in the background. As the sun continued to set, the light transitioned from all-white to a bleached powder blue.

After 20 or 30 minutes, the herd of deer suddenly began dramatically scurrying off, as if they had been summoned by a voice in the forest. And then, all was again quiet in the valley.

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The Ammergau Alps.
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Pine trees frame a snowy mountain peak (left) and a sign mentioning the wild deer feeding (right).
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My parents and Shawn power through the snow, heading from the parking lot to the feeding site. Having lived in the region for a few years, my mom is privy to some off-the-beaten-path events, such as this one.
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It was so cold that the door to this wooden outhouse (right) had frozen shut!
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Onlookers sit silently in the viewing stand, awaiting the arrival of the deer.
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Huts overflowing with hay tempt the deer.

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Approximately 50 deer eventually came to feed. Though they were a bit wary of the onlookers, they eagerly devoured the hay and beets.
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A man captures the action on his digital camera.

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Video of this Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • This event was held in the Graswang Valley (Graswangtal), in Upper Bavaria (Oberbayern). The feeding site is just a few kilometers from the village of Oberammergau, which is known for its Passion Play and gingerbread-like homes featuring traditional painting. Feedings take place from December until March. See this Ammergauer Alps Tourism blog post for more details. The site is in German, but translates easily with Google Translate.
  • We parked at the Parkplatz Schattenwald (see Google Map above), and then walked about 15 minutes through the forest to the feeding location. Follow signs that say Wildtierfütterung, which translates to ‘wild animal feeding’. Note that there was a rustic wooden outhouse nearby, which looked quite charming with its heart adornment, but it was frozen shut. Hot coffee and other diuretics are not recommended prior to. :)
  • When we attended in January 2017, the entrance fee was €3 for adults, and €1 for children.
  • Are you looking for a guesthouse or hotel in Oberammergau? Before my parents moved there, Shawn and I spent two nights at the Gästehaus Hildegard (affiliate link). We thought the beds were comfortable, the owners were helpful and kind, and the breakfast was tasty. The guest house is centrally located in the town too, and it’s not far from the Tiroler Gasse bus stop. The train station is also only about 1 km away.
  • My Germany guide indexes all my posts from Germany, including glimpses of Heidelberg (where I lived for 10 years), a Bavarian horse-blessing ceremony, and an autumn visit to Neuschwanstein Castle.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All rights reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video.

39 thoughts on “Into the Forest: Watching a Wild Deer Feeding in the German Alps

    1. Darlene, though the year of living in Mediterranean Malta has made me cold-averse, this experience was well worth the frozen fingers and toes! Germany’s high degree of care for the environment is such an admirable quality.

    1. Chilly it was! I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like for the deer in the wintry forest – specifically where they sleep, and how they’ve adapted to power through such frigid temperatures. There’s more winter wonderland scenery here I’d like to explore, but I think I’ll have to expand my wardrobe’s cold-weather gear first.

      1. Ainda existem esses lugares preservados no mundo, tomara que o Trump não provoque uma guerra e acabe com tudo isso, que lugar mais lindo Tricia lindíssima.

      2. É encorajador ver pessoas e governos cuidando do meio ambiente. E apesar da negatividade acontecendo no mundo, é reconfortante lembrar que cada um pode fazer sua própria contribuição positiva, não podemos?

        Por favor, perdoe minha má tradução. Eu usei o Google Translate, mas sei que não é perfeito. :)

    1. Thank you for the kind words about the photos, Elisa. Even with a monochromatic color scheme and a somewhat barren landscape, beauty does exist.

      Since we are still visiting my parents, I would love to attend this event again. Alas, to stay warm, I think I’ll need to procure a snow suit like the Michelin Man! :)

  1. Thank you Tricia for this wonderful post. When I used to live in Germany I would see many Wildfuetterungs Plaetze, though the deers would be very shy to show up as people would watch them. Have you been in Oberammergau this winter? My last trip to Germany a months ago, took me again for a day visit to Garmisch. I took the train from Munich on one of the rare sunny days and had the most wonderful views riding through the winter landscape towards the mountains .Every thing was glittering with fresh hoar-frost ( Rauhreif), I felt like being in a winter fairy tale. Soon to be posted as I am still editing my images. The reason for this trip was the wedding of one of nieces, taking place in Allgaeu.

    1. Cornelia, it’s a pity that our Bavaria dates didn’t overlap in the past weeks, as we arrived just a few days after you.

      Your description of the Bavarian landscape dressed in sparkling snow reminds me of one of our recent train journeys to Munich. As you said, it’s fairy tale-esque — a bit like a Doctor Zhivago landscape. I don’t remember seeing such frost in Illinois, where I grew up, but Germany often has the perfect weather elements to create such icy beauty.

      I’m glad you had a wonderful visit, and I’m looking forward to your winter wonderland imagery. Vielen Dank for your thoughtful comment, and thanks for the new German word too (Rauhreif). :)

      1. That’s an excellent question! When you mentioned Rauhreif, I had to look up the English translation. I’d never heard of ‘hoar frost’ either, as I’ve heard English speakers more commonly say that trees or foliage are “frosted over”. Trying to find a better answer for you, I stumbled upon this comparison post: https://cathybell.org/2013/01/02/hoar-frost-and-rime-ice-whats-the-difference/

        When I learn one little thing, I realize how much I have yet to learn about the world. :)

    1. Monika, I’ve only been in Seattle proper, but would love to visit the outlying natural areas such as Orcas Island. Do you know if the officials there help feed the deer, or if they live off the land without human help?

      1. I think they typically live without the support of the humans, however they would come into the campsites interested in apples and carrots. The folks that were running our campsite said the local deer are used to the campers and enjoy a few snacks from them. They seemed to be well fed.🍎🍏

      2. Envisioning them coming into campsites reminds me of our own camping experience among California’s Redwoods a few years ago. The park rangers were very diligent about reminding campers to seal food containers quickly, lest a tempting aroma start wafting from a snack bag or box. :)

      1. By contrast, we’re having a record-breaking hot summer and have had weeks of temperatures in the high 30s. This weekend it’s going to be 38 degrees C both days. Those hardy locals would keel over! It’s all relative, isn’t it! I’d love to visit Europe in winter. It would be so different.

      2. The grass is indeed “greener on the other side.” You’re right about those sizzling temperatures. Whenever we’ve been here on an unusually-scorching day, we’d heard some locals complaining about the heat – even though we were delighted to have a taste of summer

        Here’s hoping you’re embracing – or comfortably managing – your own heat wave, Carol! Somewhat surprisingly, we have been seeing a fair number of tourists here these past weeks. I’m not sure if it’s the draw of comparatively smaller crowds, winter scenery and sports, or holiday markets, but they do seem to be making the most of off-season travel. I hope you’ll get the chance someday soon too.

    1. That’s an excellent question, and I’m not sure. My suspicion is that there is enough foliage in the warmer months to keep the deer satisfied, but I might be wrong. If we attend again, I’ll ask. :)

      I do know that the locals who have cows take them up to higher elevations during the spring months, then bring them down to the villages in autumn. They have elaborate processions – something I’d love to see in person someday!

  2. Excellent and beautiful post! I like the shelters so people are corralled (also helps keep warm) and can watch the deer without bothering them.
    I have friends here in Oaxaca who are going to Croatia for their 45th anniversary, and I sent your blog address to them so they can get a good idea of what they can see there. Your photos and descriptions are always wonderful – thanks for showing us these other worlds!

    1. Marilyn, you make a great point about the wooden shelter for the humans – it’s a good way to get in touch with nature in a way that’s animal friendly. I’m wondering how long they’ve been doing this here, either for the public, or just for the deer? I’ll have to see if I can find out.

      It’s kind of you to pass along my site to your friends; here’s hoping my Croatia guides will be useful. Do you know how much time they’ll be spending there? On a side note, we’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Oaxaca, so perhaps someday I’ll have to seek even more inspiration from your posts. Thank you for your thoughtful words – that means a lot, Marilyn. Wishing you a relaxing and happy weekend.

  3. Tricia,
    Your post came at the perfect time. I was a bit down these last few days and have been dreaming and missing my home country and state, Germany and Bavaria. I’m very fond of the outdoors, what German isn’t, and love deer. This has made my Monday morning sitting in a sterile cubicle so much more tolerable.

    Excellent writing and photography. I so enjoy your posts. Keep up the lovely work.
    Vera

    1. Vera, it seems the positivity is contagious then, because your kind words brightened my day (actually evening here now) too. Thank you for letting me know how the post impacted you.

      What part of Bavaria is home for you? Having spent some memorable blocks of time visiting my parents in Oberbayern, I can see why the region is dear to you. I previously lived in Heidelberg, but Bavaria has its own personality – and I love the nature here in the Ammergau Alps.

      On a side note, do you have a West Highland White Terrier? As a child, I grew up with two – such feisty and sweet dogs they are!

  4. Thanks for sharing this – I love deer. I live in a small town in Switzerland near the hills and often jog very early in the morning in the summer months and see wild deer playing near the forest. It is so special to see this.

    1. Hi Sam, how incredible it is to have such a sighting while out for a run! Do you know if the Swiss authorities in your area feed the deer in the winter months, as they do in this part of Bavaria? To live near nature, as you and my parents do, is special.

  5. Could totally feel the cold and the pure joy through your wonderful writing and lovely photographs! I’ve lived in Germany for many years and didn’t know that you could do that (what a shame). Thanks for sharing!

    1. Flyingdumpling, which part of Germany did you call home? I lived in Heidelberg for many years, and never heard of these feedings back then. Lucky for me, my parents now call Bavaria home, and my mom has helped track down some neat activities in a part of Germany that’s rather new to me.

      Here’s hoping you might get to return to Germany someday soon! Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful words.

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