Fifty years ago, when State Sen. Frederick Malkus was growing up, there were no deer in Dorchester County, Maryland.

When Dorchester farmer Brinsfield Lowe was a youngster 40 years ago, "If you saw a deer track, you'd seen something."

But times change. To hear Malkus and Lowe tell it, deer today are not just a problem in their county, which surrounds Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. In some sections, particularly at the southern end of the county, they're a plague.

"The state brought deer in 30 or 40 years ago, as I understand it, to beautify the land, but not knowing they'd get out of hand," said Lowe. "Now, when you see 30 or 40 deer grazing in your fields, they can do some damage."

"I don't want to shoot deer that are raising their young," said Malkus, who grew up on the same farm he lives on today, "and I don't like to see them shot in the summer. But there's just so much you can take."

Last month, the state gave Dorchester farmers who obtain the proper permits the right to shoot deer at night, using bright lights that freeze the animals in the fields as they feed and make them easy targets. It marked the first time "spotlighting" had been approved in Maryland outside of airport landing areas and military reservations.

The decision sparked some negative response from hunters, who maintain that spotlighting helpless deer is one step shy of legalized drowning of unwanted babies.

Moreover, said Clint Bowman, a Prince George's sporting goods dealer who hunts in Dorchester, "They'll never keep it in one county. Charles County will get it, Frederick will get it. It will go statewide. This is America. Once you let some people do something, everyone can."

Said Bowman, "It's going to backfire on them (the state). If they let every farmer kill deer with a spotlight, there won't be any deer."

The director of the state's forest wildlife program, Robert Miller, knows hunters are upset, but he said the state had little choice but to permit spotlighting in Dorchester, and has no intention of letting it expand into other jurisdictions.

"No permits will be issued outside Dorchester without approval from headquarters," he said. "We're not going to issue these things willy-nilly."

The only predator of deer left in the East is man, Miller said, and that translates into population control by hunters. But hunters in Dorchester have not been able to keep up with the burgeoning herd, he said.

"In 1980, we had a firearms kill of 1,600 deer in Dorchester. Last year, it was 2,240. That indicates the kind of population increase we're having."

The problem, he said, is that there is practically no way to increase hunting pressure. Dorchester already has a bag limit of 15 deer per hunter, if the hunter applies every bow, muzzleloader, rifle, sika deer and whitetail deer permit.

"But no one kills 15 deer in a season," Miller said, "so there was no point in increasing the bag limit."

The state has proposed adding a six-day extra season in January, Miller said, and the only other practical avenue was legal spotlighting by farmers.

"There's a stigma attached to night shooting that's out of proportion," said Miller. "It's a holdover from 30 years ago, when there were few deer around. It's a problem, because people are still thinking conservatively about protecting deer, at the same time the herd has expanded to problem size."

In Virginia, where night shooting by farmers has been allowed since 1948, the same mentality persists, said Jack Randolph, assistant director of the game commission.

"We've always had people protesting it (spotlighting)," said Randolph, "but the farmer needs the right to protect his crops and it's the most efficient way. It's just like spraying for bugs. It's not hunting.

"At 56," added Randolph, "I've been trying most of my life to grow deer. In the last 15 years, I've had to learn to do the opposite."

How bad a problem is deer crop depredation in Dorchester? "We killed 12 deer on my 400 acres last year," said Malkus. "This spring, I went out in the field here and counted 34 of them playing. And it's a hell of a damage that they do."

He and Lowe said the deer are particularly hard on crops in the spring, when they bite off the tops of young soybean and corn shoots, stunting the plants.

"It got so bad that before this regulation, my cousin and I figured the only thing we could do was fence them out," said Malkus. "We may very well still have to do that."

Miller said about 50 crop-damage permits to kill deer are issued each year to farmers in Dorchester, each entitling them to take five deer. He said the number of permits will probably go up now, and the allowable kill per permit might be upgraded to 10 or 15. He said farmers don't have to check in deer they shoot by spotlighting, but may not sell the meat.

Lowe said the new regulations probably won't have much effect on the deer population, anyway. He said farmers in the worst-afflicted areas have been spotlighting, anyway. "All this does is legalize it."

But it all sounds unsavory to Bowman and his hunting colleagues.

"I lay up in my hunting camp one night and I could hear three shots between 9 o'clock and 3 a.m.," said Bowman, who shares the knowledge that illegal spotlighting has been going on for some time.

Bowman said he's already seen the effects.

"Five or six years ago, you could drive around the (Blackwater National Wildlife) refuge and count 125 deer. But now, if you see one, people back up," he said.